Income Disparity and Effective Living

Thursday, January 12, 2017
Guilin, China

Dearest Readers,

While hiding out here in South China between lectures about psychoanalysis, the World Bank Forum met and delivered an unsurprising conclusion regarding populism. Its spokesperson said these far right movements, characterized by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, result, in part, from the growing inequality between the rich and the poor. Never having had a single course in economics, I thought perhaps this problem was limited to the richer companies. I am wrong. It is a global problem, and one significantly affecting individual minds.

Many people consult psychoanalysts, or any kind of depth psychotherapist, due to a bona fide mental disorder like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or a psychotic disorder. Others seek help for much broader reasons: problems with intimacy, existential concerns like death or meaning, or simply a desire to learn more about their inner lives. All of these persons, however, are affected by economic conditions. If they are poor, they are unlikely to obtain any kind of assistance, whether of the talk therapy variety or the psychotropic medication one. Financial status forms but one of the many complex, dynamic, and interacting factors affecting state of mind, e.g. cultural, biological, environmental, etc.

I thought it a recent idea, but apparently as early as the 18th century an economist suggested the idea of “rent,” or income by virtue of citizenship, as a way to offer citizens of any nation with a guaranteed basic income. Switzerland was the first country in the history of humanity to vote for such a measure. Their citizens voted against it last June 2016. It was soundly defeated with 77 percent of voters opposing it and 23 percent supporting it.

Again, having practiced psychoanalytic psychotherapy for more than 30 years, I can hardly claim expertise in economics. Nonetheless, the idea of rent sounds like an excellent one. Extensive discussion would be required to decide on the amount in any given nation. A recent article in The Economist suggested a basic income of just around $1200 if such a measure were considered in the United States. In other words, simply by being a citizen of the US, you would receive this basic income amount.

The arguments for such a form of income are numerous. It would eliminate, and therefore simplify, the many social service entitlements like welfare, food stamps, and the like. Although some persons will end up homeless regardless of the basic income, many homeless people would be able to afford low-income housing. Surprisingly, it would also feed capitalism. Even the poorest individuals would have at least a basic income to spend on housing, groceries, and other necessities, pouring additional funds into the financial system. Some suggest it would also reduce some types of crime, i.e. burglaries.

The primary arguments against it are two fold. First, it would of necessity require a tax increase on all Americans to provide the funds to pay for the benefit. Second, some persons might be dissuaded from working because they would receive this foundational income from their governments. Neither of these make sense to me. The actual tax increase to support such rent would be minimal, because the taxes used to pay for the various social entitlements just noted would vanish. The second argument seems ridiculous. Societies will always have fringe groups either unable or unwilling to work. Why make them compete in a capitalist system? Why not provide them an income that, in truth, renders them essentially living at or below the poverty line, but nonetheless gives them something.

Particularly if combined with a more comprehensive health care delivery system, rent would also allow economically disadvantaged individuals to receive psychoanalytic psychotherapy services much more readily. In Pasadena, for example, Rose City Center offers unlimited sessions of this form of psychotherapy at fees ranging from $35 to $80 per session — based on ability to pay. Even more importantly, innumerable social problems could be addressed by provision of such a basic income to all citizens which would, in turn, contribute to persons living more comfortable lives. It could free them, with or without such professional services, more freedom for self-discovery and self-actualization.

Why would such thoughts come to my mind from mainland China? Firstly, the news about the World Bank forum emerged while I was on this trip. Secondly, I have come to learn, to my surprise, that China has, in many ways, a more competitive and intense capitalistic system than the US. The Communist Party still exists. The government has but one party — that one. But the citizens work for salaries, private or public, purchase their own goods and services, and the social services, such as free medical care, seem rather limited. How ironic that “The New China,” founded in 1949 by Chairman Mao, has evolved into a less socialist system than we have in the US.

At the risk of becoming endlessly repetitive, I often stress the relationship between depth psychotherapy and personal freedom in this blog. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy provides one of the only professional services oriented towards helping persons attain increased maturity, agency, and autonomy. The profession cannot be separated from the political. Its services are always offered in contexts — familial, occupational, academic, and broader political ones. Therefore, rather than tangential, I consider these reflections on the concept of rent, and its potential enhancement of persons’ life experiences, as extremely relevant.

Submitted with great appreciation for your attention on this cold, rainy South China night,


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