If you’re interested in the changing political economy, you should be aware of two recent books. The Broken Ladder – How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live and Die (2017) by Keith Payne and Hillbilly Elegy – A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) by J. D. Vance. The authors of both books grew group up poor and then became very successful. One is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina and the other a former Marine war veteran and graduate of Yale Law School. Their credibility on the controversial topic of wealth and poverty is remarkable, standing out among countless other books and articles on the subject, over which there is a staggering array of radically differing opinions and perspectives.
One of the readers of this Blog mailed me a copy of Hillbilly Elegy because she enjoyed it and knew I would as well. My daughter’s entire college freshman class (all majors) was assigned to read Hillbilly Elegy and write an essay on it before classes begin this fall. It is a New York Times #1 best seller and an important book about the loss of the American Dream for a large segment of the population.
The Broken Ladder is fascinating because it’s about the hard science psychology of economic status. Professor Payne explains that humans (and many other animals) crave social status as much as food and sex and become stressed, depressed or enraged if they see themselves at the bottom of the status ladder. There is a deep seeded need to compare what we have with what others have, which profoundly changes how we think and live. He cites lots of psychological experiments. In one of my favorites, monkeys are taught to hand an experimenter a small stone in exchange for a slice of cucumber. Then they put two monkeys next to each other. The first one hands over a stone, so he gets a cucumber. But then the second monkey is handed a grape instead of a cucumber after he gives the experimenter a stone (a grape is a much tastier treat for a monkey). When the first monkey again hands another stone to the experimenter and gets a cucumber slice instead of grape, he becomes enraged – throwing it back in the experimenter’s face, jumping up and down screaming while grabbing and shaking the cage bars. Monkeys get really pissed off when they feel unfairly treated and another monkey gets something better!
Well, our fortunate wealth demographic has been handed a grape and the millions who are left with a cucumber slice are being damaged psychologically. The anger and sense of injustice in America is becoming palpable. Economic war is a dangerous matter of life and death, like real war. Let’s spend the next few War Chest weeks exploring the ideas in those two noteworthy books.