Sunday, January 5, 2014

The return of Social Darwinism

Over the past year or so, I've noticed a distinct theme emerging on the right wing/conservative end of the policy spectrum. The idea that the U.S. is a pure "meritocracy," that the rich deserve their privilege by being better and more moral people than the poor, and the poor deserve their plight though their bad behavior. Read any comments section about the declining living standards in America, and there will plenty of comments about how the poor deserve their plight through some sort of bad behavior. They had kids too early, or dropped out of college. Or, if they went to college, they didn't pick the right major, etc. etc. Meanwhile, the people in Manhattan, suburban Washington DC or Silicon Valley are good, upstanding, hyper-productive citizens who get married, finish post graduate school, have kids at the right time, and thus deserve every penny of their outsized salaries.

The most infamous proponent of the is view is David Brooks, who wrote:
    It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.

    The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

    Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.
Yes, disciplined and productive, that describes our one-percenters all right. It's hard work lobbying politicians, looting the treasury and defending your wealth, after all.  But it's interesting to note that Social Darwinism and eugenics are becoming all the rage once again now that inequality is at the same levels that they were at the first time Social Darwinism became the governing philosophy of the ruling elites. Coincidence? Then there is the obvious irony of a party whose policies are built around Social Darwinism, yet most of whose members actually reject Darwinian evolution. You'll see similar arguments often made by rightist intellectuals like Charles Murray and Tyler Cowen. As a commenter to the article below put it, "What's scarier to me than the rich thinking they're superior is the poor who agree with them."
...Say you’re in that top 0.01 percent—or even the top 50 percent. Would you want to admit happenstance as a benefactor? Wouldn’t you rather believe that you earned your wealth, that you truly deserve it? Wouldn’t you like to think that any resources you inherited are rightfully yours, as the descendant of fundamentally exceptional people? Of course you would. New research indicates that in order to justify your lifestyle, you might even adjust your ideas about the power of genes. The lower classes are not merely unfortunate, according to the upper classes; they are genetically inferior.

In several experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology...Kraus and Keltner found that the higher people perceived their social class to be, the more strongly they endorsed just-world beliefs, and that this difference explained their increased social class essentialism: Apparently if you feel that you’re doing well, you want to believe success comes to those who deserve it, and therefore those of lower status must not deserve it. (Incidentally, the argument that you “deserve” anything because of your genes is philosophically contentious; none of us did anything to earn our genes.)...Numerous researchers have found that upper-class people are more likely to explain other people’s behavior by appealing to internal traits and abilities, whereas lower-class individuals note circumstances and environmental forces.

There is a grain to truth to social class essentialism; the few studies on the subject estimate that income, educational attainment, and occupational status are perhaps at least 10 percent genetic (and maybe much more). It makes sense that talent and drive, some portion of which are related to genetic variation, contribute to success. But that’s a far cry from saying “It is possible to determine one’s social class by examining his or her genes.” Such a statement ignores the role of wealth inheritance, the social connections one shares with one’s parents, or the educational opportunities family money can buy—not to mention strokes of good or bad luck (that are not tied to karma)...The income distribution in the United States provides a good example. In 2012 the top 0.01 percent of households earned an average of $10.25 million, while the mean household income for the country overall was $51,000. Are top earners 200 times as smart as the rest of the field? Doubtful. Do they have the capacity to work 200 times more hours in the week? Even more doubtful. Many forces out of their control, including sheer luck, are at play.

Social class essentialism is basically inciting social Darwinism. This distortion of Darwin’s theory of evolution, in one interpretation, is the belief that only the fit survive and thrive—and, further, that this process should be accepted or even accelerated by public policy. It’s an example of the logical fallacy known as the “appeal to nature”—what is natural is good. (If that were true, technology and medicine would be moral abominations.) Social class essentialism entails belief in economic survival of the fittest as a fact. It might also entail belief in survival of the fittest as a desired end, given the results linking it to reduced support for restorative interventions. It’s one thing to say, “Those people can’t change, so let’s not waste our time.” It’s another to say, “Those people can’t change, so let’s lock them away.” Or eradicate them: Only four years ago, then-Lt. Gov. of South Carolina Andre Bauer told a town hall meeting that poor people, like “stray animals,” should not be fed, “because they breed.”

Kraus’ even more recent work, not yet published, goes beyond what high-status individuals believe in order to maintain the status hierarchy and explores what they do. Consider Congress. Members’ median net worth, in 2011, was $966,000. “They’re quite wealthy individuals,” Kraus says. “And because they’re wealthy they’re likely to engage in not only these essentialistic [mental] processes, but these people actually have power to enact laws to maintain inequality.” A top adviser to the U.K.’s education secretary just produced a report arguing that “discussions on issues such as social mobility entirely ignore genetics.” He claimed that school performance is as much as 70 percent genetic and criticized England’s Sure Start program as a waste of money. (As Scott Barry Kaufman, an intelligence researcher at NYU and the author of Ungifted, points out, “Since genes are always interacting with environmental triggers, there is simply no way to parse how much of an individual child’s performance is due to nature or nurture.”)
Social Darwinism Isn’t Dead. Rich people think they really are different from you and me. (Slate)
A growing body of recent research shows that people with the most social power pay scant attention to those with little such power. This tuning out has been observed, for instance, with strangers in a mere five-minute get-acquainted session, where the more powerful person shows fewer signals of paying attention, like nodding or laughing. Higher-status people are also more likely to express disregard, through facial expressions, and are more likely to take over the conversation and interrupt or look past the other speaker.

A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain. In 2008, social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam and the University of California, Berkeley, studied pairs of strangers telling one another about difficulties they had been through, like a divorce or death of a loved one. The researchers found that the differential expressed itself in the playing down of suffering. The more powerful were less compassionate toward the hardships described by the less powerful.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, and Michael W. Kraus, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have done much of the research on social power and the attention deficit.

Mr. Keltner suggests that, in general, we focus the most on those we value most. While the wealthy can hire help, those with few material assets are more likely to value their social assets: like the neighbor who will keep an eye on your child from the time she gets home from school until the time you get home from work. The financial difference ends up creating a behavioral difference. Poor people are better attuned to interpersonal relations — with those of the same strata, and the more powerful — than the rich are, because they have to be.

While Mr. Keltner’s research finds that the poor, compared with the wealthy, have keenly attuned interpersonal attention in all directions, in general, those with the most power in society seem to pay particularly little attention to those with the least power. To be sure, high-status people do attend to those of equal rank — but not as well as those low of status do.
Rich People Just Care Less (New York Times)
In August, Science published a landmark study concluding that poverty, itself, hurts our ability to make decisions about school, finances, and life, imposing a mental burden similar to losing 13 IQ points.

It was widely seen as a counter-argument to claims that poor people are "to blame" for bad decisions and a rebuke to policies that withhold money from the poorest families unless they behave in a certain way. After all, if being poor leads to bad decision-making (as opposed to the other way around), then giving cash should alleviate the cognitive burdens of poverty, all on its own.
Your Brain on Poverty: Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions (The Atlantic)
What have I learned from knowing both Mr one-glove and Takeesha? Here's my one-line answer:

    When you're wealthy you make mistakes. When you are poor you go to jail.

Yes, it is like comparing apples and oranges. That is the point though. We have built two very different societies with two very different sets of values. Takeesha was born into a world with limited opportunities, one where the black market has filled the void. In her world transgressions are resolved via violence, not lawyers. The law as applied to her is simple and stark, with little wiggle room.

Mr one-glove was born into a world with many options. The laws of his land are open for interpretation, and with the right lawyer one can navigate in the vast grey area and never do anything wrong. The rules are often written by and for Mr one-glove and his friends.
The wealthy 'make mistakes', the poor go to jail (The Guardian)
On 15 June, Ethan, 16, was driving with a blood-alcohol level three times above the legal limit. He lost control of his speeding pick-up truck and killed four pedestrians. On Tuesday, he was sentenced to serve in a high-priced California drug rehabilitation centre paid for by the parents, with no jail time and 10 years of probation.

It's the court case that has made the "affluenza defence" a household word, as Ethan's lawyers successfully argued he had a diminished sense of responsibility due to his wealth, pampered childhood, and absentee parenting. Ever since the sentence came down, the media have been rolling in shock and outrage.

The judge "pretty much did what his parents had always done," writes Mike Hashimoto of the Dallas Morning News, "which is let him skate". It's an example of a two-tiered legal system in the US, he wrote, where the rich are treated better than the poor.
'Affluenza defence': Rich, privileged and unaccountable (BBC)


  1. Seen that mertiocracy meme around too. WTF?

    Here's a good'un:

    Here’s a doozy:

    “Just in case you were beginning to think rich people were deeply misunderstood and that they feel the pain of those who are less fortunate, here’s the world’s wealthiest woman, Australian mining tycoon Gina Rinehart, with some helpful advice.“If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain,” she said in a magazine piece. “Do something to make more money yourself—spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working.”

    Rinehart made her money the old-fashioned way: she inherited it. Her family iron ore prospecting fortune of $30.1 billion makes her Australia’s wealthiest person and the richest woman on the planet.“There is no monopoly on becoming a millionaire,” she said by way of encouragement. “Become one of those people who work hard, invest and build, and at the same time create employment and opportunities for others.”

    Why are people poor? Rinehart blamed what she described as “socialist,” anti-business government policies, and urged Australian officials to lower the minimum wage and cut taxes. “The millionaires and billionaires who choose to invest in Australia are actually those who most help the poor and our young,” she said. “This secret needs to be spread widely.”“,0,3323996.story

  2. There's no question about the USA being a 'pure' meritocracy - but my current thinking is that artificial institutional factors (e.g. the barriers put up to productive enterprise by the college-degree racket, and a myriad of government licensing and regulatory structures which heavily favor insiders) are at most on a par with lower-class cultural failure and individual irresponsibility. I know a number of people who have low money incomes but without any of the blight connoted by "low income," who haven't outrun the formal class-system treadmill but rather defy the paradigm entirely.

    You can blame all sorts of environmental or social factors for contributing to phenomena like out-of-wedlock pregnancy or impoverished single parenthood, chronic indebtedness, obesity, and self-destructive indulgence in drink, drugs, or gambling, and ultimate failure to teach one's children to avoid one's own life mistakes - but ultimately one group has (typically) made a continuous series of poor decisions and thereby surrendered control of their own lives, while another has leveraged the advantages the modern world has to offer (to name one example, the near-free access to limitless knowledge offered by the Internet) to do quite well without any sort of special advantage.

    In other words, it's every bit as significant that the lower classes see "circumstances and environmental forces" as primarily determining outcomes, as it is that a private-equity mogul thinks his billions are the result of intelligence and pluck, rather than the government policy to perpetually gun asset prices and reward indiscriminate leveraged speculation.

    For most people in most parts of a rich country like the USA, the route to a decent life just isn't that obscure or unattainable. It's something of an oversimplification - but the main difference between today and the USA of the 1950s is that having a 'decent life' once required little more than showing up for work with all other critical decisions outsourced: marriage, family and child-rearing to the stable multi-generational family, the church and other structures of moral guidance; pensions and health care to the employer; savings and borrowing/credit to local, small-scale bankers and financial advisers operating in a system of honest hard money and slow but steady financial returns. People today must assume far greater responsibility for avoiding pitfalls in their own lives, and a large proportion of them are simply not up to the task.

    Obviously, the thing to do is accept this as the reality and construct a system based on that reality - but it's not something that bears any relationship to the typical all-encompassing narratives of the left or the right.

    1. "People today must assume far greater responsibility for avoiding pitfalls in their own lives, and a large proportion of them are simply not up to the task."

      Heh. Except for the rich and powerful who lean on the government to bail them out. Viz just down the pike: the people who knew about Madoff's scheme but allowed it to continue for years are not held responsible. And the government agencies that turned a blind eye are showing up for a good chunk of the settlement.

      What system would you construct past the limits of leftright politics?

    2. I think the presidency of George W. Bush pretty conclusively proved we're not a meritocracy...

      That second-to-last paragraph is a good point. As an anecdotal example, I can think of my mother's peers. They came from lower/working class backgrounds. They certainly had their own share of ups- and-downs (divorces, addictions, and so on), but were still able to have decent lives because they had lifetime employment, plentiful jobs, pensions, unions looking out for them, and so on. The ones who leveraged that into an upper-middle-class existence were able to purchase the requisite advantages to keep their offspring (for now) in the upper-middle class. My own mother was able to support me without a college education thanks to an evil "government job." Without that, I would not have had food or health care growing up. And yet government jobs are being slashed at the local level. And yet we're told we're going to be better off by this? What happens when those hungry, sick kids grow up? Will this be a better country?

      But for some others, their children are often not doing as well. So how can that be genetic? That's a lot of change in just one generation, unless humans are mutating hundreds of times faster than fruit flies. Yet, the Republicans are whipping up this Social Darwinist/genetics meme as an explanation for the spiraling poverty of society. What's worse, a lot of people are buying it once again.

      Some conservatives blame a "cultural values shift" since the sixties. But most of us were born after the sixties. I doubt forcing women to marry to support themselves was the key to economic prosperity. In fact, we're told that sending women into the workforce has enabled economic growth! WTF! And we constantly hear about how much more religious we are today, and how much more of an impact religious fundamentalism has had in this new "Great Awakening." You could find people trying to explain social failure by appealing to morals back in ancient Rome too. It didn't work back then, either.

      As I've said before, this is the "Final Solution for the working class." And they are trying to justify it the same way the Nazis did - by claiming that their victims are inferior human beings.

    3. Heh. How could a system where psychopaths rise into power and run rampant be a meritocracy?! Meritocracies are about, erm, meritorious behavior. At least that's what Jefferson thought. :-) And he got it from the Indians.


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