Writing the Backwash with R. H. Sheldon
The Creed of Greed: Why the Rich Get Richer and the Poor Have Nicer Friends
After reading one of my blogs, Tony Shin sent me a link to a graphic that he and his friends created to illustrate how rich people in the US are more prone to act unethically than their poorer counterparts.
“Studies suggest,” the opening text reads, “that people who are socially and financially better off are more likely to lie, cheat, and otherwise behave unethically compared to those lower on the social and financial ladder.”
The graphic backs up its assertion with a number of statistics that compare the wealthy to those at the lower strata. For example, 21% of those earning between $500,000 and $1 million a year underreport their incomes to the IRS, compared to 8% of those earning between $50,000 and $100,000. And when it comes to charity, households earning over $100,000 donate only 2.7% of their income, whereas those making under $25,000 give away 4.2%.
At the bottom of the graphic, the creators provide a list of URLs that point to the sources used to back up their data. Among them are the New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, and MSNBC. I spot-checked several of the graphic’s statistics against those in the publications to ensure that the creators got their facts right. They did.
I can’t say with certainty that the sources themselves represent the information correctly, but there’s enough corroborating evidence among them to suggest that the rich are indeed generally more inclined toward unethical behavior than the rest of us. In fact, they’re more likely to shoplift, cut off pedestrians when driving, cheat at games if money is at stake, and steal candy earmarked for children.
So why do rich folks think its okay to behave in this manner? Is it a sense of entitlement? Is it because they’re used to getting their own way? Or are they simply unaware of their behavior?
In one of the articles that the graphic references, I found a particularly interesting explanation. According to Maia Szalavitz in her piece “Why the Rich Are Less Ethical: They See Greed as Good,” it’s not necessarily their class that drives their activities, but their beliefs about greed and unethical behavior. “Rich people tended to take advantage of others primarily because they saw selfish and greedy behavior as acceptable, not just because they had more money or higher social status.”
Further research suggests that if poorer people are primed to see greed as good, they too are more likely to participate in unethical behavior. Any of us, in fact, who believe in the creed of greed are more likely to act out in ways concerned only with our own self-interests.
Although wealth disparity continues to grow in this country—the richer 1% captured 93% of the income gains in 2010, according to the graphic—that’s not enough evidence in itself to prove that we are a more greedy country than ever before. However, movements such as the Tea Party, attempts to dismantle our social safety nets, and the ever-growing war on the poor all suggest that we’re moving away from attitudes of compassion and empathy toward a world of indifference and self-serving aggrandizement and greed.
A friend of mine believes that this movement started during the Reagan administration, when self-interest and self-serving behavior became, for the most part, institutionalized, a movement that found fertile ground in a country already prone to idealize individualism at the expense of the common good. The fact that such idealization is nothing but a mythical construct used to win elections and undermine social programs and sell designer underwear is beside the point. What is important is that our romanticized cowboy mentality easily embraces such greedy and selfish behavior and allows us to justify whatever actions we decide best serve our immediate needs.
The irony in all this, of course, is the vocal upsurge of Christian fundamentalism and religious intolerance that goes hand-in-hand with our ever-growing avarice, an upsurge that folds neatly into the palms of slick politicians and political pundits and ambitious talk-show hosts all too keen to spew messages of divisiveness and hate in order to reach their own selfish goals.
But there is hope. As Szalavitz points out, just as people can be taught to behave selfishly they “can also be easily primed to behave more generously.” If we can learn to think only of ourselves, to put our own interests above those of everyone around us, there’s no reason we can’t learn to behave as a community of individuals looking out for the welfare of one another.
We already know what we need to do. Perhaps we only need permission to do it.