Greed Pt. 1: The Inequality Snapshot

When I feel the weight of the world, and try to focus on the one thing that brings about the most injustice in the world, it is greed.  What I want to say about extends beyond the confines of one post so I’d first like to look at the type of inequality we face in today’s world and then I want to explore how systems and cheating work, and then have a discussion about the morality of greed.

I will start with sharing with you how I define greed, which I don’t think varies too much from anyone else’s definition, and that is the hoarding of resources.  I am however going to focus on money which is most ubiquitous resource out there.  Of course it is true to say that money isn’t truly a resource in itself, because as Douglas Adams says, “Money is a completely fictitious entity, but it’s very powerful in our world; we each have wallets, which have got notes in them, but what can those notes do? You can’t breed them, you can’t stir fry them, you can’t live in them…”  However, it is a fiction that we’ve all agreed to believe in to give value to, and with money we can acquire the resources we need to live.  Now some of you will say that resources aren’t the most important thing in life, but I think we can agree that if you don’t have any food, having a meaningful job doesn’t do you much good.

Image result for hunter-gatherer shareAs someone who is very into evolutionary psychology, as I do with many things I like to start with our natural habitat, which is a group of a few hundred or so hunter-gatherers.  This is our beginning as humans and is very much how our brains are wired in terms of survival.  Power structures certainly exist, but the disparity is small.  People don’t really have property.  Everything in the tribe belongs to the tribe.  Some people are better at some things than others.  Some people maybe do more physically demanding activities and work harder, some may have less physically strenuous jobs.  Everyone knows each other, grows up with each other. If there is not enough food, the entire tribe is deprived.  If there is an abundance of food everybody prospers.  This is far from where we are now.

Let’s just take a look at some basic facts about the disparity here in the U.S.  The top 1% of earners in the U.S. according to data from 2015 is $1.4 million per year.  The average income for the bottom 90% is 34K.  The ratio between those two populations in income is 30:1.  Think about that for a second.  Imagine a tribe in which there were a 1000 people and 900 of those people had 1 piece of fruit for the day, while 10 of those people had 30 pieces of fruit per day.  There are about 90 other people averaging somewhere between 10 and 15 pieces of fruit.  Would such a system be stable for long?  Of course it would not.

First you may say, well you’ve just arbitrary given each person one piece of fruit, but what really matters is do all the people have enough to survive?  If so, then the disparity doesn’t matter all that much.  I’m going talk more about this later in future posts about why the bare minimum isn’t sufficient, but for now let’s say though that I changed it so that everybody had enough fruit to live each day.  So let’s give everybody their minimum calories for the day at 10 pieces of fruit.  Keeping the same ratio, the top 10 people in the tribe therefore have 300 pieces of fruit, most just rotting away and going unused.  Those people are still experiencing a lot of stress, because what happens when there is a low rainfall year and the amount of fruit goes down but the ratio stays the same?  In a hunter-gatherer tribe, can you honestly see those 10 people still withholding fruit from others?  Of course not.  Why?  Because everybody knows each other.  They grew up together, they care for each other and they would not let each other starve.  They would not blame those with little fruit for not working hard enough to gather fruit.  And if someone wasn’t pulling their weight they would talk to them and find out why they aren’t helping as they could and support them to do better.  Most people would not slack in their duties for the same reason that someone would not horde that much resources from other members of their tribe.  This is who we are.  We have empathy, we share, we help each other.

Image result for greed
Such a world is not the one we are living in however.  This disparity of course gets much worse if focus our attention on the extremes.  There are 300,000 people in the U.S. alone who average $6.7 million per year, and there are 1.56 million homeless people.  Just as a little math exercise, if you wanted to argue that each homeless person could live modestly and feed themselves for about 30 K a year.  If we took that money from the total wealth of the top 1%, they would still earn an average of 6.5 million a year.  I know, sounds like they’d be roughing it.  Now of course there are lots of reasons why homelessness happens, but my point again here is to look at the disparity, to look at the level of injustice that such greed allows.

Turning our gaze worldwide, in 2012 it was determined that the ultra-rich have 21 trillion dollars just sitting in off-shore accounts.  This Atlantic article also says it could be much higher at 32 trillion.  And since this was 6 years ago, it is certainly much higher.  This is money that these ultra-rich don’t even need for their day to day life.   Just to put that number in perspective, based on current rice consumption in China, this would continue feeding China rice for 329 years.  A population less than the size of China, 816 million, do not have enough food on a daily basis to live a healthy and active life.  The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that it would take US $3.2 billion a year to feed the 66 million hungry school aged children in the world.  This about 0.01 % of  the 21 trillion that sits in off-shore accounts.

So this is where we are at.  Now I am not saying that solving world hunger is as easy as just redistributing wealth, but I am saying that it’s a problem that we have several orders of magnitude times the resources to solve.  Next I’m going to look at how cheating occurs in systems, and how dehumanizing the poor, helps maintain the level of inequality and greed we see in the world.

Further Reading

Interesting article about sharing and cooperation in hunter-gatherer tribes.

And another

Psychology of greed


Discussion: Do you know yourself?

Image result for knowing yourself

Whether you are a Sam Harris fan or not, I truly recommend listening to the interview Sam Harris did live with Yuval Noah Harari (the interview itself is about an hour with an hour of Q&A afterwards.  The first hour is most valuable).  Harari is a brilliant man, and somebody who I think we should be listening to.  I transcribed this passage from the interview.

“…however complicated the humanity entity is, we are now reaching a point when somebody out there can really hack it. It can never be done perfectly.  We are so complicated, I am under no illusion that any corporation or government or organization can completely understand me.  This is impossible.  But the yardstick or the critical threshold is not perfect understanding, the threshold is just better than me.  Then the key inflection point in the history of humanity is the moment when an external system can reliably, on a large scale, understand people better than they understand themselves.  This is not an impossible mission, because so many people don’t really understand themselves very well. With the whole idea of shifting authority from humans to algorithms, so I trust the algorithm to recommend TV shows for me, and I trust the algorithm to tell me how to drive from mountain view to this place this evening, and then I trust the algorithm to tell me what to study and where to work, whom to date and whom to marry, and who to vote for. People say, no, no, no, no, no…that won’t happen, because they will say there will be all these mistakes and glitches and bugs, and the algorithm won’t know everything, and it can’t do it.  And if the yardstick is to trust the algorithm (or) to give authority to the algorithm it must make perfect decisions than yes it will never happen.  But that’s not the yardstick…the algorithm just needs to make better decisions than me.”

There are many ways I think one can know one’s self better, and I don’t think we spend enough time doing that.  Moreover he argues that this is even more critical today because the technologies out there are far more capable of hacking us than ever before.  Victoria over at Victoria Neuronotes often talk about the importance of understanding cognitive science and neuroscience, and how the brain works…this needs to be a regular part of our education systems, because awareness is key.  But knowing one’s self should also come from meditation, introspection, and taking time to just unplug and think about who you are and what you want to be.  Find yourself.


Discussion: Progress and Coddling

I was listening to a podcast this morning where Jonathan Haidt was interviewed.  He’s a very interesting guy and I recommend checking out some of his work, but he was there to talk about his new book that he co-authored called The Coddling of America.  It is something that is commonly talking about as a university professor, and of course it is a pretty mainstream discussion as well.  Helicopter parenting and the hand-holding that still takes place even as they enter college is somewhat alarming.  He argues that the changes in attitudes of university students on campus started around 2013 and so his discussion isn’t about millennials but rather about iGen or GenZ.  He talks about the fact that we have this generation that is raised where an adult is constantly around.  Also the constant testing and homework means kids don’t play enough and when they do play it is always under adult supervision.  Kids don’t learn conflict resolution strategies when an adult is always a mediator.  There was far more detail that he gave but what primarily caught my attention is his explanation of why this is.  I mean if these young people are actually having moral panics and creating obstacles in their life that don’t actually exist, it is the fault of the parents and how they are raised.  So he asks the question, why are we pre-disposed as parents to coddling?

He talks about the progress paradox.  The basic idea is that what progress has done is made us all a lot safer, and thus we begin to worry about low probability risks.  Things we wouldn’t have paid much attention to before but now do simply because we don’t have to worry about kids dying from small pox.  Progress means we also aren’t having as many kids, as education and access to birth control has increased for all people.  This progress means we are more worried about the few kids we do have.  Progress has also led to increased leisure time which gives us more time to spend with our kids and watch over them.  We also are more aware of child development issues and are more apt to get them involved in structured activities over free play.  All of this, Haidt claims, explains why we have increased levels of moral panics on university campuses, why there safe spaces, trigger warnings, and microaggressions.  (Interestingly Haidt says that removing yourself from triggers if you’ve experienced trauma is the exact opposite of what you should do if you want to heal from trauma.  In cognitive based therapy which has been shown to be the most effective in helping people recover from traumatic events, it is recommended that one have graduated exposure to triggers rather than removing yourself from them.)

It seems a weird byproduct of a safer world, but from the discussion it seems that what we are doing is inventing or exaggerating fears because we don’t have as many as we used to.  So I thought I would ask some questions for purposes of discussion. Does this hypothesis seem reasonable and fit what you’ve observed in society?  What sort of shift would you like to see happen, and how do we go about making that change?  Are we all just old fuddy duddys who don’t get the younger generation?

Discussion: Is your life a story?

The importance of stories to humans cannot be overstated.  Well perhaps it can, but I’ve yet to see anybody succeed yet. 🙂  I’ve written about the importance of stories before.  My interest in the subject began when reading the novels Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss.  It is clear that we learn from stories.  In fact it is often suggested that as a method of pedagogy that we try to create narratives, try to use storytelling to teach.  I’ve yet to find a way to do this with fluid dynamics, but when I think about how I retain knowledge best, it is certainly the ability to think in terms of stories, rather than a lose collection of facts.  When teaching, even if you don’t have a story to tell, trying to create a common thread through your lessons does help.

A former student, and now friend, would often start a conversation with people she was just meeting and getting to know with the question “Tell me the story of your life.”  I think it’s pretty easy to see our lives as a story.  I am not sure though that this is something we do when we are adolescents.  Perhaps we haven’t lived long enough, and it is unclear when this process begins, but at some point you will look at the past and forecast into the future and there will seem to be this story you are playing out.

But is this a good way of thinking about our lives?  Sometimes I think we do this because it seems more interesting, and even though I still think there is a lot of values to stories, perhaps we shouldn’t be seeing our own life as a story.

Some philosophical meat to think about here is are you the same person in the past as you are in the future?  Stories tend to follow a particular character who may change, but rarely as much as actual humans do.  Is your 20 year old self the same as your 60 year old self?  Maybe at best we are a series of shorter stories instead of one long story.  Our desire for continuity and cause and effect perhaps extends the narrative for longer than it perhaps should.

More importantly when we think our life in terms of a story do we then sometimes predict the ending?  Do we limit ourselves by having expectations based on this narrative we have about our lives?  In a recent podcast I listened too, they profiled a family who had a story of their life.  They were beekeepers, and when tragedy struck and it all came to an end, they could see themselves any other way.  What they had been doing for 40 years was who they were.  Their house decorated with bees.  How do you change the story when life takes an unexpected turn?  It can be very difficult to find happiness or contentedness when expectations do not match the reality of your situation.  This podcast also did another episode where they talked about changing your story and how doing that can help us move on.  We might find inspiration in others who have changed the story of their lives, we may also become limited by others who assume that we can’t change our story.  Perhaps we have no choice but to see our lives as a story, and if we are going to do that, perhaps we just need to learn how to better hijack that process to write those new chapters that can take the story into a different direction.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject?  Do you think of your life as a story?  Do you think it’s good or bad that you do?  Have you had to change your story unexpectedly?  Was it difficult?

There is a nice discussion on the topic on another podcast I listen to if you are interested in thinking about this subject more.

Discussion: Re-framing Rape

In observance of Sexual Assault Awareness month, I wanted to shareA friend of mine sent me a link to a very interesting talk by Susan Brison.  She is a Philosophy Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values at Dartmouth College.  I encourage to watch the talk for the full breadth of her argument (and also to hear her excellent singing voice) but if you are short on time I will summarize her main points.

Her principle argument is that rape, while important in a legal sense, is perhaps an unhelpful way of addressing the problem in general.  Dr. Brison suggests that rape be re-framed as gender-based violence.  She argues that outside of the prison system, rape is a crime that is almost entirely committed by men.  She makes an excellent analogy to racism at one point.  Which is a word that we talk about bigotry against people of certain races at a societal level.  She argues that we have no similar word for sexual violence perpetrated by men, even though it is just as prevalent (if not more prevalent) than racism.

In relation to this she also talks about how we define rape, which is “sex without consent” and that this is a harmful definition. While again she admits the value of consent especially from a legal point of view, she also argues that this might not be the best way of addressing rape as a gender-based societal problem.  She makes a number of compelling arguments, but there were 3 that really caught me:

1.  We don’t view consent as relevant when it comes to murder.
2. Having sex in the definition of rape individualizes the act and implies a connection.  And the act of rape isn’t just an individual harm, but instills fears among women or males that might be victims of rape.
3. In surveys of middle school and high school women, they sometimes report that they will consent to sex because they are afraid of being raped.

For me, the last point really muddied the waters of consent for me.

I can’t do her entire argument justice here, but I will transcribe a bit of what she said which I think is really important:

“If we lived in a world without pervasive sexism, where women and men were genuinely held to be of equal worth a victim would be able to perceive a gender-based crime against her as an anomaly…something truly random.  But in the actual world, in which because of pervasive sexism, victims of gender-based violence are often viewed as lacking credibility and perpetrators are rarely brought to justice, a sex crime, for a victim can be a brutal confirmation of an already unjust status quo.” 
-Susan Brison


Discussion: Shaming and making amends

In a time before social media, if, in your life, you did something you weren’t proud of.  Say perhaps over several years.  Maybe you were a bully in school, maybe you made some bad mistakes in how you treated women or men and you came to realize at some point how wrong your behavior was.  You might simply just move forward, never making those same mistakes again, perhaps even making sure you advocated to others the harms of certain behaviors because you once practiced them yourself.

What do we think about such a person?  Is it enough to say lesson learned, they are now a force for good in the world and sharing their wisdom with others in hopes that patterns aren’t repeated?

We live now in a time where getting away from your past is not as easy as it once was.  What if you had changed, became even enlightened, but somebody from your past decides that you are a charlatan because of a behavior you once espoused.  What if you were an outspoken feminist, but suddenly someone mentioned that back in school you weren’t the feminist you are now, and that you are a fraud.  You may have moved on, but the harm that you caused someone has left them hurt for years, and a number of other people are hurting to, because of who your past self was?

It feels like this call out culture we have on social media can be a vicious force.  Socially isolating people from communities they are making positive impacts in, and in some cases losing credibility for their entire life as a result of it.  And yet I also can’t help but feel some sympathy for victims of someone’s behavior.  Seeing that they are becoming loved and admired for views they now espouse, but never having made amends to the people they hurt in their past. Thirty years ago this was hardly an issue, but now it is so easy to find people from your past and hold them accountable no matter how much they may have changed?  Should the fact they have changed be enough to sate us, or should we bring them down as hard and fast as possible?

Maybe as we become enlightened as to the error of our ways, we should always be trying to make amends before we embark on a new crusade to enlighten others.  Maybe that’s the better path if we want to make a more meaningful crusade for a better world?  Maybe just trying to bury the past in the past is just being cowardly without facing up to it first and making amends with those we’ve hurt.  Perhaps people shouldn’t be just allowed to move on without any consequences.  Or this just us interested in hurting back instead of moving forward?  Is it realistic to expect true apologies from those who have hurt us, or do we just have to find a way to move forward to and let be, what is?


Powdered-Sugar Doughnuts

“If you encounter a new kind of pleasure-if, say, you’ve somehow gone your whole life without eating a powdered-sugar doughnut, and somebody hands you one and suggests you try it – you’ll get a big blast of dopamine after the taste of the doughnut sinks in.  But later once you’re a confirmed powdered-sugar doughnut eater, the lion’s share of the dopamine spike comes before you actually bite into the doughnut, as you’re staring longingly at it; the amount that comes after the bite is much less than the amount you got after the first, blissful bite into a powdered-sugar doughnut.  The pre-bite dopamine blast you’re now getting is the promise of more bliss, and the post-bite drop in dopamine is, in a way, the breaking of the promise – or, at least, it’s a kind of biochemical acknowledgment that there was some overpromising.  To the extent that you bought the promise – anticipated greater pleasure than would be delivered by the consumption itself – you have been, if not deluded in the strong sense of that term, at least misled.”

-Robert Wright from his book, “Why Buddhism is True”

As I read these words I started thinking about our current political climate.  Scott Adams, writer of the Dilbert cartoon, who is oddly a fan of Donald Trump because of his brilliant powers of persuasion talks about the reason people love Trump is because he speaks emotional truth.  I hate to see the word truth get used so badly, and if you want to argue that emotional truth isn’t truth with a capital ‘T’, then I would say I hate to see the word emotional used so badly.  Because let’s face it.  If Trump is tapping into some sort of emotional truth of millions of Americans, there are some pretty emotionally unhealthy people out there.  But there is some truth to Adams words in general, and this passage from Robert Wright’s book made me think of this.  People wonder why so many would vote against their own best interest.  I have wondered that too.  I wondered why so many could vote for someone who is so obviously a charlatan?  Of course charlatans have been fooling people for as long as civilization has existed likely, but when it happens in the 10s of millions it seems strange.  Of course if every snake oil salesmen from history could reach the same number of people on a daily basis who knows?   Like every good charlatan what they are selling is the promise, and not the actual goods themselves.  People’s own interests have become secondary to the promise.  I would also add that Trump promises some mostly terrible things which again is why I shudder to think he is speaking some sort of emotional truth that people are responding to.  The fact still remains that the dopamine is high for the anticipation, the broken promise matters little as long as enough powdered-sugar doughnuts are waved in front of the voters faces.

I will pause to say that even I am guilty of that when Obama was elected.  I know many democrats feel the same way.  The promise of change we thought Obama could bring was definitely a contrast to what actually happened.  Many of us sat down.  We weren’t active, we expected it to happen all by itself instead of recognizing that a good democracy requires continual effort.  Although I still reject the idea that our own delusion of how change happens is the sole reason how someone like Trump got elected.  Republicans have been priming their base for years with fearmongering and misinformation.  They’ve convinced their base how much they like powdered-sugar doughnuts and convinced them that the left is the one that has taken all your powdered-sugar doughnuts.  Trump came on to the scene packing oodles of them (a lot of them in his waistline) and tossed them out to the masses like paper towels being thrown to displaced masses on a hurricane ravaged tropical island.

Every time we think we’ve hit rock bottom with Trump there seems to be another.  What it seems like we are seeing is the diminishing returns of the dopamine hit and so the ante is always being upped.  And make no mistake the dopamine here seems less about the promises that Trump is making but more about how miserable he is making his detractors.  Liberals were an easy mark after all those years of GOP priming and honestly it seems like the promises of Trump are long gone in most of their minds and most of his base just enjoy watching others squirm.  There is perhaps some wisdom to the philosophy of not reacting at all to Trump as this seems to be the dopamine hit they keep craving.  We may not be snowflakes, but our outrage might just be another white powdery substance.   I am not sure though I have much hope to give, because it feels more and more like we have a large group of Americans who have an addiction problem, and I’m not talking about opioids.  As long as Trump keeps increasing the dosage, dopamine levels will stay high in his voters.

We are probably not long away from Stormy Daniels telling her story publicly.  As I read about how she is going to do this now because of Trump’s lawyer saying that it was his own personal money basically violated their “hush” deal about the affair.  I started thinking that this will finally sink this “upside-down world” Titanic.  A covered-up affair, while his 3rd wife is pregnant with their child.  Not someone he had any romantic attachment to, but a porn star, who during the election tried to silence with money.  There are few acts that I can think of more bereft of any morality for a candidate running on the ticket for the party who is supposedly pro-family, and pro-God.  There are few things less corrupt than a politician bribing people who could bring truthful facts about his character to light either.  For a party that is supposedly pro-American values which should include democracy and not corrupting that process I am dubious that this will be taken seriously.  Just as Russian interference in the election, sexual assault, and overt racism, was not taken seriously.

I see little hope at all that this ship will sink.  I see those that will discredit this woman because she makes adult films.  We will have the deluded evangelicals still claiming Trump is an instrument of God.  We will have the hyper-masculine crowded thinking, “well she has big knockers he had to fuck her because he’s a rich powerful man, and such men can fuck anybody they want”.  And some portion of all those people will just be selfish, rich, pricks who really don’t care and just pick whatever defense looks best in their social circle, because in the end, they are making tons of cash and that’s all that matters.  As an aside the only criticism I can think of for Stormy Daniels is that it only took $130,000 dollars to convince her to keep quiet about something that might have affected who the leader was of a nation of 300 million people, and the world’s most powerful economy and imperialistic force.  But perhaps like the rest of us, she thought he couldn’t win anyway and just decided to make a little cash.  Also, I would have thought that as a porn star you are already having a lot of sex with people you don’t choose on-camera, so there would be a stronger impetus to be more choosy with who you have sex with off-camera.  🙂 Apparently, that’s an incorrect assumption.  (Trump…really?  Trump?)

I do think there are also a lot of people who regret voting for Trump.  They regretted it probably within the first 6 months of him being elected, so I’m not trying to pretend that some people haven’t accepted they were duped, or that they knew they probably were but were so desperate for some help they figured why not see what the other side of the aisle can do.  There is good reason for people to feel frustrated by a government that is rife with corruption from big business.  I hope we can turn a corner here for those people in the future.  As I write this we have young people ignited by the recent gun shooting trying to fight for change.  We have more women entering politics.  We have the #MeToo movement.  I also hope we can turn a corner for those whose mouth waters for powdered-sugar doughnuts, because a government that is actually interested in making things better for people, softens the zealotry.  The best way to recover from addiction is to remove the environment in which that addiction flourishes.  I hope we can find away to wash away the toxicity in our society that harms us all.