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Scientists Bust the Top One Percent

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Ever since the Occupy Wall Street movement began last fall, we have been hearing the incessant mantra of:  Don’t blame the rich for wealth inequality.  In fact, Herman Cain’s futile bid for the Presidency was based (in part) on that very theme.  Last January, James Q. Wilson (who passed away on Friday) wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post entitled, “Angry about inequality?  Don’t blame the rich”.  Paul Buchheit of the Common Dreams blog rebutted Wilson’s essay with this posting:  “So say the rich:  ‘Don’t blame us for having all the money!’ ”.  How often have you read and heard arguments from apologists for the Wall Street banksters, upbraiding those who dared speak ill of those sanctified “job creators” within the top one percent of America’s economic strata?

Finally, a group of scientists has intervened by conducting some research about the ethics of those at the top of America’s socioeconomic food chain.  Stéphane Côté, PhD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, worked with a team of four psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley to conduct seven studies on this subject.  Their paper, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” was published in the February 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  Here is the abstract:

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals.  In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals.  In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.  Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

The impact and the timing of this article, with respect to the current debate over income inequality, have resulted in quite a bit of interesting commentary.  I enjoyed the perspective of Peter Dorman at the Econospeak blog:

The tone of the first wave of commentary, as far as I can tell, is that we knew it all along – rich people are nasty.  I would like to put in a word, however, for the other direction of causality, that dishonesty and putting one’s own interests ahead of others are conducive to wealth.

*   *   *

The reason I bring this up is because there is a constant background murmur in our society that says that greater wealth has to be a reward for more talent, more effort or more contribution to society.

Most of the commentary written about the PNAS article has been relatively non-partisan.  Two-day access for reading the article on-line will cost you ten bucks.  For those of us who can’t afford that (as well as for those who can afford it – but are too greedy to pay for anything) I have assembled a number of excerpts from articles written by those who actually read the entire scientific paper.  The following passages will provide you with some interesting details about the research conducted by this group.

Christopher Shea of The Wall Street Journal gave us a brief peek at some of the specific findings of the studies conducted by this team.

It went so far as to show that higher-class people will literally take candy from the mouths of children.

An excerpt quoted by Shea illustrated how the group expanded on an observation made by French sociologist Émile Durkheim:

 “From the top to the bottom of the ladder, greed is aroused,” Durkheim famously wrote.  Although greed may indeed be a motivation all people have felt at points in their lives, we argue that greed motives are not equally prevalent across all social strata.

Brandon Keim of Wired offered us more research data from the article, while focusing on the observations of team member Paul Piff, a Berkeley psychologist:

“This work is important because it suggests that people often act unethically not because they are desperate and in the dumps, but because they feel entitled and want to get ahead,” said evolutionary psychologist and consumer researcher Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota, who was not involved in the work.  “I am especially impressed that the findings are consistent across seven different studies with varied methodologies.  This work is not just good science, but it is shows deeper insight into the reasons why people lie, cheat, and steal.”

According to Piff, unethical behavior in the study was driven both by greed, which makes people less empathic, and the nature of wealth in a highly stratified society.  It insulates people from the consequences of their actions, reduces their need for social connections and fuels feelings of entitlement, all of which become self-reinforcing cultural norms.

“When pursuit of self-interest is allowed to run unchecked, it can lead to socially pernicious outcomes,” said Piff, who noted that the findings are not politically partisan.  “The same rules apply to liberals and conservatives.  We always control for political persuasion,” he said.

For Thomas B. Edsall of The New York Times, the research performed by this group helped explain the rationale behind a bit of Republican campaign strategy:

Republicans recognize the political usefulness of objectification, capitalizing on “compassion fatigue,” or the exhaustion of empathy, among large swathes of the electorate who are already stressed by the economic collapse of 2008, high levels of unemployment, an epidemic of foreclosures, stagnant wages and a hyper-competitive business arena.

Compassion fatigue was fully evident in Rick Santelli’s 2009 rant on CNBC denouncing a federal plan to prop up “losers’ mortgages” at taxpayer expense, a rant that helped spark the formation of the Tea Party.  Republican debates provided further evidence of compassion fatigue when audiences cheered the record-setting use of the death penalty in Texas and applauded the prospect of a gravely ill pauper who, unable to pay medical fees, was allowed to die.

Jonathan Gitlin of Ars Technica reported on some of the juicy details from a few experiments.  When reading about my favorite experiment, keep in mind that the term “SES” refers to socioeconomic status.

Study number four involved participants rating themselves on the SES scale to heighten their perception of status; they were then answered a number of questions relating to unethical behavior.  At the end of the experiment, they were presented with a jar of individually wrapped candy and told that, although it was for children in a nearby lab, they could take some if they wanted.  At this point you might be able to guess what the results were.  High SES participants took more candy.

Gitlin concluded his review of the paper with this thought:

The researchers argue that “the pursuit of self-interest is a more fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing.”  However, they point out that their findings aren’t absolute, and that philanthropic efforts such as those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet buck the observed trend, as does research which has shown a relationship between poverty and violent crime.

Meanwhile, the debate over economic inequality continues to rage on through the 2012 election cycle.  It will be interesting to observe whether this scientific report is exploited to bolster the argument that most of the one-percenters suffer from a character flaw, which not only got them where they are today – but which is shared by their kleptocratic comrades, who have facilitated a system of legalized predation.


 

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Where Obama Went Wrong

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September 27, 2010

One could write an 800-page book on this subject.  During the past week, we’ve been bombarded with explanations from across the political spectrum, concerning how President Obama has gone from wildly-popular cult hero to radioactive force on the 2010 campaign trail.  For many Democrats facing re-election bids in November, the presence of Obama at one of their campaign rallies could be reminiscent of the appearance of William Macy’s character from the movie, The Cooler.  Wikipedia’s discussion of the film provided this definition:

In gambling parlance, a “cooler” is an unlucky individual whose presence at the tables results in a streak of bad luck for the other players.

Barack Obama was elected on a wave of emotion, under the banners of  “Hope” and “Change”.  These days, the emotion consensus has turned against Obama as voters feel more hopeless as a result of Obama’s failure to change anything.  His ardent supporters feel as though they have been duped.  Instead of having been tricked into voting for a “secret Muslim”, they feel they have elected a “secret Republican”.  At the Salon.com website, Glenn Greenwald has documented no less than fifteen examples of Obama’s continuation of the policies of George W. Bush, in breach of his own campaign promises.

One key area of well-deserved outrage against President Obama’s performance concerns the economy.  The disappointment about this issue was widely articulated in December of 2009, as I pointed out here.  At that time, Matt Taibbi had written an essay for Rolling Stone entitled, “Obama’s Big Sellout”, which inspired such commentators as Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns to write this and this.  Beyond the justified criticism, polling by Pew Research has revealed that 46% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans incorrectly believe that the TARP bank bailout was signed into law by Barack Obama rather than George W. Bush.  President Obama invited this confusion with his nomination of “Turbo” Tim Geithner to the position of Treasury Secretary.  As President of the Federal Reserve of New York, Geithner oversaw the $13 billion gift Goldman Sachs received by way of Maiden Lane III.

The emotional battleground of the 2010 elections provided some fun for conservative pundit, Peggy Noonan this week as a result of the highly-publicized moment at the CNBC town hall meeting on September 20.  Velma Hart’s question to the President was emblematic of the plight experienced by many 2008 Obama supporters.  Noonan’s article, “The Enraged vs. The Exhausted” characterized the 2010 elections as a battle between those two emotional factions.  The “Velma Moment” exposed Obama’s political vulnerability as an aloof leader, lacking the ability to emotionally connect with his supporters:

The president looked relieved when she stood.  Perhaps he thought she might lob a sympathetic question that would allow him to hit a reply out of the park.  Instead, and in the nicest possible way, Velma Hart lobbed a hand grenade.

“I’m a mother. I’m a wife.  I’m an American veteran, and I’m one of your middle-class Americans.  And quite frankly I’m exhausted.  I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are.”  She said, “The financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family.”  She said, “My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives.  But, quite frankly, it is starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we are headed.”

What a testimony.  And this is the president’s base.  He got that look public figures adopt when they know they just took one right in the chops on national TV and cannot show their dismay.  He could have responded with an engagement and conviction equal to the moment.  But this was our president  — calm, detached, even-keeled to the point of insensate.  He offered a recital of his administration’s achievements: tuition assistance, health care.  It seemed so off point.  Like his first two years.

Kirsten Powers of The Daily Beast provided the best analysis of how the “Velma Moment” illustrated Obama’s lack of empathy.  Where Bill Clinton is The Sorcerer, Barack Obama is The Apprentice:

Does Barack Obama suffer from an “empathy deficit?” Ironically, it was Obama who used the phrase in a 2008 speech when he diagnosed the United States as suffering from the disorder.  In a plea for unity, candidate Obama said lack of empathy was “the essential deficit that exists in this country.”  He defined it as “an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

*   *   *

And at a 2008 rally in Westerville, Ohio, Obama said, “One of the values that I think men in particular have to pass on is the value of empathy.  Not sympathy, empathy.  And what that means is standing in somebody else’s shoes, being able to look through their eyes.  You know, sometimes we get so caught up in ‘us’ that it’s hard to see that there are other people and that your behavior has an impact on them.”

Yes, President Obama, sometimes that does happen.  Take a look in the mirror.  Nothing brought this problem into relief like the two Obama supporters who confronted the president at a recent town hall meeting expressing total despair over their economic situation and hopelessness about the future.  Rather than expressing empathy, Obama seemed annoyed and proceeded with one of his unhelpful lectures.

*   *   *

One former Emoter-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, told Politico last week, “[Obama’s] being criticized for being too disengaged, for not caring.  So he needs to turn into it.  I may be one of the few people that think it’s not bad that that lady said she was getting tired of defending him.  He needs to hear it.  You need to hear. Embrace people’s anger, including their disappointment at you.  And just ask ‘em to not let the anger cloud their judgment.  Let it concentrate their judgment.  And then make your case.”

Then the kicker:  “[Obama has] got to realize that, in the end, it’s not about him. It’s about the American people, and they’re hurting.”

The American people are hurting because their President sold them out immediately after he was elected.  When faced with the choice of bailing out the zombie banks or putting those banks through temporary receivership (the “Swedish approach” – wherein the bank shareholders and bondholders would take financial “haircuts”) Obama chose to bail out the banks at taxpayer expense.  So here we are  . . .  in a Japanese-style “lost decade”.  In case you don’t remember the debate from early 2009 – peruse this February 10, 2009 posting from the Calculated Risk website.  After reading that, try not to cry after looking at this recent piece by Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture entitled, “We Should Have Gone Swedish  . . .” :

The result of the Swedish method?  They spent 4% of GDP ($18.3 billion in today’s dollars), to rescue their banks.  That is far less than the $trillions we have spent — somewhere between 15-20% of GDP.

Final cost to the Swedes?  Less than 2% of G.D.P.  (Some officials believe it was closer to zero, depending on how certain rates of return are calculated).

In the US, the final tally is years away from being calculated — and its likely to be many times what Sweden paid in GDP % terms.

It has become apparent that the story of  “Where Obama Went Wrong” began during the first month of his Presidency.  Whoever undertakes the task of writing that book will be busy for a long time.