Saturday, July 23, 2016

Want A Better Capitalism? Keep Entitled "Big Shots" Under Control

The work of Berkeley Psychology Professor Dacher Keltner, on the critical topic of dominance and how it translates to power plays and economic inequality,  is well known to many .  In his book, 'Born To Be Good - The Science Of A Meaningful Life', for example, Keltner waxes forth on the main culprits standing in the way of a more equitable and harmonious society.  Among these is  "rational choice theory"  and the "strongest proponents are in the halls of economic departments". The deformed creature resulting is "Homo Economicus" - a misshapen critter solely looking out for himself and his financial advancement. Also a believer in the Neoliberal idiom that each person must disdain governmental supports or assistance in favor of "personal initiative". This also feeds into the nation's overt hyper-consumption, since each individual (as a "productive" worker) is then expected to consume, consume and consume using his remains on the work-spend treadmill til he croaks.

The ultimate denizen of Homo Economicus is a bizarre, disdainful and arrogant grabber: the entitled CEO, "boss man" or alpha member of a group who fancies that he is the one deserving of the "most toys". Experiments conducted by Keltner and others have exposed these deformed, entitled cretins in numerous experiments and via many observations, including: games of Monopoly in which they grab two dice instead of one to advance, and company managers invariably grabbing twice as many biscuits or other goodies brought into a room for a team, or teams of employees.

Evidently, from the get go, these entitled goobers believe it their right to grab as much as they can and devil take the weaklings or less powerful. What are they going to do? Complain to the big boy? 

Of course, transferred to the larger economic scene - say to hedge fund managers, CEOs and thousands of bosses, we can easily see the basis of inequality. If these grabbers, indeed, can set up an economic system which is rigged from the outset to get them more: more money, more jobs, more real estate, more resources of every kind  then we have a putative basis for huge economic inequality.

But this stuff isn't new. It is a fact of historical record, which can easily be checked by anyone, that the social and political hierarchies of Nazi Germany were set up this way. The most powerful and dominant always took more than their share before the German hoi polloi or little people even had a chance.  My sister-in -law Krimhilde, for example, often related how high (and low)  ranking S.S. would barge into their farm and home and take whatever they felt they could use, or give as perks to others. They didn't care it would leave the family with five mouths to feed worse off.

Much of this was exposed 60 years ago in the little known book, 'The Power Elite' by C. Wright Mills who actually modeled his work on earlier studies of Nazi Germany. In Wright's 1956 book, however, the sights were turned on American society which even then was infected by the virus of a self-sustaining clique of miltarists, corporatists, PR mavens and politicians out to feather their own nests.

Later, Harvard's Pitirim Sorokin published 'Power and Morality' which proposed that the individuals introduced by Mills were not just self-interested but sick. He wrote:

"Taken as a whole, the ruling groups are more talented intellectually and more deranged mentally than the ruled population'"

Much of this take (by an admitted refugee from Lenin's Russia) was taken as commie drivel - at least until 1959 when Edward Jennings (a founder of business ethics) quizzed 162 American execs on their lives. Were they little angels just out to do as much good while they made some profits on the side? Did they treat their employees and others fairly? Hardly.

Jennings found:

- In the office most treated their colleagues with suspicion and regarded friendship as a weakness

- They to a man allowed self-interest to govern their in work and outside behavior

But in true Jekyll and Hyde fashion, most admitted to being "nice guys on weekends" - meaning they played with their kids and invited the neighbors over for barbecue.

The implication of Jennings' findings was that most of these honchos were born with their penchant for unethical behavior. It wasn't a side effect of being in charge.

Keltner in his book (op. cit.) divides humans into "low jen" and "high jen" groups.  According to Keltner:

"Jen is a central concept in the teachings of Confucius and refers to a complex mixture of kindness, humanity and respect that transpires between people."

There are also biological markers that are signatures for "high jen" humans, including: vagus nerve operation (eliciting lower heartbeat and release of oxytocin inducing more compassion for fellow humans), oxytocin itself - inducing greater empathy for others, more trust, and the Duchenne smile - embodying the outward manifestation of love of humanity and a general trust.

By contrast, low jen humans (like the entitled power players exposed by Jennings) exhibit consistent scowls or paranoid distrust, unless weekends arrive - when they put on their fake smiles (always easily distinguished from the Duchenne because the eyes are not a part of them, only the mouth).

Keltner's claim and which is expatiated upon in his book, is that the jen concept "reveals a new way to think about the evolution of human goodness."  Very often, as Keltner observes, low -jen humans originate in the cradle. They are seldom held by their mothers, they are usually slapped or screamed at rather than embraced, hugged, and these actions lead to negative physiological markers - including low oxytocin levels, and overly excited vagus nerve response to most situations.

The "jen ratio" is the somewhat subjective measure that allows the quality of jen in a person to be assessed. According to Prof. Keltner, when assessing the jen ratio in another person, we place all his negative recent actions in the denominator, and all his positive actions in the numerator. For a manipulative billionaire like Trump, for example the jen rato would be about 1/40 on a given day. For Hillary, it might be 3/10. Based on these, one can easily see Hillary has the higher jen ratio.

Is this enough to elect a politician or presidential candidate to high office? Maybe not, but it's a start, certainly in terms of choosing the lesser of two evils which is what we are confronted with in this election. As Carl Bernstein also pointed out on 'Smerconish' this morning, neither one of these candidates - Trump OR Hillary - "has been properly vetted by the media" . This goes beyond 15 minute segments on '60 Minutes' or the occasional appearance on 'Face The Nation'. Bernstein was referring to (and demanding) entire hour documentaries on each of the two, going to their real selves and getting beyond the mythologies.  Will the bought and paid for PR- driven media do it, say like Cronkite and CBS would have in the 60s? I doubt it.

Keltner himself published a controversial paper on power dynamics in 2010 after which three European academics (Martin Korndorfer, Stefan Schmukle, and Boris Egloff) surmised it might be possible to reproduce the results using data from surveys carried out by the German state.  Their work suggested the opposite of Keltner et al's, i.e. that privileged individuals were actually more generous to fellow citizens than poorer citizens. (Which makes sense because they have more disposable income to afford greater generosity). However, on submitting it to The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found it was rejected by peer reviewers.

On re-submitting with some major revisions (extending analysis to the U.S. and other nations) it was still rejected. Did the journal peer review board exercise proper and objective judgment or display bias?  It isn't clear, but if the charity index is anything to go by, their conclusions certainly needed to be more rigorously crafted. One must be able, after all, to separate the many perks of privilege - such as being able to devote more time to volunteer work- from those aspects that feed and foster an aggressive sense of entitlement. The peer review board likely felt this was not done. In any case Egloff et al ultimately published their work in an online journal.

Keltner, for his part has pointed out many of his social experiments have indeed been replicated. I even cited some of them in my book, 'Beyond Atheism, Beyond God.'.  As he explained in one NY Times magazine piece:

"Here is what power does to just about every human being: it's going to make you not pay attention to people as well as you used to pay attention to them....You will be a little less careful in the language you use. You will be a little less thoughtful of how things look from their perspective.. So just practice a little gratitude."

He makes excellent points, and I'm sure if more power wielders followed his advice we'd behold fewer instances of big shot malevolence and also healthier form of capitalism. This has oppose to "I got mine so screw the rest of them!"

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