Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, February 28, 2012 8:45 pm

A statement, a challenge, a prophecy


Even with the most basic scientific caveat — it’s just one study — this probably seems intuitive to a lot of people:

The rich really are different from the rest of us, scientists have found — they are more apt to commit unethical acts because they are more motivated by greed.

People driving expensive cars were more likely than other motorists to cut off drivers and pedestrians at a four-way-stop intersection in the San Francisco Bay Area, UC Berkeley researchers observed. Those findings led to a series of experiments that revealed that people of higher socioeconomic status were also more likely to cheat to win a prize, take candy from children and say they would pocket extra change handed to them in error rather than give it back.

Because rich people have more financial resources, they’re less dependent on social bonds for survival, the Berkeley researchers reported Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As a result, their self-interest reigns and they have fewer qualms about breaking the rules.

“If you occupy a more insular world, you’re less likely to be sensitive to the needs of others,” said study lead author Paul Piff, who is studying for a doctorate in psychology.

But before those in the so-called 99% start feeling ethically superior, consider this: Piff and his colleagues also discovered that anyone’s ethical standards could be prone to slip if they suddenly won the lottery and joined the top 1%.

“There is a strong notion that when people don’t have much, they’re really looking out for themselves and they might act unethically,” said Scott Wiltermuth, who researches social status at USC’s Marshall School of Business and wasn’t involved in the study. “But actually, it’s the upper-class people that are less likely to see that people around them need help — and therefore act unethically.”

Some of the comments unintentionally reinforce the researchers’ arguments, too, such as this one time-stamped 8:41 a.m. today:

Unlike the illegal Mexicans who sell oranges on street corners rich people actually have somewhere to go. There’s a sense of urgency in their lives, a plan, some sort of schedule. I find that the people with the slowest brains are generally the slowest drivers and walkers. Doing the California roll at a stop sign usually happens when the less motivated, lazier drivers can’t decide what to do.

Wow. Just … wow. The possibility that the California roller’s GPS might have just gone on the fritz doesn’t even occur to this commenter. [/irony]

This finding, if it holds up, has implications for the growing wealth and income inequality in the U.S., where the top 0.1% and .01% are putting distance between themselves and the rest of us at an accelerating rate. Even people who don’t believe that inequality is, in and of itself, bad suggest that growing inequality may mean that the rules are being enforced differently depending on how much money you make or political power you hold — an impression reinforced by the vast number of war criminals and fraud-committing economy-destroyers who haven’t seen so much as a subpoena, let alone the inside of a cell.

But these findings — again, subject to confirmation — suggest something even more insidious: Great wealth isn’t just a symptom, it may also be a cause. This research suggests that having more makes one want more still while blinding one to the needs of others. And that, in turn, undermines one of the greatest stories we Americans tell ourselves about ourselves: that all of us are created equal.

Although I thought the 2008 election presented Barack Obama with a Rooseveltian opportunity, I was not under the illusion that he would be another Roosevelt. I contented myself with the reality that he merely was not another George W. Bush or John McCain. That has helped, but it hasn’t been enough — and lately, at long last, Obama himself seems to be realizing it. Consider this speech he gave today to the United Auto Workers, one in which he gave the four remaining GOP presidential candidates a righteous hiding:

“You want to talk about values?” he asked. “Hard work — that’s a value. Looking out for one another — that’s a value. The idea that we’re all in it together — that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that is a value.”

He continued: “But they’re still talking about you as if you’re some greedy special interest that needs to be beaten. Since when are hardworking men and women special interests? Since when is the idea that we look out for each other a bad thing?”

Memo to the wingnuts: There are many worse things in the world than the United Auto Workers, and in the past 30 years we’ve been confronted with them damn near daily. Jesus, in that book the Dominionists among you claim to love so much but instead have turned into just one more idol, said we’re to look after one another. He meant everyone, everywhere. I’d be happy if, in the actuarially remaining lifespan I have, we just started doing it consistently here in the U.S.A.

America: It was a really good idea. And it can be once again.

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