Friday, June 21, 2013

The Pernicious Effects of Wealth

"Exploring the Psychology of Wealth, 'Pernicious' Effects of Economic Inequality" is the title of a PBS Newshour report tonight  on University of California study that addresses the question of whether and how the amount of wealth one has affects the kind of person one is. The supposedly surprising conclusion (although I can't imagine why anyone would be surprised) is that it does - and negatively. According to the report (which one can watch for oneself at drivers of luxury cars. for example, were more likely to ignore crosswalks. Likewise in the experiments being reported, the better off were twice as likely to help themselves twice as much to candy supposedly intended for kids, more likely to cheat in games of chance, etc. 

Again, I don't know why anyone should be particularly surprised. The "generosity is for suckers/greed is good" mentality generally resonates more with those who have than with those who have not. Entitlement is indeed a perniciously powerful emotion. The study suggests what our politics and culture confirm all the time, namely that rich people tend to ascribe their advantages to themselves and their own merit and tend to ignore the social factors which contributed to their success. (Does anyone recall the ridiculous "We built it" sloganeering from last year's political campaign?)

All of which reminds me of my favorite Adam Smith quote: “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition ... is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages” (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759, Part I, Chapter iii).

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