Oh, cripes. Bobo has now decided to harangue us on “The Power of Altruism.” He bleats that we inherently desire to do good, but society’s assumptions of selfishness affect our behavior. His “thoughts” will be followed by a comment by “Socrates” from Downtown Verona, NJ. Prof. Krugman considers “All the Nominee’s Enablers” and says the G.O.P. establishment, and the people behind it, will accept a lot as long as the rich ultimately benefit. Here’s Bobo:
Western society is built on the assumption that people are fundamentally selfish. Machiavelli and Hobbes gave us influential philosophies built on human selfishness. Sigmund Freud gave us a psychology of selfishness. Children, he wrote, “are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them.”
Classical economics adopts a model that says people are primarily driven by material self-interest. Political science assumes that people are driven to maximize their power.
But this worldview is clearly wrong. In real life, the push of selfishness is matched by the pull of empathy and altruism. This is not Hallmark card sentimentalism but scientific fact: As babies our neural connections are built by love and care. We have evolved to be really good at cooperation and empathy. We are strongly motivated to teach and help others.
As Matthieu Ricard notes in his rigorous book “Altruism,” if an 18-month-old sees a man drop a clothespin she will move to pick it up and hand it back to him within five seconds, about the same amount of time it takes an adult to offer assistance. If you reward a baby with a gift for being kind, the propensity to help will decrease, in some studies by up to 40 percent.
When we build academic disciplines and social institutions upon suppositions of selfishness we’re missing the motivations that drive people much of the time.
Worse, if you expect people to be selfish, you can actually crush their tendency to be good.
Samuel Bowles provides a slew of examples in his book “The Moral Economy.” For example, six day care centers in Haifa, Israel, imposed a fine on parents who were late in picking up their kids at the end of the day. The share of parents who arrived late doubled. Before the fine, picking up their kids on time was an act of being considerate to the teachers. But after the fine, showing up to pick up their kids became an economic transaction. They felt less compunction to be kind.
In 2001, the Boston fire commissioner ended his department’s policy of unlimited sick days and imposed a limit of 15 per year. Those who exceeded the limit had their pay docked. Suddenly what had been an ethic to serve the city was replaced by a utilitarian paid arrangement. The number of firefighters who called in sick on Christmas and New Year’s increased by tenfold over the previous year.
To simplify, there are two lenses people can use to see any situation: the economic lens or the moral lens.
When you introduce a financial incentive you prompt people to see their situation through an economic lens. Instead of following their natural bias toward reciprocity, service and cooperation, you encourage people to do a selfish cost-benefit calculation. They begin to ask, “What’s in this for me?”
By evoking an economic motivation, you often get worse outcomes. Imagine what would happen to a marriage if both people went in saying, “I want to get more out of this than I put in.” The prospects of such a marriage would not be good.
Many of our commitments, professional or civic, are like that. To be a good citizen, to be a good worker, you often have to make an altruistic commitment to some group or ideal, which will see you through those times when your job of citizenship is hard and frustrating. Whether you are a teacher serving students or a soldier serving your country or a clerk who likes your office mates, the moral motivation is much more powerful than the financial motivations. Arrangements that arouse the financial lens alone are just messing everything up.
In 1776, Adam Smith defined capitalism as a machine that takes private self-interest and organizes it to produce general prosperity. A few years later America’s founders created a democracy structured to take private factional competition and, through checks and balances, turn it into deliberative democracy. Both rely on a low but steady view of human nature and try to turn private vice into public virtue.
But back then, there were plenty of institutions that promoted the moral lens to balance the economic lens: churches, guilds, community organizations, military service and honor codes.
Since then, the institutions that arouse the moral lens have withered while the institutions that manipulate incentives — the market and the state — have expanded. Now economic, utilitarian thinking has become the normal way we do social analysis and see the world. We’ve wound up with a society that is less cooperative, less trusting, less effective and less lovely.
By assuming that people are selfish, by prioritizing arrangements based on selfishness, we have encouraged selfish frames of mind. Maybe it’s time to upend classical economics and political science. Maybe it’s time to build institutions that harness people’s natural longing to do good.
Great. Let’s start by destroying the Republican party and everything it currently stands for. They don’t call Paul Ryan the “Zombie-Eyed Granny Starver” for nothing, Bobo. Here’s the comment by “Socrates:”
“Machiavelli would be perfectly at home moored in the bay of one of today’s 0.1% Cayman Island or Panamanian tax havens, napping peacefully on his 500-foot super yacht on a bed of red roses handpicked by serfs this morning.. “completely egoistic; feeling his needs intensely and striving ruthlessly to satisfy” his insatiable greed.
0.1% individuals and their families have as much as $32 trillion of hidden financial assets in offshore tax havens, according to the Tax Justice Network, and economist James Henry.
0.1% trillions of graft and greed is held in tax havens by private elites and puts it beyond the reach of tax authorities and excludes it from the common good.
Research estimates that since the 1970s, the richest citizens of 139 countries had amassed $7.3 to $9.3 trillion of “unrecorded offshore wealth” by 2010.
Private wealth held offshore represents “a subterranean” systemic “economic equivalent of an astrophysical black hole” of 0.1% greed in the world economy.
The $32T estimate is roughly twice the size of the US GDP —- offshored ‘altruism’ and compassionate 0.1% conservatism at its truly finest.
“Wall Street and other major banks manage the tax havens — their business is fraud and grand theft. Private banking operations yield huge profits. Keeping funds secreted tax free attracts rich clients and criminals – funds are welcome from anyone, “no questions asked”, wrote Stephen Lendman of Global Research.
The Power Of Greed is a timeless psychopathy, Mr. Brooks.”
And now here’s Prof. Krugman, the voice crying in the wilderness:
A couple of weeks ago Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, sort of laid out both a health care plan and a tax plan. I say sort of, because there weren’t enough details in either case to do any kind of quantitative analysis. But it was clear that Mr. Ryan’s latest proposals had the same general shape as every other proposal he’s released: huge tax cuts for the wealthy combined with savage but smaller cuts in aid to the poor, and the claim that all of this would somehow reduce the budget deficit thanks to unspecified additional measures.
Given everything else that’s going on, this latest installment of Ryanomics attracted little attention. One group that did notice, however, was Fix the Debt, a nonpartisan deficit-scold group that used to have substantial influence in Washington.
Indeed, Fix the Debt issued a statement — but not, as you might have expected, condemning Mr. Ryan for proposing to make the deficit bigger. No, the statement praised him. “We are concerned that the policies in the plan may not add up,” the organization admitted, but it went on to declare that “we welcome this blueprint.”
And there, in miniature, is the story of how America ended up with someone like Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee and possible next president. It’s all about the enablers, and the enablers of the enablers.
At one level, all Mr. Trump has done is to channel the racism that has always been a part of our political life — it’s literally as American as apple pie — and hitch it to the authoritarian impulse that has also always lurked behind democratic norms. But there’s a reason these tendencies are sufficiently concentrated in the G.O.P. that Trumpism could triumph in the primaries: a cynical political strategy that the party’s establishment has pursued for decades.
To put it bluntly, the modern Republican Party is in essence a machine designed to deliver high after-tax incomes to the 1 percent. Look at Mr. Ryan: Has he ever shown any willingness, for any reason, to make the rich pay so much as a dime more in taxes? Comforting the very comfortable is what it’s all about.
But not many voters are interested in that goal. So the party has prospered politically by harnessing its fortunes to racial hostility, which it has not-so-discreetly encouraged for decades.
These days, former President George H.W. Bush is treated as an elder statesman, too gentlemanly to endorse the likes of Donald Trump — but remember, he’s the one who ran the Willie Horton ad. Mitt Romney is also sitting this one out — but he was happy to accept Mr. Trump’s endorsement back when the candidate was best known for his rabid birtherism.
And Mr. Ryan, after a brief pretense of agonizing about Mr. Trump, is now in full attack-dog mode on the candidate’s behalf. After all, the Trump tax plan would be a huge windfall for the wealthy, while Hillary Clinton would surely sustain President Obama’s significant tax hike on high incomes, and try to push it further.
I’m not saying that all leading Republicans are racists; most of them probably aren’t, although Mr. Trump probably is. It is that in pursuit of their economic — actually, class-interest — goals they were willing to act as enablers, to make their party a safe space for prejudice. And the result is a party base that is strikingly racist, in which a plurality of voters believe that Mr. Obama is a Muslim, and more — a base just waiting for a candidate willing to blurt out what the establishment conveyed by innuendo.
But there’s one more crucial element here: We wouldn’t have gotten to this point if so many people outside the G.O.P. — in particular, journalists and self-proclaimed centrists — hadn’t refused to acknowledge what was happening.
Political analysts who tried to talk about the G.O.P.’s transformation, like Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, were effectively ostracized for years. Instead, the respectable, “balanced” thing was to pretend that the parties were symmetric, to turn a blind eye to the cynicism of the modern Republican project.
Which brings me back to Mr. Ryan, the de facto leader of his party until the Trumpocalypse. How did he reach that position? Not by inspiring deep loyalty in the base, but rather by getting incredibly favorable treatment from journalists and centrists eager to show their bipartisanship by finding a serious, honest Republican to praise — or at least someone able to do a passable job of playing that character on TV. And as the latest from Fix the Debt shows, the charade is still going on.
The point is that this kind of false balance does real harm. The Republican establishment directly enabled the forces that led to Trump; but many influential people outside the G.O.P. in effect enabled the enablers. And so here we are.