When Do Humans Want to Share the Wealth?
Jonathan Haidt reports an interesting experimental result:
Two three-year-olds walk up to a marble-delivery machine that has two bins. Each stands in front of one bin. Three scenarios:
If people feel that they must work together to get the goods, they also feel that they should (or even want to) share the goods.
Haidt’s take (my emphasis):
If there’s a problem with the ultra-rich, it’s not that they have too much wealth, it’s that they bought laws that made it easy for them to gain and keep so much more wealth in recent decades.
Sarah Palin gave a speech last September lambasting “crony capitalism,” which she defined as “the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest – to the little guys.” I think that she was on to something and that she was right to include big government along with big business and big finance. The problem isn’t that some kids have many more marbles than others. The problem is that some kids are in cahoots with the experimenters. They get to rig the marble machine before the rest of us have a chance to play with it.
Now add this:
The losers know the game is rigged, so their innate intution tells them that the winners should share.
The winners refuse to know that the game is rigged — deny it vehemently — so they think the losers are unreasonable in their expectations of sharing.
Contributing: The American cult of individualism — the widespread belief among the successful that their success is a result of their efforts only, so they deserve their winnings — means that their natural human work-together-share-together instincts aren’t invoked. This even when they’re wrong about the relative contribution of their individual efforts.
So the winners are deluded about two things: 1. the relative contribution of their individual efforts (compared to A. luck and B. the rules/playing field), and 2. the (rigged) state of the playing field.
Here’s the problem: the losers are also deluded about #1 (because the rigged game provides the winners with the necessary resources to delude them through tens of billions of dollars of propaganda and economist-buying).
So here’s the rhetorical challenge faced by those who seek greater equality: convince the losers that much or most of the winners’ success is in fact the result of everyone pulling on ropes together (and luck), not just the winners’ industrious rope-pulling. Not an easy task, but one worth focusing on.
To add, a problem with Haidt’s analysis: if big business and big finance (and rich people) couldn’t buy big government to rig the game in their own favor, big government wouldn’t be the problem. Absent that buy, government is essentially indifferent to relative distributions — or arguably even more inclined to sharing the wealth widely to garner lots of votes — one person one vote versus one dollar one vote.
He suggests a three-way symmetry for a situation that is not symmetrical.
Cross-posted at Asymptosis.
the losers don’t know the game is rigged. they have some psychological tendency to believe that it is not: that there is some “justice” in the world. Many of them can tell the difference between their own abilities and those of the more famous rich, or even their bosses. Been a long time since there was an evolutionary advantage in ALWAYS fighting the boss.
also been a long time since there was a real political advantage in telling the workers the game is rigged. there have been times when it was obvious. and times when it is not. as long as workers get what they modestly need, they have no desire to overturn the system. you might look up the Declaration of Independence where Jefferson give a nod to that concept.
Meanwhile an idea like Social Security does provide a way to thread the needle. We all pay for our own benefits with the government guaranteeing the fairness, and security, of it all.
One reason why I get so mad at some “liberals” who want to turn SS into a football like welfare, so the rich can always complain about it being too expensive, and the poor always having to take off their caps and talk very nice to the rich man.
But there are always criminals among the rich who want to take even SS away from the people. And fools among the liberals who want class war all the time.
At this stage in history, I think it is too late for a sane solution to the SS problem… a problem entirely created by the criminals among the rich. Who have apparently suckered the “liberals” into believing the only way to save SS is to destroy it by turning it into welfare.
“Share” is the wrong word and “sharing” is the wrong concept when talking about an economic activity involving labor expended in exchange for money.
That is the initial problem with Haidt presentation. All this reseach shows as it relates to people being compensated for their labor or paying for the services used is that a disconnection understanding of the joint effort leads to easily expressing one’s selfish nature.
Thus, we have no reason to ask those with more as the results of a rigged game to share. We only need to return the game to rules that assure equality of life’s risks reduction.
As I just said over at my place, it seems to me that you can’t talk about the heightened resentment over having to pay taxes– which obviously didn’t exist in, say, Eisenhower’s time– without talking about the Southern Strategy.
The Republican effort to forge a new definition of “patriotism” born of “cutting the country in half” for political gain later found expression in Ronald Reagan’s tales of “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks buying t-bone steaks with their food stamps.” That irrational resentment persists, but it is no longer explicitly tied to racial animus. (Pat Buchanan’s 1971 memo for Nixon, “Dividing the Democrats”, concluded that heightening racial and ccultural resentment could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”)
For many whites, the government ceased to be of “us”, and came instead to be seen as taking from “us”to give to “them”. Pailinite whites see government policy– e.g., decreasing public funding for education, decreasing taxation on the wealthiest, decreasing regulation of the financial industry– as entirely exogenous to the normal-by-default, real, pre-government world. And there’s been an economic theory there to fill that need, to justify the view that the world as it is is how it must and ought be.
The problem is that some kids are in cahoots with the experimenters. They get to rig the marble machine before the rest of us have a chance to play with it.
Let me suggest that the problem with the rich actually is that they have too much money relative to everyone else. It’s amazing the kinds of emotional and metal gymnastics that the graduates of American higher education will go through to avoid recognizing that fundamental fact. Perhaps they had their heads stuffed too much with Rawls and other suchlike apologists for inequality. Or maybe they don’t want to offend their rich friends. But how in the world do they think these disreputable social systems of cronies-in-cahoots come about in the first place? They come about because money buys power and the capacity to game the system to make even more money. Always has and always will. No realistic political system ever has or could be devised in which inequalities in wealth do not translate effectively into control of political power. I am amazed that smart people writing for the New York Times can’t grasp these elementary aspects of human nature and human history. If you want to promote a fairer system you have to promote a more economically equal society, and then work your butts off to keep it that way.
you are exactly right. the rhetoric needs to be in terms of “strengthening the country”. the rich see no need to “share,” and they are put off by the implication that they cheated to get theirs.
that is NOT the criminal rich who know damn well they cheated, but an awful lot of rich people really do think they earned their money. it is not well understood that the New Deal made the rich richer while it was saving the poor from destitution.
i’d add that all “primitive” societies share as a matter of course. it is only when people have been beaten down by desperate poverty and fed “rugged individualism” that they are afraid to share.
you are right. but it’s a tough sell. i don’t think you need to go all the way to “equality”, but as Becker says, you need rules and someone to watch them that prevent dangerous concentrations of wealth.
coberly: “i’d add that all “primitive” societies share as a matter of course. it is only when people have been beaten down by desperate poverty and fed “rugged individualism” that they are afraid to share.”
I don’t know about being afraid to share, but I think that the main variable is agriculture. Agriculture leads to land ownership, fences, the idea of trespass, to the idea of property that is not just personal. Agriculture also enlarges the sphere of social activity, so that people have to deal with strangers. The heightened sense of property and attenuated relationships erode the tendency to share.
The blatent evidence of this is that even those protesting wall street openly don’t point fingers at the richest on wall street who are mostly in tech. Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Page Steve Jobs and even in finance Warren Buffet are widely liked and respected.
This is simply because these people seem to have made their fortune in a largely legitimate way compared to banks. They inovated and created new products. Even Buffet seems to have an approach of buy low, improve and sell high.
Banks on the other hand seem to be all about exploiting information advantages on the back or their clients and counterparties, creating monopolies that allow them to skim every transactions, corrupting the laws to tilt the playing field in their favor and leveraging up while dumping the risks on others. These things are all thinly disguised theft.
Interesting post probably correct but so what. The problem is at plenty of bloggers have identified e problems but nobody seems to want to do any thing constructive to change the situation. Therefore the US will become if it isn’t already a failed State. Then What?
Try this http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/02/world/europe/02iht-letter02.html
And read Chalmers Johnson beginning with “blowback” he actually predicted everything that is happening in the US
I agree “share” isn’t a popular political concept but strengthening the country by investing in human capital is such an old idea that it might be new. It will never win over the most selfish business leaders, but it might undercut their influence a bit.
you are right, but i think the “agriculture” you are talking about arises AFTER there is an ownership class and a desperately poor worker class. i don’t know. but i think even in america a bad harvest used to cause the local people to share, at least a little.
probably it’s all very complicated and i just wanted to make the point that sharing is pretty natural to humans and not-sharing has something to do with our modern way of “doing business.”
by chance, i have been reading several books lately from very different kinds of people who all say about the same thing. what it comes down to is that we have made a climate favorable to criminals of high finance… and there may no longer be anything we can do about it, since they own the government and the media.
as for “constructive,” i read 3700 blog comments yesterday on the subject of Social Security. not one of them had a correct understanding of what it going on. credit the Peterson billion dollars in “information” distorting the truth. but also credit this:
one person complained that as a high earner he and his boss had paid $250,000 into social security. he thought this was blatantly unfair. he was unable, apparently to see that as a high earner he would collect abut 25,000 per year in benefits, with a life expectancy of about 20 years.
(the other $250 k will come from the automatic “interest” that comes from pay as you go financing that keeps up with wage increases over your lifetime.. so don’t imagine the “unfairness” works the other way, either. my point is simply that even high earners can’t do very simple math, or think clearly about what the numbers mean. that limits what you can expect from “the people.”)
“strengthening the country by investing in human capital “
Might help to quit calling humans capital (or resource).
yes. but little steps.
It sounds to me like Acemoglu and Robinson (the authors of “Why Nations Fail”, cited in the op-ed you linked to) are making a point that those of us depressed about prospects in the U.S. should take to heart: it isn’t JUST about the money.
What Milton Friedman and Karl Marx had in common was Economic Determinism. The course of human history is governed by our economics and everything else is a sort of ‘ornamental’, non-functional cultural manifestation. We fill our cultures with stories and images, but the only thing that contributes decisively to what *happens* in our future is our economic activities.
The difference between Marx and Friedman is that Marx argued that the economic motor of history was taking us all to a sort of atheist analogue of Christ’s kingdom of God. A better place in which we would all cheerfully share and cooperate. Friedman by contrast projected a more constricted image of ‘the promised land’ in which all the ‘benighted’ peoples of the developing world would become more like the U.S. of mid-20th century. Francis Fukayama epitomized this vision of our collective future in “The End of History”.
But perhaps neither Economic Determinism — neither that of “Das Kapital”, nor that of “Free to Choose” — will have the last word. If people took the time to think more deeply about what contributes to their quality of life, the cultural metaphors we live by might turn. Not toward the somewhat simplistic visions of Marx or the cheerfully bourgeois aspiration of Friedman, but towards remembering that it isn’t ALL about the Benjamins. And that change of *minds* might actually contribute subtly to a different path. We forget how profoundly our culture now exudes the preoccupation with economic ‘growth’ and an obsession with gaining more STATUS through more STUFF.
Anyone concerned about these matters would likely enjoy David Graeber’s “Debt: the First 5000 Years”. Quite possibly the most significant book on political economy since Das Kapital.
hard to get orthogonal to me since i don’t know anything. i thought i was saying about what you said, without, as noted, knowing anything about it. i do agree that it’s “the tribe” more than “humanity.”
but back in the old days there were strong ideas about hospitality to strangers.
it occurs to me that while we may need some serious tax increases on those who have the money, it needs to be packaged as a patriotic emergency
then, when the emergency is over, the political need is to find ways to keep “the rich” from making so much money that they are dangerous, or useless, and the poor from making so little money that their lives are not worth living.
if this kind of “redistribution” can be done at the earning level, you will avoid the tax resentment problem. you will still need taxes to maintain the infrastructure… including those laws that restrict unseemly ways of making money.
Maybe the patriotic emergency is the skyrocketing medical bills and health insurance costs that are eating disposable income and are the source of our long-term budget challenges. Bring back the late-1960s income tax rates on high incomes and expand Medicare to all. Reducing health care cost growth and transfering cost burdens to top earners (who then would sorely desire cost control!) would reduce business costs and act like a pay raise to the middle class and below.
Yes, read Graeber, but be a little careful about the gloss he puts on the history.
And remember the hippies who believed much as you suggest…. and were shut down by recession and then bribed with yuppie jobs. moral is the money people know how to produce the attitudes in you that work for them.
And, apparently, there is this… Hitler rescued germany from a failing economy by introducing fiat currency and avoiding international debt. Hitler may not have been a nice man. But not so sure that he didn’t have a better understanding of money, and bankers, than the people advising Obama… who, we hope, are not advocating concentration camps.
that’s national fiat currency, not bank fiat currency.
Yes but hospitality was at least operationally felt to be a religious obligation and a responsibility to the host/household head enforced by him on his household. But the protection extended by a host to a guest within the limes, the borders, of the household, did not necessarily extend outside. That is while ‘Open Handed’ was a compliment to the lord in his court, it didn’t translate to Good Samaritan outside it. A guest one night might be the victim on the next morning if encountered outside the gates. Which was the point of the Parable I think, Jesus not describing what was but what should be
i understand your words, but i don’t know enough about olden times to really understand what you are talking about… and won’t understand it until i learn more than you can teach me in a blog.
but i did feel that Jesus showed up just in time in history to at least explain to people that they were going to have to learn how to treat their “neighbor” like “family” even in an empire of strangers.
and just to try to make a point… even in your own family you don’t exactly put up with lazy freeloaders. though in a family it’s hard to even want to be a lazy freeloader. in a capitalist economy sometimes it’s impossible not to be even when you most badly don’t want to be.
that’s certainly part of it. and unemployment is the other big part.
but the “emergency” i was thinking of was “the deficit.” which may or may not be a real emergency, but as long as “they” are going to talk about it as if it is, then they need to raise their goddam taxes until they don’t think it is anymore.
i do not favor “transfering cost (of healthcare) burdens to top earners. Top earners do not want to see half their large incomes going to pay for you to get medical treatment. better to find a way for you and i to pay for our own medical care. then WE would sorely desire cost control. i think it can be done. paying for Medicare the way we pay for Social Security would be a good first step: a dedicated tax, “flat” with a cap, up to the point where the current tax pays for the current costs of ALL medical care after retirement. the higher earners paying the higher tax would have to rationalize their excess over “per capita” as an extra insurance premium “in case” they should find themselves one of the lower earners whose “flat” tax would not cover even their own expected costs of medical care.
i’m pretty sure this is doable. but it would be a hard sell, first to “the young” and healthy who cannot imagine they will ever be old and sick, and can’t understand the advantages of paying for it in advance, protected from even “medical inflation” by pay as you go. and second, of course, from the deficit hawk morons who think the way to control costs is to cut benefits…. the benefits that people pay for. with the bright idea of instead of letting the people pay for them over time while they can afford it, just force them to find a way to pay for it when they no longer have jobs.