Mean Rich

Are mean and rich synonyms? Maybe:


One thing I find interesting in this TED talk is that the research results (the wealthier you perceive yourself to be, the meaner you get) can be reversed with simple reminders that there are people in need, and you can help.

Another thing I find interesting is the list of traits correlated with greater social equality (better health, educational performance, life expectancy, social trust, community life, economic growth, social mobility). In other words, though it’s counter-intuitive, being selfish, and making of selfishness a virtue, doesn’t really pay off in absolute terms–either for society or for individuals. To thrive optimally, you’ve got to have balance in your life (some sensible combination of self interest and altruism).

In any case, this is not a great research discovery for fans of Nietzsche and Ayn Rand.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Mean Rich

  1. Peter Smith says:

    I agree with almost all of that video. But including that comment from Bill Gates leaves a bad taste. His company ruthlessly eliminated its rivals to establish a harmful monopoly. I understand that he is trying to rehabilitate his reputation but he is only following in the footsteps of earlier corporate barons who behaved with equal ruthlessness and cynical opportunism.

    Then at the end comes the offensive statement “We are the 1%, we stand with the 99%”.

    Really? How will they do that? With a few, palliative, face saving measures designed for good PR and to head off threatening legislative changes?

    The root cause of the problem was ruthless self interest enabled by a society that has lost its moral anchor. Until that is addressed, a whitewash job will only ease the conscience of the 1% while increasing the resentment of the 90%.

    This graph illustrates the problem.Decline in religious belief correlates with increasing income disparity

    This meta-study is also relevant Religion promotes self-control, health, well being and social behaviour

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      As for Gates, he’s an amazingly heroic individual (in my view). There will always be vast disparities between the very rich and the very poor, of course, but thankfully there are at least some rich people, like Gates, with a moral conscience and passion to do good in the world, and he puts it to work in ways that are wonderful. I believe the Gates Foundation was key in the recent eradication of small pox from India.

      And the whole TED talk scene was Gates’s idea. He started the TED talk retreats.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Gates, he’s an amazingly heroic individual
        Please explain how he’s an amazingly heroic individual.
        I would really love to know.

        This was amazingly heroic. A priest stands in the form of a cross as he is shot by Mexican soldiers

        I watched a shabby old age pensioner of limited means turn around at the till to pay for the shopping basket of the nun behind him That was heroic.

        In 1988, the young Irish nun, Sister Ethel Normoyle, set up a clinic in a dusty street in one of our poorest shanty townships(not far from where I live). She has had an amazing impact and even Queen Elizabeth visited her. Now that is what I call heroic.

        Two weeks ago our little working class/middle class parish of the Mater Dei listened to our priest make an impassioned plea to help students in our shanty townships. In one day we raised R200,000 and that enabled the 31 top students in those impoverished shanty townships to go to university. I watched people of limited means give until it truly hurt. That is what I call heroic. The impassioned concern of our parish priest for the poorest of the poor is what I call amazingly heroic.

        My German friend and colleague, Jens Bessel-Lorck, travelled regularly into our black townships during the troubles to train their choirs. Then one night, the freedom fighters stopped him and ‘necklaced’ him. They cut off both his hands, forced a tyre over his head and shoulders, poured petrol into the tyre and set it alight. They danced around him, singing freedom songs, while he died screaming, unable to free himself because he had no hands. He lived a truly heroic life. I miss him so much.

        A former police commissioner of our province, General Gerrie Bezuidenhout, retired and used his life savings to start a home for the mentally handicapped in a nearby town. He is what I call ‘an amazingly heroic individual‘. Actually I would go further than that, he is an angel, a living saint.

        Now please explain how Gates is ‘an amazingly heroic individual‘. He sits in the comforts of his mansion and with the wave of a pen directs well paid subordinates to spend part of his vast disposable income. How is that heroic?

      • Peter Smith says:

        There will always be vast disparities between the very rich and the very poor
        You seem to have missed the point. Go back and examine my graph. You will see that the disparity has sharply increased until it is an obscene disparity. Simply dismissing it with the statement that there will always be disparities is astonishingly insensitive to the plight of working class America. In another comment I have already pointed out to you the great problems of poverty that America faces.

        That sharp increase is an extremely important phenomenon that demands explanation, understanding and redress. But more than that, it points to changes in morality that are now poisoning American society.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Gates, with a moral conscience
        His ruthless business record is well documented. He destroyed many companies, leaving hurt in his wake.

  2. Peter Smith says:

    The central point of the video, that the wealthy behave in a mean or amoral manner, is of course very well known. The point was made 2000 years ago: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

    The video did not address the question of why this should be so and that is an interesting discussion in itself. The most useful point the video made was that moral priming can improve the moral behaviour of the rich. In fact that is true for everyone, as shown by Dan Ariely. He was measuring the tendency to cheat in two groups. One group read a neutral text, the other group read the Ten Commandments. The rate of cheating in the control group was 80% while the rate of cheating in the test group was 20%.

    His point was that moral priming powerfully influences moral behaviour and this is exactly the same point made in the video. This raises the question about the sources and nature of moral priming in society. There is explicit moral priming, implicit moral priming and perverse moral priming. What has happened is that explicit moral priming in society has been greatly weakened, dragging down implicit moral priming while perverse moral priming has become much stronger. It is the weakness of moral priming in our society which is the root cause of economic inequity.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      A couple quick things here, Peter. First, I think you’re right that there is a broken windows theory of morality: if you live in an environment where people are broken in their empathy for others, for example, you are more likely to go with the crowd. So the question becomes: what is the moral priming that our culture cultivates? Or, to return to the window metaphor, what moral windows have been repaired? (And which are broken?)

      And I think it’s quite obvious that the United States in the 21st century, as well as South Africa where you live, has gone a long way toward repairing a key moral window that was once broken: regard for the lives of black people. And I don’t know what the politics of South Africa is right now, but in the United States that regard is extended to women and gays and people on the other side of our bombs (in places like Iraq and Vietnam) in ways that were perhaps unthinkable fifty years ago.

      So it’s arguable that on many levels we live in a far more moral world than we have perhaps at any other time in history. The moral imagination has been extended beyond race, tribe, gender, sexual orientation, and nation to others in a way that is truly inspiring.

      And I would point out that the crime rate in the United States is the same as 50 years ago.

      On the other hand, I would also note that there are moral corrosives as well, such as people taking things from the government that they’ve done nothing to earn (from bank bailouts to welfare). With democratic rights come responsibilities, and it is demoralizing to others when the system seems rigged against the law-abiding.

      One way to fix this broken window would perhaps be the institution of national service for two years (from, say, age 17 to 19), in which one joins the military or an aid group. The average citizen might pick up forms of responsibility, courage, and regard not taught in the home.


      • Peter Smith says:

        there is a broken windows theory of morality
        Actually there are two kinds of moral priming, pre-emptive moral priming and reactive moral priming. The moral priming of the video and Dan Ariely are pre-emptive moral priming, as is the moral teachings of the Church. The broken windows policy of Giuliani and of criminal punishment in general, are reactive moral priming. Both are necessary but pre-emptive moral priming is both more desirable and far more effective.

        as well as South Africa where you live, has gone a long way toward repairing a key moral window that was once broken: regard for the lives of black people
        Yes indeed, and I was privileged to be part of it. I witnessed the moral tidal wave that changed the course of South African history.

        This moral tidal wave was lead by three great churchmen
        Archbishop Dennis Hurley of the Catholic Church,
        Archbishop Desmond Tutu of the Anglican Church,
        Reverend Beyers Naude of the Dutch Reformed Church
        and that wonderful Jewish politician, Helen Suzman
        The moral tidal wave led by the churches is what really changed South Africa.

        The moral imagination has been extended beyond race, tribe, gender, sexual orientation, and nation to others
        The moral horizon was extended by the media horizon, that is all there is to it. Manipulated moral concerns in the service of corporate profits.

        crime rate in the United States is the same as 50 years ago
        and you have the world’s highest incarceration rate.

        it’s arguable that on many levels we live in a far more moral world
        It is indeed arguable. America is the world’s main military aggressor. It legitimized torture, it conducts extra-judicial murders across many countries, it spies on its own citizens and the citizens of friendly allies, it has increased the wealth gap to unprecedented proportions, student and academic cheating are increasing, deaths due to heroin overdoses have doubled, it maintains the death penalty, it conducts abortions on the largest scale in the world, has the world’s highest incarceration rate, etc, etc. You should read the book by the sociologist, Christian Smith, Lost In Transition to understand the moral crisis engulfing the USA.

        I would also note that there are moral corrosives as well,
        Quite so. That can very simply be attributed to the decline of moral priming and the increase in perverse moral priming.

        One way to fix this broken window would perhaps be the institution of national service
        It is an interesting idea but politically impossible. Today’s youth has sunk too far into the morass of hedonist, narcissist consumerism, assiduously cultivated by corporate interests, to even want to do this.

        I would institute a year-for-year system. One year’s national service to earn one year’s university costs. That would supply the motivation but finding the money might be impossible. I visualize the army forming Public Service Brigades. They would undergo standard military basic training, wear military uniforms(but not carry arms), be subject to military discipline but would be deployed to areas where there is urgent need. Disaster relief, famine relief, poverty alleviation, etc, are some of the applications.

  3. Staffan says:

    The incarceration rate is one factor. An aging population is another. A third is actually obesity, since it seems to make people less impulsive, a trait linked to crime.

    If concern for the groups you mention were making America more moral, we’d probably see a reduction in crime, especially with the other factors suppressing crime. You can also look at what happened in the 1960s when the civil rights movement had its biggest victories. Crime soared.

    This is not to say that Black people were treated ok before that. But if you start catering to various groups with affirmative action and things like that, if you keep telling them that they need to demand justice, they will begin to interpret their own failure as something other people did to them. So they will grab a little justice in the convenient store or just vent their anger at some random “cracker.” Because that’s what society does to him everyday. You told him so.

    • Peter Smith says:

      Santi’s argument that decrease in crime indicates improved morality is very simplistic and likely wrong when one considers other indicators of morality. The large increase in incarceration rate probably indicates the opposite.

      Cohen and Felton’s Routine Activity Theory for the prevalence of crime paints a rather more complicated picture. See their original paper.

      They argue that crime is ecological in nature and requires the convergence of three factors:
      1) a motivated offender,
      2) the presence of a suitable target,
      3) the absence of a capable guardian.

      Changes in any of these three factors will change the crime rate. For example it has been argued that much of the initial crime surge was caused by factors 2 and 3. More women entered the work force so no guardian was left in the home. At the same time the number of high value electronics devices in the home increased, providing suitable targets. The subsequent decrease in crime rate is largely explained by factor 3. Inexpensive home alarms became widespread, private security companies mushroomed and video monitoring became commonplace.

      Only factor 1 has a moral dimension. Here several issues come into play. Reduced moral priming increases motivation. Deprivation increases motivation. Economic inequity increases motivation(them and us syndrome). Law enforcement efficiency and exemplary punishments reduce motivation. Warning signals(broken windows policy) also reduce motivation.

      From all the above it can be seen that arguing from the recent decrease in crime rate that morality has improved is extremely simplistic. One has to look to other indicators for confirmation and, as it happens, they show the reverse.

      This becomes even more complicated when one considers two other popular arguments to explain the decreased crime rate:
      1) high rates of abortion have reduced the number of likely offenders in the population.
      2) the removal lead from petrol has sharply reduced the incidence of violent crime.
      Lead in petrol and criminal behaviour
      Impact of Childhood Lead Exposure on Crime

  4. Staffan says:

    “Deprivation increases motivation. Economic inequity increases motivation(them and us syndrome).”

    This is why I’m very skeptical of the multicultural, global capitalism that Santi and many others promote. Diversity creates ingroup/outgroup dynamics with the potential for conflict even without economic inequality. But since ethnic groups differ in how financially successful they are, this system will combine tribalism with a sense that some tribes are being victimized by others.

    As for lead, it may be true but there are so many variables at play here. Like you mentioned, surveillance, CCTV, cellphones etc, then you have the population getting older an fatter. And let’s not forget that some people probably will feel that the overall increase in wealth means they have more to lose. Lead can’t be a big factor in this, at least judging by European murder rates.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s