David R. Henderson  

How I Fought Envy, Part 2

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I promised in my post two days ago to tell the other two steps I used, and, truth be told, still occasionally must use, to fight my envy. Here's the next passage from my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey:

Second, I remind myself that, in the long run, I am the person most responsible for where I've gotten and, if I really want things to be different, I can take responsibility for making them different. A few years ago I complained to my friend Tom Nagle that, although I was as smart as many of the Harvard faculty [or so I thought], I was not at nearly as prestigious a school.
"You chose not to teach at Harvard," shot back Tom.
"What do you mean?" I said, stunned, hurt, and defensive, all at the same time.
Tom replied, "I mean that if you had decided in graduate school that you wanted to teach at Harvard, you could have committed to working 12 hours a day, six and a half days a week, you could have had three articles published in top academic journals, and you could have had a shot at Harvard. To get tenure there, you would have had to keep up that same pace for another five to ten years. You chose not to do that."
Now, whenever I feel bad about not teaching at Harvard, I remember that discussion and I feel better almost instantly. I've made a choice. I like working "only" nine hours a day, five to six days a week, and having a life with my wife, my daughter, and my community.
Looking back, I realize that I was responsible for my own outcomes even when I was a kid. When I saw that everyone at our summer resort but us had a boat, I decided to make enough money to buy a used motorboat. At age 13, I spent a large part of my summer, and a large part of my free time during the school year, at various odd jobs and entrepreneurial ventures. By the start of the next summer I had almost enough to buy a boat. I decided not to after all, but that's another story. While I was working for the money to buy the boat, my resentment of others vanished. I enjoyed working towards a goal.
I've had people tell me that it's easy for me to talk this way because I have many high-paying skills, such as writing and speaking. But even people of very modest means who live in the industrialized world can accumulate net worths of half a million or more. Dwight Lee and Richard McKenzie, economists at the University of Georgia and the University of California at Irvine, respectively, recently wrote a fascinating book, Getting Rich in America, in which they laid out eight simple rules for becoming rich.

Then, in the book, I lay out their rules.

Soon, I'll give my final step, step three, that relates to how the language of economics has set us up for envy.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
drobviousso writes:

Good post. I ended up buying the book based on these two passages.

I wonder, do you ever tie your lack of envy to your antiwar feelings?

David R. Henderson writes:

@drobviousso,
Thanks.
Re the antiwar feelings, no, not really. I think my antiwar feelings--and thoughts--have to do with how unsuccessful I've seen people be when they seek vengeance rather than trying to resolve issues more peacefully. When I went to the bakery at age 5 to get bread for my mother, I would read the various quotes the baker had on his wall. One stuck with me and, in the few instances where I ignored it, I regretted doing so. It was from Confucius and it read:
"He who seeks revenge digs two graves."

Eric Falkenstein writes:

My book argues that the implication of envy, rather than conventional utility functions, is that there is no risk premium. See utility argument here, evidence here.

I agree envy is not as good as greed, both for society and one's own life, but I think envy describes people's motivation better than greed.

Don MacLean writes:

One if my all-time favorite quotes is from G. B. Shaw: People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I do not believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they cannot find them, make them.

Jack Givens writes:

Great post. From the post and comments I wonder if envy is in most (all?) cases another form of greed. It is coveting for what we have not earned and usually driven by choices we make.

GIVCO writes:

Epeictetus would say of this passage that you've only started instruction.
http://classics.mit.edu/Epictetus/epicench.html

An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.

Your relative status is out of your control, but your emotional/intellectual reaction to your relative status is in your control. Even if you worked as hard as Tom suggested, someone at Harvard might've decided that you don't have the innate intelligence, the connections, the looks, the politics, etc.

GIVCO writes:

Epeictetus would say of this passage that you've only started instruction.

An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.

Your relative status is out of your control, but your emotional/intellectual reaction to your relative status is in your control. Even if you worked as hard as Tom suggested, someone at Harvard might've decided that you don't have the innate intelligence, the connections, the looks, the politics, etc.

Gian writes:

"Your relative status is out of your control"

But isn't your status is what you perceive it to be?
Status is not an objective thing and depends upon who you consider to be your peer group.
So I would say that A) Your status is entirely in your own head.
B) A way to restrain envy is no to think of status at all. Do not entertain the considerations of status.
Status directly leads to envy.

aez writes:

Thank you for covering this...it's very important.

Freedom and action defeat envy. Lots of us don't know how free we can be, and how valuable action is. I think I'd say that envy is what greed evolves into when action is either discounted (out of bona fide ignorance) or ignored outright (this would be willful).

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