Before turning to the issues of the day, I’d like to highlight this — my favorite study ever:
Researchers studying brown capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) have found that the highly social, cooperative species native to South America show a sense of fairness, the first time such behavior has been documented in a species other than humans. […]
The new finding suggests evolution may have something to do with it. It also highlights questions about the economic and evolutionary nature of cooperation and its relationship to a species’ sense of fairness, while adding yet another chapter to our understanding of primates.
To test whether or not such behavior is found in other species, [lead author] Brosnan designed an experiment for brown capuchin monkeys, a species well-known for strong social bonds and relatively cooperative behavior, particularly in shared food-gathering activities like hunting squirrels and locating fruit trees.
Individuals were drawn from two large, well-established social groups of captive brown capuchins from colonies at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and paired with a partner. Pairs were placed next to each other and trained to exchange with human handlers a small granite rock within 60 seconds to receive a reward, in most cases, a piece of cucumber. […]
Partners of capuchins who made the swap either received the same reward (a cucumber slice), or a better reward (a grape, a more desirable food), for the same amount of work or, in some cases, for performing no work at all.
Brosnan said the response to the unequal treatment was astonishing: Capuchins who witnessed unfair treatment and failed to benefit from it often refused to conduct future exchanges with human researchers, would not eat the cucumbers they received for their labors, and in some cases, hurled food rewards at human researchers.
Those actions were significant. They confirmed that not only did capuchins expect fair treatment, but that the human desire for equity has an evolutionary basis.
It’s just one paper, and confirmation bias is no doubt to blame for my fondness for it. But I’d guess that most of us — even conservatives — would find the results intuitive, if not quite expected. Fairness looms large in our species’ ethical framework. How many children are first introduced to the ineradicable savagery of existence with that awful phrase, Life Isn’t Fair? And as this study indicates, unfairness doesn’t just bother us; inequity really, really pisses us off.
Now let’s look at two news stories that are getting a lot of attention. One’s been in the news for weeks now, the other is brand new. The old’un is the rightwing outrage sprung from the President’s now-infamous “You didn’t build that” harangue; the new’un is Romney’s comments yesterday in Israel, during which he not-so-subtly implied that Palestinians — not a nearly half-century-long occupation and sundry economic sanctions — are to blame for the Palestinian Authority’s lowly economic station. In both cases, the subtextual debate is about whether Life is Fair.
First, Obama. That his words have been misrepresented by Republicans is by now well-established. As with the shape of the Earth, however, sides differ. Still, most will grant that the GOP has, to put it charitably, stretched the applicability of Obama’s comments. But even if we throw out all of the wasted breath and ink spent in service of proving Obama’s secret Communist sympathies, there are still a non-insignificant number of those on the Right who find Obama’s claims, accurately interpreted, distasteful. In their chutzpahtastic way, Team Romney has acknowledged this by arguing “the context is worse than the quote.” Suspicions of bad faith aside, one could sensibly respond to this claim by asking how, pray tell, the truth could be worse than the lie.
Having spent the vast majority of his career ensconced in the highbrow echelons of the rightwing media network, David Frum’s probably as good a guide as any to the workings of the Republican mind. And I’d say his explanation of why “You didn’t build that” so enrages Republicans is the most convincing and insightful I’ve seen yet. At question, Frum says, is the role of luck:
In this particular election cycle, the argument that the successful are almost by definition deserving and that the unsuccessful are correspondingly undeserving has exploded into noisy public controversy.
The president appears to have heard that argument, and it irks him. And when it came time to reprise Elizabeth Warren, he allowed pieces of his rebuttal to the claim to drift into a speech that was probably meant to adhere to the safer ground that she had previously staked out. […]
President Obama’s stray sentences however point to a bolder conclusion. If it’s not brains or work that account for success, what is it? The answer must be … luck. Not maybe entirely luck, but luck to a great degree. By definition, however, luck is amoral. Nobody can deserve luck, otherwise he wouldn’t be lucky. To the extent success is due to luck, success is undeserved—and to the extend that success is undeserved, the successful have no very strong claim to the proceeds of their success. Whereas Warren suggests that the wealthy should be taxed to repay tangible benefits they have personally received, Obama is indicating a possibility that the wealthy should be taxed … because their wealth is to a great extent an accident of fate.
This argument is not developed by the president. Indeed, he quickly drops it. Nor does he build any very radical policy conclusions upon his argument: he’s proposing only the restoration of the Clinton tax rates—the tax rates that prevailed during the greatest period of private fortune-building since the 1920s. Yet people who believe in the morality of the market are not wrong to hear in those few stray sentences of the president a more radical critique of their core belief than is usually heard from American politicians.
The President and I have been falling behind as of late on our weekly Google+ hangouts, so I can’t say for sure if this is what was going through Obama’s mind at the time of his anti-Bob the Builder utterance. But it rings true to me. I certainly operate under a generally unconscious assumption that life is, by and large, chaos (or, if you prefer, luck). I don’t think I’m much different from any other over-educated left-of-center individual with an antennae for the prevailing social norms; so it’s a fair jump to say that if I’ve reached this conclusion, the President likely has too. Anyone who has experienced a liberal arts education has at the very least encountered this strain of thought. (For more on this, check out Digby, who takes Frum’s insight into a more Freudian but no less conceivable direction.)
Now let’s turn to Romney. Brian Beutler, from his new perch at Talking Points Memo’s Big Kids’ Table, can’t help but chuckle over the Romney campaign’s attempts to spin away the ugly implications of his speech in Israel. Because rather than a slip of the tongue, Romney’s “Piggy“-approved remarks are the logical extension of the ideology that finds “You didn’t build that” so outrageous:
[M]any conservatives were genuinely offended by the fair reading of Obama’s speech — that successful entrepreneurs should contribute more to public works, because they’ve benefited the most from them — because it clashes with their view of what’s most fundamental to individual and group success.
One conservative correspondent of mine called individual initiative the “but for” requirement for financial prosperity. We all get to enjoy roads and schools and other essential pieces of infrastructure. We all benefit from public investments. On top of that baseline, sweat and determination don’t guarantee success, but success won’t materialize without them.
That is reflective of a very deep-seated American can-do attitude, one we identified not so long ago the “Protestant work ethic.” But it has morphed from a shared recognition that hard work and initiative are inherently good, noble character traits into a sense that financial success is a proxy for them — where a high net worth is in and of itself a testament to one’s good character. See, e.g., prosperity gospel.
Many if not most American liberals disagree with this perspective, both for its misunderstanding of merit, and for its common but false correlate that poverty is a symptom of laziness or moral failure. But it’s become central to modern conservative identity. It’s why they’re so confident that the cartoon version of Obama’s remarks is so politically noxious. And yet when Romney leaves the country and applies the same basic conception to larger groups of peoples in nations — Israelis and Palestinians, Americans and Mexicans, Chileans and Peruvians — it creates a huge row, and the campaign has to step in to clean up the mess.
All of this reminds me of nothing so much as Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind and its emphasis on how central anti-egalitarianism is to the rightwing worldview. It’s not just that conservatives think some people are “better” (definition: unknown) than others — it’s that they believe this is a good thing. Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. But even if we all sat around and engaged in some very sophisticated analysis of Hayek and Burke and the like, and we concluded that inequality is the bee’s knees, the stubborn fact would remain that I’m Better Than You is not a winning campaign slogan — especially during a time of high unemployment and lilting wages.
When we consider the consequences of inequality, in fact, I’m Better Than You (also known as Fuck You; I Got Mine) is pretty odious, certainly rude.
Yet this proposition is one of the few GOP dogmas to which I suspect Romney honestly subscribes. He tends to sound at once his most earnest and his most unpleasant when making an ostensibly more palatable version of the argument. What he’s discovering this week, however, is that despite however many decades of market worship we’ve imbibed, most of us still have that pissed-off capuchin swinging around in our subconscious, ready to chuck some celery at whoever deigns to tell us things are as they should be, that life is fair.