A few years ago, a former Mondoville colleague and I were talking — my friend was none too pleased. He had just emerged from a meeting that included representatives from various members of the college community — faculty, staff, administration, and the board. As they were scheduling the next meeting, one date was rejected as falling within Spring Break. The board member apparently sneered that he wished he could have a Spring Break, and when we were talking my friend said “And I wish I could have his money, but that’s not how it works, is it?”
My friend was irked that the board guy (probably without realizing it) had fallen into the Ivory-Tower-As-Lotusland myth (which I’ve discussed before). This is because the board guy had forgotten opportunity costs: He chose a career that was much better paying, but considerable less flexible in many ways. But of course, opportunity cost is a two-way street; I have opted for what I see as a certain kind of happiness (doing stuff I enjoy with a flexible schedule and no dress code) and have traded a certain amount of financial compensation (that I would have received in a higher-paying gig) for that happiness. Board Guy took the other end of the deal. Fine.
Of course, the reason either of us can make our choice is because of surplus productivity — neither of us have to work as subsistence-level farmers. But as Trevor Burrus observes at Free Thoughts:
[I]n an affluent, productive society, we should generally expect income inequality to rise while expecting psychological satisfaction—I’ll call it “happiness inequality”—to converge. While the top earners build better mousetraps to sell to a consumer base that is broad enough to turn small innovations into million-dollar ideas, the rest of us can spend more time smelling the roses.
I still consider this an open question, but I think there are strong reasons to suspect it is true. I also think that this gets closer to asking the right question about inequality, namely, when and why is it a bad thing?
Check out what he has to say, and then join me in wondering if many of our current social differences aren’t forms of buyer’s remorse.