Today in my econ class we read a New York Times article by Robert Frank called “Income Inequality: Too Big to Ignore,” which pointed out a lot of issues similar to those that Bill McKibben addresses in Eaarth. The two paragraphs that I found the most interesting and also most relevant to our class are as follows:
Recent research on psychological well-being has taught us that beyond a certain point, across-the-board spending increases often do little more than raise the bar for what is considered enough. A C.E.O. may think he needs a 30,000-square-foot mansion, for example, just because each of his peers has one. Although they might all be just as happy in more modest dwellings, few would be willing to downsize on their own.
The rich have been spending more simply because they have so much extra money. Their spending shifts the frame of reference that shapes the demands of those just below them, who travel in overlapping social circles. So this second group, too, spends more, which shifts the frame of reference for the group just below it, and so on, all the way down the income ladder. These cascades have made it substantially more expensive for middle-class families to achieve basic financial goals.
Frank argues that the small segment of the population that holds the majority of our nation’s wealth, our “social elite” is actually indirectly influencing how we define the desired standard of living. We generally consume in excess because we live in a society that seems to measure happiness by the amount of material goods we have.
McKibben argues that the only way for us to begin solving our environmental crisis is for us to reduce our consumption, decrease our growth, and learn to live with less. But where does this change need to start? Will it be with the upper class, who hopefully will set an example for the middle and lower classes? Or do these lower classes have to instigate change themselves and break away from this new “norm” of living in excess?