Thomas Frank

Servile Disobedience

By Thomas Frank

Class has long been a topic of sociological scrutiny. Psychological experiments on the subject, however, are a relatively novel thing. So I was surprised to discover that, over the past few years, psychologists have published a series of papers on the behavioral aspects of social status—and that their findings have so far been almost uniformly unflattering toward society’s winners.

One 2009 study in Psychological Science found that, in conversations with strangers, higher-status people tend to do more doodling and fidgeting and also to use fewer “engagement cues”—looking at the other person, laughing, and nodding their heads. A 2010 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that “lower-class individuals” turned out to be better performers on measures of such “prosocial” virtues as generosity, charity, and helpfulness. A third study found that those of higher status were noticeably worse at assessing the emotions of others or figuring out what facial expressions meant.

All of which is to say, The rich are different from you and me. They are ruder and less generous. They don’t get what others are thinking. And apparently they don’t really care.

If you stop and think about it for a second, you understand that all of this makes sense. People don’t craft poisoned collateralized debt obligations by calling on what they learned in Sunday school. Still, the research aroused media interest. The Christian Science Monitor’s account of one study ends with this quotation from Michael Kraus of the University of California, San Francisco, one of the researchers:

Being empathic is one of the first steps to helping other people. . . . One of the first things we’re really interested in is what can make wealthy people—affluent people, the people with the largest capacity to give—what can make them empathic?
I think I see the urgency of Dr. Kraus’s question. After all, we have spent the past thirty years doing everything we could to transfer the wealth of the nation into the bank accounts of the affluent, to send them victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us.

Oh, we’ve cut their taxes, gladly transferring much of the cost of keeping their holdings safe onto our own shoulders. We’ve furnished them with special megaphones so that their voices might be heard over the hubbub of the crowd. We have conferred upon them separate and better schools, their very own transportation system, and a full complement of private security guards. We’ve built an entire culture of courtiers and sycophants to make their every waking hour an otherworldly delight.

We let them build a system of bonuses and “executive compensation” on the theory that it would be good for everyone if the people on top got to take home much, much more. And when it turned out that the theory was wrong—that in the most famous cases the rich chased bonuses not to the shareholders’ benefit but at their expense—why, we promptly bailed them out. We allowed them to step up to the Fed’s discount window and fill their pockets, we generously transferred their dumb investments to our balance sheet, and we sent them off with little more than a request that they please not do it again. We’ve done everything we can to lift them up and exalt them as a new leviathan; the least they can do in return, one feels, is show a little empathy.

Besides, look what we’ve done with the old leviathan, the government. For decades we have attacked it, redirected it, outsourced it, and filled it with incompetents and cronies. Yes, it still works well enough when we need it to replenish the accounts of investment banks or bang some small country against a wall, but those branches of it designed to help out Americans of “lower socioeconomic status,” as the scientists would put it, are now bare. The government fails the people of New Orleans when they are hit by a hurricane, fails to notice the cadmium paint in the marketplace, does a lousy job educating our kids, can’t keep the libraries open or the park lawns mowed, overlooks the catastrophic shortcuts taken by its pals in the oil-drilling industry—and all we can do to express our frustration is elect candidates who promise to hack it down even more.

We need the rich to be nice. We need them to stop doodling, pay attention, and get generous. Now that the government has divested from the empathy business, we need the rich to discover brotherly love, and fast.

Come to think of it, wasn’t that supposed to be the deal in the first place, the arrangement Andrew Carnegie brokered over a century ago, when he made his big career move from steel king to public-library baron? The laissez-faire social contract would offer a free hand for private business, but in exchange those who piled up massive wealth were supposed to extend a magnanimous hand to the rest of us. As Carnegie wrote in his famous 1889 essay, “The Gospel of Wealth,” we didn’t need socialism to solve our problems; philanthropy is “the true antidote for the temporary unequal distribution of wealth, the reconciliation of the rich and the poor. . . .” Going further, Carnegie argued that the “duty of the man of wealth” was

to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community—the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren. . . .
The same way of thinking led Carnegie to support the estate tax—“of all forms of taxation this seems the wisest,” he wrote. It was wise because it would “induce the rich man to attend to the administration of wealth during his life,” and if he didn’t it would return most of his hoardings to the “community from which it chiefly came.”

Vestiges of the Carnegie attitude survive to this day. A recent study of high-net-worth individuals by Barclays Wealth (“a leading global wealth manager”) confirmed that American philanthropists tend to understand their giving in a context in which the state is either absent or irrelevant.

And, of course, there are plenty of nice plutocrats who don’t fidget or doodle when talking to strangers, and no doubt their robust “empathic” instincts will someday bring many of them to endow a ward or a wing in return for a commemorative plaque. The business headlines have been filled of late with stories of billionaires coming together under the leadership of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to donate their fortunes to worthy causes. Or to promise to donate them, anyway.

But the billionaires with the strongest sense of class solidarity have another plan for their disposable income: activating their lobbyists in Washington, building grassroots movements to march on their behalf, and using their media properties to run experiments on human credulity. Even their giving is a form of taking. For example, Charles Koch, of Wichita oil fame, recently circulated to his “network of business and philanthropic leaders” an invitation to a meeting at which—if their last meeting’s agenda is any indication— they will discuss strategies for beating back environmentalism and the “threat” of financial regulation. This is a kind of philanthropy that pays dividends.

If the affluent no longer possess the capacity to interpret facial expressions, let alone maintain a social conscience, can we find a way, with the help of behavioral economics, to make them act as if they do? One idea out there is to turn the rich, via a little marketing jiujitsu that exploits their well-known taste for prestigious consumer goods, into slaves of “prosocial” trends. The means by which this might be done have actually been the subject of a recent study on “green” consumerism by a psychologist and two marketing professors. Summarizing their results in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the academics announced that “activating status motives” can push people to choose environmentally friendly products over luxury goods and thereby ensnare consumers in a race to niceness that the scholars call “competitive altruism.” The conditions have to be just right, of course: People will pay more for a green product, the researchers found, if they are buying it in public, where everybody can see them doing it. They will also be drawn to “prosocial” products if the prices are artificially high; that way their sacrifice will be especially acute and their status-bump that much more noticeable. The preeminent example is the Toyota Prius, a hybrid car that “essentially functions as a mobile, self-promoting billboard for proenvironmentalism.”

All that remains is to give the rich some form of psychic gratification that can outweigh the profits that would come from their usual routine. At one of Warren Buffett’s gatherings of the superwealthy, according to Fortune magazine, a number of such inducements were discussed: “national recognition of great philanthropists (presidential medals, for example), or a film, or a philanthropy guidebook.” The idea Buffett’s group finally settled upon was to persuade their peers to take a pledge. Not exactly the most innovative or inspiring answer to the question, although it’s worth noting that a number of billionaires signed up anyway.

Another approach would be to leverage the human accessories that are so much in vogue these days—in Hollywood, nothing says I care like a Sri Lankan war orphan. And so perhaps we can, with some deft cultural manipulation, make it equally rewarding for a billionaire to adopt, say, the entire blue-collar population of Rockford, Illinois. The city can rename itself in the billionaire’s honor, and in return all the kids might get college educations and a start in some industry other than fastener manufacturing.

But then there’s the bummer backlash that inevitably overtakes all such plans. What happens to green consumerism, for example, when all those canny shoppers figure out that marketers are making high-minded things seem expensive just to trigger the buyer’s status anxiety? What will those consumers do when it becomes plain how absurd it is to show off by wearing $120 fair-trade hemp tennis shoes, or when their vain pretensions to thrift expose them to the derision of consumers even more environmentally savvy than themselves? How will they react when they discover that those hair shirts aren’t really trendy at all, just uncomfortable? What happens when they figure out that altruism isn’t really in their self interest?

Among those who make it their business to manipulate the attitudes of the rich, one of the hottest trends is the zero option. Attend a few Tea Party rallies around the country and you’ll be passed a platter of Ayn Rand’s spiciest hors d’oeuvres. She is hot stuff these days. True, her philosophy of market rationality and bankerly heroism influenced the disastrous policymaking of the conservatives who brought us to economic ruin, and it was even a former member of her inner circle, Alan Greenspan, who personally prescribed much of the snake oil, but by the curious homeopathy of American politics that merely means we need a larger dose of the same poison; it means Ms. Rand is the rightest dame who ever lived.

Back in her heyday, Rand would occasionally address audiences of businessmen, exhorting them to understand that they had few moral obligations to others. Altruism, she told one such gathering in 1981, was “a contemptibly evil idea” promulgated by guilt-slinging “humanitarians” in order to shake down the productive. Insofar as they accepted this “altruism,” the business class committed “treason against themselves.” And so the novelist inveighed against philanthropic donations to universities, where altruists twisted the minds of the young. “It is a moral crime to give money to support your own destroyers,” she scolded.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand also proposed a famous antidote to all this mawkish nonsense: a union of class-conscious plutocrats that would go on strike and bring the world to its knees. Atlas Shrugged is in some ways a prophetic book: Ms. Rand’s imagined future has in effect come to pass. After all, what is the phrase “too big to fail” but a standing threat to shut down the system unless the firm in question gets its way? In 2008, Wall Street essentially held the nation’s 401(k)s hostage until it was bailed out. American business is sitting today on an immense reservoir of cash that it refuses to invest until the economic situation is more to its liking. And as I write this, business’s pet political party is holding the legislative process itself hostage until its favorite tax cuts are extended.

As both rejoinder and homage to Ayn Rand, let us consider a different sort of strike, one that might help the emotionally arrested rich in their time of need. I propose a twenty-four hour refusal to fawn. A servility strike. A day without deference.

For one day, let the nation’s doormen do their jobs without smiling. Let waiters at suburban restaurants leave their flair at home; let waiters at downtown restaurants neglect to compliment the good taste of their customers. Let the janitors at Princeton mop no vomit from the dormitory stairwells. Let retail greeters of every description call in sick. Let the first-class passengers board at someone else’s leisure. Let the nation’s limo drivers require their passengers to open their own damn doors. Let the production interns at CNBC send the on-air “talent” to fetch the coffee. And, for just one day, let the talent ask their interviewees hard questions.

It wouldn’t change much, of course. It would do nothing to alter the economic system that produced all those affluent louts in the first place, or the way that system divvies up what we produce, suborns the state, sends your job to China, and smashes your retirement fund for good measure. A day without deference will do nothing to fix the faithless machinery that assembles winners in its own churlish image. But as a form of therapy for those winners it might just work. It might help them to actualize their true selves, overcome their inner barriers to sharing. And maybe that’s what vast industrial actions ought to be about in the first place.

After all, Americans are born to serve and assist the wealthy; it is our inalienable duty. We like to think of ourselves as a people of untamed independence, but any observer not steeped in our culture would quickly conclude that we are in fact a nation of footmen. We cater to the wealthy in our work lives and we glorify them in our leisure. Our dueling political parties are dedicated to the principle of serving them (although they approach the directive in slightly different ways), and even our seething anti-elitist movements are carefully designed to build even further the affluence of the affluent. We take up collections for our public schools because we feel the fortunes of the rich ought to go unencumbered by that burden. Our leaders in Washington are considering cutting Social Security because retaining it might require the rich to chip in more than their current percentage. If it’s a choice between us spending our dotage in helplessness and filth and our high-net-worth friends having to forgo next year’s Learjet, Americans will choose the personal sacrifice every time.

By withholding niceness for a day we might, surprisingly, inculcate niceness in our charges. So let’s teach the rich to listen. Not because we have anything interesting to say, of course. Not for our own sake. But for theirs.

From Harper's Magazine, February, 2011
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