Category Archives: Politics

Science Proves Rich People are Immoral, and Why

Folks at Vox (“Rich People are Jerks, Explained“) have written up two domains of scientific research about wealthy Americans.

One area of research shows that the preferences of the wealthy are more influential on politics, actual governance and policy than the preferences of non-wealthy people. Here’s a link to the main academic paper Vox used as a source, which says, “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” Also, the preferences of the wealthy do not align with the preferences of the non-wealthy and are by and large self-serving, rarely directed at the welfare of others, only the wealthy themselves.

The second area of research is represented by Paul Piff, about whom I wrote before at Medium with respect to Affluenza. One of Piff’s papers, “Higher Social Class Predicts Unethical Behavior,” set up experiments where people who were wealthy or made to feel wealthy in the ecology of the experiment behaved more anti-socially than controls. Lisa Miller in the New York Times Magazine summarized Piff’s findings this way:

[The paper] showed through quizzes, online games, questionnaires, in-lab manipulations, and field studies that living high on the socioeconomic ladder can, colloquially speaking, dehumanize people. It can make them less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people. It can make them more likely, as Piff demonstrated in one of his experiments, to take candy from a bowl of sweets designated for children.

“While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything,” Piff said to Miller, “the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”

As I wrote at Medium:

Piff theorizes that low-status people cultivate empathy and pro-social behavior because they figure they may require the help of others in the community in the future. High-status individuals are more insulated from needing the help of others and so do not place a premium on empathy or pro-social behavior. They can afford to flout the norms of the community, while low-status individuals cannot for fear of losing the benefits of the collective.

That’s just a theory. I’m not confident that it’s totally correct. And it’s also not clear that being rich makes you a jerk or being a jerk makes you rich. But there is a correlation found in these studies between anti-social behavior and out-sized wealth.


The Evolutionary Psychology of Liberalism and Conservativism

At the Washington Monthly there’s a book review by Chris Mooney of two recent works about the psychological and biological differences between liberals and conservatives.

The most rock-solid finding, simply because it has been shown so many times in so many different studies, is that liberals and conservatives have different personalities. Again and again, when they take the widely accepted Big Five personality traits test, liberals tend to score higher on one of the five major dimensions, [namely] “openness”: the desire to explore, to try new things, to meet new people…

Jonathan Haidt has covered this territory before. I often show this TED talk by Haidt to my ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ students.

Here’s the talk on YouTube.

Leon Wieseltier of ‘The New Republic’ Trashes Nate Silver’s Neo-Postivism

There’s been some buzz after Nate Silver criticized some opinion-makers and pundits as being essentially non-empirical and, therefore, no better than bullshitters. Leon Wieseltier, of The New Republic, seems offended:

[Silver] does not recognize the calling of, or grasp the need for, public reason; or rather, he cannot conceive of public reason except as an exercise in statistical analysis and data visualization.

Many of the issues that we debate are not issues of fact but issues of value. There is no numerical answer to the question of whether men should be allowed to marry men, and the question of whether the government should help the weak, and the question of whether we should intervene against genocide. And so the intimidation by quantification practiced by Silver and the other data mullahs must be resisted.

We say the following in philosophy a lot: “this is a philosophical question and not an empirical question.” Indeed, it is hard to see how some empirical fact (whatever it is) could on its own justify a normative claim. Just because things are a certain way does not mean that they ought to be that way or ought not to be that way. On the other hand, philosophico-ethico questions are answered in a form that essentially involves rationality and inference and what propositions follow from what other propositions.

Silver proclaimed in the interview that “we’re not trying to do advocacy here. We’re trying to just do analysis. We’re not trying to sway public opinion on anything except trying to make them more numerate.” His distinction between analysis and advocacy is a little innocent. (Like the insistence of the man who went from the Times to ESPN that he is an “outsider.”) Is numeracy really what American public discourse most urgently lacks? And why would one boast of having no interest in the great disputations about injustice and inequality?