Friday, January 1, 2016

Privilege, Pathology and Power: Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

image from

Paul Krugman January 1, 2016, New York Times; see also: Eric Owens, Paul Krugman Sticks It To Poor People With $225,000 Salary To Study Income Inequality, Daily Caller  Reihan Salam, "Paul Krugman Isn’t a Hypocrite: A $225,000 salary for the critic of inequality is more than fair," Slate; Lydia DePillis, "Adjunct professors get poverty-level wages. Should their pay quintuple?" Washington Post


Wealth can be bad for your soul. That’s not just a hoary piece of folk wisdom;
it’s a conclusion from serious social science, confirmed by statistical analysis
and experiment. The affluent are, on average, less likely to exhibit empathy,
less likely to respect norms and even laws, more likely to cheat, than those
occupying lower rungs on the economic ladder.

And it’s obvious, even if we don’t have statistical confirmation, that
extreme wealth can do extreme spiritual damage. Take someone whose
personality might have been merely disagreeable under normal circumstances,
and give him the kind of wealth that lets him surround himself with
sycophants and usually get whatever he wants. It’s not hard to see how he
could become almost pathologically self­-regarding and unconcerned with

So what happens to a nation that gives ever-­growing political power to the

Modern America is a society in which a growing share of income and
wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people, and these
people have huge political influence — in the early stages of the 2016
presidential campaign, around half the contributions came from fewer than
200 wealthy families. The usual concern about this march toward oligarchy is
that the interests and policy preferences of the very rich are quite different
from those of the population at large, and that is surely the biggest problem.
But it’s also true that those empowered by money-­driven politics include a
disproportionate number of spoiled egomaniacs. Which brings me to the
current election cycle.

The most obvious illustration of the point I’ve been making is the man
now leading the Republican field. Donald Trump would probably have been a
blowhard and a bully whatever his social station. But his billions have
insulated him from the external checks that limit most people’s ability to act
out their narcissistic tendencies; nobody has ever been in a position to tell
him, “You’re fired!” And the result is the face you keep seeing on your TV.
But Mr. Trump isn’t the only awesomely self­-centered billionaire playing
an outsized role in the 2016 campaign.

There have been some interesting news reports lately about Sheldon
Adelson, the Las Vegas gambling magnate. Mr. Adelson has been involved in
some fairly complex court proceedings, which revolve around claims of
misconduct in his operations in Macau, including links to organized crime and
prostitution. Given his business, this may not be all that surprising. What was
surprising was his behavior in court, where he refused to answer routine
questions and argued with the judge, Elizabeth Gonzales. That, as she rightly
pointed out, isn’t something witnesses get to do.

Then Mr. Adelson bought Nevada’s largest newspaper. As the sale was
being finalized, reporters at the paper were told to drop everything and start
monitoring all activity of three judges, including Ms. Gonzales. And while the
paper never published any results from that investigation, an attack on Judge
Gonzales, with what looks like a fictitious byline, did appear in a small
Connecticut newspaper owned by one of Mr. Adelson’s associates.

O.K., but why do we care? Because Mr. Adelson’s political spending has
made him a huge player in Republican politics — so much so that reporters
routinely talk about the “Adelson primary,” in which candidates trek to Las
Vegas to pay obeisance.

Are there other cases? Yes indeed, even if the egomania doesn’t rise to
Adelson levels. I find myself thinking, for example, of the hedge­-fund
billionaire Paul Singer, another big power in the G.O.P., who published an
investor’s letter declaring that inflation was running rampant — he could tell
from the prices of Hamptons real estate and high­-end art. Economists got
some laughs out of the incident, but think of the self­-absorption required to
write something like that without realizing how it would sound to non-billionaires.

Or think of the various billionaires who, a few years ago, were declaring
with straight faces, and no sign of self-­awareness, that President Obama was
holding back the economy by suggesting that some businesspeople had
misbehaved. You see, he was hurting their feelings.

Just to be clear, the biggest reason to oppose the power of money in
politics is the way it lets the wealthy rig the system and distort policy
priorities. And the biggest reason billionaires hate Mr. Obama is what he did
to their taxes, not their feelings. The fact that some of those buying influence
are also horrible people is secondary.

But it’s not trivial. Oligarchy, rule by the few, also tends to become rule by
the monstrously self­-centered. Narcisstocracy? Jerkigarchy. Anyway, it’s an ugly spectacle, and it’s probably going to get even uglier over the course of the
year ahead.

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