Paul Piff, a psychology professor at UC Irvine, conducted an experiment earlier this year to determine if being rich necessarily makes you turn into a jerk. He put different groups of students into games of Monopoly but rather than everyone starting out with the same amount of money and the same roll of the dice to compete for property, he divided the students into rich and poor, giving the rich students twice as much money at the beginning of the game as he gave to the poor students. He also allowed the rich students to roll twice with each turn and to collect $400 every time they passed “Go” rather than the usual $200 that the poor students received.
Obviously, this game is heavily rigged, and it was virtually impossible for the rich students to lose or for the poor students to win. But this was not an economics experiment, this is a psychological experiment.
Piff was interested in observing how the behavior and attitudes changed in the course of the game. How did being privileged and rich change the behavior of the advantaged students towards the disadvantaged students?
The results of these experiments were both predictable and disappointing. Consistently, Piff observed the rich students taking credit for their victory, as if having twice as much money to start with and twice as many rolls had nothing to do with their victory. Entitlement tends to lead to narcissistic behavior. So that the entitled believe that they somehow both earned and deserve their favored status, and they say things and behave in ways that demonstrate their sense of superiority.
As a pastor, because I have had to raise charitable donations to both support the church and our various mission projects over the past 40 years, I have noted that our largest donors are rarely the wealthiest members. In fact, the people who have donated the most to our work, still had a mortgage on their home and still lived within a modest budget. Our few real trust fund babies, the genuinely wealthy, often donated nothing at all or very modestly.
Rich people often have a different relationship with money than those of us who have worked for a salary and have to pay our life’s expenses as we go. The working poor tend to see money as something that is useful and necessary, but the wealthy tend to have a more intimate relationship with their money because it doesn’t merely represent rent, groceries, and a car payment, it represents family status and heritage, it is a gauge of their importance, their self-esteem.
Your money can be spent, donated, or used . . . their money is to be conserved and, frankly, flaunted. This isn’t always true, of course. The British nobility had a concept that they were so proud of that they said it in French, “Noblesse Oblige,” which claims that the nobility have an obligation to use their position and their resources for the common good.
We might all agree that the rich have an obligation to use their power and money for the common good but what we see in practice is more commonly the opposite, that those in power use the resources of the poor, to pay the expenses of the rich, as I discussed last week, in reference to how our country’s largest employers keep wages low, forcing tax payers to foot the bill for their labor costs through housing, food, and medical subsidies.
Attempts at putting a pure Marxist Socialist economy in place have not been successful because it does not allow for enough of the inspiration of greed to motivate either hard work or innovation. But, on the other hand, an unbridled capitalism doesn’t work because it lacks compassion.
Capitalism rewards businesses for making a profit, not for doing things like eradicating poverty or saving the environment. Somehow, we have to recognize that greed is natural and, to some degree, even good, but compassion is not natural enough and it is absolutely necessary.
A dozen years ago, Time Magazine did a special edition on the subject of intelligent capitalism, about how to harness the innovation and hard work of capitalism while erecting guard rails that made our great wealth also serve the common good. And although such giants of Wall Street as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet weighed in on the subject, virtually none of what they said would make capitalism sustainable have actually been implemented.
Our wage gap and wealth gap continue to grow as we drive like Thelma and Louise, faster and faster towards the edge of the economic cliff.
Greenpeace recently conducted what you might call a sort of journalism honey trap in which they led a leading lobbyist for the oil giant, Exxon, to believe that he was being interviewed for a very lucrative job in the UK. In that interview, Keith McCoy actually bragged about how Exxon publicly acted like they were interested in a carbon tax and other environmentally smart political moves, while, behind the scenes, doing everything they could to suppress climate science and work against a carbon tax.
Let me let you listen to just a few seconds of Keith McCoy telling you in his own words just how dishonest these lobbying efforts have been:
When Exxon CEO, Darren Woods, responded to the media hit job, he basically did exactly what Keith McCoy had told Greenpeace that they always do, Woods just repeated the obviously false propaganda statements about Exxon’s support of environmental science and carbon taxes. The wealthy and powerful assume that the working class is not very clever, that we are gullible and that we have a short attention span.
It is, of course, quite possible that they assume this because, the working class is often not very well informed on these matters and they tend to be intellectually lazy, if not downright gullible, and they absolutely have a short attention span. So, if we, the public, are willing to act a bit dense and gullible, can we really fault big capitalists for treating us as if we are kinda dumb and easily distracted?
Greed is natural. Capitalism is based on the driving force of greed. You can’t fault a scorpion for stinging, since it is in the nature of a scorpion to sting. You can’t fault a snake for biting or a lion for killing an antelope.
These are the very predictable laws of the jungle, so if you don’t want capitalists to eat the poor and exploit the middle class, you have to put up effective guardrails to stop them.
The state of California made a laudable effort to stop big capitalism from making dark money donations to political campaigns, the most obvious way that our government has sold out its policy making to big corporations, but the Supreme Court struck down the policy on the first of this month.
As I have noted earlier, very wealthy people are not terribly fond of giving their money away. When they do, they usually get something in return. Big political donations are not simply “no strings attached” charitable donations.
When rich people give money to a political campaign, they are buying political influence if not outright buying regulatory laws. These are not donations, these are bribes, and our government is run by those who can pay the biggest bribes.
I would absolutely love for anyone to prove me wrong on this point, but we all know that I’m not just being cynical, this is a fact of American politics.
The Koch brothers set up a charity, not ironically named, “Americans for Prosperity,” and they make undisclosed donations to the charity which then supports candidates who will write tax and regulatory laws that protect the energy industry from either social or environmental responsibility. And this rather nifty scam is then protected by supreme court justices appointed by administrations put in power by the same dark money/pro-business donations.
https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-supreme-court-weighs-conservative-groups-bid-conceal-donors-2021-04-26 in March.
It was a 6-3 ruling in the Supreme Court, ironically saying that California’s policy inhibited “free speech” which has to be one of the most paradoxical uses of the word “free” in all time since we are talking about sinister bribes in the hundreds of millions of dollars paid to corrupt politicians. That’s not free, that’s about as expensive as it gets.
And, not to insult your intelligence, but the six justices who voted to keep dark money contributions in the dark are the six who have their jobs because of dark money political donations: Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. All of which underscores how important it is not to let people like Donald Trump appoint Supreme Court Justices.
Folks, I’m not a Marxist Socialist. I am a Democratic Socialist and if you don’t know the difference you should assume that you should never ever use the word “socialist” again. I am not opposed to Capitalism but I am opposed to unregulated Capitalism because I have seen Professor Piff’s Monopoly experiment at work among people I know all too well. Money can change people, it changes most people, and it doesn’t often change them for the better.
There have to be guardrails on Capitalism, and we can’t expect those to magically appear on the floor of congress as long as the members of congress are elected on the strength of dark money donations from the corporations regulated by congress.
So, what is left?
The media has classically been called the “fourth estate.” In medieval times, it was thought that political power was held in three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. You might think that the clergy would be associated with the commoners but, if you look at the history of the church, as Thomas Jefferson once observed:
“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection of his own.” (Writings Vol. XIV p. 119)
So, the advent of print media came to be known as the 4th Estate, believed to be independent of the influences of clergy, nobility, and commoners. But, since mainstream media is owned by the same corporations that pay bribes to politicians through political donations, it is difficult to trust their objectivity.
The commoners might have been effectively represented by labor unions if we had not allowed labor unions to be rendered almost entirely ineffective by driving their membership numbers down over the years.
We sometimes talk now about a 5th Estate, what used to be underground newspapers free of the influence of advertisers and corporate interests but now it is more about podcasts and blogs – or sources like Greenpeace who work to expose the abuses of corporations.
I would like to suggest that the clergy, those not in the control of bishops or denominations bent on serving the will of the nobility, specifically, progressive clergy, might be a real 5th estate force.
I encourage folks to pay attention to alternative news sources like Democracy Now, The Best of the Left, Current Affairs, The Young Turks, the LA Progressive and Jim Hightower, but I would put our YouTube and iTunes channels on that short list because progressive churches can offer the ethical lens to a mere listing of current events.
I know that we have a lot of members of the clergy who listen to our podcasts and videos, and I want to say a word especially for you: we were listed in centuries past among the three estates and I believe, for the reasons that Thomas Jefferson gave and for others, we have lost almost all of our moral credibility.
The church has been relegated to giving historical commentary on ancient scriptures, trying to breathe some relevance into long dead books that no longer hold influence over the minds of modern people.
We have been trained to avoid controversy and to become almost like a kind of emotional Red Cross, bandaging up the broken members of society without ever looking up at the top of the cliff to see who keeps throwing all of these people off the cliff and breaking them.
If we cannot speak to the social forces that create poverty, what does it mean for us to keep passing out boxes of food to the hungry? If we can’t confront the institutions that foster prejudice, what does it mean for us to keep holding support groups and offering prayers for those who are hurting?
And while the corporations that are killing our planet can buy politicians with the loose change of their profits, what does it mean for us to encourage people to recycle their paper plates at church dinners?
If you are a preacher and you are not talking about pollution from oil, coal, and natural gas from your pulpits, if you have the attention of a congregation and you are not talking about fighting for a living wage rather than a minimum wage, a justice system rather than a legal system, if you never mention prison reform, or talk about the fact that Black Lives do Matter, and access to higher education is the only way to fight economic classism in America, if you never advocate for immigrants, and to let trans people at least pee in peace, then what are you doing?
I cannot tell you how many times I was warned as a denominational pastor against failing to support the economic and political tyrants of the world or I would be fired.
In 2007 I was fired. I’ve lost nearly ¾ of million dollars in income since then. My pension will be half of what it would have been if I had not been fired. But, you know what, they can’t crucify us anymore and I’ve learned to live on less income and I don’t have to take Prilosec anymore to keep my stomach from digesting my backbone. I don’t take anti-depressants, and the only time I talk to a therapist is when they come to see me to tell me how much they hate their jobs.
What I’m saying is, if you, like me, have spent years looking into a mirror in the morning trying to decide between shaving and cutting your throat, please hear me: your pulpit is a gift, an opportunity, to join the 5th estate, and speak truth to power. You can live on less income. You can do work that you will be proud of. You can help to change the world for the better.
There is an old proverb that says that once you become a bishop you will never again eat a bad meal or hear a good joke.
There is a reason why Jesus was accused of hanging out with sinners and prostitutes and it is probably because he preferred their company to the company of the pious and the likes of lobbyists and CEOs.
The one thing that I wish every church could hear me saying is just this, “only dead fish always swim with the current.” If you never swim against the current of this culture, then you are already dead.
Choose to be morally relevant again. Put away your ancient texts. Try to be informed about what is really happening to the earth, to marginalized communities, to the poor, and to your own mind. Exercise more, eat less, go to a comedy club, hang out with some people who have sketchy reputations, and try to make yourself into someone who is worthy of being fired by a dead church.
Dr. Roger Ray