Greed, Anger, and Unhappiness

September 11, 2013

In Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street, Gordon Kekko famously proclaims that “Greed is good.”  Greed is the emotion behind the desire to maximize profit, income and wealth, and the maximization of such things lies at the core of a capitalist price system for allocating and distributing products, services, and returns to factors of production.  In the argument over how, if at all, society ought to react to an unequal distribution of income, one side believes that efforts to reduce inequality are humanitarian and promote a more sustainable society, while the other side argues against penalizing success.  The bedrock document of the United States is the Declaration of Independence, which outlines a succinct vision, the unalienable entitlement to life, freedom and opportunity to pursue happiness.  This is not a guarantee of happiness, merely a Darwinian chance to find that goal.  This distinction seemingly supports the Gekko view that success ought to be exalted and rewarded in full, not penalized.

Income inequality in the United States has commanded greater and greater attention lately.  A chart appears in today’s New York Times’ business section of the shifting shares since 1920 of total U.S. income going to the top 10% and top 1% of earners, and it is worth a 1000 words, depicting a steeply growing piece of the economic pie commanded by the elite.  Since lows in the 1970s, the top 10% seems to have risen from around 27% to some 52%, and the top 1% nearly tripled from just under 10% to about 26%.

From the standpoint of income and wealth, the U.S. Republicans generally attract more affluent, and presumably happy, people.  Not only are they well off, but their comparative well-being has improved at a solidly steady rate and cumulatively by a very substantial amount.  The paradox is that Republicans seem angrier than Democrats.  So is there a disconnection between happiness and anger or perhaps between financial well-being and happiness?  Examples exist to question both of these intuitively positive correlations.

Revolutions tend to erupt not so much when conditions are hopeless but when they are improving.  In France, the Ancien Regime had seen conditions of the common folk already improving when the fabric of society was yanked from its roots by the Revolution that began in July 1789.  Likewise, the American Revolution was led by a merchant class that enjoyed much better conditions than had existed 25, 50 or 100 years earlier.  When conditions are totally rotten, as were those for peasants in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s, people don’t rise up.  Despondency doesn’t spawn a critical mass of anger to do something about it.  Rather, it is when things are starting to get better that sufficient passion to effect change in the social orders is galvanized.  True anger needs to be nourished by impatience, and one has to sense how things could become better to experience enough anger to risk everything on change.

The anger effusing out of the Republican Party suggests perhaps that affluence doesn’t secure happiness.  Many stories of what became of big lottery winners document heartbreak instead of happiness.  On a trip to the Sahel region of Niger some years ago, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, I was struck by the smiles and seeming contentment of most villagers I saw.  The cultural building blocks under which one might find real happiness are not limited to matters of money.  Although material means presumably are preferable to have up to some basic level, GDP, real GDP, or even per capita GDP omits much of what makes a person feel happy.  Empirical examination has revealed a diminishing marginal utility of income, that is an increase in one’s income from $50,000 to $100,000 yields more satisfaction than does an increase from $200,000 to $250,000 or from $700,000 to $750,000.

It is also possible that greed and anger are hard-wired moods that manifest often as a tandem and that to be angry or greedy says little about whether one also feels unhappy.  Greed incentivizes one to get richer.  Anger is the defense mechanism against somebody else like the taxman perceived to be after what you have, and happiness is the pride that comes from climbing into the top 10% or top 1% of richest people and successfully defending your right to stay in that upper strata. 

Copyright 2013, Larry Greenberg.  All rights reserved.  No secondary distribution without express permission.


Comments are closed.