Essayist and book critic William Dereseiwicz wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times on Sunday called “Fables of Wealth.” It’s worth both lengthy excerpts and a few discussions, because its topic, a criticism of capitalism as a system that benefits psychopaths, is so rarely laid forth so brutally in mainstream press – even in so-called liberal media as the Times, even in an op-ed piece. But here we have it.
A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are “clinical psychopaths,” exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.” (The proportion at large is 1 percent.) Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and break the law…
The only thing that puzzles me about these claims is that anyone would find them surprising. Wall Street is capitalism in its purest form, and capitalism is predicated on bad behavior…
Enron, BP, Goldman, Philip Morris, G.E., Merck, etc., etc. Accounting fraud, tax evasion, toxic dumping, product safety violations, bid rigging, overbilling, perjury. The Walmart bribery scandal, the News Corp. hacking scandal — just open up the business section on an average day. Shafting your workers, hurting your customers, destroying the land. Leaving the public to pick up the tab. These aren’t anomalies; this is how the system works: you get away with what you can and try to weasel out when you get caught…
There are ethical corporations, yes, and ethical businesspeople, but ethics in capitalism is purely optional, purely extrinsic. To expect morality in the market is to commit a category error. Capitalist values are antithetical to Christian ones. (How the loudest Christians in our public life can also be the most bellicose proponents of an unbridled free market is a matter for their own consciences.) Capitalist values are also antithetical to democratic ones. Like Christian ethics, the principles of republican government require us to consider the interests of others. Capitalism, which entails the single-minded pursuit of profit, would have us believe that it’s every man for himself…
|Wall St Solo – Montusci via Flickr|
And on the “Wealth Creators” and “Shouldn’t the Risk-Takers and the Hard-Workers and the Smartest Earn their Rewards?” fables:
[I]f entrepreneurs are job creators, workers are wealth creators. Entrepreneurs use wealth to create jobs for workers. Workers use labor to create wealth for entrepreneurs — the excess productivity, over and above wages and other compensation, that goes to corporate profits. It’s neither party’s goal to benefit the other, but that’s what happens nonetheless…
MOST important, neither entrepreneurs nor the rich have a monopoly on brains, sweat or risk. There are scientists — and artists and scholars — who are just as smart as any entrepreneur, only they are interested in different rewards. A single mother holding down a job and putting herself through community college works just as hard as any hedge fund manager. A person who takes out a mortgage — or a student loan, or who conceives a child — on the strength of a job she knows she could lose at any moment (thanks, perhaps, to one of those job creators) assumes as much risk as someone who starts a business.
He then ends with a quote by Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse 5, but I’d like to excerpt a longer quote:
America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves.… It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.
Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.
What Vonnegut says here is complicated and needs a moment to unpack. It has elements of damning truth and yet damning self-defeating lies in it. Throughout the history of the world, the most generous people have been the poor. But they’ve also tended to be those with the most violence inflicted upon them. The first to go to war, the first to be attacked, the first to go hungry or homeless, to last to receive medical attention, the last to be protected and the first to be unprotected. But with what little they have, they share. That’s the nature of hospitality and community. That’s why, when Sodom is condemned in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is for the sin of inhospitality (in both the Genesis and the Ezekiel accounts – both the Law and the Prophets condemned them for being mean to strangers and to their own). That’s why Jesus tells his disciples to go from town to town and just accept the open arms and doors and meals of those they meet in their way. Because, generally speaking, they can expect to find that. It wasn’t a miracle; it was the way of life. And if a town did not accept them? They were to insult them by wiping the dust from their feet.
|People on Stairs – Patrick Moyan via Flickr|
This level of hospitality is much harder to come by in America. We’ve been trained that being able is to be fully self-sufficient and completely independent. We’ve been trained to believe that if we’re not self-sufficient, there is something wrong with us. We’ve been trained to believe that if we work hard and smart and long enough, we’ll reach that plateau finally, the one we deserve – self-sufficiency and, even more anticipated, luxury. As a friend from the Middle East put it, in the US we are so used to outsourcing everything we are not able to find the assets of our own community.
This isn’t true across the board, even in America. Poor and working class communities of color tend to be more community-oriented than poor and working class white communities – but this culture of outsourcing and consumeristic value has deeply infected much of the African American community as well, which is part of the reason SUVs and items of clothing are symbols of status – are seen as a replacements for the breakdown and rape and humiliation of their history and culture by the ruling classes, who are eased by the social and psychological humiliation they’ve heaped on to lower class whites, many of whom blame other poor people – in addition to themselves secretly – for their status.
It is here where it becomes important to note that we need solidarity, not more division. But without recognizing the sources of our division, we cannot truly unite.
Now, about those studies that purport that the rich are less ethical than the poor?
In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.
It’s like we’re all lost in the supermarket…