(A version of this ran as an OpEd in the Bangor Daily News on November 24, 1994. The changes here update the data on inequality and income.)
In his book, “Changes in the Land,” historian William Cronon details how Native Americans and early European colonists of North America used and affected the landscape. One of the puzzles that faced the colonists was the apparent poverty of the Indians amidst a land of seemingly boundless natural wealth.
Some early European observers concluded that the poverty of the native populations was due to their failure to “improve” the land. Their lack of improvement, reliance on mobility to take advantage of ecological variability over the seasons, and few material possessions all looked to the Europeans as signs of idleness, a lack of industry.
The only problem with this idea was that the Indians who greeted the early colonizers did not see themselves as poor. Their lack of material possessions was a logical accommodation to a lifestyle centered on annual migrations that took advantage of the natural variations of the New England landscape. If the historical record can be believed, the natives encountering the Europeans did not “feel poor” at all. They had few wants, wants that were readily fulfilled by the natural bounty of the region. Few wants, readily satisfied, left a people content with their existence.
Cronon points out that Thomas Morton, a keen contemporary observer of the situation, saw that this attitude posed a challenge to his European colleagues. As Cronon says, “… If Indians lived richly by wanting little, then might it not be possible that Europeans lived poorly by wanting much?” Indeed, this is a question we might do well to answer for ourselves today.
Economic anxiety continues to pervade our society and we know the upcoming presidential election campaign will focus on jobs and income inequality.
The puzzle in current discontent is just the opposite of that which Cronon talks about in his book. How can people so apparently rich as we are feel so poor, so discontented? Perhaps like the European colonists we live poorly by wanting much.
By almost any comparison to other peoples or other times, the average American household is well off indeed, at least as measured in dollar income terms. Our levels of consumption are higher than the generations before us and higher than people anywhere else in the world. The data show this. Per capita disposable personal income is near an all-time high in this country, whether measured in constant or current dollars. The anecdotal evidence supports this as well. The worry in the business press is that the coming holiday season will be a disappointment, which means that the dollar value of retail sales will not grow as much as it grew last year. Not consuming ever more makes us feel poorer.
This discontent, which is particularly obvious in the middle class, comes from two sources. First, we have convinced ourselves that our well-being is a function of how much stuff we consume. We live poorly by wanting much and by wanting ever more. We seem to be in a constant state of “the day after Christmas letdown.” The more we possess, the more disappointed we become.
The second source of our discontent is the increasing economic inequality in our society. Over the past 35 years there has been a steady shift in the shares of income in American society from the middle class to the very rich. The result is that now our income distribution is clearly the most unequal among industrial societies and the most unequal that it has been in our history.
This income inequality is clearly part of the problem. Many of us envy the consumption of the wealthy. Marketers use that envy to encourage us to buy their products so we can emulate the rich. Financial institutions encourage us to borrow their funds to make these purchases. At the same time we fear the poverty of the increasingly poor in our society, an anxiety rooted in the fact that we might fail to pay those credit card bills and have to give back all that stuff we buy in hopes of feeling rich.
The increasing income inequality makes the discontent of the middle class even worse. Despite consuming more material goods than our grandparents ever could have imagined, we are not getting as much as the wealthy. We are not concerned that the incomes of the poorest in our society continue to fall below levels where they can meet their basic needs. Rather we fret that we are not getting as big a piece of the action as those at the top.
So, in the midst of riches undreamed of even a generation or two ago, we live poorly by wanting much. Perhaps in this season of thanksgiving we could become more content by emulating the natives who first settled in this bountiful land of ours. Like them, we might live more richly by wanting less.