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Monday, December 13, 2010

The Madness of Wealth

It is a very subtle thing: when you wake in the morning and from your deepest parts ask, “With what and to whom do I most powerfully identify?”  Whether we realize it or not this is how we start each day; though usually unnoticed and pro forma.  

Examples: there was a time when I strode out my front door as a psychologist/teacher/mountaineer/lover/Colorado-American/poet.  A neighbor was a father/store manager/husband/Republican-American/little league coach.  These identities adapt over time.  When a group of people share a collection of elements they can form associations around those elements and act collectively in support of those that are seen as needing support.  In fact, challenge to these identities is one of the primary forces that motivate the forming of like-minded associations in the first place. 

Some sets of identities have been more culturally fixed than others. The rural deep-south is only slowing changing.  Suburban areas pressured by immigration are changing fast.  There is no standard rate, just the general proposition that change begets change. 

A group that is most interesting to me is one that I know nothing about, or almost nothing [1].  I know that they exist, that they have a collective self-interest in society even as they are pursuing apparently different occupations.  I know that they are flesh and blood, emotional, reasoning and conscious creatures, but I also suspect when they get up in the morning and ask ‘the question’ that their answers are very different from most of their flesh and blood cousins: I am thinking of the 1% of the population who have come to control 25% of the national income and 90% of the nation’s total wealth. 

It is vitally important that we think about the answers they might give to my opening question since these people will decide the fate of this nation and the fate of humanity over the next generations.  This is a fact.  Short of revolutionary restructuring of national and world governance and economies those who control the world’s wealth will also decide what is done with that wealth, it is a simple syllogism, and what is done with it will determine the quality of our species’ relationship with each other and the biosphere; whether we will end up cooperating on initiatives to comport with biophysical reality or whether the Great Many end up eating each other for lunch.  It’s all in the answer to that question! 

All we have to go on is the behaviors that we see; what we are told is of much less use. The appearance at this time is that the One-Percenters are, through their hired guns in government, doing primarily two things: (1) trying to get at as much of the collective national wealth as possible and (2) removing the legal protections long enjoyed by the common man.  What other source of influence would be weakening legal protections for the greatest number in favor of the wealthy few?  Why would they do that? 

People who can buy their protections need have little respect for protections that are part of the fabric of the commons.  In fact, such common protections can be inhibiting of the process of ‘unprotecting’ the little bits of wealth held individually by the Great Many so that those little bits can be collected into great wealth. The rights of free speech, the rights of assembly and redress of grievance, the right of being secure in one’s person – the very reason for the Bill of Rights in the first place – are all inhibitions to the formation and functioning of an economic royalty. 

For the One-Percenters have certainly become an economic royalty with their own world almost completely disconnected from the rest of humanity.  How then are we to understand them? There is a clue in the history of their take of income over the last hundred years: 

Take a look at the graph in this report, page 7.  I have spent many years looking at and constructing graphic representations of data.  The point is to discover and represent the origins of differences, the sources for the variations in the numbers.  When I look at this graph it is clear that the behavior of the One-Percenters is driving the differences seen.  They are acting like the water that runs down the mountain, it is and they are restrained only the lay of the land. They take everything that they can get, everything that is not nailed down; and the history of nailing things down is exactly the inverse of their take. 

If the rest of humanity were to be represented – say a green line of little stars – it would be the inverse of the average of the three curves shown.  That would represent 90% of the people of the nation, every one with an income of about $100 thousand or less. 

Notice how the 5% curve and the 10 % curve are much less animated versions of the 1% curve.  This means that many fewer people in these groups are demonstrating the behaviors characteristic of the One-Percenters.  Imagine a restaurant with its normal clientele and a few people practicing for an eating contest.  A tally of the establishment’s food use would show spikes driven by the gluttons, but be dampened down, not looking so extreme, by contributions of the regular eaters. 

But let us return to the 90%.  Somehow many of us have forgotten that the 90% are a normal distribution of people trying to live happy and fulfilling lives, not consumed with the trying to be a One-Percenter.  Ninety Percent is almost every one.  One-Percenters are the aberration, not like the rest of us.  It is the 90% who should be defining who we are and what our goals are. 

Look at the 5% and 10% curves.  Again they mean that most of the people are behaving like the 90% not like the 1%; that is why the curves have flattened out so much compared to the 1% curve.  A small number of people in the 10% and 5% groups are behaving with the lack of restraint characteristic of almost everyone in the 1% group. 

It is the Great Many and their concern for honesty, fairness and justice, equity and the well being of others that is the true normal. The social and community habits of billions of people over thousands of years, habits immortalized in the philosophy and literature of our species, that is the human normal. There are a tiny number of people in the world who are careless of others, narcissistic, utterly self-interested, also smart and greedy, who have leveraged increasing amounts of accumulated wealth into larger and larger amounts – attempting limitless amounts.  Neither the accumulation or the attitudes and behaviors required to create these accumulations of wealth are even remotely normal. 

Looked at from any distance of perspective it should be clear that about 2% of the people of this country and most countries are so unlike normal functioning human beings that they should be restrained and not allowed to just gobble up everything that comes in front of them. 

Remember who the 90% are (really about 98% of humanity).  They are really everyone, work at almost every job that is done in the nation, they represent all levels of ambition, intelligence, education, wisdom, talent, knowledge and competence.  They are also far and away more interested in the wellbeing of their fellow humans, more understanding of the simple aphorisms of the golden rule and human humility than the One-Percenters who, judging from this graph, are driven to behaviors that separate them from the human behaviors that the rest of us value. 

How this situation arose is a complex of the cancerous growth of human numbers over the last few thousand years at such a pace that our systems of adaptation and understanding have been overwhelmed; that and the fullest exploitation of each and every decision no matter how narrowly intended.  As a part of this unfortunate process the story that has come to predominate is that the richest are the best, they are what the rest should strive for.  The story has even gone so far as to create a Christian version in which God’s favor is judged by the amount of wealth bestowed. Such a story supports the behaviors of the rich and makes them seem both desirable and normal when, in fact, they are pathological in at least three important senses: destructive of the social and economic order, destructive of the ecological order and destructive of the full experience of human life for both themselves and billions of others. 

The normal and desirable is in the ways of the Great Many, not in the behaviors of the superrich.  We need to begin to understand that greed and ambition at such levels represent a sickness of society and economic behavior.  And we also must realize that the inequities of wealth and the failures of social justice are the root of our present inability to honestly and effectively address the other major concerns facing our species. 

We need to begin to understand that it is the behavior of wealth itself that we must reject.  There are people who are easily drawn into the behaviors of wealth, but they are not the issue so much as it is the accumulation of the power of wealth that drives people to accumulate more, to fall under the spell of possession and who become willing to use their wealth-power to crush all opposition to retain and grow more and more.  There are not just a few bad people who misuse wealth and power; it is the accumulation of excess and inequity itself that needs to be rejected in the pubic mind. 

What are the answers of the superrich to the question first posed?  I will leave the possibilities to the reader – I can’t even imagine the strangeness and hubris that would have to occupy a mind that could treat 99% of the world’s people and all of the world’s processes and existence as ‘mine to do with as I wish.’ 

[1] Over the years I have met a few very powerful and very wealthy people.  Aside from the hand shaking trips out among the unwashed by senators, I spent an hour or so with the CEO of a major international drug company, a charming urbane man and director of a company with policies that offended human decency.  I was in the house of, and saw as a fly on the wall, the president of a major stock exchange, and a man who was an international real estate developer of “industrial properties” (the more he talked the shadier he seemed).  I mention them together because my impression was very similar: charming with a practiced consideration and would cut your throat and be on to the next project before you hit the ground if you crossed them.


Michael Dawson said...

Another corker. I will be using this post in my upcoming sociology course on social stratification.

I was impressed with some of the stories of mental illness among the rich assembled in Sam Pizzigati's book.


James Keye said...

Thanks, Michael, for the reference. I have read a variety of material on superrich, but not this one.