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It’s Inequality That Fuels Envy, Not Populism

David Callahan

Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone is the latest rich guy to make a fool of out of himself by invoking Nazism to condemn populist attacks on inequality. Langone has apologized, but it’s worth looking beyond the Hitler analogy to more closely examine Langone’s main point that “You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy and jealousy.”

I agree with Langone that envy and jealousy are poisonous to social cohesion, and I’ve been making this point in my own writing for years. But I was writing about these problems long before the new populism emerged after the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street. And what I argued, as far back as 2004, is that rising inequality fueled envy and jealousy for some pretty obvious reasons. If you have a small slice of society getting insanely rich, and engaging in ever more conspicuous consumption, then guess what: Other people will be envious. And, yeah, some will be resentful.

That’s even more true if you have a media that is fixated with the wealthy, and covers them nonstop – pushing our noses up against the glass of lives we can’t afford at every turn. Once upon a time, The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was a TV show that aired once a week. Now it feels like it’s airing 24/7 in some form.

Envy and jealousy is further likely amid rising inequality if the non-rich find themselves barely keeping their heads above water. It’s one thing to watch other people do really well if you’re doing just fine. It’s another thing if you’re boat is taking on water while their yacht is rising. And that’s been the case for roughly the bottom two-thirds of U.S. households for the past decade or two. Most people’s incomes have been flat or barely inched up since the early 1990s even as the cost of housing, healthcare, and college tuition has exploded. Yet the rich have kept getting richer.

Envy became a noticeable social force back in the late 1990s. Newsweek had a famous cover at the height of the dotcom boom with a woman exclaiming: “Help! Everyone’s Getting Rich But Me!” New York magazine had another iconic cover around the same time: It was all green, with different feature articles about how envy was infecting both New York City and the broader culture.  

So this is not a new social force. It’s an inevitable product of the growing income divide.

And just to be clear, today’s envy isn’t confined to the lower and middle classes, or a bunch of lefty populists. On the contrary, envy may be most prevalent within the educated upper middle class – the people who watch their former college classmates or business school friends score outsized gains while they merely get by, trying to afford crazily expensive cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, or attempting to buy into the suburbs where they grew up but which are now out of reach to anyone who’s not in finance or tech.

The new wave of progressive populism isn’t fanning envy, it’s merely calling out the economic conditions that created so much social division and the poisonous resentments that ineluctably follow. More importantly, progressives are offering solutions to create more equity – which is a prerequisite for the social cohesion that Langone wants to see.

Yes, envy and jealousy are rife today, and that’s been true for years. But as far as I can see, the only people who have a plan to deal with this problem are the same people Langone is bashing.