How power corrupts - and wealth is power
Repeated psychological studies say that one of the main problems with authority, with power, is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. People in positions of power are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person withless power is talking.
That is, the very experience of having power removes us from connection with others. Put another way, power undermines empathy. It promotes acting on your own desires in a social context without considering the effects of your actions on others. It involves a heightened sensitivity to your own concerns and a reduced sensitivity to the interests, experiences, or needs of others. Power corrupts. And in our capitalistic society, wealth means power.
As one example, consider a series of experiments done four years ago by Joris Lammers of Tilburg University, the Netherlands, and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University.
Without getting too bogged down in procedural details, they essentially "primed" some people in the experiment to feel more powerful than others and then compared their responses to various tests and hypothetical situations. What they found, in sum, is that high-power people judged others more harshly but themselves more leniently and what was objectionable to them when done by others was significantly less so when done by themselves. The attitude seemed to be "It's okay for me but not for you."
Lammers and Galinsky argue that people with power think it's justified for them to break rules not only because their power means they can get away with it, but also because they feel at some level that they are entitled to take what they want. Because they are entitled to it in a way that lesser people are not. Because power corrupts. And wealth means power.
More recently, research published last year in "The Academy of Management Journal" found that giving someone a sense of power instills a black-and-white sense of right and wrong - especially wrong.
Scott Wiltermuth of the University of South Carolina Marshall School of Business and Francis Flynn of the Stanford Graduate School of Business set up four experiments in which they made some participants feel powerful, giving them the ability to control resources and administer rewards and punishments.
When presented with cases of transgressions, these participants, the "powerful" people, were found more likely to say flatly that a given action is either “yes, immoral” or “no, not immoral.” Less powerful people were far more likely to say “it depends.” And that same "moral clarity" led the “powerful” participants to propose harsher punishments for the same infractions. Interestingly and I say revealingly, this same certainty did not lead those "powerful" participants to propose greater rewards for good behavior. It was all about punishing the lessers. Because power corrupts. And wealth means power.
Kraus and Keltner also addressed this. Their experiments showed a connection between the social essentialist belief that our work ethic, intelligence, and ultimately our socioeconomic status are part of our genetic inheritance, fixed, unchanging, the idea that it's all from our genes, a connection between that and a preference for harsh punishments and a resistance to “restorative” punishments such as community service. Because power drenies empathy. Power denies understanding. Power denies the needs of others. Power corrupts. And wealth means power.
Being rich undermines your morals and makes you a self-absorbed, arrogant, condescending, bigot whose ethics and empathy have been corrupted by power, leaving you a vapid, amoral, sociopathic husk with a sense of entitlement surpassing that of a spoiled 6-year-old brat, often with an attitude to match.
And these are the people who are in charge of our society, who have the most power, the most economic power and political influence, in our society.
These are the people the media listen to, give a respectful hearing to no matter how outlandish or idiotic their ramblings and yes, I'm looking at you, Tom Perkins and the rest of your billionaire buddies, give a respectful hearing to them because these are also the people who own the media.
These are the people the government listens to, and that, too, is backed up by research:
For just one example, a study done by Thomas Hayes of Trinity University published in "Political Science Quarterly" showed that US senators respond almost exclusively to the interests of their wealthiest constituents.
Hayes compared a massive database of public opinion surveys to their senators’ voting records for the period 2001 through 2010. What he found was that from 2007 through 2010, senators were somewhat responsive to the interests of the middle class, but mostly responsive to the interests of the rich. During the first six years Hayes studied, the interests of the middle class didn't figure in - and the interests of the poor just never figured in at all at any point.
By the way, it's important to note that the Hayes' research showed that the neglect of the poor and working poor was a bipartisan affair, with Democrats no more responsive to the poor than Republicans.
So to sum up, the most powerful people in our society, the people the media listens to, the people the government listens to, are the same people that a mass of psychological and sociological research says are the most likely among us to be vapid, amoral, self-absorbed, arrogant, condescending, bigoted sociopaths. And we wonder why we're screwed.
And it's not going to change. It's not going to reverse on its own. MIT economist Daron Acemoglu, who co-authored Why Nations Fail, says that this is "a general pattern throughout history. When economic inequality increases, the people who have become economically more powerful will often attempt to use that power in order to gain even more political power. And once they are able to monopolize political power, they will start using that for changing the rules in their favor.”
It's not going to reverse on its own. It's self-reinforcing, self-replicating. Wealth leads to power leads to more wealth leads to more power, leads to, it goes on, with fewer and fewer getting more and more. That's why the rich are in terms of wealth, running away from the rest of us. It's why they get more and more of the benefits of society and the economy, while the real income, the purchasing power, of the average worker is going effectively nowhere and is actually below where it was 35 years ago.
It's not going to change, it will only get worse and the single remaining question is how fast it will get worse - unless we make it change.
Frederick Douglass said it: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Change is going to require struggle. It's going to require a genuine social revolution. It's going to require disruption. It's going to require people in the streets. It's going to require more, a lot more, than twitter feeds and Facebook posts and far more than "vote for Democrats!" It's going to require a combination of the intensity and determination of the labor movement of the 1930s, the fearlessness of the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s, the passion of the antiwar and counterculture movements of the '60s and '70s, and the creativity of the Occupy movement of this century.
Quoting Douglass again, "It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake." We are, I fear, approaching a time when there will be the stark choice: confront or capitulate. Not one of those movements I mentioned could fairly or even rationally be called violent. But each in their own way, in their impact, they brought the fire, the thunder, the whirlwind. We need that sort of storm again.
Back in 1995, George Will, who is what passes for an intellectual in the right wing, said in his syndicated column that "'Back to 1900' is a serviceable summation of the conservative goal." It's damn well about time we faced the fact that he wasn't exaggerating. We need the earthquake.