And you can bank on it

One of the things I am learning about poverty is how quickly and how easily you can get completely wiped out. I, for example, have a line of credit. If something happened to my job, I’d still have 8 or 9 months of rent that I could borrow (on top of Employment Insurance and the fact that I’m highly employable) to keep myself in my home and in groceries. That doesn’t happen by accident – I can borrow because I have a job based on my income. I have the job with my income because I was able to go to school, because my parents helped me, because they worked jobs with good income… and so it goes.

If I didn’t have all of those things – a personal history that puts me in this advantageous position – I’d be in major trouble if I lost my job. If I was living cheque to cheque, the slightest disruption to my income could result in me being out on the streets. I wouldn’t be able to borrow, except through credit cards with high fees that would put me deeper in debt the longer I relied on them. Trying to claw my way out of that debt would take an extraordinary and consistent string of good luck. Chances are, I’d end up bounced to the streets within 3 months.

Of course once I’m on the streets, things get rough. Without a permanent address, I can’t apply for a job. No job means no steady source of income which means my ass stays on the street. Then again, if there was some way for me to patch a small hole, cover the cost of a rent payment, a broken cell phone, any kind of financial emergency that might come up in the course of life, I’d be able to avoid losing my residence perhaps long enough to get something going for myself.

And that’s where the city comes in: [Read more...]

Ethics, wealth, privilege – pulling it all together

Looking back at this morning’s post, it may have seemed a bit atypical for me to highlight a study that has nothing to do with politics, religion, racism, or any of the other usual suspects for this blog. In the early days of the Manifesto I realized that it was important to have a focus – in order to build a ‘brand’ one must be associated with an idea (or even a handful). Over the past couple of years this ‘focus’ has been rather malleable – shifting as my own personal interests do. However, insofar as this blog is an attempt to unify my own thoughts and ideas and provide myself (and you) with some insight into how my thought process works when synthesizing new information.

When I first read the fact that there was a study that demonstrates that rich people are jerks, I was prepared to laugh it off as just one of those interesting, quirky psychological discoveries. But as the days passed, I realized that there was quite a bit more depth to it. Many of you (hopefully) remember my series on System Justification Theory where we explored the theoretical underpinnings of why people who are relatively lower status may embrace behaviours and attitudes that work to the advantage of the outgroup rather than selfishly. Since we are talking about power and status, there is an opportunity to explore the extent to which greed increases someone’s system justifying behaviour. Are low-status people who have positive attitudes about greed approve when high-status people subvert the rules? Are they more motivated to excuse unethical behaviour by those in power? If such a correlation exists, could it possibly explain why someone like Newt Gingrich still has political support among evangelicals despite his rampant infidelity?

Does this overlap between greed and SJT explain perhaps the backlash against the #Occupy movement – why Romney’s characterization of the justifiable anger against the excesses of the financial elite as ‘jealousy’ resonates with voters who are getting screwed by the same elites? How does this potential psychological phenomenon affect the way people interpret news like this:

But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.

(snip)

One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.

What implications would understanding a climate of greed and the ethical lassitude that accompanies it have when we add system justifying into the mix? If we can find ways to convince people that greed isn’t good (contra Gordon Gekko), will we see an adjustment in the amount of support for social programs that level the playing field? Will politicians who adopt an ‘investment’ model rather than a ‘free market’ model gain more traction?

Many of you may have read this resignation letter from a (former) Goldman Sachs executive:

Today is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Stanford, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.

(snip)

When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.

How does this reaction to corporate greed connect to Goldman’s unethical practices (as detailed in the letter)? Is it always the case that the extremely wealthy will become avariciously unethical, or is it greed that separates a Lloyd Blankfein from a Warren Buffett? Many praised Greg Smith (the letter’s author) for showing a level of morality that one does not commonly see among the very rich. Is that ‘morality’ borne of an organically superior sense of right and wrong, or simply a less favourable view of greed?

System justification produces unfavourable attitudes that fall along racial and gender lines, and operates implicitly (subconsciously). If greed is mixed in to the system justifying process, does that contribute to the atmosphere that results in fewer women and minorities being promoted to executive positions? Do the double standards that make identical actions look ‘assertive’ in men and ‘bitchy’ in women come from a subconscious approval of a culture of greed? Would encouraging people to think of greed unfavourably create a more demographically balanced environment? Can this help to explain why economically ‘left’ groups tend to be more inclusive of minorities than economically ‘right’ ones?

Finally, how do we moderate approval of greed? Does merely exposing greed make people think unfavourably of it, or do we have to focus our attention on the downsides? How can we separate (unhealthy) greed from (healthy) competitiveness? Are they two sides of the same coin, or is there a way to encourage innovation and discovery without having to accept the phenomenon of people pulling each other down rather than pulling themselves up? Do we as skeptics have a role to play in unpacking the subconscious baggage of greed, or is that a job for educators and public figures? Is greed biological or sociological – do we see parallel behaviours in animal species?

These are big questions, and I certainly don’t have answers for them. However, the more I look around, the more I see that things are connected.

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Morality? Oh THAT’S rich…

Now I have no idea how many people actually believe this, and maybe I’m late to the party, but it seems that the criminal justice system is set up in such a way that people on the lowest socioeconomic rungs bear the brunt of the punishment. Sure, part of it is the fact that the very wealthy can afford lawyers and have more familial strings to pull to reduce the charge. But that stuff is extra-judicial. That’s not the way the justice system is set up – that’s the way the entire political/economic/social system is set up. It’s rigged for the rich – everyone knows that.

But the criminal justice system itself – the way the laws are enforced, what we think of when we conjure an image of ‘crime’, the kinds of cases we prosecute and the way we go about executing ‘justice’ – these all seem to be in the business of punishing the poor. Steal $50 from someone on the street and you’re a monster – steal several trillion and you’re appointed to the president’s economic council. We actually have the gall to distinguish between ‘crime’ and ‘white collar crime’, as though one is the nicer version of the other.

Now there are a number of potential explanations for this, but certainly one of them is that poor people are just less trustworthy. I was offered that hypothesis straight-faced by someone at Skeptics in the Pub a couple of months ago – poor people are poor because they’re immoral and lack the decency to work their way out of poverty. The wealthy are less criminal because they’re more moral, right? Yeah, looks like the opposite is true: [Read more...]

The power of Dr. House

I was recently reflecting on a fact that I usually ignore: I am in excellent health. That’s not to say I’m in excellent shape (I’m not), but I am able to live a more or less ‘normal’ life completely free of any infirmity. I don’t have any recurrent pain, difficulty sleeping, food allergies, mental distress, social anxiety… basically I’m kicking ass at life. When I consider what the reality is for many people, even if I restrict my thinking only to those in North America, I am still coming out ahead of a good chunk of the population who has to interact with the health care system in one way or another.

It is somewhat ironic that I make a living researching ways to improve the health care system, but that the only time I actually interface with it is when I go to the office. The irony expands a bit when I think of the myriad of ways in which people’s ill health makes working either an impossibility or a real difficulty. Even with a publicly-funded health care system, there is a severe economic consequence associated with illness. This association diminishes somewhat in white-collar jobs (unless you have some kind of injury that interferes with cognition, or a mental illness that makes knowledge work difficult), but your health is the foundation of your entire life if you work in a trade – a busted knee or a broken finger means the difference between working and starving.

Interestingly, the relationship between health and wealth works in the other direction as well. While the correlation between education/income and health are well-understood in the realm of health research, the evidence supporting causation is somewhat less robust. However, the picture is getting a little clearer: [Read more...]

What actual honour looks like

One of the neat remnants of the British Parliamentary system is the practice of referring deferentially to colleagues by an honorific title. So if I were addressing the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, I would not simply refer to him as “Mister Harper” or “hey you Lego-haired fascist”, he would be properly addressed as “the Right Honourable Prime Minister”. Lesser MPs are still “the honourable member from (riding)”. While it may help to preserve civility, there are no conventions about what kind of language follows the honorific:

Winnipeg NDP MP Pat Martin added fuel to the obscenity-laden firestorm he created this week when he cursed at a Conservative senator who suggested murderers should be given ropes to hang themselves. On Wednesday, Martin called Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu an “a—hole” for the comment that sparked controversy. When demands for an apology were made Thursday, Martin refused.

“Nobody elected this son of a bitch, he should keep his comments to himself,” Martin told the Winnipeg Free Press. He added perhaps his only mistake was that he didn’t include the required honorific when addressing a senator. “I should have called him an honourable a—hole.”

Pat Martin, incidentally, has a Twitter account and is consistently awesome.

There is again something vaguely Orwellian, however, about referring to politicians as “the honourable” when many of their actions reveal them to be something else quite entirely*. It is refreshing, therefore, to see a member of public office truly live up to their responsibility to serve the people: [Read more...]

#Occupy: Not down, not out

One might think, based on the much-diminished news presence and the absence of physical encampments, that the movement known as Occupy has ended, or at least lost some steam. After all, they’re not really ‘occupying Wall Street’ anymore, and the police have chased away all of the physical presence of the protests here in Canada. We haven’t even heard a decent “mic check” make the news recently.

Of course, we must remember that most of the media attention has been focussed on the ongoing Republican presidential circus, and it takes a decidedly uncharacteristic (un-Occupy-like) debacle to warrant any media attention:

Officials surveyed damage Sunday from a volatile Occupy protest that resulted in hundreds of arrests the day before and left the historic City Hall vandalized after demonstrators broke into the building, smashed display cases, cut electrical wires and burned an American flag.

Police placed the number of arrests at about 400 from Saturday’s daylong protest — the most contentious since authorities dismantled the Occupy Oakland encampment late last year.

For the record, Occupy Oakland is telling a very different story than the police are. Of course they would, but there’s no reason to believe that they are any less biased than the cops, especially given the shockingly bad behaviour that the Oakland Police Department has displayed in the recent past. [Read more...]

What do Vancouverites have to complain about?

I don’t have the freedom, courage, or fortitude to actually sleep in a tent in the middle of downtown Vancouver. I don’t want to lose my job, and I’m a pretty big wimp when it comes to organized protest. That’s why I consider myself lucky that there are others out there who are willing to fight on my behalf in ways that I cannot. It behooves me, therefore, to join in the fight the best way I know how – by writing. In addition to the handful of posts on the Occupation I’ve posted here, I’ve been regularly taking to the walls of my Facebook friends and trying to counter the anti-occupation memes that crop up in seemingly-inexhaustable supply.

One such conversation (which appears to be ongoing) came from a former roommate of mine, who is one of the most erudite and knowledgable guys I know. Despite that fact (for reasons I am coming to understand much better), he is quite conservative and, resultingly, openly contemptuous of Occupy. His opening salvo was to tell everyone protesting in North America and Europe to “get over themselves”, which I didn’t quite understand. I asked him if only people from Sudan were allowed to protest, because there was always someone worse off somewhere else.

Nearly immediately he went on a wild tangent about how the tactics used by the protesters were illegal, about how they weren’t proposing concrete solutions, about how they did have concrete solutions but that he didn’t like them… basically everything except the original argument. I have heard many others express his bewilderment in other words, but consistently fail to provide anything but red herrings and straw men by way of explanation. This fact suggests to me that people’s opposition to Occupy has little to do with the actual movement, but a series of myths that have been cultivated about the system being protested.

Which is a shame, because even here in Vancouver there is plenty for them to be upset about: [Read more...]

Throwing the book at the problem of poverty

The concept of ‘spending money to make money’ seems to elude many people. When the stimulus came up in the United States (and to a lesser extent here in Canada), people were outraged. “Isn’t that just like a liberal to try and spend their way out of a problem? Spending is what got us in this problem to begin with!” Ignoring for a moment that the question of ‘spending on what‘ is rarely addressed (except by libertarians, to their credit), this complaint still suffers from a central flaw.

If you’re on a motorcycle 3/4 of the way down a ramp that faces a yawning chasm, you might be tempted to throw on the brakes. The problem with that strategy is that your momentum is likely to carry you over the edge of the precipice, where your lack of speed will kill you. Sometimes, paradoxically, you have to pick up speed to clear the gap. That’s when you can think about braking. It’s not a complicated concept, but it seems to elude many people.

What very rarely gets discussed, however, is the cost of not doing anything. To put a point on it – anyone reading my post this morning might have found the admonition to spend money on improving education and infrastructure to be nothing but bleeding heart liberal nonsense. “Where are you going to find the money?” say our ‘fiscal conservative’ friends. It’s a question that’s actually easier to answer than you think: [Read more...]

Bacon, porn, and rainbows: poverty edition

I am a liberal. I am not a hyphenated liberal, or a centre-left or a “social liberal, fiscal conservative” or any such nonsense. Probably the least liberal thing about me is that I refuse to dither over whether or not I am a liberal. I believe, proudly in fact, that people can get together and solve social problems. I further believe that government, properly scrutinized by the public, can be a place where those solutions can be implemented. I am aware that there are arguments for and against public sector involvement – I am far more comfortable with democracy than I am with unregulated free markets.

When we apply our shoulders to the wheels of social policy, we can make monumental changes that make life better for the people who need it most. When we fail to make the commitment to act, it makes life worse: [Read more...]