September 7, 2010

A Balance of Status and Meaning

Justin Katz

In one of those fortuitous instances that creates the sense of a plot to life, this story just arrived at the end of my driveway with the morning paper:

Deaton and Daniel Kahneman reviewed surveys of 450,000 Americans conducted in 2008 and 2009 for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index that included questions on day-to-day happiness and overall life satisfaction.

Happiness got better as income rose, but the effect leveled out at $75,000, Deaton said. On the other hand, their overall sense of success or well-being continued to rise as their earnings grew beyond that point.

The number surely varies, by time and location, but it appears that $75,000 is currently the amount of money required to fulfill the tier of "needs" that follows the meeting of essentials. At $75,000, one can live pretty well, with enough for some vacationing and extracurriculars and the basic toys of modern society, and make some preparation for retirement.

The article's arrival was fortuitous because I was preparing to post on Michael Knox Beran's suggestion that social mobility begets status anxiety (subscription required):

The same anxiety explains why those who enjoy what is supposed to be an enviable status go to such lengths to preserve their preeminence by keeping down those who might otherwise rise above them. Nowhere are the hierarchies more jealously guarded than in democracies (or in societies that are becoming democratic), precisely because the degrees of rank there do not find as strong a sanction in law and principle as they do in rigidly oligarchic societies. George Santayana, who passed his early years in quasi-feudal Spain, found it "at first very strange" that Americans should have been more attached to hierarchy than Spaniards, and he was startled to find that the background of his highly cultivated Harvard friend Charles Loeser "cut him off, in democratic America, from the ruling society." (Loeser's father "kept a 'dry-goods store.'")

Unable to rely on the state to enforce their hierarchies, those who have caste advantage in free societies (or societies that are becoming free) must constantly change the social locks in order to make it more difficult for those who lack caste to fashion a satisfactory key. Perhaps the most ingenious of the devices the status "haves" have devised to demoralize the status "have nots" is status inversion. When a weapon in the social arsenal of status fails to hold the line, the elite will not merely discard it, they will ironically invert the old status hierarchy and disdain the thing that was once coveted, thereby disconcerting the aspirants who took so many pains to master it.

One can presume that this is mainly an overt concern for those who've reached the threshold at which "overall sense of success" becomes the emotional good purchased by advancement. Before that $75k is achieved, status and economic stability are more or less synonymous; the things that mark the "haves," up to that point, are actually useful on a daily basis. Thereafter, the competition begins in earnest.

Of course, status and wealth are certainly a concern for those below the threshold — especially well below it — and it is for them that the democratic accessibility of status creates the larger tangible problem. When status was a matter written in law and blood, Beran argues, societies formed accordingly, allowing those without to devote their aspirations to other things than becoming "with" and developing means of offering care:

The civic culture that was a by-product of the reaction against aristocratic hierarchy was highly artistic, but in contrast to the feudal arts, which exalted status, the civic arts soothed those who lacked it. Artistic motifs that depicted (in Pater's words) a "tender and accessible" compassion inspired conduct concerned less with distinguishing "who's in" from "who's out" than with nourishing the affections and awakening the sympathetic virtues. A culture that is driven principally by concern for status is unlikely ever to develop a really satisfactory discipline of pastoral care. Status-driven culture may be, indeed often is, generous in its charity; but the largesse always reinforces the status of the donor, and the cultural artifacts of status-driven culture, being stained by pride, tend subtly to betray the motive in which they were begot. Philanthropists today pour millions of dollars into the various civic projects that bear their names, but the power to create a civic culture like that which was fashioned in the shadow of Chartres and the Parthenon — built for the most part by unknown hands in the name of a glory greater than themselves — is beyond us. Nor can status-driven culture bring people together in the way the older civic culture could: Its deepest raison d'etre is to keep them apart.

In Beran's view, the travesty and the danger at the end of this shift is individual isolation — as brought to tight focus in the sociopathy of serial killers, and in fascination with them. I'd marry that cultural thread with our society's obsession with shooting-star access to high status as evidenced in primetime talent competitions, reality television, state lotteries, and the various other illusory rockets to social stratosphere. Unfortunately, that victory by that route should seem so fickle can only contribute to the sense of the self against a hostile world.

A thorough explication of the consequences of that isolation across classes and demographies would require the space (and time) of a book, but in the absence of that leeway in my schedule, suffice it to suggest that the tension in our society derives in significant part from the rut that personal autonomy — and the ability to rise — cuts in the mud of hard reality. In the generic case, the individual who does not advance, in our society, is to some extent to blame, and it is the fuel of our economy that we can find motivation in that fact. But the individual is not wholly to blame, and the challenge comes in contriving a means of assistance that does not squelch the individual drive, whether by reinforcing helplessness or fostering dependency.

Any compassionate person will look at the balance of happiness against "sense of success" and conclude that it would be a worthwhile project to sacrifice some of the latter in the cause of the former. But on neither side of the redistribution can the exchange be explicitly imposed. The happiness, after all, is not merely in the big-screen television and the retirement account, but in the fact of having achieved them, and the "sense of success" will resist confiscation of the resources that make it possible, yielding all varieties of unintended consequences.

Better to redefine "success" and "needs," and for that, a society requires a deeper meaning than materialism and secularism can provide.