Monday, September 27, 2010

Why Do Wealthy People Advocate for the Less Fortunate

And when your income is seven figures or more, pretty much everybody is less fortunate.

Paul Krugman takes note of an implied criticism in a profile penned by Howard Kurtz, which pairs discussion of his political views with commentary on his personal assets. He argues that the mark of authenticity is working for your cause without regard to your personal interests.
So: I support tax increases that will reduce my own after-tax income; I worry greatly about unemployment, even though my own living is secure; I warn about growing inequality, even though I’m of the class that has gained from rising disparities; I’m upset about the direction this country is going, even though my own life is comfortable. And this is supposed to cast doubt on my motives?
Why does that argument resonate - why, for example, is it acceptable and even proper for a wealthy person to care about nothing but expanding his own wealth, but raises an eyebrow when he's working toward a better and more stable standard of living for the middle class?

Perhaps there's an element of perceived elitism, along the lines of "What's the Matter With Kansas" - "How dare that wealthy person suggest that I might not know what's in my own best interest?" When approaching a nation facing war or a recession, what would a silver-spooned "fortunate son" man of the people say, instead? Perhaps,
As we work with Congress in the coming year to chart a new course in Iraq and strengthen our military to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we must also work together to achieve important goals for the American people here at home. This work begins with keeping our economy growing. … And I encourage you all to go shopping more.
Americans must get back to work, to go shopping, going to the theatre, to help get the country back on a sounder financial footing.
Tax cuts for the rich, everybody else should go shopping. Nothing patronizing, out-of-touch or elitist in that, and it's so much more fun to go shopping than it is to listen to a rich guy tell you that you need to prepare for a rainy day and live within your means.

Perhaps we have both an inherent understanding of human nature and a resulting suspicion of anybody who claims to be acting selflessly. "I may not know what's 'in it for him', but there has to be something." You can avoid that by sticking within people's preconceptions or telling them what they want to hear, which is why a good half of weight loss ads you see suggest that you can take a supplement of some sort and shed weight without either reducing caloric intake or exercising [disclaimer: results atypical; people using this supplement should engage in a sensible eating and exercise program]. You may be earning barely more than minimum wage, but the rich guy who is arguing for a progressive tax regime is going to take your money when you finally do get rich - which is inevitable, right. Because all you have to do is think about money and it magically comes to you. (Shut up, rich guy - what do you know about getting rich.)

I suspect there's a very real element of not wanting to put yourself in the class of people who need rich people to look out for you. It's perfectly cool for a rich guy to focus on starvation in Africa, AIDS in Africa... something to help those poor, unfortunate souls. It's not so cool when you're the person who "needs" their loving attention. "How completely outrageous that the residents of D.C. didn't like having corporate-sponsored education reforms pushed on them, despite a lack of evidence that the ideas were working and that middle and upper class schools would reject the bulk of the reforms - clearly they're ingrates who are nothing like us. After all, if they were they would already have schools as good as ours and wouldn't need the intervention."

But really, if you're not willing to throw up your hands and give up, there's a point at which you have to recognize that we humans have a tendency toward irrationality on a wide variety of subjects. When you try to tackle the issue head-on you'll get incredible resistance. Your better approach is to try to find a way to steer people in the right direction while making them believe they're making their own decision. (Unfortunately, this is much easier to do when you're exploiting the weakness against your target. "It's a recession! Everybody needs to spend more, so we'll cut taxes for the rich and everybody else should go shopping!")

Update: Michael Tomasky, who no doubt is worth considerably less than Paul Krugman, on why he's not going to give up the fight.


  1. I think this is a relatively good account of the general way people think.

  2. If it was as easy as it sounds to stick your hand up and get help it would have happened already. I have tried to get help countless times, I think about all the people in the country that could help, and it never happens. very heartbreaking.