GREEN MY EYES

Posted in Rants on January 3rd, 2011 by Ed

Jealousy is one of those terribly basic emotions that needs no explanation, similar to anger, fear, or elation. The field of psychology might not agree, but to my untrained eye it seems like envy is one of those things we are born with the ability to feel. If the other baby has a pacifier and I don't, I want it. This behavior changes little as we get older, although some of us mature emotionally beyond the age of 13 and attempt to put a lid on it. But let's be honest, it never really goes away. We can learn how to be happy for other people when they succeed, but we still want the shiny toys for ourselves too. For example, if one of my academic colleagues suddenly gets a job at Harvard I'm going to be happy for him; I'm also going to think, "Damn, I wish that was me."

I think that's OK. Which is to say I don't think it makes me a horrible person to react that way. I don't begrudge other people their successes and I also want to succeed. But what if I was a lot more bitter and angry? (note: I am already pretty bitter and angry) What if the administrations of universities across America whipped all of us at the bottom of the academic food chain into a frenzy over the rich, cushy lives of tenured faculty until we practically demanded that they destroy the tenure system altogether? "If we can't have the good life, no one can have it!" would be the rallying cry. Part-time, no benefit work for everyone! That, I would argue, would not be a very healthy expression of jealousy. I mean, if I'm going to have a shitty life what do I gain from other people having one too? Dragging other people down into the mud doesn't help me; doing so would be little more than a childish and petty (if understandable) reaction.

This issue is playing out on a national stage in the battles (or upcoming battles) over public employee pensions and health benefits (i.e. this piece on the current struggles in New Jersey). Republicans are building support for draconian cuts to the size and compensation of the public sector workforce – Those goddamn greedy teachers! – based on a very simple, natural reaction to tough economic times. Chris Christie, for example, isn't doing anything more complicated than pointing at public employees' benefits and telling the rest of the state, "Look! They have much better benefits than you. Doesn't that make you mad?" Boy does it.

And of course voters react the only way American voters know how. Demand better benefits and working conditions for themselves? Heavens no. Demand that Christie reconsider the state millionaire tax he vetoed over the summer so the state can meet its contractual obligations? Oh hell no. They demand the dismantling of public sector benefits. If I can't have 'em, nobody can.

It's yet another of the fantastic tricks our political elites have engineered since the 1970s. Cut private sector benefits, let real wages stagnate, and then tell the former middle class, "Now that you're struggling, doesn't it piss you off to have to pay for the pension of some cop who retires at 53?" It really is brilliant. Historically, plutocrats have had to force race-to-the-bottom capitalism on working people over tooth and nail opposition. Now they've found a way to make the serfs practically demand it.

It's amazing how they can get people to think so counter-intuitively. You could even say I'm jealous.