Julie Hotard: Why Are We Deferring to the 1%?

Civil Society, Cultural Intelligence
Julie Hotard
Julie Hotard

Understanding How Gates, Kochs, Waltons and Buffett Are Just Like the Rest of Us

Julie H. Hotard, Ph. D.

Web site:  http://blog.psyview.net/

Right now, we Americans seem to be sitting at a meeting table with the billionaire boss for whom we are currently working.  We are hoping that he will come up with the solutions to the problems of U.S.A. Incorporated— even though he has never set foot on the factory floor.  Everyone is afraid to tell him what is going on there.  The questions we ought to ask ourselves now are: Are we going to keep doing this?  Or are we willing to try a different approach?   

One core characteristic of American culture is our extreme focus on wealthy people and celebrities.  One possible answer to the question of why we act this way is found in recent statistics regarding the growing inequality of economic opportunity.   The recent work of political scientists Gilens and Page points to another reason– the lack of influence of ordinary Americans on government policy.  It appears that Americans are directing so much of our energy toward celebrities and super wealthy people because these people hold almost all of the nation’s power right now.

Although our culture greatly values freedom and independence, those qualities are shrinking very quickly in the financial and political areas.  Some writers have suggested that the U.S. is headed in the direction of becoming a Third World country.  Are we going to be reduced to a feudal state populated by hordes of peasants—all gossiping about the lords, because the lords control everyone else’s fate?  Is that why so many Americans seem to think that the ideas of non-celebrities are not worth hearing?

Many of us have been present in a common business situation– a meeting where people are discussing ideas.  Someone expresses an idea for solving a problem.  Everyone ignores it and goes on—just as if no one had said anything.  Later the CEO expresses exactly the same idea, and people lavish praise upon him.  Maybe the person who originally had the idea gives up and stops thinking of new ideas.  This is a huge problem.  We treat each other this way constantly, in our wealth and celebrity focused culture.  And it hurts us all.  It causes many lower class and middle class people to feel as if they are invisible and will remain so, unless they become wealthy or famous.

Given that this seems to be the psychological state of our culture, it makes sense to look into our psyches a bit—both the psyches of the 1% and the psyches of the 99%.  Understanding this area could be the key to unlocking our nation’s potential.  We have been developing wonderful technological capabilities that can change the world for the better.  What we most often lack is the political and psychological will to make our world better.

As a psychologist, I look at political and economic situations from a unique perspective.  I’ll focus here on the economic situation for you and me– and also for members of the 1%.  We’re very similar in many ways.  In fact, to keep things simple, I’ll describe some basic aspects of human psychology— some aspects that are pretty much the same in humans as they are in cows munching grass in pastures.  Some people don’t realize that these basic characteristics apply to the super wealthy individuals who have the lion’s share of the influence in our political policies.

We Are Creatures of Habit

Humans, whether rich or poor, are creatures of habit.  We get into a pattern of action and keep doing that pattern over and over– even if it doesn’t work.  It’s difficult to break a habit like overeating, drinking too much or overspending.  The positive side of habits is that the so-called Positive Addiction, as described in William Glasser’s book of that name, can be fairly easy for us to keep as well.

Animals are creatures of habit too.  Cows get in the habit of munching on grass when they’re hungry.  It works.  They keep doing it.

We all know what our own habits are.  What habits of the super wealthy are like the cows’ habit of munching on grass?  For many of them, the primary habit is maintaining and building their wealth, power and status.  They have practiced this and seen people around them doing this more often than you have seen the sun rising in the morning.  As sure as you are that the sun will rise tomorrow, that’s how sure many super wealthy people feel in their knowledge that the central meaning of lives is to maintain and increase their money, power and status.

We Seek Pleasure/Rewards and Avoid Pain/Punishments

Most of us would rather feel well than feel badly.  Unless some more important value changes our minds, most of us are going to do what that feel good and avoid what feels bad.  For most of us, the things money can buy make us feel good.  Of course, people in any social class can have other values that are more important to them than money is.

When cows munch on grass, they are rewarded with nutrition, energy and probably a good taste.  That makes it even more likely that they’ll continue.

Many Humans Are Willing to Be Dishonest

Many humans are willing to be at least a bit deceptive in order to obtain a reward or avoid a punishment.

It isn’t true that “Everyone has his price.”  But some people do have their price.  For those who have their price, if they are very wealthy, they are likely to get their price offered to them at some time.  They may get offered a high price to use their power, authority, connections or resources to do something illegal or immoral.

That doesn’t excuse illegal behavior.  Illegal behavior, particularly when committed by highly privileged people, should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  However, Matt Taibbi has documented that the reverse is actually the case, in his recent book entitled The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.

We Are Influenced by the People and the Environment around Us

Human behavior is influenced by our environment and our peer group.  So is the behavior of cows.  Munching grass seems good to cows that are surrounded by grass.  If other cows keep munching it too, with apparent satisfaction, that perhaps makes it all the better.

One positive example of peer influence is the way that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates persuaded a number of other billionaires to give the majority of their wealth to charity.  Of course, there are also examples of negative effects of peer groups, such as what happened in the years just prior to 2008.  High level bankers and mortgage brokers felt peer pressure to take undue risks because their peers were making large amounts of money through high risk behaviors.  Those behaviors ended up bringing the world economy to its knees during the 2008 Financial Crisis.  Matt Taibbi and Michael Lewis have written extensively about this.

We Try to Understand Others through Our Needs, Desires, Emotions, and Experiences

You may sometimes think you know the reason for someone else’s actions.  How did you make your guess?  People usually make such guesses on the basis of what they themselves have felt or done in the same kind of situation.

Sometimes we understand others accurately and sometimes not.  It’s easy to make a wrong guess.  If the situation is not clear, it’s usually better to ask, rather than to make an assumption.

Some wealthy people are promoting solutions to public education problems, such as charter schools and Common Core standards.  They seem to sincerely believe that these are good solutions for students.  In time we’ll find out whether these solutions work or not.

Wealthy people probably came up with these solutions by generalizing from their own experiences.  For example, suppose a wealthy man grew up as a member of the upper middle class, attending an exclusive preparatory school.  He might decide that if students are not learning well in school, it must be due to the quality of the teachers, or perhaps due to the educational standards of the school.

This wealthy man’s own school experiences would not give him any insight into how the home environment affects poor children’s school performance.  It might be hard for him to imagine a home with no books, not enough food, and perhaps only one parent.  Perhaps that parent might be absent most of the time, due to working two jobs.  Or the parent might be psychotic or might be an addict.

Here is an article that describes some issues with the Common Core standards program.  The promoters of the program had assumed that low student test scores would be caused by the teacher’s actions, rather than being more related to the socioeconomic status of students.  That wasn’t true, so it is a huge mistake to evaluate teacher performance by the students’ test scores alone.

We All Want to Feel as if We’re Good People

We all want to feel like good people— whether we are or not.  However, we have different opinions as to what that means.  Many wealthy people donate to various causes– to the Ivy League college they attended, to homeless shelters or to the arts.  Some only donate to “causes” that increase their financial wealth.  For example, they may donate to “think tanks” that are actually “propaganda tanks”, for the purpose of promoting political policies that would cut their business costs, or increase their business profits.

Of course, each of us gets to decide what to do to feel good about ourselves.  We can’t decide that for anyone else.  It usually doesn’t solve any problems for us to focus on how wealthy people feel about whether they’re acting like good people or not.  The reason is that it is difficult for people of the lower or middle social classes to influence wealthy people.

For example, some people think they can shame corporation owners into valuing the social safety net, or into paying a living wage or into abiding by environmental regulations.  But shaming very wealthy people usually doesn’t work.  The reason is that most very wealthy people live sheltered lives, surrounded by yes men and yes women.  So if we try to shame them, they may never even hear about it.

Suppose you could surround yourself with people who would always make you feel like a good person.  If you automatically, without choosing it, got surrounded by such people, would you even notice it?  Or would you think “I’m doing well; I don’t see any problems.  Full speed ahead with my career goals.”  Would you notice what happened and make an effort to maintain contact with reality outside of your bubble?  The honest answer for most people is probably “No way.”

Many wealthy people live in a bubble without even knowing it.  The bubble makes it easy for America’s super wealthy class to “kill the bearer of bad news.”  The wealthy person may fire these “bearers” from their jobs.  Even if no one is ever fired for bringing bad news, associates of a wealthy person may still fear bad consequences from doing so.   They associate with the wealthy person because they want certain benefits.  The truth sometimes hurts.  Most people don’t want to hurt, or bite, the hand that feeds them—especially if that hand is feeding them lobster and caviar.

In summary, trying to shame super wealthy people into acting morally, is usually a lost cause.  What IS reasonable is for the rest of us to create laws requiring them to pay a living wage to their employees, to clean up their pollution and to never commit financial fraud.  Such laws need to be enforced strictly, once on the books.

Right now, we Americans seem to be sitting at a meeting table with the billionaire boss for whom we are currently working.  We are hoping that he will come up with the solutions to the problems of U.S.A. Incorporated— even though he has never set foot on the factory floor.  Everyone is afraid to tell him what is going on there.  The questions we ought to ask ourselves now are: Are we going to keep doing this?  Or are we willing to try a different approach?