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Being rich wrecks your soul. We used to know that. - The Washington Post
"The point is not necessarily that wealth is intrinsically and everywhere evil, but that it is dangerous — that it should be eyed with caution and suspicion, and definitely not pursued as an end in itself; that great riches pose great risks to their owners; and that societies are right to stigmatize the storing up of untold wealth. That’s why Aristotle, for instance, argued that wealth should be sought only for the sake of living virtuously — to manage a household, say, or to participate in the life of the polis. Here wealth is useful but not inherently good; indeed, Aristotle specifically warned that the accumulation of wealth for its own sake corrupts virtue instead of enabling it. For Hindus, working hard to earn money is a duty (dharma), but only when done through honest means and used for good ends. The function of money is not to satiate greed but to support oneself and one’s family. The Koran, too, warns against hoarding money and enjoins Muslims to disperse it to the needy.

Some contemporary voices join this ancient chorus, perhaps none more enthusiastically than Pope Francis. He’s proclaimed that unless wealth is used for the good of society, and above all for the good of the poor, it is an instrument “of corruption and death.” And Francis lives what he teaches: Despite access to some of the sweetest real estate imaginable — the palatial papal apartments are the sort of thing that President Trump’s gold-plated extravagance is a parody of — the pope bunks in a small suite in what is effectively the Vatican’s hostel. In his official state visit to Washington, he pulled up to the White House in a Fiat so sensible that a denizen of Northwest D.C. would be almost embarrassed to drive it. When Francis entered the Jesuit order 59 years ago, he took a vow of poverty, and he’s kept it.

According to many philosophies and faiths, then, wealth should serve only as a steppingstone to some further good and is always fraught with moral danger. We all used to recognize this; it was a commonplace. And this intuition, shared by various cultures across history, stands on firm empirical ground.

Over the past few years, a pile of studies from the behavioral sciences has appeared, and they all say, more or less, “Being rich is really bad for you.” Wealth, it turns out, leads to behavioral and psychological maladies. The rich act and think in misdirected ways.

When it comes to a broad range of vices, the rich outperform everybody else. They are much more likely than the rest of humanity to shoplift and cheat , for example, and they are more apt to be adulterers and to drink a great deal . They are even more likely to take candy that is meant for children. So whatever you think about the moral nastiness of the rich, take that, multiply it by the number of Mercedes and Lexuses that cut you off, and you’re still short of the mark. In fact, those Mercedes and Lexuses are more likely to cut you off than Hondas or Fords: Studies have shown that people who drive expensive cars are more prone to run stop signs and cut off other motorists .

The rich are the worst tax evaders, and, as The Washington Post has detailed, they are hiding vast sums from public scrutiny in secret overseas bank accounts.

They also give proportionally less to charity — not surprising, since they exhibit significantly less compassion and empathy toward suffering people. Studies also find that members of the upper class are worse than ordinary folks at “reading” people’ s emotions and are far more likely to be disengaged from the people with whom they are interacting — instead absorbed in doodling, checking their phones or what have you. Some studies go even further, suggesting that rich people, especially stockbrokers and their ilk (such as venture capitalists, whom we once called “robber barons”), are more competitive, impulsive and reckless than medically diagnosed psychopaths. And by the way, those vices do not make them better entrepreneurs; they just have Mommy and Daddy’s bank accounts (in New York or the Cayman Islands) to fall back on when they fail."



"Some will say that we have not entirely forgotten it and that we do complain about wealth today, at least occasionally. Think, they’ll say, about Occupy Wall Street; the blowback after Mitt Romney’s comment about the “47 percent”; how George W. Bush painted John Kerry as out of touch. But think again: By and large, those complaints were not about wealth per se but about corrupt wealth — about wealth “gone wrong” and about unfairness. The idea that there is no way for the vast accumulation of money to “go right” is hardly anywhere to be seen.

Getting here wasn’t straightforward. Wealth has arguably been seen as less threatening to one’s moral health since the Reformation, after which material success was sometimes taken as evidence of divine election. But extreme wealth remained morally suspect, with the rich bearing particular scrutiny and stigmatization during periods like the Gilded Age. This stigma persisted until relatively recently; only in the 1970s did political shifts cause executive salaries skyrocket, and the current effectively unprecedented inequality in income (and wealth) begin to appear, without any significant public complaint or lament.

The story of how a stigma fades is always murky, but contributing factors are not hard to identify. For one, think tanks have become increasingly partisan over the past several decades, particularly on the right: Certain conservative institutions, enjoying the backing of billionaires such as the Koch brothers, have thrown a ton of money at pseudo-academics and “thought leaders” to normalize and legitimate obscene piles of lucre. They produced arguments that suggest that high salaries naturally flowed from extreme talent and merit, thus baptizing wealth as simply some excellent people’s wholly legitimate rewards. These arguments were happily regurgitated by conservative media figures and politicians, eventually seeping into the broader public and replacing the folk wisdom of yore. But it is hard to argue that a company’s top earners are literally hundreds of times more talented than the lowest-paid employees.

As stratospheric salaries became increasingly common, and as the stigma of wildly disproportionate pay faded, the moral hazards of wealth were largely forgotten. But it’s time to put the apologists for plutocracy back on the defensive, where they belong — not least for their own sake. After all, the Buddha, Aristotle, Jesus, the Koran, Jimmy Stewart, Pope Francis and now even science all agree: If you are wealthy and are reading this, give away your money as fast as you can."
charlesmathewes  evansandsmark  2017  wealth  inequality  behavior  psychology  buddha  aristotle  jesus  koran  jimmystewart  popefrancis  ethics  generosity  vices  fscottfitzgerald  ernesthemingway  tonystark  confucius  austerity  tacitus  opulence  christ  virtue  caution  suspicion  polis  poverty  donaldtrump  jesuits  morality  humanism  cheating  taxevasion  charity  empathy  compassion  disengagement  competition  competitiveness  psychopaths  capitalism  luxury  politics  simplicity  well-being  suicide  ows  occupywallstreet  geogewbush  johnkerry  mittromney  gildedage  kochbrothers 
august 2017 by robertogreco
Being rich isn’t a superpower, and Steve Jobs isn’t Spider-Man
"Every age gets the heroes it deserves—or rather, the heroes it needs to do a certain kind of cultural work. Superhero stories have become our Greek dramas — popular entertainment built around larger-than-life figures with rich histories playing out complex fables of power, morality, and democracy. We tell the stories over and over again, either taking their characters back to their roots or placing them in fresh scenarios. We use these stories to explore new fantasies and solve new problems.

There are many issues playing themselves out in contemporary superhero stories—race and gender representation, surveillance and militarization, LGBT rights and identities, to name just a few. It’s strange, however, that one of the most important is one of the least talked-about: the disproportionate power wielded by the rich, whether wealthy individuals or wealthy societies. Wealth may be the buried theme of both contemporary comics and contemporary politics. Talking about superheroes and superpowers without talking about money misses an enormous part of the story—not least because the business of superheroes is bigger than ever, and the companies behind our most popular superheroes are some of the largest conglomerates in the world.

Now, it’s true that many superheroes have been rich: Batman’s Bruce Wayne and Iron Man’s Tony Stark were created as millionaire playboys decades ago. And this makes sense. As Spider-Man’s adventures showed for years, super-heroics don’t pay the bills: it’s difficult being a gadget-driven superhero (or any kind of superhero) without first having money to burn. But over time, Bruce Wayne stopped being just an idle heir and Tony Stark stopped being just an eccentric arms dealer, and both became hero figures much more recognizable to the 21st century: the genius entrepreneur. These characters are less Howard Hughes (the original model for Tony Stark) and more Elon Musk, less J. Robert Oppenheimer and more Mark Zuckerberg. They are brilliant futurists, larger than life—the people we ask to show us the future, and hope that they will help make the world one worth saving.

We don’t have warriors and war heroes at the center of our popular consciousness any more; we don’t have kings and queens, gods or monsters. We have entrepreneurs and superheroes: incarnations of a myth of the heroic individual. These are the titanic figures, at the junction of capitalism and futurism, whose actions have disproportionate effects on our world—actions and effects the rest of us are trying to grapple with. The Social Network, Steve Jobs (both the book and the movie), Ashlee Vance’s biography Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In—all are about businesses and entrepreneurship but also have a strong element of inspiration and self-help, and not just for budding business leaders but the larger public, to a degree we haven’t seen since the days of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

They offer, in short, much the same appeal as comic books.

The sociologist Thomas Streeter argues in “Steve Jobs, Romantic Individualism, and the Desire for Good Capitalism” that these myths play an important role in contemporary culture. For Streeter:
The romanticized version of Jobs’ life offers a story wherein one can imagine a capitalism with integrity, a capitalism where one’s inner life, one’s flaws, one’s passions are appreciated and lead to good things. The Jobs narrative offers the appealing vision of an idealized, productive, humane capitalism contrasted with the speculative, predatory kind of capitalism, unconnected to useful objects or activities, that appeared in the headlines after 2008. The name of Steve Jobs has become the symbol for the opposite of a Wall Street financial manipulator. Jobs functions, not always but often, as a signifier of good capitalism, of industrial capitalism with moral integrity. And in a world straining awkwardly, perhaps desperately, for ways to reconcile capitalist production with political democracy, that signifier can seem immensely useful and attractive.

Now consider The Amazing Spider-Man #1. Peter Parker is still a superhero, a good guy—so the story’s authors go out of their way to dot every I and cross every T to make sure we know that he’s still a good guy, one still obsessed with “great responsibility.” Parker explains that his goal with Parker Industries isn’t to save the world—which superheroes do every day—but to “make a world worth saving.” Over the course of the issue, we learn that his factories in China pay fair wages, that he’s taken a minimum salary, and that along with consumer products, the company works on biotechnology and renewable energy. When SHIELD helps Spider-Man stop thieves who’ve made off with Parker Industries’ customer data, Spider-Man strong-arms Nick Fury into handing the data back without the government taking a peek. He’s even started an “Uncle Ben Foundation” with the vague but noble mandate of “going around the globe using Parker Industries technology to help the less fortunate and raise the quality of life wherever we can.” It’s half Gates Foundation, half Batman Incorporated.

“We’re not here to build a fortune,” Parker says, “we’re here to build the future.” In short, as a businessman, a superhero, and a human being, the new Peter Parker, the world’s greatest self-made superhero, is impeccably, improbably, offensively good. Peter Parker is what you get if you tally our persistent anxieties about the power and personality of Jobs, Zuckerberg, Bezos, et al—and then just alleviate them: the perfectly polished superhero entrepreneur. If the real Steve Jobs is not available to serve as our imaginary heroic capitalist—whether because his personality is too flawed, the businesses he built are too imperfect, or simply because we can’t continue to tell new stories about him—Spider-Man is available forever.

This is not to say that all CEO superheroes are as perfect as Peter Parker. For Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Oliver Queen, and other wealthy superheroes, exploring business gives the writers room to explore the characters’ flaws and mistakes: their obsessiveness, their addictions, their immaturity. In fact, often these characters can sometimes seem barely likable. But in many ways—just as with Steve Jobs—this focus on flaws is still an act of reconciliation and never really jars the premise that the story being told is the story of a hero. The assumption remains that, barring a mind swap with a supervillain or a mystical personality reversal, these men (and it’s almost always men) are fundamentally good.

On the outside they may be flaky, boorish, and arrogant. Still, they feel things, have powerful value systems, and ultimately want most of all to improve the world—if not save it. If they were not superheroes, Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne would be awful people. (They also resemble many young men in the worlds of business and technology.) Because we know Stark and Wayne are superheroes—and because we intimately know the history and personality traits that drive them—we forgive them everything. (Can you think of a better way to try to understand Elon Musk?) Despite their flaws, our superheroes are what we want our capitalists to be.

More subtly, they also give us tools we can use to understand ourselves—to reconcile our own wealth and power relative to others, our own status as citizens of global superpowers in a world filled with injustice, a world needing to be saved."



"In recent years, there have been a handful of comic book stories where superpowers have become consumer goods. MGH (mutant growth hormone), Xperience, and Kick are all mutant-derived drugs that induce or boost superpowers. All of them are addictive and deadly in various degrees.

But in a recent storyline, Iron Man/Tony Stark suffers a magic reversal spell that changes his personality. “Evil” Stark moves to San Francisco, where he creates a smartphone application and nanobot stack that lets users change their bodies to whatever they want, including boosted intelligence, health, beauty, and even immortality. Initially, he gives away the powers for free, but when adoption peaks, he remotely shuts them down, charging $99.99 a day for continued activation. The wealthy continue enjoying superhuman life, desperate users turned to crime, and Stark’s company makes a killing. Eventually, employee/love-interest Pepper Potts stops him, with the aid of a robot programmed with Stark’s old “good” personality. When that fails, Potts—a talented and quite wealthy business mind in her own right—buys out media outlets and blackmails Stark with the promise to expose the scheme.

The Superior Iron Man is literally a story of good capitalist versus bad capitalist, masquerading as a critique of contemporary tech culture. But the funny thing is that the “evil” Tony Stark doesn’t seem all that different from the “good” Tony Stark of past years. A little more craven, a little more louche, less evil than he is amoral. The difference between superheroes and supervillains turns out to be little more than a matter of perspective and degree.

It is tempting to think of our new capabilities as superpowers, because that makes us, in some way, superheroes. It is tempting to think of the inventors of our new technologies as heroes, icons, brilliant men and women of vision and ethics who overcame their own limitations and external opposition to save the day. It means that to cheer for them is to cheer for good. It means we live in a world that is both more magical and more ordered—even more human— than the one we know. It is much more distressing to ask ourselves, “What if we are not the hero in the story? What if we are not even the villain? What if the story was never even ours at all?”"
2015  timcarmody  superpowers  superheroes  comics  stevejobs  technology  wealth  capitalism  thomasstreeter  marcandreessen  tonystark  ironman  spider-man  brucewayne  batman  siliconvalley  elonmusk  peterparker  howardhughes  jrobertoppenheimer  markzuckerberg  inequality 
october 2015 by robertogreco

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