July 5, 2010

Earning Happiness

Justin Katz

The behavior of both sides of the liberal-guilt–welfare axis might find some explanation in this line, drawn from a review of Arthur Brooks's The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future by Matthew Continetti (subscription required):

It is not inequality, Brooks writes, that makes people unhappy. It is a lack of self-worth. It is the feeling that success is unearned.

On the welfare-recipient side, Continetti notes:

In 2001, the University of Michigan's Panel Study of Income Dynamics noticed a correlation between welfare dependency and sadness. The panel found that going on the dole increased the chances of feeling "inconsolably sad" by 16 percent. "Welfare recipients," Brooks writes, "are far unhappier than equally poor people who do not get welfare checks." And while Brooks is quick to point out that correlation is not causation, the data certainly suggest that welfare doesn't make you any happier.

On the guilty liberal side, one thinks of the simplified explanation that Rush Limbaugh (gasp!) frequently offers: they know that they're wealthy beyond their merits, so they assume the system that so blessed them must be unjust. Rather than returning their "unearned" rewards, though, they seek to take a smaller amount from everybody — regardless of desert — in order to give to those who have "unearned" and not received.

Move beyond — if you can — the previous paragraph's poke at our pals on the left and focus on Brooks's point, which he states thus, in a 2007 City Journal article:

What I found was that economic inequality doesn't frustrate Americans at all. It is, rather, the perceived lack of economic opportunity that makes us unhappy. To focus our policies on inequality, instead of opportunity, is to make a grave error—one that will worsen the very problem we seek to solve and make us generally unhappier to boot.

Pointing out that income inequality in the United States has been expanding because "the rich are getting richer faster than the poor are getting richer," Brooks highlights the astonishing fact that, for some who rail against inequality, discouraging work among the successful is actually a feature, not a bug, of income redistribution:

According to British economist Richard Layard, "If we make taxes commensurate to the damage that an individual does to others when he earns more"—the damage to others' happiness, that is—"then he will only work harder if there is a true net benefit to society as a whole. It is efficient to discourage work effort that makes society worse off." Work, according to this postmodern argument—contrary to millennia of moral teaching—is no different from a destructive vice like tobacco, which governments sometimes tax in order to discourage people from smoking.

We who are productive, but not yet successful, might wish to interject that making gobs of money typically involves enabling other people to make or save money, too. As we've discussed on Anchor Rising before, replacing the rich folks who run WalMart with an army of mom 'n' pops would eliminate the employment of the large company's relatively well-compensated employees and disallow people of the same economic class from economizing in the way that WalMart's retail model allows.

Unsurprisingly, the difference in perspective ultimately seems to come down to whether one views society as a collection of castes or of individuals. The left sees those who work for WalMart as People Who Work for Walmart and, implicitly, always will. The right sees them as people who currently see WalMart as offering the greatest opportunity given their current circumstances. The poster representative for the former view is the single mother grasping about for any means of supporting her family; the poster representative for the latter view is the young adult making some side cash while learning the benefits of a strong work ethic and developing workplace interpersonal skills.

By way of a disclaimer: these distinctions are false. The single mother is just as apt to see "check out clerk" as a stepping stone, and the young adult may just as likely max out his potential stocking shelves. The point is that one side of the political divide presents current occupation as demonstrated maximum potential without public assistance, while the other side leaves potential up to the individual to demonstrate. (Shades of this difference can also be seen in union lamentations that teachers don't make as much money as others with the same amount of education. The problem is that individuals who go on to higher-paying gigs — say, quarter-million-dollar education commissioner — no longer appear in the "teacher" category.)

As Brooks and Continetti also explain, the effect of attempts to eliminate income inequality don't increase happiness. Because perceived opportunity is the greater contributor to that emotion, their policies actually have the opposite effect. We can take this assessment a step forward if we look to an underlying consequence of the mindset, whether it's conscious or not: The left's policies make government the provider of opportunity. To the extent that the right believes opportunity is provided (rather than seized from amidst the flow of uncontrollable natural and social forces), its policies put the responsibility in the hands of individuals.

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Abusing the system is in many ways like abusing addictive drugs. Every time people do it, they justify it to themselves somehow and it feels good in the moment. But what it ultimately turns those people into is something else altogether. One only has to meet the cops and firefighters in Boston earning 250k in bogus overtime and engaging in mass disability fraud to see the kind of contempt those people eventually form for the people from whom they are leeching. I've never met such nasty, hateful people in my life. They are all about the "us versus them" gang mentality, and the corrupt system made them that way. As far as welfare, food stamps, public housing, free medical care, free education, free utilities and the like are concerned, I can't even imagine what it would have done to my drive, productivity, and sense of self-worth if I got free money from the government each week for not earning an income. I might be in a totally different place today. Having a valued job and actually earning compensation is one of the most important contributing factors to a person's sense of self worth and happiness. Handing people things for free does not carry the same benefits and has many negative side effects. Dependency is the usual result, just as happens with any other species of animal when artificial feeding begins.

Posted by: Dan at July 5, 2010 2:32 PM

WHENEVER Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Submitted by

So what's your point?

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at July 5, 2010 3:36 PM


I know you have your doubts about property rights, but I'm not sure why you'd decline to give Edwin Arlington Robinson credit for his poem, which you "submitted" as if it were your own.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 5, 2010 4:03 PM

I think OTL assumed the readers here are clever enough to know that somebody other than he wrote it.

Just curious, Dan, have you "met" the firefighters and police officers committing mass disability and overtime fraud?

Posted by: michael at July 5, 2010 4:15 PM

Michael, I lived in Boston for 4 years and cops were absolutely everywhere directing traffic or monitoring construction detail on bogus overtime. That's how their salaries come to be regularly over 200k. A favorite activity of the Boston firefighters is to sit outside their stations in lawnchairs people watching, smoking and making stupid comments to passers-by. Public unions were a very prominent and unpleasant part of my everyday life while I lived there. At least once a week there was a story in the Boston Globe or the Boston Herald about some outrageous new abuse of disability/pension/overtime/perks of these two groups. I've been lectured and yelled at and insulted by too many Boston cops to remember, and never once did I do anything to endanger anyone else or do anything even arguably illegal. Everybody I knew had comparable stories, the public unions treat citizens like serfs up there. RI public unions are small time compared to their Boston counterparts. They are basically legalized mobs. I was in Boston just last week dropping off a friend at the airport and heard the following exchange on Fmr. MA House Speaker Tom "The Felon" Finneran's WRKO radio show:
Caller: "Sometimes I hear about officers being pulled over for violations and they're let off because they're police officers. Do you consider that unethical?"
State Police Union President Rick Brown: "No, I don't consider that unethical. I consider that professional courtesy. I am given discretion in my job, so I use my discretion to let them go."
He was NOT joking. That's just how the public union culture is up there, the corruption is so integral to the society that they don't even have to hide it like they have to here in RI.

Posted by: Dan at July 5, 2010 4:50 PM

I hate to do this,but I seriously doubt OTL believed for a second that most people here hadn't read "Richard Cory" at least once in their school days.The old curmudgeon isn't a plagiarist.
I quoted Cormac McCarthy on another thread,but he's not exactly a household word,so I acknowledged the source.

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 5, 2010 4:51 PM

I can't speak for Boston police or fire, but I can speak for myself. I've been personally attacked for earning over 100,000 by working overtime here in Providence. A lot of people consider that kings ransom. I consider it working eighty hour weeks.

Whenever I go to Boston the police and fire personnel I encounter are polite and helpful, and no, I don't wear the union t-shirts.

If some cops and firefighters figured out a way to double dip, or steal, the profession as a whole would condemn them, just as we do bogus disability claims, which do happen, probably at a less frequent pace than the general public's abuse of social security disability.

I'm not saying these things don't happen. I can say that it is far from the norm, and our profession, just like the law profession, works hard keeping our integrity intact.

Posted by: michael at July 5, 2010 5:20 PM

Michael, I respect you as a person. But your consistent denial of the highly coordinated and well-documented corruption of the Boston fire department makes you willfully ignorant at best. I don't believe that you personally are complicit, so I have to assume that you choose not to learn the hard truth about your public union brethren 40 minutes to the north.

For a master listing of *some* of the dozens and dozens of scandals and abuses rocking the department over just the past few years, read:


I don't know why the FBI is currently investigating the entire department for mass coordinated disability and overtime fraud since you apparently have everything under control via self-policing.

Posted by: Dan at July 5, 2010 5:38 PM

Earning happiness. The pursuit of happiness.
"If, in reality, courage and a heart devoted to the good of mankind are the constituents of human felicity, the kindness which is done infers a happiness in the person from whom it proceeds, not in him on whom it is bestowed; and the greatest good which men possessed of fortitude and generosity can procure to their fellow creatures is a participation of this happy character. If this be the good of the individual, it is likewise that of mankind; and virtue no longer imposes a task by which we are obliged to bestow upon others that good from which we ourselves refrain; but supposes, in the highest degree, as possessed by ourselves, that state of felicity which we are required to promote in the world (Civil Society, 99-100)." Adam Ferguson

Posted by: David S at July 5, 2010 7:05 PM

When I said "submitted by" I meant that I was submitting the poem for consideration by readers of this particular thread. I hate to break it to you, but this is not even close to a literary publication, so I don't think The Turabian Citation Guide's rules apply here.

Interesting that you come from behind your rock to comment, not about content, but to tar with false assumptions. The poem is too well known for even a pompous fool like you to believe I was pulling a cheap stunt, but since you obviously see cheap every where you look, you dragged it in unseemly.

Now if you have a comment regarding content speak up.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at July 5, 2010 9:47 PM

If the Leftists around here think they are so smart, why don't they start their own blog?

They sound like the crazy guy who used to stand at the bottom of the Pam Am building escalators in Grand Central Station, shouting and waving his arms about nothing.

Posted by: BobN at July 6, 2010 6:28 AM

Dan, I just read most of the articles from the link you suggested. As I previously stated, there is definitely abuse and illegal activity going on in the Boston Fire Department. To condemn firefighters as a whole because of what some are doing is your prerogative, but I won't allow you, or anybody to disparage my profession. You have no idea how many times somebody I don't even know finds out I'm a firefighter and starts the drill, "must be nice, getting paid to sleep, scam the taxpayer, eat like kings and watch TV."

Some bad apples slip in any well meaning organization. Boston has their share. Providence has its share. The Globe and mayor Menino appear to have a vendetta against the BFD, much like Cicilinni has against the PFD, until he needed us to win his little election.

I "have met" Boston firefighters, New Haven, New York, Miami, Warwick, East Greenwich, Detroit, San Francisco firefighters and representatives from dozens of departments. I don't like all of them. But even the ones I don't like are not disability scammers or pension cheats. They are honorable people doing an honest job. I've done some hairy things over the years, and luckily managed to come out of it relatively unscathed. A lot have not. Injuries happen all the time. Most of the people I work with you never read about, that being the ones who shake it off, put on another pack and get back to work.

These are the firefighters I see. We have ten fires a week in Providence, at least. And 1000 EMS calls. Yesterday I had a guy hanging in his basement. Day before a kid shot with a shotgun in the chest and the legs with a 45. This is not a normal job. The news reports on the fires they get pictures of. If a news organization captures flames, ten or fifteen minutes into a fire, we have failed.

You are reading about the vast minority of firefighters. I'm working with the rest.

Posted by: michael at July 6, 2010 8:10 AM

Well Michael, it's good to see you finally admit that fraudsters and abusers of the union contract terms do exist. There doesn't have to be very many of them to ruin the system and cost municipalities and the taxpaying citizens whom they represent many millions of dollars.

Your problem as a real professional in an "industry" that contains these crooks is that the crooks tar all members of your union with their bad reputations. After all, it is manipulation of the terms of your contract that is the basis of their dishonest exploitation.

It's sort of like blaming all American corporations for the frauds of Enron. When that happened, all the politicians went nuts and said it had to be stamped out by putting every American corporation into a bureaucratic straitjacket called Sarbanes-Oxley.

But when fraud and abuse occur within unions, the employees close ranks into a defense posture and the politicians say, "Nothing to see here, folks" while they sweep it under the rug. Do you know it is treated differently?

Because those union leaders and those politicians are political allies, that's why.

Posted by: BobN at July 6, 2010 11:39 AM

We’ve fought with many men on this here blog,
An’ some of them was bright an’ some was not
The bernsteins and the Michaels and the Katz
But Justin was the weak link of the lot
‘E squatted in the scrub an’ took a few cheap shots.
Then ran for cover when it started to get hot.
So, ‘er’s to you Justin Katz at your ‘ome behind a rock
You’re a poor misguided Christian and a weak-kneed fightin’ man
So we gives you yer certificate, an’ if you want it signed
We'll come an' 'ave a romp with you whenever you're inclined.

For those of you who live behind a rock, I will add that the lines above are an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's poem, Fuzzy Wuzzy. This will have to suffice Kate Turabian's citation requirements.

"Come out, come out wherever you are." I must add that I do not not claim to have originated this phrase, as far as I know the author is anonymous. This can go on forever!

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at July 6, 2010 11:43 AM

Once again, the Leftists prove that they have nothing original to contribute to the comments here at Anchor Rising.

Posted by: BobN at July 6, 2010 12:09 PM

The notion that you've made it "hot" for me in this comment section is laughable. Inasmuch as I'm liable for the content of this Web site, I felt I should add the name of the author whose poem you quoted in full (although it's probably in the public domain, at this point). In the process, I thought it might be worth poking a mild needle at your thin skin.

And so it was. Now back to ignoring you.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 6, 2010 12:11 PM

Usual action from Justin, throw a stone and hide behind a rock. You still have not commented on substance. Your ignorance is noted.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at July 6, 2010 12:52 PM
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