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Rich people are jerks, explained

"These people have grown fat and lazy on Social Security. Let's cut it."
"These people have grown fat and lazy on Social Security. Let's cut it."
(Shutterstock)

So I was reading this story about water restrictions imposed in the wake of California's horrible drought, and how wealthy people are reacting to them, and it reminded me that rich people are kind of jerks. That's one big reason lots of solvable social problems aren't getting solved.

The policy preferences of jerks

Lest we draw overly broad conclusions from one story — maybe the rich are just jerks about water? — let's take a broader look at the policy preferences of the rich. (Note: when I say "rich," I mean the 1 percent and above.)

This is of more than academic interest. Recent research from political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page concludes that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence."

So the attitudes, preferences, and behaviors of the rich have outsize effects not only in terms of their direct dispensation of resources, which is enormous in itself, but even more in terms of their disproportionate influence over public policy, which affects millions.

So what are their preferences? A few years ago, Page, along with fellow political scientists Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright, published a study of the political habits and inclinations of the 1 percent. One thing they found is that the rich are extremely politically active — far more likely to have personal contacts with policymakers, donate money, attend meetings, follow the news, and vote — which (along with, y'know, the money) helps explain why their preferences have such impact.

As to the 1 percent's policy preferences, the folks at Campaign for America's Future took the numbers from Page's study and compared them with past polls, to get a sense of how the preferences of the rich diverge from the general public's. And oh, do they diverge.

I had Vox's ace graphics team pretty up the comparison. Here's how the rich rate things relative to the rest of us:

Elites-graphic2

(Campaign for America's Future)

Of particular note is the passion of rich people for cutting social programs, which puts them at odds with their fellow Americans:

Elites-graphic1

Page et al. conclude:

... if one accepts, at least for the sake of argument, the notion that the wealthy exert substantial political power, our findings may shed some light on the current state of American politics. For example, the contemporary emphasis in Washington on reducing the federal budget deficit addresses what is, by far, the most important public problem in the minds of wealthy Americans—though not of the American public as a whole. The willingness of many policy makers to cut popular social welfare programs, and their reluctance to increase taxes on people with high incomes, may be explained in part by the fact that social welfare programs and increased taxes on the rich are much less popular among wealthy people than among ordinary citizens. And the turn away from economic regulation in recent decades—a turn that left exotic financial derivatives unregulated before the 2008–09 financial crash in which they played such a prominent part, and that left Washington surprisingly inhospitable to more rigorous banking regulation even after that crash—may be attributable, in part, to the distinctive antipathy of wealthy citizens to government regulation of the economy.

The very top item on rich people's list of concerns? The deficit. The lowest? Climate change.

Jerks.

Jerks, explained

What is a jerk, anyway?

In 2012, psychologist Paul Piff and colleagues released a set of test results showing that, as the title of the paper puts it, "higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior." Here's how New York magazine's Lisa Miller summarized the work:

[The paper] showed through quizzes, online games, questionnaires, in-lab manipulations, and field studies that living high on the socioeconomic ladder can, colloquially speaking, dehumanize people. It can make them less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people. It can make them more likely, as Piff demonstrated in one of his experiments, to take candy from a bowl of sweets designated for children. "While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything," Piff says, "the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes."

Assholes, jerks — semantics. The important bit is "less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people."

Perhaps a case study is in order. Here is one wealthy Californian being a jerk, from the Washington Post story:

"I think we’re being overly penalized, and we’re certainly being overly scrutinized by the world," said Gay Butler, an interior designer out for a trail ride on her show horse, Bear. She said her water bill averages about $800 a month.

"It angers me because people aren’t looking at the overall picture," Butler said. "What are we supposed to do, just have dirt around our house on four acres?"

So what are the marks of jerkdom here?

First is the odd contention that those who use more resources are being "overly penalized" and "overly scrutinized" in discussions of how to allot scarce resources, as though having and using more resources should be irrelevant to that discussion. It speaks to a conviction among the rich that they are a disadvantaged class, discriminated against without reason, leading one rich person to compare resentment toward the wealthy to the persecution of Jews in Hitler's Germany. Did I say one rich person? I meant a bunch of them.

Here is today's somewhat milder version of the sentiment:

"I call it the war on suburbia," said Brett Barbre, who lives in the Orange County community of Yorba City, another exceptionally wealthy Zip code.

To hear Barbre tell it, the lifestyles of the wealthy are being targeted arbitrarily, as though the whole business about historic drought is just a convenient pretext to go after McMansions.

Second is the unstated assumption, always hovering in the background, that resources are distributed entirely according to merit. Those who have more deserve more, and have the right to use more. This is true even of public resources. "We pay significant property taxes based on where we live," said wealthy jerk Steve Yuhas to the Post. "And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water." The rich should get more — that's what money means!

Third is the rampant narcissism and total lack of self-awareness, such as when Ms. Butler confuses her aesthetic aspirations for her four-acre ranch with "the overall picture." (Presumably those focusing on the statewide drought have too narrow a lens.) Rich jerk Yuhas bridles at the notion that wealthy people should be "forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful."

"California used to be the land of opportunity and freedom," said rich jerk Barbre. "It’s slowly becoming the land of one group telling everybody else how they think everybody should live their lives." (Helpful translation: "one group" means the public; "everybody else" means the very, very wealthy; "live their lives" means water their enormous lawns.)

The legitimacy of jerk-related generalizations about the wealthy

When I say rich people are jerks, do I mean that all rich people are jerks? No, of course not. That's not how generalizations work. Plenty of rich people are nice enough. Bill Gates, say. "Rich people are jerks" is shorthand for a few related concepts.

First, per Piff, and per most of their public-facing statements, the proportion of jerkdom among the rich appears to be substantially higher than among the general population. Whether becoming very rich makes you a jerk or jerks are more likely to become very rich (I suspect there's some of both), there's a correlation.

Second, the Total Jerkdom (TJ) of a given demographic is a function not just of jerkdom's prevalence (p) within the demographic, but also its significance (s) to the larger population. TJ = p*s. Even if the level of jerkdom among the rich is equal to or lower than the level in the general population, it will still have more malign effects, because, as the research above shows, the preferences of rich people have extremely high significance (s) value for US governance. In fact, they appear to be the only preferences that have any significance at all.

In short, rich people, qua demographic, have high jerkdom (p) and (s) values and thus uniquely high TJ. In other words, rich people are jerks.

WATCH: How the rich stole the recovery in one chart

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