Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Rich Deserve our Compassion and Lovingkindness

You may think there is little to like or admire about multi-millionaires and billionaires who live their lives like medieval kings while insisting that single mothers working three jobs to shelter, clothe and feed their kids actually have it pretty good. After all, America’s poorest have such luxuries as refrigerators and cell phones,  so what do they have to complain about?

The rich also don’t win popularity points for complaining that their corporate income taxes are far too high, and that if taxes are raised on them, they just might move their businesses and families overseas…or hunker down and refuse to invest altogether (presumably because taxes discourage investing, but maybe just to spite you, John Galt-style). Goldman Sachs CEO, Cooperman, stated after having received a massive taxpayer bailout in the form of TARP and low-interest loans from the Fed, sniffed: “You will get more out of me if you treat me with respect.” The message: It’s not enough to shower these guys with dough; you’re gonna have to lick their boots as well.

The rich also seem to think they are made of better moral fiber than the poor. Mitt Romney “refused to apologise for his success” on the campaign trail, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein claimed that he was doing “God’s work,” which may or may not include crashing the global financial system.

Of course, it must be said that not every wealthy person is an insensitive greedy jackass; many are generous and philanthropic and feel strongly that their taxes should be significantly increased (see Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros, Jay-Z, Chris Rock, Matt Damon, Birdman, Dr. Dre, etc.). Still, there are enough rich a-holes around (see Donald Trump, the Koch Brothers, and many, many more) who think that their unbelievable good fortune comes from hard work and talent, in contrast to poor people who are of course lazy parasites, to give the rich a bad name. As Barry Switzer once famously said, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”

This impression that the super rich are ├╝berprivileged jerkwads is cemented by disconcertingly callous comments made by said rich people in the media. Hotel heiress Leona Helsmley once famously said, “We don’t pay taxes, only the little people pay taxes.” (This same woman, by the way, eventually left 12 million dollars in her will to her dog Trouble.) 2012 GOP frontrunner and quarter billionaire Mitt Romney more recently averred that talk of increasing income taxes on the rich was “class warfare” by those who were “envious” of the rich.

Then there is all the conspicuous consumption, which during time of economic hardship, seems beyond just a little tasteless. Such screw-the-poor extravagances include half-million dollar trust funds or life insurance policies for pets, which apparently extend to organic dinners and doggy massages.  Also, as for travel, Gulfstream jets are just so 2007. Today’s gold standard are personal jumbo jets (most often Boeing 747s, which service roughly 300 commercial travellers, or Airbus A-380s, which can carry 800), retrofitted to meet the needs of one VIP billionaire; dozens have been sold to the hyper-rich, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, John Travolta, and The Donald.

(Pictured above is the interior of a VIP private Boeing 747.)  One might also, as Beyonce and Jay-Z recently did, buy a $600,000 gold-plated rocking horse and a Swarovski crystal-encrusted highchair for one’s spawn.Then there are superyachts, which cost in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars. Paul Allen's Superyacht, the Octopus, sported a beauty salon, pools, jet ski docks, two helicopters and two mini-submarines.

That’s right—you can have your own mini-submarine launched from your very own floating resort. Although many of the super rich are entrepreneurs and celebrities who arrived at their wealth honestly, some of this extravagance has been directly underwritten by the American taxpayer: after having blown obscene amounts of cash on hookers and blow during the subprime mortgage-backed securities boom, Wall Street executives managed to reap billions of dollars in fat bonuses courtesy taxpayer bailouts--just months after crashing the global financial system.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that people with ungodly amounts of cash have a tendency to be insensitive jackasses. So why do they deserve our compassion and lovingkindness?

It turns out that this behavior of the super wealthy may be pathological. What people of average means may not understand is that massive wealth goes to a person’s head and they start to resemble entitled asshats; here, it is easy to forget that, like alcoholics, it is the money talking/acting, and not the person. The ├╝berwealthy need our love and support to help them recognize and confront their psychological handicaps.

A growing body of research has in fact shown that people of considerable means are on average more anti-social than your average Joe. A recent series of psychological experiments concluded that:

"lower class individuals proved to be more generous (Study 1), charitable (Study 2), trusting (Study 3), and helpful (Study 4) compared with their upper class counterparts. Mediator and moderator data showed that lower class individuals acted in a more prosocial fashion because of a greater commitment to egalitarian values and feelings of compassion."

Specifically, experiments were conducted showing that people of upper-class background were significantly less able to accurately read emotions on people’s faces and to read social cues. According to one of the authors,

"Upper-class people, in spite of all their advantages, suffer empathy deficits...And there are enormous consequences.” Among which, high-powered lawyers or chief executives--ill equipped to read the emotions of those they interact with--don’t tend to make for sympathetic bosses.

There may also be something to that image of the rich miser. In fact, studies have long shown that poor people are far more generous with their money than the rich.  One study demonstrated that Americans making under 25K a year give on average 4.2 percent of their income to charity, whereas those making over 75K give away 2.7 percent.

What explains these class differences in humanity? Says one of the lead authors of the studies: Whereas lower-class people must rely on one another for help through life, “Upper class” tended to “prioritized their own need.” The upshot is that “wealth seems to buffer people from attending to the needs of others.”

A casual review of the behavior of rich people in the media provides anecdotal support for this view. Romney, himself richer than God, once joked to a group of laid-off workers on the campaign trail that he, too, was also out of work. Haha…good one, Mitt. Then there was also his attempt to make a casual $10,000 bet with Rick Perry in the middle of one of the GOP debates, and his insistence that he wasn’t worried about the “very poor” because they have a social safety net. Now, Romney himself has a history of generous personal philanthropy, so I’m sure it isn’t true that he cares nothing for the poor. Nonetheless, it is just the sort of sort of jerky thing that would come out of the mouth of an obscenely wealthy person.

Many voters will remember that infamous scene in the midst of the early 1990s recession when President George H.W. Bush, then running for re-election, went to a grocery store and was flummoxed by the electronic checker. Seems that George, an heir of the Bush banking fortune, had been using a personal shopper…or seven. Then there is his son, W., who as president during the Iraq War that he himself started, delivered an unbelievably callous joke on a golf course. Upon glibly declaring war on all terrorists and states that sponsored terrorism around the world, he commanded the reporters in attendance: “Now watch this drive.”

Despite their sociopathic attitudes and their tendency to treat the rest of us like servants, I argue that the super rich are broken human beings who are pathologically out-of-touch with humanity and in need of our love and understanding. In fact, they are not innate a-holes.  It turns out that wealth not only turns nice people into raging jerks, the reduction of personal wealth improves a person’s helpfulness, empathy and generosity. In short, it makes you a better person.

Based on the available evidence, the most compassionate help we could give these broken people is to relieve them of their more obscene levels of wealth.

Progressive taxation is chicken soup for the soul.