Friday, March 23, 2012

The Rich Are Less Ethical Than the Unrich

A study published by the National Academy of Sciences indicates that affluent Americans are likelier to break rules, lie, cheat, steal and otherwise behave unethically than less affluent Americans. The reason? Personal gain appears to justify any means that enables that gain. The more a person has gained the more license they feel to get more, by hook or by crook. I read about this in an excellent story written by Susan Perry, who writes for MinnPost here in Minneapolis.

This isn't true of ALL rich people. It's just a tendency, a small tendency really. Rich people are likelier to lie, cheat, steal, take advantage than poor people and average people. But if you asked most people about their judgments about strangers they meet on the street, they'd probably admit they are likelier to assume criminality among poor people than rich people who dress nicely and have expensive haircuts. Which shows how much common sense is worth. There are rich people who steal billions. (Fran Lebowitz once said a person doesn't earn a billion dollars, he steals it.) It's the poor kid taking a pair of shoes or a sixpack of pop who end up in prison. And the rich people who take/appropriate/finagle/chisel/steal billions are likelier to feel justified. The arbitrageur who uses a company's own money to take it over and then loots it, shuts its factories down and fires its workforce and puts their pension fund in his pocket, has no qualms because his personal wealth proves he is a good man. Maybe poor people wind up in prison because they have the honesty to feel guilty.

So wealth tends to confer a sense of license or entitlement. Here's a nifty set of infographics.

That word again. "Entitlement" is one of the dirtiest words among pundits these days. It appears––among the rich anyway–– that "entitlements" are only wrong if they are given to people who need them or have earned them. If you consider that rich people are (according to this research study) likelier to take what isn't due to them, likelier to butt in line, likelier to cut people off, likelier to lie for their own gain, the other side of this coin is worth looking at too, namely that poor people or people of average income are likelier to wait their turn, refuse what isn't due them (or what might not be due them), likelier to yield advantage to others, likelier to concede in a dispute, to compromise, to forgive, likelier to play fair politically and likelier to accept adverse events without complaint, events such as stolen elections, unfairly foreclosed mortgages, stolen trillions on Wall Street, jobs and wages and pensions lost in order to enrich those higher up on the income scale. And yet we tend to judge these people more harshly. We tend to think they aren't as good as someone who's got lots of money.

Dressing well and driving an expensive car and living in a fine house in a fine neighborhood and having wealthy friends sanitizes your behavior, or that is the common belief. And not only among the rich. Those unrich people who yielded when cut off in traffic, who went along with being lied to, who accepted being cheated or stepped on, acquiesced to the wrongdoing. Wealth breeds arrogance, but poverty breeds obedience. It's like they said in the middle ages: "might makes right." What was true then, before democracy made the world fair, is still true. Maybe this fair world we grew up in was only temporary.

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