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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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Government Should Listen To These Wealth Managers

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A good deal of Mitt Romney’s appeal as a Presidential candidate is based on his experience as a private equity fund manager – despite the “vulture capitalist” moniker, favored by some of his critics.  Many voters believe that America needs someone with more “business sense” in the White House.  Listening to Mitt Romney would lead one to believe that America’s economic and unemployment problems will not be solved until “government gets out of the way”, allowing those sanctified “job creators” to bring salvation to the unemployed masses.  Those who complained about how the system has been rigged against the American middle class during the past few decades have found themselves accused of waging “class warfare”.  We are supposed to believe that Romney speaks on behalf of “business” when he lashes out against “troublesome” government regulations which hurt the corporate bottom line and therefore – all of America.

Nevertheless, the real world happens to be the home of many wealth managers – entrusted with enormous amounts of money by a good number of rich people and institutional investors – who envision quite a different role of government than the mere nuisance described by Romney and like-minded individuals.  If only our elected officials – and more of the voting public – would pay close attention to the sage advice offered by these wealth managers, we might be able to solve our nation’s economic and unemployment problems.

Last summer, bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO  lamented the Obama administration’s obliviousness to the need for government involvement in short-term job creation:

Additionally and immediately, however, government must take a leading role in job creation.  Conservative or even liberal agendas that cede responsibility for job creation to the private sector over the next few years are simply dazed or perhaps crazed.  The private sector is the source of long-term job creation but in the short term, no rational observer can believe that global or even small businesses will invest here when the labor over there is so much cheaper.  That is why trillions of dollars of corporate cash rest impotently on balance sheets awaiting global – non-U.S. – investment opportunities.  Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace.

*   *   *

In the near term, then, we should not rely solely on job or corporate-directed payroll tax credits because corporations may not take enough of that bait, and they’re sitting pretty as it is.  Government must step up to the plate, as it should have in early 2009.

In my last posting, I discussed a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian emphasized that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

On October 31, I focused on the propaganda war waged against the Occupy Wall Street movement, concluding the piece with my expectation that Jeremy Grantham’s upcoming third quarter newsletter would provide some sorely-needed, astute commentary on the situation.  Jeremy Grantham, rated by Bloomberg BusinessWeek as one of the Fifty Most Influential Money Managers, released an abbreviated edition of that newsletter one month later than usual, due to a busy schedule.  In addition to expressing some supportive comments about the OWS movement, Grantham noted that he would provide a special supplement, based specifically on that subject.  Finally, on February 5, Mr. Grantham made good on his promise with an opinion piece in the Financial Times entitled, “People now see it as a system for the rich only”:

For the time being, in the US our corporate and governmental system backed surprisingly by the Supreme Court has become a plutocracy, designed to prolong, protect and intensify the wealth and influence of those who already have the wealth and influence.  What the Occupy movement indicates is that a growing number of people have begun to recognise this in spite of the efficiency of capital’s propaganda machines.  Forty years of no pay increase in the US after inflation for the average hour worked should, after all, have that effect.  The propaganda is good but not that good.

*   *   *

In 50 years economic mobility in the US has gone from the best to one of the worst.  The benefits of the past 40 years of quite normal productivity have been abnormally divided between the very rich (and corporations) and the workers.

Indeed “divide” is not the right word, for, remarkably, the workers received no benefit at all, while the top 0.1 per cent has increased its share nearly fourfold in 35 years to a record equal to 1929 and the gilded age.

But the best propaganda of all is that the richest 400 people now have assets equal to the poorest 140m.  If that doesn’t disturb you, you have a wallet for a heart.  The Occupiers’ theme should be simple:  “More sensible assistance for the working poor, more taxes for the rich.”

I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  Back in November of 2010, economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the consequences of the administration’s failure to do what was necessary:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

*   *   *

As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The plutocratic tools in control of our government would never allow the stockholders and bondholders of those “too-big-to-fail” banks to suffer losses as do normal people after making bad investments.  It’s hard to imagine that Mitt Romney would take a tougher stance against those zombie banks than what we have seen from the Obama administration.

Our government officials – from across the political spectrum – would be wise to follow the advice offered by these fund managers.  A political hack whose livelihood is based entirely on passive income has little to offer in the way of “business sense” when compared to a handful of fund managers, entrusted to use their business and financial acumen to preserve so many billions of dollars.  Who speaks for business?  It should be those business leaders who demonstrate concern for the welfare of all human beings in America.


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Wealth Redistribution

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One of the sleaziest, most disingenuous arguments exploited by politicians is the “wealth redistribution” theme.  Whenever an influential corporate sponsor of some creepy politician is confronted with proposed legislation, which might change the status quo by reducing unconscionable profiteering, we are told that the new bill is a “socialist” attempt at “wealth redistribution”.  Unfortunately, there are too many sheeple who don’t realize that “wealth redistribution” already happened.

The recent uprisings in the Middle East have demonstrated how difficult it can be to maintain a plutocracy in the modern world.  As the American voting public becomes more familiar with the economic circumstances which led to the Egyptian turmoil, attention gradually gets refocused on how our domestic situation compares with Mubarak’s dystopia.  Blogger “George Washington” (a former law school professor) of Washington’s Blog recently wrote a piece concerning how the “Gini coefficient” demonstrates that America’s upward wealth redistribution has reduced this nation to banana republic status:

Egyptian, Tunisian and Yemeni protesters all say that inequality is one of the main reasons they’re protesting.

However, the U.S. actually has much greater inequality than in any of those countries.

Specifically, the “Gini Coefficient” – the figure economists use to measure inequality – is higher in the U.S.

*   *   *

Gini Coefficients are like golf – the lower the score, the better (i.e. the more equality).

According to the CIA World Fact Book, the U.S. is ranked as the 42nd most unequal country in the world, with a Gini Coefficient of 45.

In contrast:

  • Tunisia is ranked the 62nd most unequal country, with a Gini Coefficient of 40.
  • Yemen is ranked 76th most unequal, with a Gini Coefficient of 37.7.
  • And Egypt is ranked as the 90th most unequal country, with a Gini Coefficient of around 34.4.

And inequality in the U.S. has soared in the last couple of years, since the Gini Coefficient was last calculated, so it is undoubtedly currently much higher.

So why are Egyptians rioting, while the Americans are complacent?

Well, Americans – until recently – have been some of the wealthiest people in the world, with most having plenty of comforts (and/or entertainment) and more than enough to eat.

But another reason is that – as Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School demonstrate – Americans consistently underestimate the amount of inequality in our nation.

Ariely and Norton’s paper, based on their 2005 poll of 5,522 citizens about their preferences for wealth division, has been the subject of much commentary.  Last fall, Bruce Watson wrote an article for Daily Finance discussing Ariely and Norton’s report.  As Watson explained, the following empirical data compiled by Professor Edward Wolff, (and incorporated into the Ariely-Norton paper) portrayed the “real world” wealth distribution in America:

Currently, 85% of America’s wealth, which is defined as total assets minus total liabilities, is held by the country’s richest 20%.  Meanwhile the upper middle class holds 11%, the middle class has 4%, and the lower class and poor share an anemic 0.3%.

Here’s how Watson summarized the results of the Ariely-Norton research:

In the poll, the vast majority of Americans across the political, gender and wealth spectrum displayed a markedly skewed understanding of how America’s money is divided.  On average, respondents thought that the rich hold only 58% of the nation’s wealth, 32% less than their actual holdings.  They thought that the middle class controls 13% of the country’s wealth, more than three times their actual holdings.  As for the bottom 40% of the population, the assumption was that the lower class and poor own a measly 9% of the country’s wealth.  In reality, these two groups control about one thirtieth of that amount.

Who Should Get the Money?

Although the perception that America’s wealth distribution is unfair cut across partisan lines, Republicans and Democrats disagreed about the ideal distribution.  People who voted for George Bush believed that the richest 20% of the population deserved roughly 35% of the nation’s wealth.  Kerry voters radically disagreed:  they felt that the rich deserved only about 30%. When it came to the country’s poorest citizens, Bush voters felt that they deserved about 9% of the country’s assets; Kerry voters preferred to give them 12%.

Respondents making over $100,000 per year, the group most heavily skewed toward a top-heavy distribution of wealth, advocated a system in which the top 20% received about 40% of the country’s assets and the bottom 20% got roughly 7%.  Yet even this comparatively Dickensian wealth distribution still gave America’s rich less than half of their current holdings, while giving the poorest more than twenty times their current holdings.

In October of 2008, before the full extent of the Wall Street megabank bailouts had been completely understood by most Americans (and before those multi-million-dollar bonuses had been awarded to the malefactors who caused the financial crisis) the Gallup Organization conducted a poll on the subject of wealth redistribution.  This is what they observed:

A majority of Americans (58%) say money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people, although slightly less than half (46%) go so far as to say that the government should redistribute wealth by “heavy taxes on the rich.”

*   *   *

Still, in each of the four times Gallup has asked this question in recent years, between 45% and 51% of Americans have gone so far as to agree with the fairly harsh-sounding policy of “redistribut[ing] wealth by heavy taxes on the rich.”

Because the polls discussed above reveal that the current wealth distribution is unacceptable to most Americans, the “wealth redistribution” argument — as it is often used by politicians – should be a non-starter.  Perhaps a program of  “enhanced tax incentives for generosity” might enjoy more widespread acceptance than Gallup’s “heavy taxes on the rich” – to the point where an overwhelming majority of Americans would support it.

Unfortunately, unless that “overwhelming majority of Americans” has an army of lobbyists to advance such an initiative, the cash registers politicians portraying the effort as “socialism” will be the only voices that matter.


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If Joe The Plumber Knew Bill Ayers

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October 16, 2008

The final Presidential debate turned an ordinary, hard-working American into a cult hero.  Not since the introduction of Sarah Palin onto the national political scene, have we seen such an “overnight sensation”.  Once again, we have John McCain to thank.

It all started on Sunday, October 12.  Senator Barack Obama was working the crowds in the battleground state of Ohio.  While meeting the people in Holland, Ohio, the television camera crews caught an exchange between Obama and a gentleman named Joe Wurzelbacher.  On the evening of Wednesday October 15, after the debate, the Associated Press informed us that Joe had been interested in buying a plumbing business.  He was concerned about Obama’s tax plan.  Apparently, this plumbing business generated enough income to put it over Obama’s $250,000 tax threshold, although not significantly above that.  Joe would likely be getting “the worst of both worlds” under the Obama plan:  He would have to pay the 39-percent tax instead of a 36-percent tax and as a result, he might pocket a net income lower than what the business would get if that company had earned less than $250,000.  According to the Associated Press report on the conversation, the following exchange took place:

“It’s not that I want to punish your success,” Obama said.  “I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you that they’ve got a chance at success, too.”

At a later point in the discussion, Obama said:  “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.  But listen, I respect what you do and I respect your question, and even if I don’t get your vote, I’m still gonna be working hard on your behalf because small businesses are what creates jobs in this country and I want to encourage it.”

McCain seemed excited that the Obama campaign had abandoned that huge demographic of small business owners earning between $250,000 and $300,000.  His campaign finally found its target audience!  Better yet, Obama had used the expression:  “spread the wealth around”  — a catch-phrase validating the claim that “liberals” are on  a mission to redistribute the wealth.  Of course, this concern resonates only with rich people.  It has never caused America’s (now disappearing) middle class to lose any sleep.

Joe Wurzelbacher was identified during that final debate as:  “Joe The Plumber”.  He would become the archetype for those segments of the voting public, not yet ready to accept Obama as their choice for the Presidency.  If Obama wants to sweep all 50 States (and The District) in this election, he will need to win the support of “Joe The Plumber” and most of Joe’s peers.  Joe appears to be a man who is very street-wise.  He resembles the character on the label of Mister Clean, an ammonia-based cleaning solution that many of us recall from childhood.  He might not be from a big city like Chicago … but he knows how to “read” people.  We could see this during the video clip of his conversation with Obama.  After the Democrat placed his left hand on Joe’s right shoulder – Joe immediately recoiled, folding his arms over his chest.  That was some great body language!  McCain’s handlers must have loved this.  Joe saw through the “politician’s trick” of attempting to win the trust of a voter by touching that person.  Joe was not about to be “played” by a politician on national TV – Presidential candidate or not!

Poor Joe is now being set upon by a mob of bloggers, reporters and wonks.  They will be in his face from now until Election Day.  Rest assured that during the final weeks of this campaign, Obama will be presenting his case to the Joe Wurzelbachers of America.  News analysts will be dissecting the candidates’ tax plans to determine which is better for Joe.  For his part, Joe will suffer through a huge invasion of his own privacy.

In a perfect world (my imagination) the non-stop interviews would eventually turn up an interesting coincidence:  that Joe had once crossed paths with the vilified Bill Ayers (the other star of that final debate).  If only …       The press would ask Joe about this and he would say:

I worked a job about ten years ago.  I did the plumbing for a redevelopment effort in Gary, Indiana, to help the neighborhoods affected by the closing of the steel mills there.  It was called the Community Rescue Advancement Project.  We just called it “The Project”.  We couldn’t use the initials.  That Bill Ayers guy was a leader of the project.  It was a charity.  His real job was a college professor or college dean or something.  I met him a few times.  In fact, he signed the checks I got.  He didn’t really sign them himself … It was just his signature printed by a computer.  You know:  embossed – like with the little holes punched into a multi-colored signature that said: “William Ayers”.  I found out later that he was a radical from the 1960s.  They use the term “terrorists” now but we used to just call them: “Hippie Radicals”.  The first real terrorist here was the guy in Oklahoma City who blew up that Federal Building.  These hippies just fought with the police and blew off bombs that damaged equipment and stuff.  I don’t know if they really hurt anybody.  In fact, I read somewhere that all of these 60s radicals were actually working with the CIA and using police officers as guinea pigs to test riot weapons they could use to overthrow communist dictators in the banana republics and stuff.  These hippies ended up getting stock options from the companies that made these weapons – really weird stuff, you know: like mace with LSD in it  — kinky, perverted stuff like the CIA would come up with.  Anyway, these guys are all jillionaires right now.  Look at Jerry Rubin!  He’s a HUGE guy on Wall Street!  Anyway, I learned during the campaign that this Ayers guy used to be a radical.  When I met him, he didn’t seem like a hippie.  His hair was short but he did have John Lennon glasses.  I couldn’t imagine him fighting the police because he looked … you know, uhh … kinda’ gay.  Besides, he was too old to be fighting police when I met him.

Unfortunately, the real “Joe The Plumber” will probably not have any such information to share with his bothersome inquisitors.  In a perfect world, he would.  In a perfect world:  the Dow Jones would be climbing past 14,000.  In a perfect world  . . .