The treadmill of ambition

by Rob Horning

20 April 2009


A recent series of posts by sociologist Lane Kenworthy takes a sober look at the problem of income inequality and what policies might mitigate it. I’ll summarize the gist here, but obviously they should be read in full. Often income inequality is dismissed as irrelevant by conservatives, who regard it as the just outcome resulting from varying levels of individual effort. (The econojargon for this is a reference to “skill-biased technical change.” That basically means income distribution is biased toward those with socially necessary skills—you know, like creating CDOs and issuing subprime debt.)
They argue also that we don’t live in a zero-sum society—if we are all prospering, no one should engage in “class warfare” and resent that others are prospering more. (Kenworthy presents a chart that gives the lie to this idea; it shows that those at the top had, as many have long suspected, in recent years begun to thrive at the expense of those in lower income brackets.) This is followed by the all-too-familiar argument that we shouldn’t jeopardize the beneficial innovation that high earners supply the economy with by punitively taxing them. Without money and the ability to bequeath a legacy to motivate them, the best and brightest in our society would prefer to “go Galt” and refuse to make any social contributions at all. Because that is the “rational” thing to do, right? Neglect our talents because a just society owes us more than a place within which to express them? It owes us entitlement and privilege in return for our god-given ability?

If there’s a problem at all with income inequality, conservatives argue, it would be if there weren’t equal opportunity for aspirants. (But as the founding fathers assured us, we are all created equal, so that’s not a problem either.) Often this seems like a bad faith argument, because the people making it often have the most to lose in any state-mandated redistribution of wealth; their investments in various methods—financial, social, and cultural—to preserve their privilege would be vitiated. And it seems silly because the inequality of opportunities is so glaringly obvious, something we live with intimately in every prejudicial reaction we have in day-to-day life. The rich are born with clear advantages that are then levered up by means of the cultural codes that are second nature to the entitled but confront outsiders as a series of dauntingly high hurdles if not an impenetrable maze. These codes are what Bourdieu is referring to in discussing social and cultural capital—the often subtle ways in which we signal class origin and the methods by which classes almost instinctively seem to coordinate themselves to strengthen class barriers. The promise of equal opportunity that seems guaranteed constitutionally turns out in practice to be abrogated by these nebulous cultural considerations, which in themselves are small enough to evade legislative correction.

For example, the education system, typically regarded as a means to even out the “skill biases” among a population (an idea Kenworthy undermines here), can often in practice reinforce privilege. As Chris Dillow points out here (where he also links to papers supporting these points)

it’s quite plausible that education spending is actually for force for inequality, for four reasons:
1. Kids from richer families are more likely to stay on at school. This is because they get better schooling before the age of 16. Children of professional and managerial workers are almost four times as likely to get 5 or more GCSEs as those of unskilled manual workers are only
2. Education is partly a positional good. This means those with less of it than others might be worse off as a result.
3. Schools can act (inadvertently) as a means of legitimating inequality and hierarchy.
4. Although romantics like to think of schools as a means whereby some kids from poor backgrounds (like me) can escape poverty, they often serve the opposite function. They might be ways of crushing the aspirations and abilities of poorer students, especially if they are black.

Schools are where one is confronted with what society would like to prescribe for you, often regardless of the ability you demonstrate. To escape self-fulfilling prophecies that stem from institutional racism, for instance, proves to be a continual problem. Social institutions, in other words, are not erected to establish equality; they are built bureaucratically to preserve the status quo. The groups with the power to maintain social institutions tend to build their biases into them as unwritten rules and common-sense operating procedures. Dillow suggests that the state itself works along those lines: “all leftists should agree that the state doesn’t do as much as it should to reduce inequality. The question is: is this failing a bug, as big-state leftists believe, or - as I fear - a feature?”

As far as political solutions to income inequality, assuming the state is not inherently incapable of pursuing them, Kenworthy argues for a negative income tax (along the lines of the U.S.‘s current earned-income-tax credit) and a concerted effort to improve state-provided services.

Imagine an America in which high-quality public services raise the consumption floor to a high level: most citizens can put their kids in high-quality child care followed by good public schooling and affordable access to a good college; they have access to good health care throughout life; they can get to or near work on clean and efficient public transportation or roads with limited congestion; they enjoy clean and safe neighborhoods, parks, roads, museums, libraries, and other public spaces; they have low-cost access to information, communication, and entertainment via reliable high-speed broadband; they have four weeks of paid vacation each year, an additional week or so of paid sickness leave, and a year of paid family leave to care for a child or other needy relative. Even if the degree of income inequality were no less than today and we still had CEOs, financiers, and entertainers raking in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in a single year, that society would be markedly less unequal than our current one.

That does sound like a better place to me. The problem that will remain, I think, has to do with ambition as a mode of personal fulfillment. If the state works to supply all those improvements to standards of living while at the same time preserving class boundaries, the Betas, Episilons, and Deltas of our Brave New World would have to find a way to nourish themselves on the culturally sustained illusion/imperative of social mobility and not become immiserated by it. As the alibi for inequality, ambition becomes a fundamental personality trait, an index to one’s cultural fitness. But that same trait makes absolute living standards immaterial, since the rate of personal progress is the only metric that matters to the ambitious. Just as there is a hedonic treadmill, then, there may be an class-climbing treadmill; if you buy into Veblenesque arguments about consumption, signaling, and fashion cycles, then these treadmills are virtually one and the same.

The promise of social mobility would seem to be the engine of capitalism. It’s what authorizes inequality in a democratic society. Yet that same promise renders inadequate the compensatory improvements in living standards meant to mitigate what we are always discovering and forgetting, that social mobility is ultimately just a necessary fiction. Because a healthy show of ambition is what seems to be required to find a secure place in capitalist society—because stability in capitalism is the state of perpetual striving—most of us will spend our lives striving for near imperceptible advantages that tend to dissipate under the most tentative of cursory analyses.

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