Plutocracy’s moral essence

On October 27, 2017, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By William C. Shelton

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)

I once worked for a week as a con artist. I was thirteen years old, and I got on the crew of a man who would take us to different neighborhoods across the metropolitan area, where we sold newspaper subscriptions.

He had printed up flyers telling potential buyers that we were “earning” our football uniforms, which would be given to us if we sold enough subscriptions. In fact, we were to be paid cash every week from the previous week’s take.

Each day I felt a growing sense of shame about the lying. It intensified on the last day when, behind quota, the boss took us to a neighborhood as poor as my own. I realized that I had been seeing a pattern all week. The more affluent the neighborhood, the less willing its residents were to listen to our pitch and help us out. I ended up feeling so much disgust and guilt that I didn’t go back the next week—and so didn’t collect my “earnings.”

Time passed, and I learned to drive. I began to notice that drivers who flaunted traffic laws and cut me off in traffic disproportionately drove the most expensive cars.

In business school, I noticed that the students from the wealthiest backgrounds were most likely to be indifferent to harm the corporations we studied did to workers, communities, and the planet.

Today, there is a large and growing body of research confirming that I was not just imagining these patterns. It provides evidence of what moral leaders have been telling us for two and a half millennia:  wealth corrupts morality.

The Buddha famously had to walk away from his wealth and princely prerogatives to achieve enlightenment. He was set on this path through contact with the poor.

Among the many things that Confucius said about wealth is this: “When wealth is centralized, the people are dispersed. When wealth is distributed, the people are brought together.”

For the ancient Greeks, honor came from public service and the pursuit of excellence. The pursuit of wealth for its own sake was unworthy, diminished people, and corrupted virtue. Tacitus and other Roman historians thought that imperial greed was an essential cause of the empire’s downfall.

Jesus also had some things to say about the wealthy. Most well-known is, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” And Muhammed taught that giving away one’s wealth was the source of true prosperity.

Clinical and social science research is now bearing out these moral injunctions. Take, for example, my perception regarding scofflaw drivers.

Using video recordings, a University of California research team led by Paul Piff found that drivers of luxury cars were four times more likely to cut off other drivers than those driving inexpensive cars. And fully half the luxury car drivers drove through intersections with pedestrians in them.

Piff’s team published these results, and those of five other experiments, in a National Academy of Sciences article entitled Higher social class predicts unethical social behavior.  In one experiment, wealthier participants were twice as likely as poorer participants to steal candy from a bowl they were told was set aside for children.

In another, participants were told that those with the highest dice rolls would win $50 in cash. People making $150,000 per year were four times as likely to lie about their results as those making $15,000 per year.

And wealthier subjects were more likely to lie in simulated negotiations and to approve of stealing at work.

It seems that the rich are not only deficient in morality, but, inextricably, in empathy and compassion as well. This is not just inferred from such evidence as the  National Center for Charitable Statistics’ finding that households earning less than $50,000 per year give a 60% higher proportion of their income to charity than those earning $200,000 to $250,000.

It comes from clinical experiments. University of Toronto researchers showed subjects videos of child cancer patients. Lower-income viewers more powerfully manifested the physiological responses associated with compassion than did higher-income subjects.

University of North Carolina researchers used MRI technology to actually record the brain activity of subjects viewing photos of human faces and hearing their personal stories. The region of the brain associated with empathy was much less active for wealthier subjects that for poorer subjects.

And researchers at Yale found that lower-income subjects were much better at empathic accuracy, that is, reading others’ emotions in real time.

The absence of empathy is an essential characteristic of psychopaths. Indeed, a German experiment in which stock market traders participated in the same computer simulation as psychopaths in high-security hospitals found that the stock traders’ behavior was “more reckless and manipulative” than the psychopaths’.

Other studies find that higher income people are more likely to shoplift, commit adultery, and indulge in a range of vices. But you get the idea.

Add to all these studies what Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton found out when he asked multimillionaires and billionaires how much more money they would need to be happier. “All said that they needed two to three times more than they had to feel happier.”

Add to that the finding that the wealthy tend to believe that they enjoy their superior status because they are innately superior and were born that way.

Now put it all in the context of ever increasing inequality, moving toward plutocracy. This trend has taken us from a political economy in which the poor and middle class saw the largest income growth before Ronald Reagan took office, to the polar opposite today.

Add to that context a billionaire president who embodies all these traits, who cheats his contractors and business partners, runs cons like Trump University, lies whenever he’s not reading from a teleprompter, seeks to humiliate anyone who disagrees with him, and brags about sexually assaulting women.

If wealth makes people less empathetic and less moral while they remain certain of their own virtue, what help with making a better world can we expect from those who have the most power and resources to accomplish it? And what should we do about that?


2 Responses to “Plutocracy’s moral essence”

  1. Scott Hayman says:

    Right on Bill. Couldn’t agree more. My father worked for the Salvation Army (he was not a Salvationist, but a civilian employee/social worker). I used to help him set up all the bell ringer/Christmas Kettle spots all over Central and Western MA. I spent hours watching people exit grocery stores and department stores. Almost without variance, people with less money put more money, more frequently into the Christmas Kettles than people with more money by a long shot.

  2. ritepride says:

    a friends daughter worked at a Friendly’s near NH border. A NH family came in weekly and always left a good ($3-5) tip. After they won MA Lotto they came in and left a 50 cent tip. She gave it back to them and said they need it more than her. Dem dat has getz! Let us hope in the end that family really gets it back.

    Knew another person who over period of years showed her boss how to get federal grant money and electrical power rebates, plus other ways to make more $$ for the company. What did this person get back… a layoff notice even though there were many more employees with less seniority.

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