A self-reinforcing cynicism

Fig. 1: How Rich People Get Rich (Jason Block, 2011, fair use).

Jason Block Fig. 1: How Rich People Get Rich (Jason Block, 2011, fair use).

So there’s an amusing little graphic (figure 1) going around that purports to show a distinction between how the rich view their own success and the reality behind that success. Except that it’s not so funny.

In essence, the rich generally claim that they got where they are through hard work and something called “merit.” The graphic (figure 1) adds in something called a “can-do attitude,” which we might take as self-confidence. Christopher Hayes, in Twilight of the Elites, summarizes it more succinctly: “The moral justification for meritocracy is straightforward: the meritocracy gives everyone what he or she deserves.”[1] Thomas M. Shapiro generalizes the belief as being held more widely:

A core element of the American credo is that talent, skill, hard work, and achievement largely determine life chances. We believe that everyone has a fair shot at whatever is valued or prized and that no individual or group is unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged.[2]

Importantly, the only way this myth can be true is if resource constraints—which obviously exist on a finite and highly populated world—do not limit opportunity. So I’ve called it the myth of unlimited opportunity and pointed out how it enables a stigmatization of the poor.[3] That’s because (I’m updating my older explanation here based on Richard Tarnas’ The Passion of the Western Mind) this myth can be traced fairly directly to the Protestant Reformation, which offered the prospect of an individual relationship with the god of Abraham—the Catholic Church had always insisted that the relationship is mediated through Church hierarchy—and which suggested that those who were bound for Heaven, that is, the “Select,” would be blessed with material prosperity and good fortune in this life on this planet.[4]

This, of course, is sweet for the rich. Whatever sins they have committed on the way to becoming rich are forgiven (as long as they succeeded in becoming rich), for their wealth is a sign that they are bound for Heaven. And of course, this is also about a prospect of eternal damnation for those who are not among the “Select”: Because they’re damned anyway, the morally superior (but self-righteous) can be said to have no duty toward the poor, who may be dismissed as “parasites.”

This should sound familiar. There’s more than a little morality play that undergirds the continuing push for an otherwise-discredited austerity[5]:

When applied to macroeconomics, this urge to find moral meaning creates in all of us a predisposition toward believing stories that attribute the pain of a slump to the excesses of the boom that precedes it—and, perhaps, also makes it natural to see the pain as necessary, part of an inevitable cleansing process. When Andrew Mellon told Herbert Hoover to let the Depression run its course, so as to “purge the rottenness” from the system, he was offering advice that, however bad it was as economics, resonated psychologically with many people (and still does).[6]

As Paul Krugman has noted, this morality play advances[7] a longstanding reactionary priority, that is, to roll back the New Deal reforms, which were seen as an intolerable repudiation of laissez-faire capitalism that opened the door for increased regulation and taxation—thus limiting profits.[8] This punishes the poor, which both serves elite interests[9] and aligns with binary thinking that associates good with “us” with rich with healthy with white with male (among others) against evil with “others” with poor with sick with black with female (among others).[10]

That workers and the poor in the United States exist to make the rich richer is implicitly acknowledged when the same movement for deregulation and tax reduction for the rich also undermines labor unions and the ability of unions to organize.[11] This isn’t just about increasing profits in the private sector: The attack on public sector unions, and especially despicably, on pensions, suggests an attack on workers regardless of who they work for.[12] Any remaining question is put to rest in examining which countries have and which countries have not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. There are only seven countries that have not: Belize, Comoros, Cuba, Palau, Sao Tome and Principe, South Africa, and the United States of America.[13] And why would the U.S., supposedly among the most human rights-conscious countries in the world (reality notwithstanding), be on this short, short list? I do not know, but the treaty binds into international human rights law[14] economic rights for all humans, including, in Article 6, “the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts.”[15]

The United States is also notoriously an anti-intellectual country. So I suppose I should not be surprised when a Facebook discussion regarding that graphic I mentioned at the beginning of this piece (figure 1), that had focused on the “merciless exploitation of the working class” included a brusque dismissal from an old friend of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative as being irrelevant. Even when pressed, she refused to confront the imperative. It is, after all, from another century. And, she claimed, she was interested in my opinion, not Kant’s. (I should have recognized this as a clue that we were not having an intellectual conversation.) Yet as near as I can tell, Kant’s categorical imperative is a foundation for all contemporary discussions of ethics and, if you do not accept this imperative, you cannot claim to be an ethical being. Here’s Richard Johannesen’s summary:

As touchstones to guide ethical behavior, Kant presented two forms of his Categorical Imperative. First: “Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to become a universal law.” We must ask ourselves, is the ethical principle that I am using to justify my choice a principle that I would want everyone to follow in similar situations? Is the ethical standard that I am following in a particular case one that I would agree should apply to everyone? Second: “Always act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, as an end, and never merely as a means.” Humans must not be treated simply or solely as things (means to an end), but always also as persons worthy of dignity and respect in themselves.[16]

Anyone who would bother to read this would recognize instantly the sorts of abuses that conservatives cherish and which liberals supposedly abhor. Indeed, capitalism as practiced would face considerable difficulty passing muster: the imperative forbids hypocrisy and the exploitation of humans. So to reject Kant is to very strongly suggest that like any good capitalist, you endorse hypocrisy and the exploitation of humans.

I’ve known this person for several years now. I do not seriously believe that she endorses hypocrisy and the exploitation of humans. But her bias against higher education—I have heard her say on numerous occasions that she believes a college degree is merely about jumping through the right administrative hoops—is on full display here. It makes her, wittingly or otherwise, complicit in the abuses that U.S. employers have become notorious for.[17]

But more significant than this tiff between her and me is the reminder that there is no way to persuade those who do not recognize the importance of education, or who think they can self-educate to the same effect, for they can so easily reject any evidence that challenges their cherished world view. Thomas Frank writes that “[e]ducation at the K-12 level . . . is the main place where average Kansans routinely encounter government, and for the [Conservatives] that encounter is often frustrating and offensive.” Even if not for the social “indoctrination” that Frank claims they object to most strenuously, I remember these schools as something like prisons, a memory reinforced when I tried substitute teaching a few years ago, and confirmed by psychologist Peter Gray.[18] No wonder, I think, the country is anti-intellectual.

My friend is no conservative. I tend to view her as a liberal disenchanted (but nonetheless a reliable voter) by politics as usually practiced and often discussed. Her cynicism about scholarly pursuit, however, advances a conservative cause.

  1. [1]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012), 51.
  2. [2]Thomas M. Shapiro, “Introduction,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 1-7.
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Myths,” August 15, 2009, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=701
  4. [4]Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Harmony, 1991).
  5. [5]Paul Krugman, “The Austerity Agenda,” New York Times, May 31, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/01/opinion/krugman-the-austerity-agenda.html; Paul Krugman, “The Excel Depression,” New York Times, April 18, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/opinion/krugman-the-excel-depression.html; Paul Krugman, “The 1 Percent’ Solution,” New York Times, April 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/26/opinion/krugman-the-one-percents-solution.html; Paul Krugman, “Years Of Tragic Waste,” New York Times, September 5, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/06/opinion/krugman-years-of-tragic-waste.html; Mike Konczal, “Reinhart/Rogoff-gate isn’t the first time austerians have used bad data,” Washington Post, April 20, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/04/20/reinhartrogoff-gate-isnt-the-first-time-austerians-have-used-bad-data/; Robert Kuttner, “Austerity never works: Deficit hawks are amoral — and wrong,” Salon, May 5, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/05/austerity_never_works_deficit_hawks_are_amoral_and_wrong/; Robert Kuttner , “The Debt We Shouldn’t Pay,” review of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber, New York Review of Books, May 9, 2013, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/may/09/debt-we-shouldnt-pay/; Matthew O’Brien, “Who is Defending Austerity Now?” Atlantic, April 22, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/04/the-excel-error-heard-round-the-world/275200/; Lynn Stuart Parramore, “Meet the 28-year-old Student Who Exposed Two Harvard Professors Whose Shoddy Research Drove Global Austerity,” Alternet, April 18, 2013, http://www.alternet.org/economy/meet-28-year-old-student-who-exposed-two-harvard-professors-whose-shoddy-research-drove; Jeff Spross, “Guess What? The Debt Everyone Is Freaking Out About Does Not Exist,” Alternet, February 25, 2013, http://www.alternet.org/guess-what-debt-everyone-freaking-out-about-does-not-exist; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “Paul Krugman’s right: Austerity kills,” Salon, May 19, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/19/paul_krugmans_right_austerity_kills/
  6. [6]Paul Krugman, “How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled,” New York Review of Books, June 6, 2013, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/jun/06/how-case-austerity-has-crumbled/
  7. [7]Krugman, “The Austerity Agenda.”
  8. [8]Michael Avery and Danielle McLaughlin, “How Conservatives Captured the Law,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 15, 2013, https://chronicle.com/article/How-Conservatives-Captured-the/138461/; Brian J. Glenn, “Conservatives and American Political Development,” Political Science Quarterly 125, no. 4 (2010): 611-638; Hyrum Lewis, “The Conservative Capture of Anti-Relativist Discourse in Postwar America,” Canadian Journal of History 43, no. 3 (2008): 451-475.; Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Crown, 1970); George Seldes, 1000 Americans: The Real Rulers of the U.S.A. (New York: Boni and Gaer, 1948; Joshua Tree, CA: Progressive, 2009).
  9. [9]Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Undeservingness,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 85-94.
  10. [10]Lorraine Code, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1991); Patricia Hill Collins, “Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination,” Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, Charles Lemert, ed., 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 541-552; Cornel West, “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 511-521.
  11. [11]Nithin Coca, “America’s problem with unions means that the poor are now considered greedy,” Quartz, July 16, 2013,http://qz.com/103694/americas-problem-with-unions-means-that-the-poor-are-now-considered-greedy/; Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Erin Hatton, “The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy,” New York Times, January 26, 2013,http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/26/the-rise-of-the-permanent-temp-economy/; Andy Kroll, “Getting Rolled in Wisconsin: Why Electoral Politics Sold Out the Popular Uprising in the Badger State — and Why It’s Not All Over,” TomDispatch, June 10, 2012, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175556/tomgram%3A_andy_kroll%2C_how_the_wisconsin_uprising_got_hijacked/; Michael Lind, “‘Libertarian populism’ = Ayn Rand in disguise,” Salon, July 30, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/libertarian_populism_is_a_fraud/; masaccio, “The Death of the Liberal Bargain,” Firedoglake, August 12, 2012, http://my.firedoglake.com/masaccio/2012/08/12/the-death-of-the-liberal-bargain/; John Nichols, “GOP Candidates Embrace Anti-Labor, Free-Market Fundamentalism,” Nation, February 28, 2012,http://www.thenation.com/blog/166485/other-fundamentalism-gop-candidates; Timothy Noah, “The United States of Inequality: Introducing the Great Divergence,” Slate, September 3, 2010, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_great_divergence/features/2010/the_united_states_of_inequality/introducing_the_great_divergence.html; Joan Walsh, “Walker wins one for the plutocrats,” Salon, June 6, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/06/06/walker_wins_one_for_the_plutocrats/; Spencer Woodman, “Labor Takes Aim at Walmart—Again,” Nation, January 4, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/article/165437/labor-takes-aim-walmart-again; Rich Yeselson, “Not With a Bang, But a Whimper: The Long, Slow Death Spiral of America’s Labor Movement,” New Republic, June 6, 2012, http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/103928/not-bang-whimper-the-long-slow-death-spiral-americas-labor-movement
  12. [12]Monica Davey, “Michigan Bills Limiting Union Power Pass in Legislature,” New York Times, December 11, 2012,http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/12/us/protesters-rally-over-michigan-union-limits-plan.html; Steven Greenhut, “If Stockton Is Broke, Then Why Isn’t San Diego?” Business Week, March 1, 2012, http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-03-01/greenhut-if-stockton-is-broke-then-why-isn-t-san-diego; Don Hazen, “Liberals should fear Chris Christie,” Salon, April 9, 2013,http://www.salon.com/2013/04/09/liberals_should_be_scared_of_chris_christie_partner/
  13. [13]United Nations, “Ratification Status: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” October 9, 2013, http://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-3&chapter=4&lang=en
  14. [14]Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, International Human Rights Law, 2013, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/InternationalLaw.aspx
  15. [15]International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, December 16, 1966, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cescr.htm
  16. [16]Richard L. Johannesen, Ethics in Human Communication, 5th ed. (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 2002), 43.
  17. [17]Daniel D’Addario, “Amazon is worse than Walmart,” Salon, July 30, 2013,http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/how_amazon_is_worse_than_wal_mart/; Democracy Now!, “Wal-Mart Workers in 12 States Stage Historic Strikes, Protests Against Workplace Retaliation,” October 10, 2012, http://www.democracynow.org/2012/10/10/walmart_workers_in_12_states_stage; Steven Greenhouse, “A Part-Time Life, as Hours Shrink and Shift,” New York Times, October 27, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/business/a-part-time-life-as-hours-shrink-and-shift-for-american-workers.html; Mac McClelland, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” Mother Jones, February 27, 2012,http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor; Hamilton Nolan, “What Is Life Like For an Amazon Worker?” Gawker, July 29, 2013, http://gawker.com/what-is-life-like-for-an-amazon-worker-949664345; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013,http://www.salon.com/2013/07/30/amazon_is_everything_wrong_with_our_new_economy/; Alana Semuels, “As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-harsh-work-20130407,5976597,1009581,full.story; Alana Semuels, “How the relationship between employers and workers changed,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,http://www.latimes.com/business/money/la-fi-mo-harsh-work-history-20130405,0,716422.story; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Morning Call, September 18, 2011, http://articles.mcall.com/2011-09-18/news/mc-allentown-amazon-complaints-20110917_1_warehouse-workers-heat-stress-brutal-heat; Jordan Weissmann, “McDonald’s Can’t Figure Out How Its Workers Survive on Minimum Wage,” Atlantic, July 16, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/07/mcdonalds-cant-figure-out-how-its-workers-survive-on-minimum-wage/277845/
  18. [18]Peter Gray, “School is a prison — and damaging our kids,” Salon, August 26, 2013,http://www.salon.com/2013/08/26/school_is_a_prison_and_damaging_our_kids/

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