December 12, 2011
What’s so bad about having money? Why does the possession of wealth elicit such passionate and emotional responses? Perhaps it is in how wealth is acquired that divides us. Some inherit wealth, some work for it over the course of a lifetime and others amass wealth in ways that are below the radar.
Can we admire the person who earns his wealth by way of hard work and still be concerned by income inequalities? Is there a difference between the Wall Street investor and the small business entrepreneur? Both invest money in endeavors that create jobs and in the case of Wall Street investors, fund public and private pensions as well. Then there is the kind of wealth amassed by people who neither invest nor really work. They make their money by taking a cut of the paper created and shuffled around on Wall Street.
Maybe we just need to sort out who the real villains and heroes are.
Does growing wealth and income inequality in the United States presage the downfall of the American republic? Will we evolve into a new Gilded Age plutocracy, irrevocably split between the competing interests of rich and poor? Or is growing inequality a mere bump in the road, a statistical blip along the path to greater wealth for virtually every American? Or is income inequality partially desirable, reflecting the greater productivity of society’s stars?
There is plenty of speculation on these possibilities, but a lot of it has been aimed at elevating one political agenda over another rather than elevating our understanding. As a result, there’s more confusion about this issue than just about any other in contemporary American political discourse. The reality is that most of the worries about income inequality are bogus, but some are probably better grounded and even more serious than even many of their heralds realize. If our economic churn is bound to throw off political sparks, whether alarums about plutocracy or something else, we owe it to ourselves to seek out an accurate picture of what is really going on. Let’s start with the subset of worries about inequality that are significantly overblown.
In terms of immediate political stability, there is less to the income inequality issue than meets the eye. Most analyses of income inequality neglect two major points. First, the inequality of personal well-being is sharply down over the past hundred years and perhaps over the past twenty years as well. Bill Gates is much, much richer than I am, yet it is not obvious that he is much happier if, indeed, he is happier at all. I have access to penicillin, air travel, good cheap food, the Internet and virtually all of the technical innovations that Gates does. Like the vast majority of Americans, I have access to some important new pharmaceuticals, such as statins to protect against heart disease. To be sure, Gates receives the very best care from the world’s top doctors, but our health outcomes are in the same ballpark. I don’t have a private jet or take luxury vacations, and—I think it is fair to say—my house is much smaller than his. I can’t meet with the world’s elite on demand. Still, by broad historical standards, what I share with Bill Gates is far more significant than what I don’t share with him.
Compare these circumstances to those of 1911, a century ago. Even in the wealthier countries, the average person had little formal education, worked six days a week or more, often at hard physical labor, never took vacations, and could not access most of the world’s culture. The living standards of Carnegie and Rockefeller towered above those of typical Americans, not just in terms of money but also in terms of comfort. Most people today may not articulate this truth to themselves in so many words, but they sense it keenly enough. So when average people read about or see income inequality, they don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society. Instead, they think their lives are pretty good and that they either earned through hard work or lucked into a healthy share of the American dream. (The persistently unemployed, of course, are a different matter, and I will return to them later.) It is pretty easy to convince a lot of Americans that unemployment and poverty are social problems because discrete examples of both are visible on the evening news, or maybe even in or at the periphery of one’s own life. It’s much harder to get those same people worked up about generalized measures of inequality.
This is why, for example, large numbers of Americans oppose the idea of an estate tax even though the current form of the tax, slated to return in 2011, is very unlikely to affect them or their estates. In narrowly self-interested terms, that view may be irrational, but most Americans are unwilling to frame national issues in terms of rich versus poor. There’s a great deal of hostility toward various government bailouts, but the idea of “undeserving” recipients is the key factor in those feelings. Resentment against Wall Street gamesters hasn’t spilled over much into resentment against the wealthy more generally. The bailout for General Motors’ labor unions wasn’t so popular either—again, obviously not because of any bias against the wealthy but because a basic sense of fairness was violated. As of November 2010, congressional Democrats are of a mixed mind as to whether the Bush tax cuts should expire for those whose annual income exceeds $250,000; that is in large part because their constituents bear no animus toward rich people, only toward undeservedly rich people.
A neglected observation, too, is that envy is usually local. At least in the United States, most economic resentment is not directed toward billionaires or high-roller financiers—not even corrupt ones. It’s directed at the guy down the hall who got a bigger raise. It’s directed at the husband of your wife’s sister, because the brand of beer he stocks costs $3 a case more than yours, and so on. That’s another reason why a lot of people aren’t so bothered by income or wealth inequality at the macro level. Most of us don’t compare ourselves to billionaires. Gore Vidal put it honestly: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”
Occasionally the cynic in me wonders why so many relatively well-off intellectuals lead the egalitarian charge against the privileges of the wealthy. One group has the status currency of money and the other has the status currency of intellect, so might they be competing for overall social regard? The high status of the wealthy in America, or for that matter the high status of celebrities, seems to bother our intellectual class most. That class composes a very small group, however, so the upshot is that growing income inequality won’t necessarily have major political implications at the macro level.
December 12, 2011
The use of language, regional cultures, cuisine and poolitics help to define our identity. Now we learn there is a real difference in how we use and perceive sarcasm.
In an episode of “The Simpsons,” mad scientist Professor Frink demonstrates his latest creation: a sarcasm detector.
“Sarcasm detector? That’s a really useful invention,” says another character, the Comic Book Guy, causing the machine to explode.
Actually, scientists are finding that the ability to detect sarcasm really is useful. For the past 20 years, researchers from linguists to psychologists to neurologists have been studying our ability to perceive snarky remarks and gaining new insights into how the mind works. Studies have shown that exposure to sarcasm enhances creative problem solving, for instance. Children understand and use sarcasm by the time they get to kindergarten. An inability to understand sarcasm may be an early warning sign of brain disease.
Sarcasm detection is an essential skill if one is going to function in a modern society dripping with irony. “Our culture in particular is permeated with sarcasm,” says Katherine Rankin, a neuropsychologist at the University of California at San Francisco. “People who don’t understand sarcasm are immediately noticed. They’re not getting it. They’re not socially adept.”
Sarcasm so saturates 21st-century America that according to one study of a database of telephone conversations, 23 percent of the time that the phrase “yeah, right” was used, it was uttered sarcastically. Entire phrases have almost lost their literal meanings because they are so frequently said with a sneer. “Big deal,” for example. When’s the last time someone said that to you and meant it sincerely? “My heart bleeds for you” almost always equals “Tell it to someone who cares,” and “Aren’t you special” means you aren’t.
“It’s practically the primary language” in modern society, says John Haiman, a linguist at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the author of Talk is Cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the Evolution of Language.
Sarcasm seems to exercise the brain more than sincere statements do. Scientists who have monitored the electrical activity of the brains of test subjects exposed to sarcastic statements have found that brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm.
That extra work may make our brains sharper, according to another study. College students in Israel listened to complaints to a cellphone company’s customer service line. The students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry. Sarcasm “appears to stimulate complex thinking and to attenuate the otherwise negative effects of anger,” according to the study authors.
The mental gymnastics needed to perceive sarcasm includes developing a “theory of mind” to see beyond the literal meaning of the words and understand that the speaker may be thinking of something entirely different. A theory of mind allows you to realize that when your brother says “nice job” when you spill the milk, he means just the opposite, the jerk.
Sarcastic statements are sort of a true lie. You’re saying something you don’t literally mean, and the communication works as intended only if your listener gets that you’re insincere. Sarcasm has a two-faced quality: it’s both funny and mean. This dual nature has led to contradictory theories on why we use it.
Some language experts suggest sarcasm is used as a sort of gentler insult, a way to tone down criticism with indirectness and humor. “How do you keep this room so neat?” a parent might say to a child, instead of “This room is a sty.”
But others researchers have found that the mocking, smug, superior nature of sarcasm is perceived as more hurtful than a plain-spoken criticism. The Greek root for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs.
According to Haiman, dog-eat-dog sarcastic commentary is just part of our quest to be cool. “You’re distancing yourself, you’re making yourself superior,” Haiman says. “If you’re sincere all the time, you seem naive.”
Sarcasm is also a handy tool. Most of us go through life expecting things to turn out well, says Penny Pexman, a University of Calgary psychologist who has been studying sarcasm for more than 20 years. Otherwise, no one would plan an outdoor wedding. When things go sour, Pexman says, a sarcastic comment is a way to simultaneously express our expectation as well as our disappointment. When a downpour spoils a picnic and you quip, “We picked a fine day for this,” you’re saying both that you had hoped it would be sunny and you’re upset about the rain”…
Apocalypse Soon: Prophecies of impending doom, based on hard science as well as Scripture, abound. Where does our appetite for retribution come from?
December 12, 2011
Obsession with the notion of an imminent apocalypse is part of the human condition, right?
Yes and no.
Religion employs the idea for it’s own purpose, as message of discipline and to reinforce a group identity. Secularists embrace the possibility of an apocalypse as ‘just desserts’ for technology run wild, abuse of resources and disregard for the environment.
Maybe, just maybe, we’re consuming a bit too much of everything- be it material or spiritual.
TIMES SQUARE and Hollywood Boulevard, cleaned up in recent years, remain icons of depravity, modern Sodom and Gomorrahs full of drugs, prostitution, and pornography, which is why last spring they were among the places one was most likely to come across the billboards set up by ninety-year-old Family Radio personality, retired civil engineer, and end time prophet Harold Camping, announcing, JUDGMENT DAY: MAY 21, 2011… CRY MIGHTILY UNTO GOD. In 1958, he helped start Family Radio in San Francisco, and since 1961 he has hosted a daily call-in show, Open Forum, on which he answers questions about the Bible. By the time he had JUDGMENT DAY: MAY 21plastered across the United States, in English and Spanish, Family Radio owned almost 150 radio stations and affiliates and was wealthy enough to invest millions of dollars into disseminating bad news.
Camping cobbled together his idiosyncratic eschatology from his own Biblical calendar, initially published in 1970 as The Biblical Calendar of History. According to him, the world was created in 11,013 BC; the Flood took place in 4,990 BC; and Christ was crucified on Friday, April 1, AD 33. In his most recent works, We Are Almost There! and To God Be the Glory!, he writes that the Rapture would take place on May 21, 2011, immediately transporting the righteous — approximately 3 percent or just over 200 million of the world’s nearly seven billion inhabitants — to heaven. The remainder would be completely annihilated, along with the earth itself, on October 21. When May 21 rolled around, Camping, a twiggish, rail-thin figure with long grey sideburns who looks like an old-time country preacher, retreated to his suburban home in Alameda, California. Meanwhile, clutches of his followers gathered at the Family Radio compound, waiting for the ultimate moment. When the Rapture did not occur and the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that would torment the earth for five months before its final destruction did not begin, he acknowledged in his folksy way that he was “flabbergasted,” suggesting that an “invisible judgment” had taken place, and anyway the real event was not until October.
While Camping may appear to be a nutty codger embarrassed by the ill-advised precision of his predictions (in June, he suffered a stroke and is still recovering at home, and his talk show has been cancelled), he has plenty of company, especially in the United States. In the nineteenth century, William Miller, an American Baptist preacher from upstate New York, predicted that Jesus Christ would return and the world would end on October 22, 1844. Like Camping, Miller arrived at his prophecy via an ad hoc mix of passages from the Hebrew prophets and a juggling of the Roman and Jewish calendars, but when the date finally arrived — thousands of his followers having sold all their possessions and gathered in fields, eyes turned to the heavens, to await the Rapture — nothing happened. After what has come to be called “the great disappointment,” excuses were made, calculations adjusted, new dates proposed.
Yet the disenchantment that follows unfulfilled predictions of the kind made by Miller, Camping, and others has by no means diminished the public appetite for the Apocalypse. New Age adherents of the 2012 prophecy, which has created an Internet frenzy and a small publishing industry, believe the end of the ancient Mayan calendar, on December 21, 2012, will coincide with the end of the world. Hal Lindsey and Carole C. Carlson’s The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), along with Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind series, which has sold more than 35 million books, eagerly anticipate the imminent conveyance of believers to heaven, and Armageddon for everyone else. Why all the doom? Why the persistent predictions of volcanic eruptions, mega-earthquakes, tidal waves, new ice ages, the obliteration of life as we know it, and even the annihilation of the earth itself?
ANYONE WHO GREW UP in Europe or North America (and many who didn’t), whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu, or nothing at all, has in some way been shaped by the texts that comprise the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. If you’re North American, the version that secretly haunts you is most likely the translation commissioned by King James and published some 400 years ago. It’s what formed our literature, our philosophy, and even our science; it is literally in the air we breathe. It’s what created William Miller, Harold Camping, and the New Agers who prophesy that the world will end at the winter solstice in 2012. “Fear, and the pit, and the snare, areupon thee, O inhabitant of the Earth,” the prophet Isaiah intones… “The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it; and it shall fall, and not rise again.” The text of the Revelation of St. John the Divine is even more vivid and emphatic: “And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth,” proclaims the great seer of Patmos. “And the first went, and poured out his vial upon the earth; and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon the men, which had the mark of the beast, and upon them which worshipped his image.” The passage continues, “And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead Man: and every living soul died in the sea.” For Isaiah and St. John, the wrath visited upon the world by God, the earthquakes and seas filled with blood, is a response to human failure and vice, but despite all the destruction and carnage there remains at least the possibility of redemption.
The ever-expanding cadre of bestselling science, strategic, political, and business writers who make a living prophesying the less-than-happy human future would not ally themselves with literal readings of Isaiah or the Revelation of St. John, much less with eccentrics like Harold Camping, but the stories they propose seem remarkably similar. Although they appear secular, they are Biblical tales of the pillaging of the earth by human greed and vice and the inevitable reckoning. Redemption will come, if it does, through contrition, humility, and moral soundness.
The last time there was this much anxiety about the end of the world was after the Second World War and the advent of the atomic age. When The New Yorker devoted its entire August 31, 1946, issue to John Hersey’s groundbreaking article “Hiroshima,” an intimate account of six survivors’ lives before and after the bombing a year earlier, it was the first time most people in the English-speaking world had become aware in a visceral way of the A-bomb’s destructive power. The harrowing scenes Hersey describes are, even now, sixty-five years later, impossible to get out of one’s head: the silent, blinding flash and then the literal erasure of the city; the soldiers with their melted eyes running down their cheeks wandering through the rubble. By the 1950s, it became clear that human beings had developed a technology capable of instantly destroying all life on earth. Countless novels, stories, and films that imagined nuclear apocalypse followed, and countless reinforced concrete bomb shelters were dug in the backyards of suburban homes…