Positional Concerns in the Big Apple

Are those who are concerned about inequality really members of the “radical malcontent left?” Turns out that some of our most prosperous citizens are also affected. As David Lat at Above the Law notes, some lawyers in NYC are tired of being vastly outclassed earnings-wise by bankers–and may be happy to see a Wall Street meltdown. Lat wonders if “lawyers [will] move up a notch or two in the Gotham caste system thanks to the recession?” The NYT reports on “fantasies of New York returning to a pre-Gilded Age, before the average Manhattan apartment cost $1.4 million, SAT tutors charged $500 an hour and dinner entrees crossed the $40 threshold.”

It may seem absurd to take this kind of “relative deprivation” seriously. Nevertheless, we may be hard-wired to object to economic arrangements that grant some people vastly more than they appear to deserve–even if everyone generally is doing all right. Here’s some evidence for that proposition, which a perceptive commenter made earlier to me:

[H]uman behavior is not solely driven by material outcome; fairness and equity matter as well. In a recent neuroimaging study, fair offers led to higher happiness ratings and increased activity in several reward regions of the brain compared with unfair offers of equal monetary value. Other neuroimaging studies have similarly shown activation in reward regions in response to cooperative partners or cooperative play.

I’m not a huge fan of brain studies, but I just offer this up for anyone who is. As Geraldine Fabrikant has reported, even the rich feel some resentment when the super-rich leave them in the dust.

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