Saturday, April 21, 2012

Greed leads to lie, cheat, and steal

Daisy Grewel, in an article for Scientific American reposted on Common Dreams, poses and answers the question:
Who is more likely to lie, cheat, and steal—the poor person or the rich one?
After watching what our economy has been doing for the last decade I'm not surprised her answer is the rich one. She then proceeds to cite various studies to support that answer. Drivers of expensive cars were more likely to cut off other drivers or whiz past pedestrians on a crosswalk. Test subjects who went through an exercise that compared them as superior to others took more of a jar of candy. The richer a person is the less likely he or she is to show compassion.

But why? Wouldn't a person who has lots be more willing to share?

I had heard a while back that the richer one becomes the less likely one feels the riches are deserved, so must construct narratives to prove that he or she is actually better than everyone else and really does deserve these riches. It is self-delusion and a mental illness.

Grewel doesn't go there. She puts it this way:
[Psychologist Paul] Piff and his colleagues suspect that the answer may have something to do with how wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused. Another reason has to do with our attitudes towards greed. Like Gordon Gekko, upper-class people may be more likely to endorse the idea that “greed is good.” Piff and his colleagues found that wealthier people are more likely to agree with statements that greed is justified, beneficial, and morally defensible. These attitudes ended up predicting participants’ likelihood of engaging in unethical behavior.

Given the growing income inequality in the United States, the relationship between wealth and compassion has important implications. Those who hold most of the power in this country, political and otherwise, tend to come from privileged backgrounds. If social class influences how much we care about others, then the most powerful among us may be the least likely to make decisions that help the needy and the poor. They may also be the most likely to engage in unethical behavior. Keltner and Piff recently speculated in the New York Times about how their research helps explain why Goldman Sachs and other high-powered financial corporations are breeding grounds for greedy behavior. Although greed is a universal human emotion, it may have the strongest pull over those of who already have the most.

Paul Buchheit, writing for Common Dreams, gives five reasons why the 1% haven't earned their money.

* The middle class workers have tripled productivity since 1980. Their pay has remained flat. The 1% has tripled its share of income.

* The 1% hasn't earned that money through top-notch management. They have mismanaged key industries. Our health care is the most expensive. Banks needed bailout. They are heavy polluters. They are sitting on cash while millions are unemployed. College tuition and student loans are at record levels. Even underperforming companies give huge bonuses to their bosses.

* They have built their fortunes on public research. For example, computer chips and the Internet were developed with public research dollars.

* Their income is high because their taxes are low.

* They show little regard for the majority of Americans who depend on sound financial management for their own economic security.

This goes beyond fraud into the realms of human rights and environmental abuse.

Michael Sandel has written the book What Money Can't Buy. Michael Fitzgerald reviewed it for Newsweek. The basic idea is that economic solutions have been pushed for so many things that we now use economics to answer questions that markets were not meant to answer. It is an impoverished way of looking at the world and displaces human values.

An example Sandel uses is the University of Michigan Stadium. It was renovated a couple years ago and skyboxes were added. Before then, everyone -- rich and poor -- sat on those narrow benches and cheered or groaned together. Those skybox people no longer share a common life and a common purpose and are less invested in democracy.

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