Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ideology of self-interest

According to the authors of a recent article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association of Psychological Science, the notion of social class is very much relevant to the current debates on public policy.

Dacher Keltner, a psychologist and social scientist, and one of the co-authors of the article, observes that social class plays a very significant role in America’s ongoing philosophical battle over the economy, taxes, debt ceilings and defaults. Keltner says that the great divide of opinions between the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress is partly rooted in an upper class “ideology of self-interest.”

Dominoes of default. Photo courtesy of Third Way. Click link below to view  video: Opening
Tease (of From People Like Us):

“The rich are really different, and not in a good way,” Keltner says.

Keltner and his co-authors, Michael W. Kraus and Paul K. Piff—all three are from the University of California—have based their observations on twelve separate studies they conducted to measure empathy, social behaviour and work compassion. In every study they conducted, it was the same conclusion they gathered.

According to the study, rich people are more likely to think about themselves. Their life experience makes them less empathetic, less altruistic, and generally more selfish. On the other side, Keltner says that “lower class people just show more empathy, more pro-social behaviour, more compassion, no matter how you look at it.”

Keltner also implies that if we are attempting to restructure society in the hope that rich people will help those less fortunate, then we are wrong. “The idea of noblesse oblige or trickle-down economics, or certain versions of it, is bull,” Keltner says. According to Keltner, “Our data say you cannot rely on the wealthy to give back. The ‘thousand points of light’—this rise of compassion in the wealthy to fix all the problems of society—is improbable, psychologically.”

Aren’t the tax cuts for the wealthy during the Bush administration and extended by President Barack Obama predicated on the assumption that the rich will invest more and create jobs?

Instead, the U.S. economy flounders and the unemployment rate keeps rising. Worse, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives kept hammering Obama to further reduce the deficit and cut entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid which in the long run will only hurt those who have less.

But in reality, altruism is not exactly a rich person’s strong suit. As Ayn Rand, hero to the followers of the Tea Party, has said: “It is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.”

It is the American Dream to rise from below, from a life of poverty to a life of comfort. It might as well be for every poor immigrant to dream to rise in class, which is why so many Third World immigrants are leaving in search of better lives in the West.

But many studies have found that as people move up in their social class, they become less empathetic. As people accumulate wealth, they lose the urge to connect and be closer to others.

Whether this is the kind of culture that rising in social class brings about is somewhat very disturbing. Does moving up in life generally mean abandoning your passion for helping others who have less in life?

Here’s a group of professional Filipinos in Toronto, by way of an example. They are Filipino Canadians, mostly successful in their new lives as immigrants, who celebrate summer by holding a picnic and barbecue cooking contest. Each contestant is asked to use his or her own barbecue recipe and whoever grills the best-liked barbecue would be declared the year’s Champion Chef. There would be plenty of food for everyone—beef, chicken, pork, plus fresh fruits and tables-full of Philippine dishes.

Not that this is an indictment against summer barbecues or even about gluttony. Except that the group’s invitation came at a time after I had just read the stories of famine in Somalia and in other parts of the Horn of Africa. The emaciated and grim faces of thin children who had not eaten for days were flashed on television during the evening news and kept staring onto the viewer the whole time. The horrifying images stayed with me many hours afterwards and then I began to wonder … what if we sent the picnic’s bounty of food to these hungry children? Then at least we’d feel less guilty and be able to help erase hunger even for a fleeting moment.
Famine in Somalia, United Nations Photo, August 7, 2011. Click link below to view, "Somali famine refugees moved
 to new camp," Reuters video. 
Famine, of course, will not be solved or wiped out by just sending food to the hungry. But showing that we were moved by the appalling images of hungry people, who were not responsible for their condition in the first place, could be a positive little step towards alleviating hunger and famine. Empathy becomes even more significant at a time when we have so much to eat and to share while others in many parts of the world starve.

The same goes for our community’s penchant for celebrating pageantry—whether through dancing or beauty contests, even the parading of lechons (roast pigs) in public, when many of our countrymen back home are struggling to put food on their tables.

In Metro Manila, for instance, the number of urban poor is staggering. Urban poverty has worsened while the Aquino government’s only accomplishment after a year in office is getting rid of “wang-wang,” or horn-blasters in city streets. The country is beset with a flawed agrarian reform program that’s causing huge urban migration which both local and national governments have no capacity to deal with.

The Aquino government has no effective answer to the growing exodus of families from the rural areas and the concomitant rise in unemployment it brings. Yet, the government continues to rely on its Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program or payout to the poor which has proven to be ineffective and prone to corruption.
A sewer runs through it. Photo by Omsel. Click link below to view Bulatlat video:
The CCT scheme is not a solution to poverty. What the poor need are long-term poverty alleviation measures such as job creation and provision of basic social services.

Even our leaders in government, who have all moved up in social class just like our successful Filipino immigrants here in Toronto, have shown neither empathy nor compassion for the disaffected.

The sad reality is not everyone will be able to rise in the ladder of life.

In fact, even if some do join those in the middle (20 per cent) and upper classes (one per cent) of our society, they will likely assimilate the profligate spending habits and excesses of the rich. Starting with President P-Noy and his much-vaunted purchase of a Porsche to the mega-mansions of scions from this privileged class—all have shown an absence of awareness of the bigger society around them, a paucity of benevolence and compassion for millions of our poor compatriots still living in want—in hovels without water, without the basic necessities to live a human existence.

The ability to rise above one’s class is everyone’s great dream. But when those in the upper echelons of society or those in the so-called higher social class flaunt their wealth and decadent ways without as much a thought as to how their actions will affect the many poor, we can witness another London-in-the-making in our midst. Yes, unrest from the margins of society will build up sooner than we dare to dream to rise above our class origins.

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