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The givers and the takers

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2014

Michael Lewis on a new book about billionaires, the increasing economic inequality in America, and the impact of the behavior of the very rich is having on politics and happiness. The camp breakfast anecdote at the beginning of the article is gold.

You all live in important places surrounded by important people. When I’m in the big city, I never understand the faces of the people, especially the people who want to be successful. They look so worried! So unsatisfied!

In the city you see people grasping, grasping, grasping. Taking, taking, taking. And it must be so hard! To be always grasping-grasping, and taking-taking. But no matter how much they have, they never have enough. They’re still worried. About what they don’t have. They’re always empty.

You have a choice. You don’t realize it, but you have a choice. You can be a giver or you can be a taker. You can get filled up or empty. You make that choice every day. You make that choice at breakfast when you rush to grab the cereal you want so others can’t have what they want.

The piece is filled with Lewis-esque observations throughout. Like:

Rich people, in my experience, don’t want to change the world. The world as it is suits them nicely.

And:

The American upper middle class has spent a fortune teaching its children to play soccer: how many great soccer players come from the upper middle class?

But the studies about the effects of wealth and privilege on human behavior are what caught my eye the most.

In one study, Keltner and his colleague Paul Piff installed note-takers and cameras at city street intersections with four-way stop signs. The people driving expensive cars were four times more likely to cut in front of other drivers than drivers of cheap cars. The researchers then followed the drivers to the city’s cross walks and positioned themselves as pedestrians, waiting to cross the street. The drivers in the cheap cars all respected the pedestrians’ right of way. The drivers in the expensive cars ignored the pedestrians 46.2 percent of the time — a finding that was replicated in spirit by another team of researchers in Manhattan, who found drivers of expensive cars were far more likely to double park.

Living in Manhattan, I see stuff like this all the time and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to think of the rich and privileged as anything other than assholes, always grasping, grasping, grasping, taking, taking, taking.