Sharing our Marbles

How to Get the Rich to Share The Marbles is the title of an article by Johnathan Haidt, psychology professor, printed in the New York Times in February. It explains the psychology around “sharing the spoils” behavior. I’m jumping right to the punch with this quote from the article, then I’ll work backward explaining how we got here:

If the Democrats really want to get moral psychology working for them, I suggest that they focus less on distributive fairness — which is about whether everyone got what they deserved — and more on procedural fairness—which is about whether honest, open and impartial procedures were used to decide who got what. If there’s a problem with the ultra-rich, it’s not that they have too much wealth, it’s that they bought laws that made it easy for them to gain and keep so much more wealth in recent decades.

Sarah Palin gave a speech last September lambasting “crony capitalism,” which she defined as “the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest – to the little guys.” I think that she was on to something and that she was right to include big government along with big business and big finance. The problem isn’t that some kids have many more marbles than others. The problem is that some kids are in cahoots with the experimenters. They get to rig the marble machine before the rest of us have a chance to play with it.

In this piece Haidt links a psychological experiment with toddlers to Obama’s behavior and a post war collective societal behavior from his parents generation. Here’s how the experiment went: two toddlers were released to find a machine with two rope hanging out about 5′ away from each other. If the toddlers puller their nearest rope independently of each other, no marbles were dispensed, if they pulled in unison, marbles were dispensed, each child with their own marble collecting cup. Experimenters found that most of the time when kids “earned” the marbles together, by pulling in unison, they would attempt to equalize the number of marbles received by each child – by giving voluntarily or asking.

Later experimenters messed with the variables. They started the experiment with one child automatically richer than the other – in terms of marbles, “then your partner is very unlikely to offer you one, you’re unlikely to ask, and if you do ask, you’re likely to be rebuffed. Only about 5% of the time did any marbles change hands.” In another instance, they started equally, but one child would pull his rope and receive one marble, another would pull theirs and receive three marbles.  About 30% of the time did the kids redistribute the marble “spoils” from doing equal amounts of “work”. Haidt remarks that it is only when the work was consciously collaborative that each party felt comfortable and was successful in sharing the spoils more equally.

Haidt jumps to the President’s State of the Union address and points out how he has sworn off raising taxes on anyone but the rich. Haidt believes that because there is no shared sense of sacrifice, there is no collaborative suggestion to solve our economical woes, Obama’s and other’s rhetoric will fall on deaf conservative ears.

This goes straight to the heart of the value of fairness. What is fair? As mentioned in the above quote, fairness can be measured in two or more ways – distributive fairness, or procedural fairness. I’ve also come across arguments for fairness of opportunity and against fairness of outcome (I’ve never heard anyone arguing for fairness of outcome, seems like a strawman to me). Haidt’s points of fairness are noted though, they point to a broader arc of a story in American politics, one of product vs. process.

Inherently, the Democratic party’s platform is more concerned with more people getting involved in the process. All of the walks of life with all of our faults and foibles need to participate. The Republican party’s platform is directed at the bottom line, most importantly, how it affects the individual citizen’s bottom line. It also gets a bead on some goal – like pushing through anti-same sex marriage legislation, and will use whatever tactics to push it through (like activate with the African American community chiefly because they are perceived to be anti gay marriage). Democratic principles would find playing on the prejudices of others to be distasteful.

The bit about collaboration is useful. We must figure out how to work together to solve the economic crisis. Mass education on financial matters is needed, our high school economics classes didn’t cover futures, derivatives trading or oil speculation. Mine didn’t even cover simple things like, how to keep a budget when there isn’t enough input to sustain the system or what to do when family illness and death wasn’t a part of the budget projections. If the average Scmoe from the street is expected to be responsible for everything they are involved with, then legal language needs to change into something we can comprehend with a high school education, and our public education and culture needs to step up the prep for housing, banking, and entrepreneurship decision making.

If a living wage were in place and folks could work, a minimum standard of living could be achieved and from that point, we can ask for joint sacrifice. Until that time, the collaboration may have to be financial for some and a different type of donation from those that can’t contribute financially.

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