Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2003

Confessions of a Playa Hata

Graham F. Scott@pomeranian99

Conservatives have mounted a war against envy—blasting anyone who questions CEO pay or tax cuts as jealous, green-eyed wannabes. What are they so scared of?

Martha Stewart was searching for the perfect word.

She was trying to describe her disastrous year to Jeffrey Toobin from the New Yorker. It began last summer, when Stewart was accused of insider trading, and her good friend, ImClone CEO Samuel Waksal, was hauled off to jail. While the government investigated Stewart herself, the media piled on—mercilessly mocking her, questioning her ethics, and making the obligatory “Martha Stewart Living in Jail” jokes. Investors dumped her stock, shaving $400 million off her net worth. As she told Toobin her story, she wandered through her sprawling mansion, showed off her collection of china, had her personal cook serve a five-course meal, described the in-flight caviar she’d served some friends on her personal jet, and fretted over why everyone seemed to have it in for her. “My business is about homemaking. And that I have been turned into or vilified openly as something other than what I really am has been really confusing,” she said. “I mean, we’ve produced a lot of good stuff for a lot of good people.”

Is it schadenfreude? Toobin asked. “That’s the word,” she replied. “I hear that, like, every day.”

Stewart isn’t alone. In the past year, the wealthy—and their political friends—have been enduring regular blasts of ill-will from an increasingly testy public. It’s not hard to see why. While the recession has blindsided most of the working world, the rich have continued to joyfully grind their good fortune in everyone’s faces. When Enron collapsed, senior executives cashed out big; one top earner, Lou Pai, pocketed a stratospheric $994 million. Even as Dennis Kozlowski was approving Tyco’s voodoo accounting, his handlers were buying him $10,000 shower curtains and a $2,500 trash bin. And in December, just as the U.S. labour board announced grimly that over 50,000 jobs had vanished from the economy that month alone, George W. Bush was heatedly defending a tax cut that would hand $80 billion over to the richest one percent of the population.

Rarely has the P.R. for the rich been so bleak. And the heat isn’t coming just from bitter proles. Even federal bank honcho—and former Ayn Rand acolyte—Alan Greenspan delivered a speech bemoaning the “infectious greed” of America’s rich. Meanwhile, writers at Fortune magazine, hardly the sort you’d expect to find storming the Bastille, devoted an entire issue last fall to keelhauling the titans of industry. “The public,” they fulminated, “has been treated to an ever-lengthening parade of corporate villains, each seemingly more rapacious than the last.” Ouch. Where’s the love?

Yet the most curious part of this trend is the reaction of the wealthy. Faced with this blizzard of venom, they have begun to mount a curious counterattack: for the rich and their supporters, “envious” is now the insult of choice. Want to defend that bloated tax handout? Or your interstellar pay package? Or maybe that humungous inheritance from dear old dad? Tell your critics that they’re envious wannabes—jealous of your brilliant, well-merited success.

“Today a religion of hate, of envy and of anti-greed, using an unjust set of antitrust and insider-trading laws, punishes innocents. The innocents are successful American entrepreneurs” raged Mark Da Cunha, editor of Capitalism magazine, in an editorial in the National Post. George W. Bush has wholeheartedly joined the backlash, claiming those fighting his tax cuts are fuelled by “organized envy.” Meanwhile, Jack Kemp mutters darkly in the Washington Post about “liberal class warriors who practice the politics of envy.” Ralph Klein in Alberta castigates the “envious” folks who crave his oil. And as for Martha Stewart—The Wall Street Journal published an entire editorial devoted to “Martha Envy,” explicitly pegging Stewart’s woes on the green-eyed monster. Even the enemies of North America are blasted as vessels of unimaginably huge envy; global conflict is not ideological, but emotional. When the terrorists hit the World Trade Center, it was because they envy our freedom; when Europe refuses to unleash daisy-cutters on Iraq, it’s because—as conservative pundit Josef Joffe sniffed in a recent Foreign Policy article entitled “The Axis of Envy”—they’re jealous of the U.S.’s massive economic might.

Consider this our newest cultural battle—The War On Envy. We have, it seems, become a nation of nasty little playa hatas, and the playas are none too pleased about it.

All of which suggests a rather intriguing political question. What, precisely, are the elites so afraid of? When a continent’s power brokers are so unified in their panic, maybe it’s time we looked more closely at this unsettling emotion. Is it possible that envy is a lot more politically important—and useful—than we think?


In July of 1998, the British economists Daniel John Zizzo and Andrew Oswald conducted an unsual experiment. They took a group of subjects and gave each one 100 units of an imaginary currency. The subjects then played a computer gambling game, in an attempt to increase their virtual wealth. On screen, players were able to see not only their own wealth level, but the wealth of every other player. But soon things changed: after the first round was over, the economists picked a few players at random—and gave them 500 extra pieces of currency. When the gambling resumed, the other players were astonished to observe the sudden, new riches of their opponents.

And here’s where things got interesting. The economists gave the players the option of “burning” each other’s wealth. They could pay their own money to destroy another player’s wealth.

The result? The poorer players all ganged up on the few who’d become suddenly wealthy—and began furiously burning their riches. By the time the dust settled, almost two-thirds of the players had burned someone else’s money, and one-fifth of the overall money pool was destroyed.

“Our subjects gave up large amounts of cash to hurt others in the laboratory,” noted the mildly stunned economists. “The extent of burning was a surprise to us.” One could scarcely imagine a result more likely to horrify the rich. Not only will the envious poor pillage the rich—but hey, scientists can prove it! Marxism may have died in the Soviet Union, but you can bring it back to life in a petri dish.

The experiment is a spectacular illustration of the main reason envy is traditionally so distressing: it is a singularly destructive emotion. It’s not merely about craving someone else’s good fortune; it’s about wrecking it, and bringing others down to your level. Some of the most famous acts of retribution in history have been envy-driven. It’s particularly bad among artists, who are renowned for cherishing minute grievances. In the Renaissance, for example, the Italian painter Baccio concluded that Michaelango was so superior in his skill and fame that he broke into a temple and shredded one of Michaelango’s murals. Another artist, Domenico Veneziano, actually murdered a successful rival by beating him with “leaden weights.” In medieval Germany, wealthy urban residents would tweak the envy of neighbours by constructing enormous buildings that they didn’t even need; it got so bad that they had to pass a regulation about it.

When Adam Smith was writing Wealth of Nations, he was painfully aware that great wealth would inspire great conflict. “The affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions,” he wrote. “It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property, which is acquired by the labour of many years, or perhaps of many successive generations, can sleep a single night in security.”

Given that the wealth gap in North America is now as howlingly wide as it was during the original Gilded Age, no wonder the affluent are scared witless about envy. They must feel like pinatas. Cooped up in their paramilitary Hummers and hunkered behind the poured-concrete barriers that surrounded the recent Davos World Economic Forum, today’s super-rich behave as if they are constantly holding a global lynch mob at bay.

The powerful have always painted those who covet their wealth as crazed, irrational freaks. But this isn’t quite fair. Envy may be corrosive, but it does have a logic. Consider that British study again: when the economists analyzed the data, they found that the burning was more complex than meets the eye. It concentrated on those who had gotten their riches randomly—those who hadn’t done anything to deserve it. Other players who’d increased their wealth in a “justified” way—by winning at the gambling game—were not as frequently targets of the money-burners. Which is to say, the attackers were concerned not merely with destroying wealth, but with imposing integrity on the game. The burning, the researchers surmised, “appears to be strong evidence for the existence of some kind of envy or concern for fairness…Many people are not burning rich people more because they are rich, but rather because, and to the extent that, they got the money undeservedly.”

When you look at it this way, the burning seems weirdly wholesome. What could be more classically progressive than levelling the playing field—and correcting unearned privilege? Envy may not be a terribly upbeat emotion; you would hardly want to drive all your actions by its bitter fuel. But as philosophers like John Rawls have long noted, there’s a link between envy and a concern for justice. In A Theory of Justice, he argued that envy can function as a sort of canary in a mine-shaft, alerting us to the presence of genuine unfairness—and making us scrutinize the world more carefully. If the richest in society are alarmed about mass envy, it’s possible they’re nervous about the lessons from Enron, Global Crossing, and Tyco; perhaps their fortunes could not stand the scrutiny either.


During the holidays, I was having drinks with a friend who was flipping through the business pages. He hit upon a story about Jack Welch—the outgoing CEO of General Electric. Welch was in the middle of a nasty divorce, and as a result, his entire financial life was being made public. As it turns out, his GE retirement package includes a stunning $10 million annually—and includes the free use of corporate jets, helicopters, and a palatial Manhattan apartment with an infinite supply of wine. My friend snorted. “What in hell did this guy do to earn that?”

This is, of course, the $64,000 question: what precisely constitutes “deserved” wealth? That’s really What We Talk About When We Talk About Envy. Have the super-rich really earned their super-riches? Ask Martha Stewart, and she’ll tell you she worked hard for her corporate success. Ask George W. Bush; he’s argued that he became a millionaire—and president—solely on his own merits. The fact that Bush Sr. held the same office, and got dozens of former cia spook cronies to hurl public funds at his son’s half-cocked business plans and presidential campaign? No impact. All joking aside, though, “merit” is easily the most complex yet unresolved question in Western economics, so forgive me when I tell you I’m not going to resolve it here. Reasonable people can reasonably debate whether a $4-million-a-year CEO has actually earned his way, or gotten it on the backs of others.

Yet this is what’s so striking about the new backlash against envy: there is no such debate. The hue and cry about “the politics of envy” has become a judo move, letting our elites neatly sidestep any questions about the moral dimensions of capitalism. This is particularly odd when you consider how many CEOs lately have been carted away in handcuffs. But it’s true: if you’re rich, the consensus is that you must have done something to deserve it—and if anyone says different, it’s because, dude, they suck.

Last year, Jennifer Lopez’s handlers became worried that her ballooning wealth—and her increasingly disconnected-from-reality diva behaviour, including her demand that every single item in her backstage rooms be white—were alienating her working-class fan base. So they rushed out “Jenny From the Block,” in which Lopez meticulously catalogues her fame, proclaims her down-to-earth soul…and then lashes out at her critics for being envious. “Everybody mad at the rocks that I wear,” she protests. “Nothin phony, don’t hate on me.” This cynical pose is, of course, by now practically a lizard-brain reflex in bling-bling hip hop. But what’s kind of hilarious is how similar the protestations of the mainstream right-wing sound. Don’t like my rocks? Or my wildly over-the-top pay? Or my million-dollar anti-labour lobbying budget? Hata. “Typical class warfare rhetoric,” Bush sneered when opponents began criticizing his tax handout for the rich. Who’s writing this guy’s speeches? P. Diddy?

But you know what? That name-calling works quite well. Labelling someone an “envious” loser is a uniquely efficient way of shutting them up. Because even if you feel perfectly justified in your resentment, nobody wants to be known as envious. It is one of our most massive social no-nos. People will excuse many ugly emotions: greed, spite and, given the right circumstances, even murderous rage. But envy is the sin no one will defend. When’s the last time you openly admitted you were envious of someone? “Did ever anybody seriously confess to envy?” Herman Melville once wondered. “Something there is in it universally felt to be more shameful than even felonious crime.”

Back in the sixties, George M. Foster, a professor of anthropology at the University of Berkeley, began polling his students about their levels of envy. One half declared themselves to be “virtually without envy,” and another 40% said they were envious only very occasionally. Barely 10% would admit to being “very envious.” “Moreover,” Foster noted, “the 90% who deny major envy tend to be vociferous and argumentative; it is a personal affront to them to suggest that they are much more envious than they care to believe.”

In the late 1980s, the Boston University professor Richard Smith shed even more light on the matter, with a different “burning” experiment. He presented a group of students with a hypothetical unfair situation, in which they got the short end of the stick. They were offered the opportunity to even the odds by hacking away at the winner’s earnings. In one test, they were allowed to retaliate anonymously; in another, they had to do it publicly. When they were allowed to do so anonymously, 30% burned the winner. But when they were required to be public about their envious actions—and have the winner know who was attacking them—only 6.7% did so. Social censure, Smith concluded, is so powerful that it can stop people from acting on their envy, no matter how justified they might fee
l. “Despite a degree of ill will often directed at the person who is envied, social prohibitions prevent the expression of this ill will,” he noted.

There are some very good reasons for this social censure. After all, philosophers have long noted that our economic envy is frequently directed not at powerful, nasty overlords, but at our close friends and family. When we compare ourselves to those most similar to us, even niggling differences in rank and privilege can become nasty grievances. (As Gore Vidal famously wrote, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”) Since wishing ill on our intimates seems awfully creepy, we understandably worry whether envy is not, in all cases, a sort of subhuman emotion. If it can drive us to dislike even our friends, what good could there possibly be in it? In Of Envy, Sir Francis Bacon concluded that envious people were “deformed persons, and eunuchs, and old men, and bastards.” Count me in!


Back in 1891, when Americans were awash in the Gilded Age, and the fabulous clothes and houses of the elites were paraded in endless, fawning articles, Edward Bok, editor of the conservative Ladies’ Home Journal, decided that his readership had become too envious. In an editorial, he proclaimed that it was unhealthy to care so much about what others had. “If you do not possess all the things you would like to have, it is very poor policy to idly wish for them,” he wrote. “A woman is happy just in proportion as she is content…Contentment is a wonderful thing to cultivate.”

Obviously, this sentiment seems pretty naive and Victorian (to say nothing of wildly condescending to women). But throughout the ages, it has been the traditional response to envy: chill out. Practice some zen, man. Don’t worry about what others have; be happy with what you’ve got! This message comes from all political quarters, from conservative churches to crunchy-granola co-ops. Your mother probably told you the same thing over the dinner table. And sure, disavowing envy is probably good for your soul, to say nothing of your blood pressure. But what if it’s bad for you in other ways?

Consider one final envy experiment. Recently, economists at Harvard and the University of Miami asked 257 test subjects for their thoughts on income. They gave subjects two different scenarios, and asked them which they’d prefer. In Scenario A, they would make $50,000 a year, in a society where everyone else makes $25,000. In Scenario B, they would make much more—$100,000 a year—but everyone else in society would make $200,000. When the economists tallied the results, they found 56% of people opted for Scenario A. In other words, a majority of people would prefer to have considerably less money, so long as they were ahead of the pack. It didn’t matter that everyone, on balance, would be poorer. As the authors dryly noted: “Many seemed to see life as an ongoing competition, in which not being ahead means falling behind.”

The really weird thing is, this completely violates traditional economic theory. According to classical economics, we are all supposed to be rational actors—who care only about maximizing our own personal wealth. What our neighbours do is supposedly of no concern to us. By this logic, the vast majority of people ought to pick Scenario B, where they enjoy twice as much cash.

But most people didn’t pick B, and for a very good reason: when we are relatively poorer than others in society, we tend to get screwed. As the economist Robert Frank argued in his 1999 book Luxury Fever, we cannot ignore the existence of higher earners even if we try, because their spending affects us. For example, if you live in a city where everyone else becomes suddenly richer, housing prices go up—and drive you out of the city, consigning you to a one-hour commute from a cheaper suburb. Likewise, if other parents hire expensive private tutors to increase their kid’s chances of getting into a preferred university, they might take your kid’s slot. And if everyone shows up to the job interview wearing expensive clothes, so must you—even if you can’t afford it as easily. Their spending will drive you into debt.

“To the extent that wearing the right watch, driving the right car, wearing the right suit, or living in the right neighbourhood may help someone land the right job or a big contract, these expenditures are more like investments than like true consumption,” Frank argues. “And this suggests yet another reason that people often feel uneasy when in the presence of others who have conspicuously more.” It is a lovely irony of the marketplace: while actual wealth may not trickle down, the pressure to spend like the wealthy does.

Frank is on the cutting edge of what’s called “positional” economics. In the last few decades, he and his colleagues have accomplished something quite remarkable: they have created economic theory that, for the first time, reflects the powerful role of envy in our lives. As positional economists are now finding, envy is sometimes an extremely rational impulse upon which to act. It can indeed be rational to be resentful of, say, the cosmic pay scales of CEOs, or the passing on of massive inherited wealth—even if these don’t appear at first blush to be any of your business. Even The Economist, when it editorialized on the famous British “burning” study, was forced to conclude that while the results didn’t conform to neoclassical economics, they made a hell of a lot of sense.


Let me be clear about one thing: i am not trying to “reclaim” economic envy. I don’t entirely trust envy as a motivation. I certainly don’t like it when I feel it (which is pretty often; writers are among the most bitter, envious people you’ll ever meet).

And of course, personalized envy doesn’t always work in the service of justice. For example, envy has arguably helped wreck several progressive groups—when the leader becomes famous, manages to gain access to power brokers, and is promptly ripped to shreds by footsoldiers who accuse him or her of “hogging the spotlight.” Envy delights in tearing down the prominent, even if the prominent are doing good work. Back when Gloria Steinem was helping to kickstart second-wave feminism, she was pilloried by other feminists who felt her blonde good looks gave her too much power in the media.

Recently, the anti-globalization movement has been hit with this type of rancour—including sniping about the egotism of activists like Jaggi Singh. Back in January, Singh was arrested by Israeli police after refusing to abide by their order to stay out of the occupied territories. Within days, a series of posts appeared on the activist discussion boards, mocking Singh as a narcissist. “A legend in his own mind,” sniped one; “Another pointless performance in the ongoing Jaggi Singh Show,” another chimed in. “Mr. Media Star Singh,” sighed a third. All this because the guy accepted an invitation to visit a social-justice group in the occupied terrorities?

There’s got to be some difference between getting angry at an unfair world, and simply giving vent to the spleen of personal envy. What freaks the elites out, ultimately, is the sense that envy might break out of personal animus and turn into an organized force. Who knows when the great unwashed are going to stop whining and start lighting political fires? Still, as I logged off the rabble boards, I began to sympathize with poor Martha Stewart.

Well, almost. At one point during his visit, the New Yorker’s Toobin commented on the silver chopsticks she’d laid out for their lunch. “You know, in China t
hey say, ‘The thinner the chopsticks, the higher the social status.’ Of course, I got the thinnest I could find,” Stewart said. “That’s why people hate me.”

Show Comments