Sunday, September 03, 2006

Are the rich spiteful?

Reading Brad DeLong's response to a previous post of mine makes me start to think that there is a bigger gulf between my worldview and Brad's than I had ever appreciated. Here is Brad:
I wrote that one reason that America's rich today live the expensive and ostentatious lifestyles they do (rather than spending much more money on charity, or philanthropy) is that it is a way of making other people feel small and unhappy....[Mankiw] misses the import of the phrase "conspicuous consumption." It's not the hard work and entrepreneurship that is to be discouraged. Make inventions, build enterprises, donate money for hospitals and libraries--that is all extremely meritorious and praiseworthy. It's the conspicuous consumption that is the problem. Surely spite is at least as offensive an other-regarding preference as envy, isn't it?
Brad seems to see the rich as especially mean and spiteful. I see them as some combination of more talented, hard-working, and lucky than average but otherwise like everyone else. (Or maybe Brad views everyone as mean and spiteful and the rich as having more opportunities to exercise these vile attributes.) I wonder if our varying perspectives on human nature can partly explain our different positions on public policy.

There is an intriguing parallel here with views of the global economy. From a global perspective, Americans are the rich guys on the block. Some foreigners may think we Americans live the expensive and ostentatious lifestyles we do (rather than spending much more money on foreign aid) as "a way of making other people feel small and unhappy." But few Americans perceive our own motivations this way. Instead, we view ourselves as lucky to be in an economic system that promotes economic prosperity, and we enjoy our higher consumption not because it is conspicuous but because ipods, flat screen TVs, and high speed internet connections give us utility. Most Americans would probably be delighted for other countries to achieve higher standards of living. I know I would.