The Pie Is Only How Big?

Since our previous dog’s sudden death, we have had a giant trash bag tucked in a corner of my husband’s office, stuffed full of Louie’s toys. It was intended for the animal shelter but, true to form, we wound up with another pup rather quickly. Afraid castoffs would hurt his feelings, I bought new toys. But Willie is young and high-spirited, and I had not bought enough toys (were there enough in the universe?) to sop up that excess energy. Desperate for a distraction, I dipped into the bag.

Soon it was a ritual. Time for a new toy? Let us go to the Toy Bag! One day Willie stood close and peered inside, so I let him choose. We did this once every couple of weeks. The rest of the time, the bag sat out (my husband does not mind a little clutter). Willie could easily have raided it at any point, but he never did.

Then I forgot, and a month passed without a trip to the Toy Bag. Finally, Willie walked over there, stared fixedly at the bag, looked back at me, waited.

My hunch? If there had been only three toys in that bag, he would have grabbed them all as soon as I let him choose. If we never gave him toys, he might have stolen one from the bag. Abundance and trust calm us.

I thought about that bag of toys when I turned on the radio and heard a panicked white rant about people of color taking over—the speaker’s assumption being that people of color would treat whites as unfairly as whites had treated them. “The pie is only so big!” he exclaimed.

I envision pies floating all over the world, contained in their foil circles, knives hovering above them ready to cut the rest of us out. This is called “scarcity thinking”—I first learned about it years ago, in a theology class of all places, and the antidote was abundance. Remember the loaves and fishes? The wine at Cana? There will be plenty, if we share.

Scarcity thinking sends us in the opposite direction. All one can think about is what one lacks, wants, might lose, must hang on to. Decision-making is skewed by fear. A Harvard prof compared the thinking of sugarcane farmers right after harvest, when cash was abundant, and just before harvest, when it was scarce. In abundance, the farmers had impulse control. In scarcity, they reasoned rashly, as though sleep-deprived. Scarcity is present-tense and grasping and combative—think Social Darwinism. There is no space to plan for a shared future.

I know the feeling all too well. Whenever I am worried about jobs, money, bills, I snap at the poor people calling to raise money for causes beloved to me, skimp on presents, order the cheapest thing on the menu and look daggers at the friend who orders double and then says breezily, “Let’s just split it,” as though proving herself above all niggling pettiness. I hate who I become. But it is hard to fight fear.

Back in 2002, more than three-fourths of Americans believed they could get ahead by working hard—a confidence that is beginning to look misplaced. A Deloitte poll found 64 percent of millennials predicting that they will be worse off financially than their parents. President Trump’s solution is to redefine poverty, so there are fewer poor people. (Sort of like not testing lowers the number of COVID-19 cases).

Money is not all that feels scarce. For years, environmentalists have been warning that we are running out of energy, water, clean air, fertile soil, time. Were the people who pooh-poohed those warnings affected more than they knew? Did the drip drip drip of warning seep under their defenses, causing such terror that instead of flying into constructive action, they took refuge in denial or lashed out?

Or am I overthinking this, and it was just too costly and bothersome to take action? We live in an economic system that promised Adam Smith’s “wealth of nations”: Nothing would run out, and we could create revenue until the cows came home.

Now the cows are mooing at the door. Demographics are shifting, pension plans are emptying out, old drivers of profit are collapsing, and what we have done to our planet slaps us daily.

Capitalism is still strong, mind you. Companies are looking for fresh resources on other planets and asteroids. The top 0.1 percent (holding a fifth of the nation’s wealth, double what it held four decades ago) and the largest corporations will always have what they need and want, because they own the pie.

In his new book, The System, Robert Reich accuses this economic oligarchy of undermining democracy. Democrats ignored the working class (he watched it happen) and let their share of the pie shrink. “Conditions of scarcity magnify and intensify the conflicts underlying polarization,” notes economist Thomas Edsall, author of The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics.

When I listen to Trump supporters terrified of anyone darker than white, I wonder: Would at least some of this hysteria be soothed by a sense of abundance, a sense that there was enough money and opportunity for all of us? A return to the land of plenty, to America as the new Eden? (Is that what they mean by “Make American Great Again”?)

This hope sounds naïve. I do know that this country grew wealthy with slavery and this history has never been repaired, only compounded. I also know there are people suckled in race hate, people with a psychological need to stoke it. But are there people who would let that go if they felt sure there was ample opportunity for all of us?

Human beings (and dogs) behave better when they are calm, and they are calm when they know there is enough. The cool truth beneath all the seething anger is that wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Rather than fix that, Americans have decided to scrap amongst themselves for what is left. The enemy is not the few who own the pie but the rivals who want a piece. And color is the easiest way to pick sides for the fight.

How does the fear of scarcity play out in politics? Researchers found that the brains of young people who identify as conservatives tend to have larger amygdalae—the structure that orchestrates our emotional response to fear. That response can translate into a desire for order, clear authority, firm rules, security, and predictability. It can also translate into an intolerance of uncertainty, diversity, and change.

To those findings, Jon Haidt and Jesse Graham add that morally, conservatives are more concerned with family, patriotism, and loyalty to one’s group, while liberals are more concerned with individual freedom, empathy for those who are different, and justice for all.

“Why do these sets of values, all noble, have to compete?” I want to wail. Because when it comes to funding and legislation, you have to set priorities, and—you guessed it—the pie is only so big.

All over the world, there is a sense of scarcity and uncertainty, and conservative nationalists have been galvanized (witness Brexit). Those on the left are bemused by the vehemence of this fear, horrified when it morphs into rage and hate. All of us are fleeing to our separate enclaves, places of sameness that feel supportive and safe.

Short of the planet winning the lottery, it is hard to see what could shift this mindset. The now very real possibility of new resources from other planets has not cracked the conversation. In using old, worn, scientifically groundless racial biases to pit people without money against one another, scarcity plays into the hands of those who control the largest chunk of the planet’s wealth.

And we cannot trust them to dip into the Toy Bag.