The rotten fruit of the money culture

Coluna de Lee Siegel original, em inglês

Lee Siegel,

08 de julho de 2012 | 03h00

I am sitting here, at my desk, on July 4th, the day Americans celebrate their independence from the British Empire, and I am holding in my hands a copy of New York magazine. The cover story this week is "Does Money Make You Mean?" It is one of the stupidest articles I have ever read.

Fireworks and parades bring me to the verge of post-traumatic stress syndrome-I was briefly hopeful this year when Republican budget cuts threatened to cancel my town's celebration-so please excuse my petulance. The premise of the article is that wealth stunts empathy. Now, the writer, Lisa Miller, does admit that the idea is not exactly an original one. The idea goes back, well, to Jesus. But this does not stop her from pursuing her thesis. According to Miller, the difference between what Jesus and just about every thinker in Western civilization believed about the spiritual impoverishment of wealth and what she is saying is that her article is based on what she calls "science." Oooooo. Science.

Miller quotes the author of a paper published in a psychology journal saying that "the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people." (Dishonestly, she calls him a "psychologist." In fact, he is a graduate student in psychology.) From this shattering idea, Miller boldly comes up with her own provocations. "When was the last time," she courageously asks, that you priotorized your own interests above the interests of other people?" Let me see. Yesterday when I raced ahead of someone to get in line at the supermarket? Fifteen minutes ago, when I ate some of my son's tunafish over his loud protests? And I am not even a millionaire.

No one has to tell me about the callousness of the rich. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously captured it when, in "The Great Gatsby," he wrote about wealthy Tom and Daisy Buchanan that "they were careless people… They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." The conviction that wealth is next to godliness is sociopathic enough. But the sadism that ensues when wealth meets boredom is truly something to behold.

At a time when Americans are more conscious than they have been since the Depression of the vast gap between the rich and everyone else in this country, Miller's editors obviously want to cash in. They want to give the appearance of wringing their hands, along with the majority, over the disparity in resources. The problem is that market values have so completely overtaken every corner of American life-from procreation to education, from how you love to how you die-that the article, rather than being an indictment of excessive wealth, is an endorsement of it.

The new American madness is the marriage between behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology and neuro-biology. Everywhere you look, people are writing articles or publishing books promising to understand human behavor by looking into the structure of the brain. America used to boast intellectuals elaborating ideas. Now the culture is ruled by what sociologist in the 1950s used to call "pseudo-intellectuals"-a good, solid term-extolling neurons.

When the new pseudo-intellectuals want to drive home the point of an argument, they triumphantly point to some biological phenomenon, from which they draw social conclusions. Thus Miller tells us that rich people "have less cortisol in their saliva, a sign that they feel more impervious to threat." Steven Pinker tells us in a recent book that our brains are evolving away from violence. (Tell that to the Sudanese, the Congolese, the Syrians, and on and on.) In a recent New York Times op-ed, a cognitive psychologist named Drew Westen informed readers that President Obama had better come up with a good "narrative," because our brains have been wired to expect stories about good and evil.

Of course, this is not science by any stretch of the imagination for the simple reason that none of these conclusions can be verified by scientific method. For one thing, no one can prove that poor people have more or less cortisol than rich people in their saliva. For another, since cortisol is known as the "stress hormone" because it is produced by stress, investment bankers, who are some of the most stressed-out people in the world, must feel "threatened" all the time. And no experiment in the world can prove that the brain is "wired" for any social tendency, let alone for storytelling.

But in a society dominated by the market, in which every human endeavor is quantified as cost or benefit, any pseudo-science that promises to make life as comprehensible as a business transaction is going to be popular. Miller's article, meant superficially to be an indictment of the money culture, is actually the rotten fruit of that culture.

And, lo and behold, by the time you finish the article, you realize that her characterization of the mean rich is actually quite flattering. A lack of empathy simply means social and psychological superiority. "Rich people are thinner than poor people," she writes, "and have better cardiovascular health. They live longer. They're better educated. They score higher on standardized tests." Never mind that native intelligence, fortitude, self-discipline and good health are the reasons people become materially well off, rather than the other way around. The important thing is to flatter the vanity of the reader.

Because, as Miller and her editors know, money might make you mean, but it also makes the world go round.

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