Mitt Romney and 'Envy' Versus 'Greed'

Unemployed malcontents shouldn't be written off as simply "envious."

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The 2012 presidential race is shaping up as a battle not just between candidates, but over which of the Seven Deadly Sins is most offensive to voters.

On the one side, we have envy, which GOP front-runner former Gov. Mitt Romney identified as a distasteful by-product of income inequality—or, Republicans argue, the "class warfare" provoked by Democrats. The United States "already has a leader who divides us by the bitter politics of envy," Romney said after winning the New Hampshire primary. The line was obviously meant to undermine Obama's 2008 pledge to bring people together, as well as to cast restless middle-class and poor people as possessing un-mannerly envy.

[ Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]

On the other side, however, we have greed, and that is a Deadly Sin that may haunt the eventual Republican nominee. The Occupy Wall Street movement may be dismissed (unfairly) by some as a bunch of Starbucks-sucking, whiny kids who won't look for jobs, but it is undeniably true that a broad swath of Americans is getting more than a little resentful at the fact that the very wealthy have come through the recession quite profitably, while the low-and-middle income workers are still struggling. Many of those who managed to keep their jobs are working at lower pay and reduced benefits, further aggravating the situation.

[See pictures of Occupy Wall Street protests.]

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, about two-thirds of the public now believes there are strong conflicts between the rich and poor. The percentage has grown by 19 points since 2009, suggesting that voters are growing far more aware of the economic division as the election approaches. The Pew report notes, even more notably:

…in the public's evaluations of divisions within American society, conflicts between rich and poor now rank ahead of three other potential sources of group tension -- between immigrants and the native born; between blacks and whites; and between young and old. Back in 2009, more survey respondents said there were strong conflicts between immigrants and the native born than said the same about the rich and the poor.

How much political capital can a candidate gain by dismissing the unemployed malcontents as immorally envious? It's a risk, especially this year.

[ Read about 7 groups with reason to protest.]

We all feel envious sometimes, and most of us are not proud of it (which is a good thing, since pride is another one of the Seven Deadly Sins). But that sort of envy comes from feeling ungraciously jealous when a friend gets a promotion or a new car or a charming boyfriend. Feeling resentful of Wall Street investors and bankers who made terrible economic decisions that affected the entire national economy—then continued to be extremely well compensated despite the failures—is not jealousy. It's a reaction to what many Americans see as a basic question of fairness.

Americans are aspirational; this is why even those who will never in their lives amass $1 million still oppose the estate tax. And there is a strong sense in this country, among liberals and conservatives alike, that enterprise and creativity should be rewarded, financially and otherwise. What gets missed in the silly verbal jousting, in which President Obama has been declared a "socialist" and enemy of free enterprise, is that Wall Street itself wasn't willing to submit to the uncertainty of capitalism. They wanted to privatize the profits. But they wanted to socialize the risk. And it was 401K holders and middle-class workers who bore the brunt of that bad risk.

[ Read the U.S. News debate: Is Occupy Wall Street the Next Tea Party?]

There was a time when Americans could chuckle good-naturedly at the line in the movie Wall Street that "Greed is good," and even agree with it, somewhat. But that was when envy was about who had the bigger car. The enviers now are the ones who have no health insurance and are losing their houses to foreclosure. And they vote.