Greed Pt 2: Systems, Cheaters, and Dehumanizing the Poor

I’ve had numerous conversations on the issue of greed and income inequality with libertarians and conservatives about how great rich people are and they shouldn’t be punished by having money by having it redistributed.  They create jobs and they allow for people to have livelihood.  This is certainly one narrative, and having a society in which hard work is punished is not a good thing, but if we look at the narrative from the side of the person who isn’t making the big salary, but is working hard at a job with no chance for advancement and is barely making ends meet, the narrative looks different.  In this post I want to investigate the narrative that is used by those with money in order to dehumanize poor people, and make it seem as if poor people are the only ones with moral and ethical failings.

Largely I want to keep this discussion away from specific economic systems, but I think it’s important to discuss systems in general and how systems can be cheated.  As an example let’s look at lying.  When is lying effective?  Lying is most effective when most people are telling the truth.  Imagine a society where everybody lied 70-80% of the time when they spoke.  Would you trust anything anybody ever said even if it was the rare occasion that they were telling the truth?  The reason why people can get us to believe a lie is because most people are being honest, or at least believe they are being sincere in what they are telling us. (See the movie The Invention of Lying for a good laugh and a demonstration of this). Similarly one of the reasons why manipulative people can successfully do so is because they are good at reading the honest expression of emotions from other people and use that against you. In society we live with a variety of systems.  Capitalism is a system, welfare is a system, democracy is a system.   Within any system are cheaters.  Cheaters are successful in systems because most people aren’t cheaters.  That’s not to say there aren’t systems that don’t have a lot of cheaters, but those systems are tend to not be successful.

Image result for war on poorSo with this idea of systems and how cheaters cheat successfully let’s move forward to talk about the rich and the poor.  Both operate within different systems, although the groups are connected insofar as one group accumulates wealth at the expense of the other.  There is no question that there are poor people who work the system to get free money.  But we also know that to be successful the percentage of such people can’t be very high. How do we know this?  Well I think one good indicator would be how horribly drug testing welfare recipients has gone in terms catching all these supposed people using their welfare money for drugs.  Percentages are extremely low there.  Finally we have to remember some of our cognitive biases when looking at this problem.  There are many people who are working at part time or full time while on welfare.  Such people don’t catch our eyes, because they are indistinguishable from anybody else who is working and trying to get by.  Cheaters on the other hand are highly visible.  Media outlets like Fox News likes to report on those cheaters and I’m quite certain, given the number of poor people in the U.S., that they can have a new story every day of the year, each year, for the foreseeable future.  There are currently 52.2 million people using government assistance programs.  Even if the number of cheaters were 1% of that number, this is plenty of fuel for media outlets who want to demonize the poor.

Meanwhile what about cheaters at the top?  Do we not believe that those with vast sums of wealth aren’t cheating?  What’s interesting is the way such cheating is justified.   If a rich person is taking advantage of a loophole it’s okay…he or she is just doing what is humanly normal to do in an imperfect system.  We can’t blame rich people for taking advantage, but poor people apparently are the scum of the Earth for doing the same thing.  And of course the truth is that the rich don’t have to cheat the system, with their wealth they can game the system so it doesn’t look like they are cheating at all.  And if they do get caught they have the best lawyers to get them out.

Image result for bacon's rebellion
                                                   An artist depiction of Bacon’s Rebellion

The way poor people are portrayed today is a very real problem that has been going on for long time.  Consider Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia.  Poor blacks and whites united together against the rich landowners.  Although the rebellion was eventually quelled the rich became worried about races uniting against the rich and instead promoted the poor whites giving them selected benefits and privileges, and some were even given status to police black slaves.  This event in American history has been cited as one that hardened racial lines in U.S., but it’s also a good example how the rich are more concerned about keeping their wealth than even matters of race.  Using race was simply a convenient tool to make sure that their riches were protected.  This tactic of division continues today.  Virtue is so strongly tied to wealth that so many of the poorest of Americans put a billionaire in power, believing that this person’s talent for acquiring wealth would somehow spill over to them.  People have gotten wealthier under Trump but this is largely been the people who had wealth to begin with.

Image result for war on poorAs a current example of how the discussion always turns towards poor people being the problem, read this analysis of why so many people voted for Trump.  It argues that those who work hard for little money are unhappy with those who work less and make about as much due to welfare.  The analysis is done by a former U.S. Congressmen and now banker, and an Auburn university professor who is a policy advisor for the Heartland institute.  Two wealthy white older males.  Now even if their analysis is correct, which it very well could be, it represents a big problem.  Wealthy people are always pitting poor people against each other.  And poor people buy into it.  “The other poor person isn’t working as hard as me, and so they are the problem”.  But why can’t the problem be the rich person who is making people work for so little pay?  Why should I begrudge someone else is barely scraping by even if they live entirely off welfare? Not to mention that I am in no position to judge any person’s particular situation. The fact that so many poor people point across the aisle, while a handful of people continue to accumulate more wealth than they can possibly use is the real travesty here.  And this isn’t only a tactic of conservatives.  Many on the left happily treated poor people like a monolith and faulting them for the election of Trump based on solely on their racist, xenophobic and misogynistic attitudes.  And while there is no question this describes some voters (and not just poor ones) making an enemy of the poor shouldn’t be what a liberal party that claims progressive and humanist values is about.  Sometimes I feel like the attitude on the left is similar to the right “We could really make some progress in this country if it wasn’t for all those poor people”.  Was Mitt Romney’s comment about poor people voting democratic for free handouts any more offensive?  As David Brooks recently pointed out in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, rich and white lead both ends of the political spectrum.

The evidence is all around us about how the poor are regarded compared to the rich.  I mean we still have homelessness in this country.  And while oft used as a favorite excuse for not helping other people in need (we can’t help Syrian refugees because of all the homeless people…who we are incidentally not helping also), how many of us, on both sides of the political spectrum are simply numb to this reality.  I’ve had people tell me that homeless people are just faking it and trying to scam money.  This of course patently untrue, but again the only reason why some people might be successful faking homelessness is because there are so many to begin with.  Think how successful the campaign of the very wealthy must be in order to convince people to not only erode sympathy for homeless people but to actually think that it’s not even a real problem?  What about the differences in the way rich people and poor people are sentenced?  Not to mention the difference in legal advice such people can afford.  The famous example is “affluenza” teen Ethan Couch would easily end up in jail for life if he was in a lower tax bracket.  The thing is I am willing to accept the psychological impacts of growing up very rich and having your brain develop in a home in which there are literally no consequences for your actions.  When there are no mistakes that can be made which would impact Image result for psychology povertyyour standard of living in any noticeable way.  So I do think there is something real about affluenza.  What I strongly object to is that there is never the same consideration in sentencing when it comes to the real and also well documented evidence to the psychological impacts of poverty.  Growing up impoverished with little social mobility, lower quality schools, lower nutrition, your ability to plan long term, your likelihood of addiction, your reduced exposure to affluent people who can inspire you to more in your future.  It many places in the world the philosophy is “rich people are worthy of restorative justice, poor people are only worthy of punitive justice.”

Where do such ideas come from?  How do such divides enter into society?  How has the common person been baked into believing that wealth is what matters most to the point that we become willing participants in a game tilted against all but the most fortunate of people?  As I go back to think about the hunter-gatherers we were for such a long time it’s hard to imagine such vicious divides in those societies.

Further Reading

I found this site interesting.  There is very little research on how many cheaters there are of welfare, but what federal agencies are able to determine is the amount of “Improper Payment”, which includes fraud, but is only due to fraud is at 10.6%.  We can assume that the number of cheaters in the system is somewhat less.  Note that the greatest losses are associated with medicaid and negative income tax.  Not the many programs that actually help people who need the money for things like food and housing.  This loss from improper payment in those programs is at $21.2 billion, which in a country with 100 million tax payers averages to $212 a year or just under $18 a month.  And keep in mind some of the money that is labeled improper could just be due to government error.  Furthermore an improper payment is also deemed such if proper documentation is not available to support the payment.  This doesn’t mean that the person didn’t have legitimate documentation but lost it, or just didn’t know what documentation they had to send in.  In my experience many people who are poor are either poorly educated, incredibly busy, or both and rules and paperwork are complex and laborious, and honest mistakes happen all the time.  If you’ve lost a document the time you might have to take off work to replace it, is something you just can’t afford.  In the legal definition this might be fraud, but is certainly not people trying to fraud the government.

20 thoughts on “Greed Pt 2: Systems, Cheaters, and Dehumanizing the Poor

  1. There is little doubt that what you are saying here is true. The wealth disparity and its consequences are plain enough to see, if you are paying attention.

    The question is what can be done about it? Any attempt to help the poor gain ground or take the uber wealthy down a notch, to create some helpful balance would be immediately labeled as communism and played out in the right wing media outlets as the end of the world.

    Hell any attempt to just give the poor a leg up is viewed as such. There is only one way to make this work and Obama had the right idea. Make the wealthy pay their fair share and put in place institututions to give the poor opportunities to advance.

    We saw how that played out… Soon as the R’s had their chance they did everything in their power to kill any gains made, and make the rich richer.

    If the D’s can’t take back the House and/ or the Senate in this election, we are well and truly fucked. Right now we are steamrolling towards a dictatorship, that this next election can hopefully stop. Failing that I await the revolution.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I agree with you SD, and I can think of little in ways of solutions other than the fact that, as you point out, it’s obvious to those paying attention. But the specific tactics of those at the top are to play the game of distraction. I do think, that even among Trump voters they do recognize being ripped off by rich people on wall-street, but Trump convinced him that he was the guy that knew the system and was going to bring it all down. Of course that was a huge grift, but long story short, I think the best thing to do is keep people focus, have a consistent message that greed is the real enemy of the people. Because I do think a large degree of organization and being active in the democracy can bring about change. Otherwise I do fear that violent rebellion is the only recourse at some point in the future.

      I would also add that pointing out the problem of greed in our society does not necessarily mean anti-capitalism. If you look at Japan that has one of the lowest tax rates, one of the things that prevents run away free market capitalism is an honor system where CEOs to be honorable must treat their employees well. That honor system has a host of other problems, but my point being is that the value supporting people need not be always tied to socialism. I’ve heard some positive things about the Google corporate model which has a fairly large amount of disparity in pay among workers, but the workers don’t mind. Why? Because they spend a lot of time being transparent as to why one employee is doing better than others, and this allows people to see where they need to be to be rewarded with a higher wage. This is why social mobility is also very important in a society. People aren’t often frustrated at having a low paying job if there is opportunity for them to move up. The cost of education here is so high that isn’t realistic for many people. Thus we also have to make sure education is a focus of candidates as well. FOr that and many other reasons of course.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I would seriously dispute that poverty graph as well. $22,000 for a family of four? Try living on your own at that rate, with an apartment or your own? Maybe a debt free retired person with no kids and a paid for house…maybe!
    I wish some compassion would be the first thought of government. Frankly the system is designed for the “go getter” that has an education and a support system in place. The truth is, not everyone is capable of that route. Although most are hard working, the system has left them behind. Everyone is entitled to fairness.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah, I don’t think the chart is claiming that is reasonable, just that this is what is considered sufficient, only that this is what level of income you have to be to considered living in poverty with a family of 4. Should you be above that you are still likely poor.

      I don’t even think the system is designed for the “go getter”. It’s largely designed for people with advantage already as you point out. While we certainly have rags to riches stories, this is not typical among those who get ahead.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Re “I’ve had numerous conversation on this issue from libertarians and conservatives about how great rich people and they shouldn’t be punished by having money by having it redistributed. They create jobs and they allow for people to have livelihood.”

    Uh, this is a “narrative,” a story as you say … but is it true. The answer is no, it is not. First of all they aren’t being “punished.” Second of all they do not create jobs, per se. This whole “job creators” BS is just that. Wealthy people do not create jobs, just because they have wealth. When they engage in creating jobs, they do so because there is a demand for what those jobs create. The demand, in effect, creates the jobs. An argument can be made that the wealthy need to see that there is money to be made in spending their wealth, but that argument is actually quite weak.

    The real problem we have is people acquiring disgusting fortunes. If you possess a billion dollars and would like to spend it, you would have to spend $512,000 per hour of every working day of a year. In other words, you cannot spend it. In fact many “billionaires” end up giving away a large portion of their wealth upon retirement.

    Unfortunately, other billionaires have decided to spend their wealth in making sure they never have less than they want, and what the want has to bounds. This has all played out before. The play books haven’t even changed. The idea of punishing people through taxes was raised a long time ago. The idea that it is the wealthy that create the jobs has been brought up before. But history has already shown us what we need to know: when corporations or private fortunes become large and rich, they become stagnant and ridden by fear of loss. Think about the Bell telephone system and its refusal to innovate, the bloated American car companies that made really impractical cars (but which glittered in the sunlight), etc.

    Our democracy cannot afford to have so much wealth concentrated in so few hands because it always plays out the exact same way. And an experiment in democracy will fail if it allows such wealth concentrations.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Good analysis Steve, and I agree with you. I think that even if we could say that rich people were job creators, we still have to ask the question…are they jobs that pay a living wage, are they jobs that provide benefits, are they jobs that provide social mobility, are they jobs that won’t be gone a few years due to technological innovation? Also does the corporation as a whole do more damage than the jobs they create. For instance Wal Mart has shown to go into towns killing jobs there because they can out-compete small business, and then close two regular wal-marts in two small towns to create a super-walmart that is 20 miles away from residents of both places. Not to mention none of the money Wal-mart makes stays local and is funneled to Bentleyville, AR. Then we have the issue, of what if they are a company contributing to environmental issues which will cause local communities and governments to clean up, or incur extra health costs? Class action suits are possible, but many times companies cause environmental damage that might be “legal” or be an unknown risk at the time, and so the job creator causes economic loss to people in a particular area. So yes the rosy picture of rich people creating jobs is pretty murky.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What leaps out at me first is this, “rich people are worthy of restorative justice, poor people are only worthy of punitive justice.” I don’t know who said this, per se, but it is a succinct description of – in my opinion – all that is wrong with societies today. If we are to evolve into any sort of future for humanity, this sort of condemnation of circumstance of origin must change. And strangely for a pragmatist such as myself, I believe it will. It is the promise of the Aquarian Age, if we all live long enough and can emerge on the other side of this tremendous Shadow humans have collectively created. Which is acting out wildly on the world stage today.

    The threat to the Old Order is larger today than ever. And why any have-not supports these sorts of oppressive regimes is beyond me. (Except The Shawshank Redemption leaps to mind where Brooks, a death row inmate, once freed, hangs himself.) Fear is my guess. And control by systems such as fundamentalist religions. By any sort of punitive ethics in which individuals have been inculcated – the inner demons that just cannot, for whatever reason, be kept at bay. It takes vigilance and responsibility to be free. Big Daddy is not going to grant it. Perhaps only we can discover that freedom within ourselves, despite our circumstances (think Viktor Frankl). And maybe this is the ultimate takeaway to today’s collective madness.

    Aloha, Swarn. Good offering, as ever.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes I agree that the different consequences that people with money pay vs people without pay is stark. And while I think restorative justice is the answer to a better society, but if we are going to go the punitive justice route than this should be applied equally to all who transgress the moral norms a society claims to hold dear.

      Your Shawshank Redemption example is a good one. Red postulates, when asked why Brooks kills himself and that’s where he talks about becoming “institutionalized”. More broadly the phenomenon is just the way growing up or spending a long time in a certain system normalizes it, making it very difficult to think or live outside the box.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Exactly. And many mistake those boxes for security. Not me, but I understand existential angst. It’s what institutions rely on to keep the masses in line. And while not all of us are mavericks, we have come to expect certain liberties our Constitution guarantees. All of those are threatened in these fraught times. It is distressing, to say the least. Yet we have veered far off course as a nation and change is assured. It’s sad that most likely do not possess the facts needed to make informed choices and would rather empower others to make them instead. But with top-down greed and corruption, any sort of altruism is out the window. Knowledge is power, but if making a living and/or simply sustaining life is all-consuming, most rely on media to provide needed information. And when journalism is replaced with sensationalized opinions, well, here we are. 🤔

        Liked by 2 people

        1. On the list of things that don’t lend themselves well to a for profit business model are education, health care, and journalism. Three things that have all gone to shit in this country because they’ve all been taken over by capitalist thinking. When these 3 things are healthy, this is actually what generates economic and perhaps more importantly social mobility. When a population is filled with healthy, educated, and well informed people, we do things smarter. Journalism should be an institution that is supposed to be the watchdog for power structures (government and the wealthy). When corrupted by the wealthy, the people no longer become well-informed. They should be competing with each other in a capitalist model, they should be collaborating to better inform people.

          Liked by 2 people

  5. Great post, Swarn. You bring up some excellent points. My only reluctance in accepting your points in their entirety is my continued reluctance to treat the rich as monolith in the way that you argue against the poor being treated. My take is everything you’ve written about here is true about some people, some of the time. No group of people in society you could select on the basis of a particular parameter would ever be monolithic in my opinion, and there is a way in which viewing any group in this way can lead to problems.

    So if I struggle with anything you’ve written, it’s only that particular approach. I continue to think that what you describe as problematic in the wealthy is a ramification of core values and instinctual positions that exist throughout society. Some of the rich may be at the extremes of the bell curve psychologically, but I don’t think the median is sainthood either. You can see greed at work in every level of society. I’m not here to defend the rich, which may be what it seems; rather I’m advocating for an orientation that identifies these inequities, rails against them as you have done, but in the context of recognizing it may not be constructive to distance any humans from one another when what we need to solve these types of problems is unity.

    There is a level at which your points are entirely valid. And there is another level where what we see is the ultimate result of who we are in the majority. Doesn’t make us good or bad. Just human. And I guess that’s the thing for me: trying to find out who the bad guys are may not ultimately be useful. The “badness” and the “goodness” in humanity is pretty well distributed as near as I can tell.

    This is not to diminish your excellent points, Swarn. I applaud your speaking so candidly about these issues. And I appreciated your thoughts greatly.


    Liked by 3 people

    1. Michael I appreciate your concerns. I certainly haven’t said that all of us aren’t prone to the same sort of corruption of morality presented with a lot of money, and quite certainly you do find greed everywhere. But I do think the extremes matter, just as they do in any mental illness and I would certainly describe the extreme hoarding of wealth as a mental illness. If we use an example with something like depression, people experience this across a wide range of intensity. On one end a bit of meditation or exercise might be enough to stave off bouts of depression, where those on the other extreme certainly require medical attention. So focusing on the extremes of a particular behavior is not necessarily invalid, especially when the extremes in this case hold exponentially more wealth in society. When the top 0.1% have about 50% of the wealth globally this strikes me as a reason to get very concerned about that group of people. And I don’t think that just making a billionaire spend some time in a soup kitchen is necessarily going to fix that problem. At some point the plastic brain is corrupted by the wealth and power far enough that coming back from that isn’t just a matter of better societal values. It also seems from what you are saying that if I’m a billionaire I am justified in my greed because other people are greedy too. The fact remains that those with the most resources do have the ability to affect great change and I would argue that by not doing what they shirk a much greater moral responsibility than a day laborer who refuses to pay school taxes because he doesn’t have any kids. Both might be said to be greedy or selfish and I would certainly want the person in the latter to be convinced to be more selfless, but in the long run the billionaire could simply do more. More than that, money also can change minds. Money controls most of the media outlets. One of instead of pushing divisive anti-education agendas they starting getting the media to push positive agendas to solve world problems. How might such things change the culture for everybody?

      This is also part of what I’m saying here, it is not just the hoarding of wealth it is how money is used to also normalize the hoarding of wealth and that involves the control of information, that involves manipulating people so they are busy fighting among themselves instead of noticing that there is a group of people soaking up money from below at an alarming rate.

      This is why I think the very wealthy are much more of an enemy than the middle class libertarian I might have once argued with on Facebook. Because if someone is misinformed about how things work, you can bet there is a rich person behind that false information. We see it with climate change, we saw it with cigarettes in the 60s and 70s, and the laundry list of how money influences media and legislation is a mile long. There might have been many a common person who voted for Trump, but they wouldn’t have 30 years ago. The income inequality in the U.S. is 3 times worse than any of our nearest income inequality competitors with the exception of Luxembourg. So we must ask how did we get to such a state in this country. Is it the values of the average American and if those weren’t the values 30 years ago, what caused it to change? I think we’ll find money at the end of that trial and both sides of the political spectrum.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comments Tish. I had seen the Seeds of Death documentary but not The Spider’s Web. The trailer looks interesting, although I’m sure it’s something that will make me quite angry so I need to be in a certain mood to watch it! lol

      Indeed “hoodwinked” is a good word. Yuval Noah Harari in a podcast interview said that power structures have always tried to control people, but there was a limit to what they could do, and he said that the tipping point in history is when the people in power know us better than we know ourselves. He says that we are right now living in a time where people with power know more about how our brains work, how to manipulate us, and how to change the game so that we play, and most of us don’t even know that we are being manipulated.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Thank you for the information on Edward Bernays. I had never heard of him, but yes certainly a good example of how manipulation really turned into a science.

          And I agree that far too many people fear the wrong things as a result of what media corporations want us to believe are destroying our livelihood.

          Liked by 2 people

  6. This problem is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. We’ll have to go through another Great Depression before anyone sees the value of spreading the wealth around more evenly. I have lost all hope in mankind’s ability to govern. We’re just too greedy, too corrupt with too strong of a thirst for power. Those attitudes are not going to just go away, even when they see how damaging it is to the entire economical and financial system. This is all up to God to handle now (Danial 2:44). And I’m anxious to see how it all plays out.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for reading Heather. Although I tend to be an optimistic person, I’m afraid the analytical side of me doesn’t see any way out of this soon, so I tend to agree that it is going to get worse before it gets better.

      Liked by 1 person

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