You have no idea how much I DON’T want to be writing this post.
The reason I don’t want to be writing this is because I’m wholly unqualified to delve into the whole concept of class envy. It strikes me as a deeply complicated topic best addressed by psychologists and sociologists and possibly historians. I am none of those things. I was a drama major, for pity’s sake. My masters in is arts policy. My main qualification for anything is an overabundance of snark and my fondness for the news. Any thoughts I have on something as broad as class envy are opinions and conjecture based on no knowledge and no research. This is just me thinking my little thoughts on this blog for you to read. Accept or dismiss them at your will.
The reason I feel compelled to talk about class envy at all is because of the inevitable comments accusing me of that very thing when I wrote a post suggesting that Ann Romney is unfamiliar with the real details of the lives of the middle and lower classes in this country. It’s a familiar, and frankly boring, dialogue when a liberal says the very rich don’t get it and a conservative says that the liberal is just jealous. If I’d been smart, I never would have even jumped into the fray but I’m not that smart and had to say my piece about what I perceive as the Romney family’s blind spots. I’m certain that somewhere on the internet there is a more conservative blogger saying comparable things about what they think Barack Obama’s blind spots are. I am equally certain that a liberal commenter has found that conservative blogger and left a knee-jerk response about how the blogger is an unthinking enemy of the middle classes who cares only about money. Just as people commented on my post saying that I’m just a bitter person who wishes she were as rich as the Romneys.
Am I? Bitter, that is? Yes. Maybe. But perhaps not in the way people think.
The perception of wealth and the aspiration toward wealth and rationales for seeking wealth are, I believe, varied. And the discussions of class envy and class warfare are pretty one-dimensional. The presumption is those who have less money want more in order to acquire things. The simplest way to think of that scenario is the poor person wishing for the trappings of luxury: fancy houses, fancy cars, fancy clothes, fancy vacations. An MTV Cribs form of class envy, if you will. A desire for enough income to cover not only basic needs but to allow the individual to move into a financial zone where pleasure seeking is permissible.
This exists. It must. If it didn’t, there would be no market for knock-off designer handbags.
I do not suffer from this. At least not in any deep sense of the word. Sure, I see a picture of Louboutain shoes in a magazine and I think they’re lovely and would enhance the look of my feet and legs. But I do not covet them. Owning them is not a goal of mine. I have no ill feelings toward people who can and do own them. I cease to think of them after I have turned the page in the magazine. Just as I don’t have any strong feelings about the Romney’s beach house in La Jolla. It is merely a thing that someone else owns and it inspires very little sentiment from me. So, in that sense, I do not suffer from class envy.
But in other ways, I do envy the richer classes and I’d imagine most of us, even those who use the phrase “class envy” as a perjorative, suffer from this too. What I envy is the security money can buy. I look at the Romneys and what I see is a family barricaded against financial ruin. There is almost no circumstance that will leave anyone in that family at a loss for food, clothing, shelter, or medial care. They are not living – will never live – one pink slip or one medical diagnosis from ruin. That cannot be said for me. I imagine it cannot be said for you.
I am all too aware that my access to health care is through the largess of my husband’s employer. Yes, we make a contribution to the cost but they could choose to rescind coverage at any moment (at least until 2014 when the mandates in the Affordable Care Act kick in) and my family and I would be up a creek. We could wade through the marshes of COBRA and HIPPA to continue coverage but the cost would be potentially beyond our means and we would need to seek other options. Options that may or may not exist, given our collective medical histories and the reluctance of insurers to offer their products to people who have ever been ill. We could join the ranks of the uninsured at any moment. The thought of that situation arising makes my blood run cold.
No one named Romney has those fears. Their money separates them from the possibility of having access to medical care limited or closed off to them. THAT I envy. Being able to look my child in the eye and being able to say “You will never be so sick that we can’t get you the best care.” I aspire to that. I feel a surge of covetousness when I think of that. I am bitter that there are some who live with that security for their entire lives while I, and so many others, are never far from a precipice of medical insecurity.
The final level of what I see as class envy – or perhaps, more accurately, the oft-touted resentment of the rich – comes from my sense that with tremendous wealth should also come tremendous responsibility. And wealth combined with power such as that of the Presidency brings even greater responsibility. A responsibility to improve the lot of the many, to institute rules that create a fundamental social fairness that allows a majority of people to have a certain minimum level of security. Not luxury, not by any means. The person who whimpers for the Louboutains has no fundamental right to anything other than being sad that they can’t have them. But a baseline level of security about food, shelter, education, and medical care seems to me the least we, as a nation, should offer. Those who have the money and/or the power to offer them but who choose not to are operating in a manner that I find anathema. In that sense, I do resent certain segments of the powered and monied classes. They could implement change but they do not. In the public sector they attempt to thwart changes like raising minimum wages, broadening access to health care, improving public education, and sustaining programs that provide food and shelter for those who otherwise cannot afford them. In the private sector they fail to increase payrolls, expand benefits to employees or raise wages. They think first of the aggregation of wealth, not of the distribution of basic necessities. This I abhor. I believe that once your needs are met there is a responsibility to assist others in meting their needs, too. If the airplane depressurizes, by all means, get your own mask on first. But do not leave the person beside you gasping for air because they cannot get theirs on without help. It does not matter why they need help. The fact remains that they need it. If you have the means to provide it, you should.
And here is where the problem lies because I think that the Romneys of the world think a tax break is that oxygen mask. That a trickle of money will grow to a deluge if used properly. They believe that they are going to help by channeling the flow of money in a particular way. And I think they believe this – and this was the point I was trying to make in my post about Ann Romney – because they don’t understand the true nature of the problems. They are blind to the realities of a life without security. I keep thinking that if only they knew, if only they understood what life looked like without a wall of money surrounding them, they would embrace different methods of offering assistance to others. If they knew more about other types of lives, they would see the value of direct, rather than indirect, methods of building others up. Others who do not look to the Romneys of the world to play Santa Claus and give them luxury goodies out of some desire to make the rich share their petty good fortune but rather others who need the Romneys of the world to use their power and wealth to remove obstacles to basic health and security.
But it’s never that simple. Matters of class, of divisions of wealth and who deserves what are never simple. That’s why the accusations about class envy and class warfare all ultimately fall so flat. Because it’s not easy for any of us to unravel our feelings and motivations. Not me. Not Ann Romney. And not any of you.