Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lucky Duckies and Fortunate Sons

A high school teacher of mine told the story of playing a trading game as part of teacher training on race and social issues. The kicker was that the game was rigged. My teacher wound up in the group the game was rigged against. A competitive guy, he grew increasingly frustrated, and eventually stood off to the side and asked others to play his turn for him. Throughout the game, the group the game was rigged for downplayed or outright denied their own advantage and that the game was unfair. They urged him to keep playing (most in a kind manner, some gently upbraiding him for being a sore loser). They insisted that he was just unlucky, and that things could get better.

The lessons he took from this were:

1. People tend to grow discouraged when the game is rigged against them.

2. People benefitting from a rigged game are reluctant to acknowledge that the game is rigged.

The game from his story, StarPower, is more of an experiential teaching tool than traditional game. The Wikipedia entry provides some information and the webpage for the actual game is here. Donella Meadows wrote a good description of what normally happens in the game, while Carol C. Mukhopadhyay has written a lesson plan for it and a detailed description of the game pieces. The experience works much better if the participants go in not knowing the game's nature, and the game's replay value is limited. I haven't played it myself, but apparently the game has made a lasting impression on some participants.

From Meadows' account:

The game starts with players drawing colored chips from a bag. Different color combinations have different point values. The players trade chips, trying to increase their point counts. Very ordinary. Slightly boring.

After the first round, those with the most points are given, with much fanfare, badges with big purple squares on them. The lowest scorers get badges with demeaning green triangles. Those in the middle wear red circles.

Then comes the insidious part. For the next trading round the Squares draw from a bag laced with high-value chips. The Triangles' bag has low-value chips. After this round a few players change fortunes and switch to a higher or lower group, but mostly the Squares stay Squares, the Triangles stay Triangles, and the gap between them widens.

At this point the Squares are given the power to change the rules. They can reshuffle the chip bags, give away free points, do whatever they like. They can consult the other players on rule changes, if they want to.

They almost never want to.

Predictably, and usually gleefully, the Squares rig the game to favor Squares. The Circles concentrate on elevating themselves to become Squares, so they can bend the rules in favor of Circles. But the few Circles who do gain the hallowed status of Squares start to act like Squares.

The poor Triangles, with less and less power, wealth, or hope, first get angry, then apathetic. They sit around waiting for this dumb game to be over. They come to life only if they think up a way of cheating or of creating a revolution. Only subversion brings out their interest and creativity.

After about an hour the game is stopped and the players talk about what happened. There is usually an emotional outburst. "I can't believe how much I hate you guys!" a Triangle says to the Squares. "Why? We were managing things pretty well!" a Square replies in honest surprise.

The Squares seldom see how systematically they oppressed everyone. The Triangles are a mass of smoldering resentment. The Circles are shocked to discover that Triangles consider them materialistic sell-outs, while Squares look down on them as incompetent pseudo-Squares.

A simple, unpleasant game. A crude representation of a much-more-complicated world. Unforgettable to those who play. It's one thing to know intellectually about social classes. It's another to spend an hour experiencing the rage of a Triangle or the self-righteousness of a Square.

When tempers have cooled, I find that surprising insights remain. Having watched myself act like a Square or Triangle, I have to admit that my behavior depends greatly on where in the social structure I sit. Nearly anyone exposed to Square perceptions, pressures, and rewards acts like a Square. Nearly any Triangle gets apathetic.

Those few who don't are easily handled. Once I watched a Square try to convince her fellow-Squares to even up the rules. "This game is unfair, and unfair games are boring," she pleaded. The other Squares appropriated her points and demoted her to a Triangle. They weren't mean people, they were just Squares.

Suppose we could admit that most of us act as we do because of our places in the system. Suppose we turned our energy from blaming each other to blaming the structure of the games we play. Starpower games -- games in which the winners gain ever more power to win again -- occur everywhere, on both the Right and the Left...

My teacher's story about the board game stuck with me, probably because studies in the social sciences, life experiences and conversations with others about theirs have consistently borne out his conclusions. It's also persisted because those conclusions about the way people tend to react to a rigged game – discouragement or selective blindness – are pretty common sense, yet are vociferously denied nonetheless by significant segments in the United States.

Digby's noted before that Americans are more likely than Europeans to attribute poverty to a lack of character rather than to unfortunate circumstances. Racism often plays a role in these attitudes, but not always. The StarPower experience is somewhat reminiscent of Jane Elliott's Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment. Several more recent studies show that, as social psychologist Paul Piff puts it, "As a person’s levels of wealth increase, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increases." (Interestingly enough, some of his studies have also employed rigged board games.) Piff performed another study that indicated that the poor were more charitable than the rich. Regarding the behavior of the Circles in StarPower, studies on last-place aversion are relevant. Meanwhile, social psychologist John Jost's multiple studies on system justification are also valuable.

(To counteract these negative dynamics, some programs do try to encourage the development of empathy. The chronically underfunded arts also have a fine track record in this regard. Discussing the social contract in more depth in our national political discourse could be nice, too.)

Some people (particularly conservatives) tend to get upset when they hear the term "privilege" in relation to themselves. I believe it's because it feels like an accusation that they haven't worked hard in their lives, and that often isn't the case. Yet acknowledging privilege doesn't disregard the presence of hard work or setbacks – it just recognizes consequential advantages. John Scalzi, in a good post (and two follow-ups) using a gaming analogy, called "straight white male" the "lowest difficulty setting." That doesn't mean a guaranteed win, or a life free from struggle, or a better outcome than everyone in a different demographic (being rich tends to be an awfully good trump card). Still, all other things being equal, the odds are better with some "settings" or starting positions than others. Horatio Alger stories of rags to riches can occur, but relying on them makes for poor public policy. A fairly recent study suggests that socioeconomic mobility in the United States hasn't changed much in decades, but also that it isn't great compared to other industrialized nations, and as John Cassidy points out, the study "doesn’t mean that the effects of inequality aren’t more serious than they used to be." (Since by definition there will always be a poorest 10% and 20%, perhaps it's wise to ensure that relative poverty is less dire and some basic needs are met for everyone.) Hard work and talent are indeed important, but the reality is that luck, and "choosing one's parents at birth," play an enormous role in success, and certainly prosperity. It takes a pretty cloistered life not to realize this.

Although cloistered, privileged, entitled wankers have always been with us, it does seem that in the last decade or so they've become more aggressive crowing about their own preciousness and expressing contempt for the (supposedly) lower orders. It's hard to keep up all the extremely wealthy figures indignantly insisting that a slight raise in their taxes would be like Hitler invading Poland, or Kristallnacht, or making similarly ridiculous claims. (Unsurprisingly, they won't mention that tax rates for the rich are lower than in earlier decades or provide context about the significant and increasing wealth inequality in the U.S.) We've seen periodic rants from egomaniacal Wall Street players that read like parody but have been linked approvingly by conservative outlets. Nor is it hard to find material that, for instance, praises Ayn Rand and insists that the '99% give back to the 1%' – countless pieces give voice to the persecuted privileged and promote the plutocratic, neofeudalist view.

Jonathan Chait's 2009 piece "Wealthcare" (about the conservative adoration for Ayn Rand) took a good look at this mentality:

Not surprisingly, the argument that getting rich often entails a great deal of luck tends to drive conservatives to apoplexy. This spring the Cornell economist Robert Frank, writing in The New York Times, made the seemingly banal point that luck, in addition to talent and hard work, usually plays a role in an individual's success. Frank's blasphemy earned him an invitation on Fox News, where he would play the role of the loony liberal spitting in the face of middle-class values. The interview offers a remarkable testament to the belligerence with which conservatives cling to the mythology of heroic capitalist individualism. As the Fox host, Stuart Varney, restated Frank's outrageous claims, a voice in the studio can actually be heard laughing off-camera. Varney treated Frank's argument with total incredulity, offering up ripostes such as "That's outrageous! That is outrageous!" and "That's nonsense! That is nonsense!" Turning the topic to his own inspiring rags-to-riches tale, Varney asked: "Do you know what risk is involved in trying to work for a major American network with a British accent?"

There seems to be something almost inherent in the right-wing psychology that drives its rich adherents to dismiss the role of luck--all the circumstances that must break right for even the most inspired entrepreneur--in their own success. They would rather be vain than grateful. So seductive do they find this mythology that they omit major episodes of their own life, or furnish themselves with preposterous explanations (such as the supposed handicap of making it in American television with a British accent--are there any Brits in this country who have not been invited to appear on television?) to tailor reality to fit the requirements of the fantasy.

The association of wealth with virtue necessarily requires the free marketer to play down the role of class. Arthur Brooks, in his book Gross National Happiness, concedes that "the gap between the richest and poorest members of society is far wider than in many other developed countries. But there is also far more opportunity . . . there is in fact an amazing amount of economic mobility in America." In reality, as a study earlier this year by the Brookings Institution and Pew Charitable Trusts reported, the United States ranks near the bottom of advanced countries in its economic mobility. The study found that family background exerts a stronger influence on a person's income than even his education level. And its most striking finding revealed that you are more likely to make your way into the highest-earning one-fifth of the population if you were born into the top fifth and did not attain a college degree than if you were born into the bottom fifth and did. In other words, if you regard a college degree as a rough proxy for intelligence or hard work, then you are economically better off to be born rich, dumb, and lazy than poor, smart, and industrious.

In addition to describing the rich as "hard-working," conservatives also have the regular habit of describing them as "productive" . . .

This mentality fits perfectly with Mitt Romney's infamous 2012 remarks about the "47 percent":

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. . .

Romney's claims were at best grossly misleading, and taken in larger context were outright false. Still, that didn't stop him from sticking by them (as did many surrogates), eventually apologizing, then making similar remarks and finally claiming he didn't say what he did. It's also worth noting that he said this behind closed doors, at a private event, which suggests that Romney really believed this bullshit himself or at the very least thought his donor base did. Likewise, for the past several years, Romney's running mate Paul Ryan has offered various plans to funnel more money to the rich while gutting the social safety net, an old con that never seems to go out of fashion with conservatives. The essential story of the past fifty-some years for movement conservatism and the Republican Party has been selling bigotry and delivering plutocracy, of the Southern Strategy and Reaganomics (also know as supply-side economics or trickle-down economics). The theme for one day of the 2012 Republican National Convention was "We Built It," referencing clumsy remarks by Barack Obama taken out of context, lacing them with resentment, and pushing any sort of "debate" about the social contract and the role of government to a petulant, childish and dishonest extreme. The leaders of movement conservatism agree that the game is rigged, but they deny it's for the benefit of the rich and powerful, instead offering scapegoats such as liberals, Democrats, feminists, ethnic minorities, gay people... (really, something for everyone – but then, that's why Republicans are the inclusive, big tent party).

In recent years, there's been an interesting variation on the ol' "I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps" claim. The stories to deflect charges of privilege and about the value of hard work from Rick Santorum, Ann Romney, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, among others, have focused on their fathers and grandfathers. Naturally, they don't come right out and say 'I'm not privileged because my (grand)father worked hard,' or 'I deserve it all because of my (grand)parents,' but that is the gist. (Apparently virtue, like money, is passed down through the generations.)

(I've focused on conservatives and Republicans here, but obviously, the Democratic Party has a significant plutocratic, corporatist faction, and that shouldn't be ignored when it comes to reform efforts. That said, the Republican Party is definitely more plutocratic and their rep in that regard is well-deserved. Despite several notable electoral defeats, it still doesn't have anything beyond lip service and dogma for the middle class, not to mention the poor – remember them? It certainly has nothing comparable to what the Congressional Progressive Caucus offers, policy-wise.)

Sadly, conservatives have become increasingly intent on screwing the poor and anyone fallen on hard times, with consistent attacks on food stamps forming one of the more glaring examples. More striking is the relentless demonization, including claims that Jesus hates the poor (who have it good), that Jesus opposes progressive taxation and social services, that the filthy homeless should stay out of the sight of their betters, that those who have lost their homes should be mocked, that food stamp recipients are akin to animals, and that that starving schoolchildren should dive into dumpsters for food.

The game is rigged. Some people are too cloistered to know it. A percentage of that group can be reached. But some people know the game's rigged, want to keep it that way and tilt the game even further. And some are so filled with hatred it's unlikely they'll ever significantly change their views. After all, in contrast with those lucky duckies they decry, theirs is a hard life, and it requires sustained cruelty for them to live with themselves.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

Update: In September 2014, Mitt Romney offered yet another account of his "47 percent" remarks, that he "reflected back to the man" who asked him a question at the fundraiser. David Corn of Mother Jones offers a good account, and Daily Kos, Paul Waldman and Steve Benen provide more context, including the staggering number of falsehoods Romney spouted during his presidential campaign. (Fodder for its own post, perhaps.)


eVille Mike said...


I guess I should visit Mike's Blog Roundup more often.

I'll be back.

Paul W said...

Where's the LIKE button again...? Very good argument against the ongoing problems we've got covering both income inequality and racial inequality, and why it's hard to convince those in economic and political power why they can't see the game is rigged...

Lotus said...

Having just - finally! - gotten to the end of the Jon Swift Roundup, I find your excellent piece from August.

I thought you might be interested in this and this, a two-parter that references some of the same works by Paul Piff that you cite.

I'd also note that one of the things the StarPower game does is confirm what I said in my own submission to the Roundup: Privilege is intended to be invisible to those who have it.

Batocchio said...

Good stuff, Larry, thanks for passing it on! (And props for reading through everything!)