One of the most-discussed economists in the world since the economic collapse has Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics, who has been periodically updating Americans on our decades-long march of income inequality, which has climbed to Gilded Age-levels since the 1970s. The English translation of his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is eagerly awaited in certain circles, and Brad DeLong offered a compelling, brutal preview (emphasis mine):
Piketty says: sociologically, America today may be the worst of all worlds for those who are neither top income earners nor top wealth successors: you are poor, and depicted as dumb & undeserving: “nobody was trying to depict Ancien Régime inequality as fair”.
“Sort of like pre-Revolutionary France, but more aggro,” coming from a Frenchman, is tough medicine.
In other words, it’s not just that income inequality is high and increasing; it’s the perception that such a state of affairs is inevitable and even just. Paul Krugman noted this the other day: “an obvious desire to believe that rising incomes at the top are kind of the obverse of the alleged social problems at the bottom…. [I]mplied in all this is that wealth is the reward for virtue, which makes it hard to argue for redistribution.”
Chris Hayes, once a Chicagoan at In These Times and now a MSNBC host, calls it the Cult of Smartness, building on Karen Ho’s fascinating book Liquidated: “intelligence is the chief virtue, along with a conviction that smartness is rankable and that the hierarchy of intelligence, like the hierarchy of wealth, never plateaus.”
Hayes notes that “sharp, continuous rise in inequality is one of the most studied and acknowledged features of the American political economy in the post-Carter age,” and within the realms of economics and political science, it’s true—hence people eagerly awaiting the translation of an 800-page book on the subject.
And fascinating research is bubbling up out of psychology as well, that adds research depth to the anecdatal observations of Piketty, Krugman, and Hayes. A recent piece by science writer Matthew Hutson, “Social Darwinism Isn’t Dead,” alerted me to the research of University of Illinois prof Michael Kraus, director of the Champaign Social Interaction Lab, who’s been studying class and psychology since he was a PhD student at Berkeley.
One of Kraus’s recent findings is that subjects of a higher class rank are more likely to have “essentialist” views about a person’s identity and status: “the kind of person someone is can be largely attributed to their genetic inheritance.” Or even more bluntly: “we have better genes.” The resulting class structure is something that arises out of inherent traits, from the individual out. Lower-class individuals, however, are more likely to believe that class is imposed on them, from society inwards.
“Constructed beliefs mean that society, the government, powerful people, they ascribe class,” Kraus says. “The system lays down the class structure that is forced upon me as an individual. Essentialist beliefs say that your genes force your class on you.”
It’s a comforting thought—that your elevated class rank is the result of your inherent qualities as an individual, and that society is structured to rightly privilege those qualities. It’s comforting not just because it’s nice to be recognized for what you perceive as your best qualities, but also because it’s predictive; it suggests future stability and success.
But it’s not as simple as education or income. The most powerful predictor of essentialist beliefs is subjective class rank, where one perceives one’s self on a social ladder. And it’s malleable, changing with social context.
“What we have people do in some of the studies, I say, compare yourself to a person that you would think is the absolute top of the ladder of society, the person with the most education, most income, the most occupation status, the best job,” Kraus says. “How would you interact with that person? What would you say? How would that interaction go? So we try to transport people to contexts, just for that moment, where they are below someone in rank.”
This is a powerful concept; it speaks to how someone near the top of the historic and global food chain, even someone not far removed from a considerably lower rung, can perceive themselves as lacking in money, power, or class. Take former Wall Street banker Sam Polk, who began his recent New York Times editorial with the confession that “in my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough":
At 25, I could go to any restaurant in Manhattan — Per Se, Le Bernardin — just by picking up the phone and calling one of my brokers, who ingratiate themselves to traders by entertaining with unlimited expense accounts. I could be second row at the Knicks-Lakers game just by hinting to a broker I might be interested in going. The satisfaction wasn’t just about the money. It was about the power. Because of how smart and successful I was, it was someone else’s job to make me happy.
Still, I was nagged by envy. On a trading desk everyone sits together, from interns to managing directors. When the guy next to you makes $10 million, $1 million or $2 million doesn’t look so sweet. Nonetheless, I was thrilled with my progress.
As a 25-year-old, Polk wasn’t far removed from growing up as the the son of a salesman and a nurse practicioner; one would think that would put his newfound wealth into context. But that’s the power of subjective class rank—Polk’s social context shifted, as did his measure of himself.
Removed from that context, Polk has a different view: “I see Wall Street’s mantra—’We’re smarter and work harder than everyone else, so we deserve all this money”—for what it is: the rationalization of addicts.” But even if it takes a purer form on Wall Street, which puts a premium on quantification and competition, it’s hardly unique to the Street.
In fact, Kraus’s most recent paper connects these conclusions to the closely intertwined elite realm of Washington D.C. “We looked at members of Congress and looked at their wealth, and looked at their tendency to sponsor legislation that increases or decreases economic inequality,” Kraus says. “What we find in the study is that members of the House of Representatives become wealthier, they become more likely to sponsor legislation that increases or maintains economic inequality. And this is particularly true of Democrats. Republicans are uniformly supportive of economic inequality. Democrats show this really prominent wealth increase in support for economic inequality.” (If you’d prefer these findings from a political scientist, they parallel those of Nicholas Carnes.)
If you think this essentialist worldview is cold, you may be more right than you think. An earlier paper of Kraus’s, when he was still at Berkeley, builds on prior research on class and emotional intelligence, and finds that subjects of a lower class rank are more likely to accurately read emotions. They have more “empathetic accuracy,” to use Kraus’s term.
There’s a logic running through this. If you believe yourself highly dependent on your social environment, as lower-class subjects in Kraus’s research do, it behooves you to be more aware of social cues.
Given how we think of emotional intelligence—psychologist Daniel Goleman has a famous book about how great it is—you’d think it would give lower-class individuals an advantage, since being able to read people is a valuable skill. But one can have too much of a good thing, depending on your metrics.
“Sometimes it’s just good to focus on you, on your needs, your goals. If there’s a disruption in your family life, it’s kinda nice—for your professional life—to be able to ignore some of those things,” Kraus says. “Or maybe not ignore, but just be blissfully unaware of others’ states, just in that moment. What I think we’ve found is that upper-class individuals are good at that.”
Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining how this is possible:
Thirty years ago, the best-paid workers in the U.S. were much less likely to work long days than low-paid workers were. By 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating. A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of a thousand professionals found that ninety-four per cent worked fifty hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of sixty-five hours a week. Overwork has become a credential of prosperity.
These exceptionally long hours are common in finance, law, and technology, and working 65-hour weeks requires setting aside friends and family. For some it’s a worthwhile sacrifice, but it is a sacrifice, and harder for some than others. It’s also an advantage that can take root much earlier than the day someone opens his or her corner-office door.
“I see it with all my students, the ones who have family troubles, their grades dip, their performance dips,” Kraus says. (Another paper Kraus co-authored suggests that lower-class individuals demonstrate “elevated dispositional compassion” as well as more self-reported compassion.) “They’re worried, they’re thinking about home, they’re probably on the phone a lot, sometimes they travel. All these things have to do with responding to your family members’ emotions, and so they’re really experiencing a direct tradeoff in time between studying and doing this emotional work.
“Working-class students in particular, first-generation college students, experience this more than others, because there’s a bit of an expectation on those students to take on the emotional work, even when they’re away. You can imagine how hard it is to do all that extra emotional work and also come to school for the first time and do well.”
In discussing wealth and justice, Paul Krugman borrows a famous line from Upton Sinclair: “it’s hard for a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” But perhaps a more accurate frame is this: when the returns to empathy are poor, people don’t invest in it.