The Diversity of Privilege

Rather than directly respond to John Quiggin let me just suggest that a serious examination of privilege and redistribution in the United States needs to widen its horizons a bit beyond a hyper-narrow focus on the fabled top one percent of households. If I think about the neighborhood where I grew up, a lot of people living their are NYU professors earning an average of $175,000 a year. That’s a lot more than I make, and a lot more than most people make, but it’s still not enough to put you in the top one percent. But then you need to consider that NYU professors get access to subsidized university-owned rental housing located in America’s best and most expensive city. They get a good benefits package, and the tenured professors have drastically above average job security. What’s more, they have above-average job quality. A position as a faculty member at a high-quality university is a pretty sweet gig. You get lets of autonomy in your work, time and money is available to travel to conferences and professional events you think are interesting, etc. And this is all built, in part, on a solid foundation of explicit and implicit government subsidies for universities.

The CEO of Darden Restaurants earns over six million dollars a year. But I seriously doubt that there are any tenure-track professors at NYU saying to themselves that they’re desperately eager to change places with Clarence Otis, Jr and move to Orlando to supervise chain restaurants. Certainly for me, it’s not even a close choice. I would much, much, much rather draw a comfortable salary and a subsidized apartment in Manhattan doing interesting work than make “top one percent” money as the CEO of a medium-sized business enterprise in central Florida. And unless I’ve completely misjudged the audience of my blog, I bet most of you would agree with my preferences in this regard.

That’s not to say we need to “soak the professors” rather than “soak the rich.” Taxing the consumption of high-rollers and redistributing it to the less fortunate is a great idea. But a lot of the political dialogue I see online seems to consist of a slightly strange form of class resentment in which intellectuals, nonprofit workers, or public servants express bitterness about the high incomes of businesspeople whose lives they don’t actually envy. No doubt that are millions of working stiffs in America who really do envy Clarence Otis, Jr.’s life and career starting with many of the 180,000 or so other people working for Darden Restaurants. But by the same token, there are millions of Americans who envy the lives and careers of lots of other people who have “good jobs” that are good for reasons other than very high headline salaries. My job, for example, strikes me as a pretty damn good one even though my earnings are meager compared to the NYU professor. I don’t want to quit it and go work on Wall Street. That would be horrible. And it suggests to me that the questions of inequality and privilege in the United States are more complex than a simple chart of the income distribution suggests. What’s needed is to broaden the number of people with access to better lives across multiple dimensions.