Snarky Behavior

Dropping Knowledge: Relative Deprivation

August 6, 2007 · 2 Comments

Dropping Knowledge: where I “laymenize” an important aspect of social science.

Seat-belts on. I’m about to enter a stratosphere that is way above my head. Disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer.

Ok. Anyone who has ever visited another country for an extended period of time will tell you that one of the major unexpected benefits of travel abroad is learning about your OWN country and culture in the process, via comparison. That is to say, travel gives you a fresh perspective with which you may reexamine how your own society behaves, chooses to organize itself, interacts, etc.

Yesterday when I wrote about Michael Moore’s SICKO, I neglected to mention that Moore uses a similar tactic by introducing middle- and working-class Americans to other countries’ perspectives and systems, so that we might re-evaluate our own preconceptions.

Americans are socialized to believe that they are the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world– that this success is predicated upon our system of government and economy, which ensure freedom and liberty, and allow for equality in opportunity. So it follows that when Americans discover that they aren’t the bees’ knees in major categories which evaluate standards of living, they tend to get pissed off about it.

The “hey look what they have!” is a powerful motivational and emotive tactic. The message elicits a gamut of emotions: pride, surprise, betrayal, anger, indignity – and most of all, jealousy. The fragile human ego cannot tolerate being slighted or unjustly recognized within the hierarchy of society. This “oversight” has been the motivating cause of revolutions from Moses to Martin Luther King, Jr.

The same phenomenon I’ve discussed above from a sociological perspective is termed in Economics as “relative deprivation: the discontent people feel when they compare their positions to those of other similarly situated and find out that they have less than they deserve. It is a condition that is measured by comparing one group’s situation to the situations of those who are more advantaged. And it’s also known as “unfulfilled rising expectations.”

There’s an important debate going on in our country right now and the heart of the issue is relative deprivation. I’m too much of a simpleton to weigh all of the factors, but I can identify the major variables: Hedge fund managers, protected behind the veil of their privately managed companies, are reaping historically unheard of annual profits. Their massive income is further skewing the distribution of wealth in our country, and pushing social norms (and prices) of luxury goods ridiculously skyward.

Think of it this way: the higher you rise in the income bracket, the less you can accurately evaluate the absolute value of a dollar, because the relative value is so depressed (i.e., you stop understanding the difference between a $20 tip and a $100 tip when you’re wiping your ass with both bills). You can then single-handedly set the price on luxury goods, to make those items truly exclusive.

And when you’re paying eight-figures or for a flat in Manhattan or an estate in the Hamptons which were previously listed in the seven-figures range, it logically follows (and again, I’m no economist) that you’ve dictated the ceiling price for the entire housing market in New York, which then trickles down to schleps like me who are looking for a shared-apartment in Harlem.

If there’s one thing American’s HATE, it’s getting a raw-deal. We expect to be compensated exactly what we deserve, to be able to obtain a certain lifestyle if we dedicate ourselves to achieving it. When the over-class unintentionally takes away our society’s ability to guarantee the “rags to riches” ideal, or at least maintain some potential for upward social mobility, the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • Carlo // August 6, 2007 at 7:05 pm | Reply

    As best as I can tell, Michael Moore’s “tactic” and the “relative deprivation” Professor Franks speaks of are both examples of how (historical) narratives shape social and individual identity. Jon notes this, although with different diction. The identity of the United States is shaped, obviously, by its history – that narrative of its secession from Britain and the consecration of the values embodied by the rag-to-riches anthem. The identity of an American, such as one of those sorry sods pining for a 3,500 sq. ft. faux colonial, is shaped by the narrative of his or her individual life. Moreover, as an American, the narrative of this individual life will be shaped in part by the larger narrative of the United States. I was not only born on September 16, 1983, but I was born in Northern California and fortunately into a family whose social and financial status can almost guarantee that I will never fall to poverty. (And, of course, these two narratives are reciprocative and both subject to debate).

    The criticism levied against Michael Moore is always that he fails to tell a factual (or at least consensual) historical narrative. The criticism that I want to levy against those who fall prey to “relative deprivation” and then go buy a coach purse to match the roof tilings of their faux colonial, is that they aren’t sufficiently critical of either the narrative they tell of their own life, or the one they believe about the United States. We should not be so quick to permit Steve Schwarzman to hitch personal identity to conspicous consumption. We also should not omit from our social narrative the stories that thinkers like Professor Franks tell. These stories of how America has come to be dominated not only financially but also culturally by the few with obscene wealth will help remind us that the American Dream is not laissez faire bullion hording, but something much closer to moving to New York and furthering one’s education.

  • Jon // August 16, 2007 at 11:57 am | Reply

    I think you’re right Carlo, and it isn’t the conspicuous spending that bothers me so much as the implications of making buckets of money at low interests rates, then tightening the belt when inflation hits and interests rates rise. Nothing kills the American dream like rising inflation and stagnant wages.

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