"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Do Rich People Care Less?

Bashing the rich is sport these days.  Any with a lot of money is suspect.  One Percenters attained their wealth, say ‘progressives’, through devious and immoral means.  If you are gay, black, female, or fat you are protected by restrictive PC rules of engagement. If you are wealthy, God help you.

The latest in the attempt to disparage, demean, and dismiss the rich is the assertion that they are indifferent to people below them in social status – the Latino leaf blower, the painter, garbage collector, or mailman.  Poor people, again say ‘progressives’, are more attuned to social interaction and live in respectful cooperative communities.  They have developed a system of cooperation and caring that has eluded the arrogant, insular, and dismissive rich.

Daniel Goleman, writing in the New York Times (10.6.13), suggests that this social indifference is yet another symptom of the increasing inequality in America:

Turning a blind eye. Giving someone the cold shoulder. Looking down on people. Seeing right through them. These metaphors for condescending or dismissive behavior are more than just descriptive. They suggest, to a surprisingly accurate extent, the social distance between those with greater power and those with less — a distance that goes beyond the realm of interpersonal interactions and may exacerbate the soaring inequality in the United States.

This is of course nonsense.  People, no matter what their socio-economic status, pay attention only to those who can harm or benefit them.  The underclass may be more alert to those around them because they are poorly insulated from risk and always have to rely on the assistance of family, friends, and neighbors to survive. The rich can simply pay for protection, care, and support; and those who provide these services are off their social grid, non-persons who are needed only when the grass needs mowing. Otherwise the radar never picks them up.

I am not sure what Mr. Goleman is suggesting.  Perhaps he would like a wealthy businessman to invite Jose in for a beer after he has finished cleaning the gutters; or to talk football with Randy from Rockville after he has fixed the pipes.

A few years ago I noticed a police car always parked in front of a house in our neighborhood – far from the leafy, wealthy core that gives University Heights its character, but for administrative reasons included within it.  The car was not there on business but because the cop lived there.

“Isn’t it wonderful that we have a police family in our area?”, remarked a neighbor. She went on to say that economic and social diversity was what America is all about, and that it was good for us professionals and corporate executives to rub shoulders with the working class.  Not only was this an idealistic claim – the cop didn’t know shit from Shinola, was only in the house because he had inherited it from an elderly uncle, had a wife who did hair at Dot’s Beauty Parlor in Gaithersburg, and whose kids had never figured out how to get past third grade, but an unrealistic one.  Shortly after the cop finally moved out into a more appropriate neighborhood, the house was gutted, renovated, enlarged, and sold for a price consistent with the considerable market value of the area.  A lawyer with Smith, Lockwood, Paul, and Goldstein moved in.

The cop may have lived in University Heights, but he was no different from Jose or Randy from Rockville. He was a paid worker, an employee.  He fixed crime like Randy fixed pipes. No one ever invited him in for tea.

The fact that the rich are indifferent to those beneath them in social standing does not mean that they are not acute, perceptive, and savvy about human society.  If anything, they are more so.  Captains of industry did not make it to the top of the ladder by being nice.  They took the lay of the land and assayed all with canniness and self-interest. They set traps for the unaware, mined their perimeters against assault from corporate raiders, curried favor with potential allies, and deployed minions and underlings, and bought their loyalty with bagatelles.

The rich are unhappy in their fortified, dehumanized world, say the Occupy Left; but nothing could be farther from the truth.  Randy from Rockville would only have to catch a glimpse of Madame X carving the first trail down the mountain at Aspen, tacking in a brisk breeze off the Vineyard, or sipping a fine Sauternes with her foie gras to know that not only are the rich different from him, they have a far better life.

Mr. Goleman laments the rising inequalities in America:

Since the 1970s, the gap between the rich and everyone else has skyrocketed. Income inequality is at its highest level in a century. This widening gulf between the haves and have-less troubles me, but not for the obvious reasons. Apart from the financial inequities, I fear the expansion of an entirely different gap, caused by the inability to see oneself in a less advantaged person’s shoes. Reducing the economic gap may be impossible without also addressing the gap in empathy.

Ah, the empathy gap.  Putting oneself in the shoes of the less fortunate. A ‘progressive’ dream of one-world harmony.  However, Madame X does not have to put on the brogans of Randy from Rockville to understand how he functions in the socio-economic system of America.  Nor does she have to be shod like him to understand how his plight affects her economic interests.  It was fine for Marie Antoinette to prattle on at tea in the gardens of Versailles about the unwashed; but another thing entirely for her to ignore their concerns.  It was all well and good for the Shah of Iran to spend hundreds of millions on the 5000th anniversary of Persepolis and throw the grandest party since the days of Cleopatra; but another to neglect his starving people.

I really don’t need to know about the nasty life of a minimum wage waitress from Meridian, or the black cleaning lady from East Columbus, let alone empathize with them.  What I need to do is understand them as economic entities. Why are they un- or marginally employed?  Why are the schools in Mississippi so shitty?  Why do the poorest residents of the state, dependent on government for the only safety net they have, bang on like Tea Party zealots about getting Washington off their backs?

I don’t have to see their cracker shacks, drink cheap beer, tuck into butt ends and cornpone, or make Sunday outings to Walmart and McDonalds to figure out a way to improve their economic prospects.  I do not have to see them as individuals, love them as people, or enjoy their company to act in their behalf.

America may be a democracy, but it is still the world of Charles Dickens.  The tony enclaves of Georgetown, Spring Valley, or Cleveland Park have nothing at all in common with the double-wide trailer parks of Aberdeen, Caledonia, or Artesia.  There has never been a classless, uniform, and undivided society in human history.  The famous social harmony of the Trobriand Islanders, limned by Margaret Mead, was a figment of her imagination and a product of her idealistic academic whims.

So, Mr. Goleman, get over it.  Human nature rules; and the best we can hope for is using our brains a bit more, not our bleeding hearts.  

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