Monday, December 5, 2011


 “The envious person grows lean with the fatness of their neighbor.” Socrates

“Envy and wrath shorten the life.” Ecclesiastes

“There is no sweeter sound than the crumbling of one’s fellow man.”
Groucho Marx

Whether it’s theology, philosophy, or satire envy doesn’t come off well, nor should it.  It’s human, it’s understandable, but it’s also deadly and divisive. Envy can only tear down and divide, never build or unite.

Faith and reason both despise it.  If you believe in sin it’s the second oldest. Ancient philosophers recognized its deadly consequences. Sacred or secular, through grace, reason, or both envy has been identified and decried since the beginning of humanity. Because of envy Cain killed Abel and the dog in the manager kept the ox from eating the straw. Genesis or Aesop the truth is the same, envy begrudges others what it cannot enjoy itself.

Envy isn’t just an emotion, but a crippling and corrosive impulse. Both a verb and a noun Webster’s defines it as a feeling of grudging admiration and desire to have something possessed by another.

Why all this talk about envy?  Because envy over the benefits and income of workers has become an aliment afflicting members of our society.

While we’re defining terms let’s look at what a benefit means. Once more we have a noun and a verb. Citing Webster’s again, financial assistance in time of need or something that aids or promotes well-being: “for the common good” and to derive benefit from or be beneficial for; “This will do you good”.

Cutting to the chase a large number of people seem to “envy” the “benefits” of certain workers.

In the heyday of automobile manufacturing organized labor earned high wages and other hard won contractual benefits agreed to by Detroit’s Big Three and others in a thriving manufacturing climate. From cars to cereal, furniture to frozen food and everything in between, whatever America made everyone wanted, and the manufacturing sector and everyone in it thrived.  Living standards increase, the quality of life improved for everyone because the unionized companies caused a rising tide elevating incomes and benefits in all sectors. Spin offs included growing the service sector while igniting a purchasing cycle that drove a robust economy, the most powerful economic engine the world has ever known.  

Taxes of well paid workers provided stability and jobs in state and local government and public schools. Yet some even then derided the unions and their employers apparently for having a higher standard of living than they had.

Why? Envy would seem one possible reason.  The Capital Sin defined as sadness or melancholy at the good fortune or success of another precisely because they are seen as a loss to oneself.

Things began to change.

Over the last several decades poorly, negotiated unfair trade agreements closed factories and sent jobs overseas or across our borders. Corporations left communities not out of need but out of greed. Not because they were losing money, but because they were not making enough. Wall Street and big banks lusting after higher profits went on irresponsible spending sprees and then the Great Recession hit.

Unemployment and underemployment caused a downward spiral of economic disaster. Unions took reasonable concessions to help employers stem the financial bleeding, the operative word being reasonable. Management makes the decisions yet many try to use the workers as scapegoats. Unions therefore have to balance the need to save jobs with ensuring the jobs saved are worthwhile. They also bear the responsibility of protecting the rights of the retirees who built the economic giant that once existed.

As I’ve said before, low paid workers are not going to return us to economic prosperity. That can only be done on the shoulders, buying power, and tax paying ability of well paid American workers.

Back to what I referred to as benefit envy.

When concessions are made the goal should be how to make the corporation or governmental entity more efficient and cost productive. It may mean changes in operation and the reduction of compensation and benefits, but it should be done in a just and honest fashion. Shared sacrifice and shared success. If the bottom line is REALLY ABOUT saving money then how the concessions are made and what is sacrificed---benefits or wages --shouldn’t matter if the shared financial goal is achieved. Remember a benefit is for the common good, it builds community.

Now I’ll concede the public sector is different in that it is taxpayer funded and delivers services mandated by law and vital to the community, along with other services either wanted by the people or directed by elected officials. We the people are the government and the elected representatives answer to us and our priorities. Never-the-less the standards of justice and efficiency remain. Public workers and unions did not create this situation and should not be the fall guys. Priorities on funding and how to best run our governmental entities to serve the public should be our goal. Administration and middle management should be reduced to lean, effective levels with the excess eliminated just like in the private sector before rank and file workers are touched. Then we decide what services we want delivered and resize accordingly. If there is a need for concessions after that again have it done justly and not as an excuse to erode fair wages and benefits.

Let’s take the fiscal problems facing the City of Grand Rapids. Instead of focusing on priorities and efficiencies some are calling for even more massive reductions in wages and benefits. Concessions  have been made and there may be more to come, but again in a just way and meeting the test of common sense, not capriciously in order to protect sacred cows or a bloated bureaucracy.

Grand Rapids employees’ health care benefits have been pointed out as too expensive, yet name me another entity that has saved millions in health care costs over the last 5 years with the help of their employees. The unions still stand ready to help as always yet want to be recognized for what they’ve sacrificed already and simply be treated fairly.

The same situation exists with their pensions that are targeted as too generous. Tell that to current retirees struggling to make ends meet. Examine the facts. For fifteen years the City didn’t have to put a dime into the pension fund while the employees did.  Additionally, if the City had to pay the Social Security payroll tax on the salaries of police officers and fire fighters the current deficit would be three times larger and millions more added in budget expenses every fiscal year. That’s right, Grand Rapids police and fire fighters retirees don’t receive social security benefits from their city jobs.  Again changes may have to made, but justly.

Does benefit envy drive some of this anger fueled by politicians and editorial boards? All I know is I’ve heard people say I pay this and they don’t and their pensions are better than mine, though I’m not sure they know the real truth. Why let facts get in the way of scapegoating?

Benefit envy is toxic, corrodes the good in a community and divides us. Maybe I’m too hard using the term envy, but it sure seems to fit.

I believe the person with envy suffers more from it then the object of envy does. Aristotle defined envy as the sorrow caused by the good fortune of others. How sad? Shouldn’t we be happy for a person with adequate health care or a secure pension during their golden years? How do we build ourselves up by tearing others down?

Again there is a legitimate role in deciding want is fair and sustainable. Let’s have that discussion, but let it be fact based, devoid of emotion, and minus envy.

From another perspective workers and citizens are rightfully angry over the financial shenanigans, legal or not, performed by banks and corporations profiting from the taxpayers bail out and the misfortunes of others.  

Predatory lenders, Wall Street Wolves, greedy Multi National corporations and their lapdog elected officials game the system, crash the market and then blame average workers and unions for making too much and having health and pension benefits. Many pensions were depleted by this chicanery. Our Middle Class is being squeezed out of existence by unemployment, underemployment, and foreclosures along with skyrocketing medical dental, fuel, and utility costs. Even families with stable and decent incomes face major fiscal crises as they try to assist friends and family. Johnny and Suzie face unpaid college loans and unemployment. Grandpa and Grandma can’t make it on their fixed income. So everyone ends up scrimping and living under one roof out of need.  Small businesses and local governments are failing from reduced customer purchasing power and an eroding tax base.

Ironically most states, counties, and municipalities’ pension liabilities, as mentioned previously, are largely the result of Wall Street losses yet employees who sacrificed raises for a secure pension in their senior years are blamed heaping insult onto injury. 

Yet it’s been revealed finally under the Freedom of Information Act that beyond the $700 Billion TARP  authorized by Congress to bail out our financial institutions the Federal Reserve dedicated $7.7 trillion as of March 2009 to prop up our banking system.   Imagine what that sum could have accomplished being applied elsewhere? To put this mind blowing sum of $7.7 Trillion in perspective it’s almost half our National Debt and more the 50% of the value of EVERYTHING produced in our country during 2009! 

Rubbing more salt in the wounds, a number of banks scored an estimated $13 Billion in profits from the bailout. Banks too big to fail have gotten bigger and even more powerful. Without reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act (It stood the test of time for nearly 80 years) which mandated separating customer deposits from speculative and risky investment banking there is no effective regulatory restraint to prevent the 2008 crisis from happening again.  Dodd-Frank provides some transparency but lacks the teeth to take on the biggest banks.  It’s like giving Paul Blart: Mall Cop a whistle and having him keep an eye on John Dillinger.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement was born out of this injustice (as was to some degree the Tea Party). 

 Entrenched wealth controlling government and fiscal decisions is a threat to us all, but we must be cautious righteous anger and the need to change the system does not turn into the envy of wholesale class warfare. 

Remove policies favoring the ultra rich, close loopholes, mandate payment of their fair share of taxes, and work for a system that provides an even playing field of opportunity, education and just wages while treating human labor as capital.  It is very American to protect private property and not take others’ wealth for our own. Envy of the rich is no better than benefit envy and as caustic.  Though it is just as American to demand fair trade laws; effective and reasonable safety, health, and environmental protections; the right to form unions and collectively bargain to gain a share of the fruits of your own labors; establish a system of taxation sensitive to income levels; and most importantly ensure small businesses are treated in the same manner as large corporations and our citizens (rich or poor equally) are treated better than any business or institution.

Empowering the people through improving our current system to gain economic justice for all, not envy which often throws out the good with the bad is the road we need to take.  Looking at alternatives such as Distributism and The Just Third Way also make sense to consider as economic solutions to our problems.

It’s the height of irony when a billionaire blithely claims “workers high wages” are to blame for Michigan’s economic woes, multi-millionaires, and even over paid elected officials and top salaried government bureaucrats, begrudge the fairly earned benefits and wages of law enforcement officers, fire fighters, teachers and other hard working public employees yet scream class warfare when anyone questions their economic status.

Without a Middle Class America will fall, not to mention the only ones with incomes left to pay taxes will be the super rich.

Envy- benefit, income or any other kind- poisons whoever touches it and never leads to lifting up only tearing down.  It’s about time we realized no one wins in a race to the bottom and revolutions rarely turn out well with ours directed by leaders of honor, intellect and vision as a notable exception (yet in some ways America still is paying the price of their prejudices).

A wise person once told me never compare yourself to anyone, you’ll either end up being arrogant or envious and either way you will lose something of yourself.

Sage advice, I envy such wisdom. 


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