By Juan Cole
This post originally ran on Juan Cole’s Web page, Informed Comment.
Late capitalism in the United States is a process whereby more and more of the national income is going every month to a smaller number of people at the top, while the average wage of the average worker has been virtually static in real terms since 1970. All the extra money the US has made in the past 40 years, in other words, has gone and is going straight to the 1%. (Actually, the top 1/10 of one percent has experienced even more gains). From 1979 to 2007, the top 1 percent experienced income growth of 275 percent. In contrast, 90 percent of us saw a raise of $59 in our annual incomes from 1969 to 2011. This new, extreme income inequality is becoming entrenched and the US now has less opportunity for upward mobility for its young people than many countries in Europe.
Why people put up with this gouging is a great mystery. But hope is the great social stabilizer. Corporate media in the US constantly send the message to people that they are around the corner from getting rich. Failing that, just buying a new pair of jeans can raise your status among your peers. Most people don’t compare themselves to those in higher income groups. They make their friends, typically, among those who earn roughly what they do. So apparently if you’re up $61 from 1966 you’re happy enough to be two dollars ahead of the average of $59.
One of the social control mechanisms deployed in a plutocracy to keep people quiet while their pockets are being picked is the lottery. It is a scam. Not only are you more likely to be hit by lightning than to win one, but the institution itself is regressive. If you started at 20 and put $5 a week into the stock market, you’d likely get 12% return on your money, so when you were 70 it would be a very substantial amount of money ( try it here). Put the same 5 dollars a week into a lottery, and you likely get nothing at all. So the lottery punishes the poor, both absolutely and in terms of opportunity costs, and its main social function is to create false hope that the billionaires will let you join them.
What makes people happy is still somewhat mysterious. But a circle of supportive relatives and friends seems to be important to most people. Then, rewarding work helps, especially work where you get to choose your own projects and be in control. Having projects in life that are creative in nature and which you yourself shape is the ultimate high. (Orchestra conductors and college professors are among the happier people for this reason). Getting better off financially is not in itself bad, but has limited returns. In the US, once you reach $75,000 a year (admittedly only a minority do), going on up from there doesn’t seem to add substantially to your happiness. My guess is that at that income level, about twice the national average, you are avoiding the depression that comes with straitened circumstances, meeting bills, etc., and are then freed to pursue the things that make you happy— hobbies, art, etc. More money won’t make you more creative after that point and won’t relieve by then minor economic anxieties, so it becomes irrelevant to happiness for most people. (Of course $75,000 a year doesn’t go very far in some parts of the country, and is a fortune in others, but we’re talking averages)>
The first thing that happens when you win the lottery is that you typically lose all your friends. Some of them resent your good fortune. Some have unrealistic expectations in sharing it. Some are embarrassed to hang around with people who dress so much better than they. Some have nothing in common with someone who doesn’t have to struggle. Then, there is the temptation to quit your job and become essentially idle, which produces depression. For an entrepreneur or film maker, maybe the extra money could be put to good use, but for most people the $75,000 limit on happiness is operative, and having $200,000 a year wouldn’t make them three times as happy; probably it wouldn’t make them happier at all. Not to mention the traps of not managing the money well, or developing expensive addictions that waste it all, or being targeted by criminals. All the social science research suggests that winning the lottery just doesn’t make most people happier, and in many cases makes them miserable.
So the whole lotto phenomenon is a huge social scam. Good public policy would strive to give everyone in the US that $75,000 basic level of well-being, if what we wanted was more happy people. Instead, we are hollowing out the middle class, limiting upward social mobility, keeping the poor poor, adopting tax and other policies that make the rich richer, and then throwing the sop to the hoi polloi of an occasional lotto exemplar allegedly made happy by the opportunities of the system, but who will actually likely end up depressed and friendless.
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