Mitt Romney, Celery, And A Whole Bunch Of Monkeys

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.

33 replies
  1. 1
    David Koch says:

    I’m laughing my ass off over Mitty telling Israelis that Joooos are good with money.

    He’s a half step away from saying he’ll “Jew down” the budget if elected.

    Photo: Ann Romney contemplating how many dead Jews she’ll baptist as first lady

  2. 2
    Commenting at Balloon Juice Since 1937 says:

    pretty odious, certainly rude

    I know you are, so what am I?

    – R. Money

  3. 3
    efroh says:

    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.

    There’s a video illustrating this that people really should see if only because the monkey’s reaction is so human.

    The whole presentation is here

  4. 4
    Brachiator says:

    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.

    Provocative study, but big cautions are in order. Keep in mind that humans ain’t monkeys, and especially ain’t New World monkeys.

    We have apes as a close common ancestor, not monkeys. A number of scientists in the 1960s ended up looking like fools for pressing supposed connections between humans and savannah baboons to “prove” that humans were innately agressive.

    Hell, even stuff written about humans and supposed connections with bonobos may be stretching the point, for a lot of reasons.

    Shorter, they call it confirmation bias for a reason.

    ETA: is something going wacky with editing? Suddenly seeing a lot of strikeouts in the text.

  5. 5
    Culture of Truth says:

    Conservatives will simply view this as confirmation of the visceral understnding of the unfairness of giving goodies to those who didn’t earn it – i.e., taking from the rich and giving to the poor. They will also point to the monkeys who refused earned stuff because others had gotten unearned stuff – essentailly going galt – as proof that the rich will take the job-creating ball and go home if you don’t cut their taxes.

  6. 6
    Elias Isquith says:

    @Brachiator: Yeah, working on it. Currently makes as much sense to me as the Laffer Curve, tho…

    ETA: Should be fixed now. Oddly, “-” sends wordpress into a tailspin of insanity.

  7. 7
    jl says:

    And don’t forget the rats. I read a study that found hungry rats will refrain from food and let others eat until all their hungry rat comrades have gotten a fair share.

  8. 8
    ericblair says:

    Our Lords and Masters really, really hate the luck argument, but it’s pretty true. For a lot of the top positions you have to be smart (in a particular way), charismatic, and driven, but there are quite a few more people that can do these jobs than positions available. So listening to leaders’ life stories, you can almost always pick out the point where they were in the right place, or zigged instead of zagged when both options were reasonable, and so on. A lot of these “success” conferences might as well invite a bunch of lottery winners as keynote speakers: they’re just as relevant and you’ll learn just as much on how you personally could succeed.

    And this is for people who weren’t born on third base. The Dubya’s and Rmoney’s of the world just get shit handed to them.

  9. 9
    Culture of Truth says:

    The GOP has another problem: if hard work and not government is the answer, then, if you’re unemployed, isn’t it your fault, and not “the government,” therefore not Obama’s fault?

    Or if it is Obama’s fault, is the responsibility of the government to make sure you have a job?

  10. 10
    gnomedad says:

    Life must be fair, because God is fair. Just ask Job! Therefore, only government can be unfair when it redistributes the spoils to the unworthy.

  11. 11
    pluege says:

    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

    you think too much like a progressive – romney has NOTHING to do with fair – he doesn’t even comprehend the concept of “fair” as don’t any wingnuts or plutocrats. Progressives don’t seem to have picked up on the wingnut/plutocratic use of money as a value system, i.e.,:

    a) people with money are superior because they have money
    b) people without money are inferior because they lack money

    DOESN’T MATTER TO WINGNUTS AND PLUTOCRATS HOW EITHER ACHIEVED THEIR STATE OF MONEY OR NOT MONEY! The amount of money one has by their definition, defines the person.

    romney is doing the same to the Palestinians. Doesn’t matter how the Palestinians got to their decrepit condition; the fact that they are in a decrepit condition automatically defines them in his mind as failures.

  12. 12
    Culture of Truth says:

    Au contraire – people lack money because they are inferior.

    Or perhaps you are right after all…

  13. 13
    Josie says:

    There are certain career choices that do not involve making a lot of money – teachers, policemen, city workers, and other public servants. These people struggle economically, not because they are stupid or lazy or incompetent, but because they choose to do jobs that are evidently not highly valued by society. Indeed, some of them are much better people than the wall street types who become so wealthy. Income has very little to do with excellence, and society would be sorely lacking if no one wanted to do these jobs.

  14. 14
    cinesimon says:

    Off topic, how about those apes seen dismantling ape traps!
    Very cool.

  15. 15
    Calouste says:


    O.i.w., Al Capone is superior to Mother Theresa.

  16. 16
    jenn says:

    Unfortunately, I’ve lent my dog behavior book out, so can’t pull up a citation, but studies of dogs have also shown that they have an understanding of fairness. They appear to take longer to show their disgruntlement than the monkeys, though!

  17. 17
    Frankensteinbeck says:

    @David Koch:
    No, I’m sorry, but as much as I’d love to mock Romney, that’s not what he said or how it sounded to the audience. He said that Jews have overcome oppression to succeed. It is a major and classic tenet of the Jewish self-image, and was exactly the shameless pandering they wanted.
    Everything I’ve read in the speech was so precisely what rich Jewish Zionists want to hear that I assume Adelson wrote it himself. He certainly stood next to Romney the whole trip to prevent him from going off script.

  18. 18
    Mino says:

    The poors deserve to be poor because they have bad habits. Giving them anything only encourages the bad habits.

    Of course, to a 1%-er wannabe, morality is all about sex and nothing about white collar crime being defined out of existence.

  19. 19
    Brachiator says:


    Off topic, how about those apes seen dismantling ape traps!
    Very cool.

    Saw the headline, didn’t get a chance to read the story unitl now.

    Very cool indeed.

    Who knew, Rise of the Planet of the Apes may turn out to be a documentary.

    @Frankensteinbeck: Eve

    rything I’ve read in the speech was so precisely what rich Jewish Zionists want to hear that I assume Adelson wrote it himself.

    Did Adelson include anything about bribing Chinese officials to get your casino on?

    Been away from the news over the weekend, and so didn’t realize that Adelson made the trip with Romney. Interesting.

  20. 20
    slag says:

    @efroh: That video was hilarious. Thanks for sharing!

  21. 21
    MonkeyBoy says:

    As I recall they had to use FEMALE capuchin monkeys in those studies. I forget whether 1) males couldn’t distinguish between fair and unfair, or 2) you couldn’t train males to do that task for a cucumber reward.

  22. 22
    Mino says:

    @MonkeyBoy: Talk about confirmational bias. Winner.

  23. 23
    craigie says:

    It’s very simple, and has ever been thus:

    If you want to encourage rich people, you have to give them more.

    If you want to encourage poor people, you have to give them less.

  24. 24
    greennotGreen says:

    Er, Elias, “celery” = “cucumber?”

  25. 25
    karen says:

    And there you have the Church of Prosperity…

    G-d hates the poor, that’s why they’re poor!

    Of course, I always thought being Christian was being charitable and caring but aren’t they rewriting the Bible because the real bible is too liberal?

  26. 26

    He did. Held Romney’s hand the whole time, from what I heard.

  27. 27
    LanceThruster says:

    The Romnoids remind me of another monkey test where the initial monkey troop was privy to the premium fruits, and when new monkeys were introduced, they’d lead them to the b-list stash, keeping the good stuff for themselves (I’ll find the study, if anyone is interested).

    Sure they shared, but as a way to keep the others from finding the real treasure trove.

  28. 28

    You’re preaching to the choir. But to believers in prosperity gospel, you’re completely wrong. They really believe that money is the only mark of worth, so being poor- or even not quite as well off- is proof of inherent moral unworthiness. If those public servants were really doing something worthwhile, God would reward them with more money.

  29. 29
    Mnemosyne says:


    There’s also the problem of the laboratory setting skewing the results. Turns out that it’s actually fairly rare in the wild for praying mantis females to kill the males during mating, but it’s very, very common in the laboratory, probably because the evolutionary pressure is different (ie, in the lab setting, the assumption is that if this male lives, he’s going to eat up the resources in this confined area that the female needs for their offspring, so she’d better kill him now while he’s vulnerable).

  30. 30
    Chris T. says:

    @Frankensteinbeck: More “leash” than “hand”…

  31. 31
    WereBear says:

    And stupid system ate my comment. Short version: – Mary Kay expose site

    Under the Obama administration, FTC investigating pyramid schemes; which are overwhelmingly Evangelical/wingnut oriented. And guess what? 99% pass all their money up to the 1% at the top.

  32. 32
    bt says:

    @Josie: This is sooo true. Many or most people who have big money are most of the time people who have made the choice to make money.

    There are many hugely talented teachers, nurses, contractors, and so on. They chose to do things that were not well compensated.

    Romney types will never confess that what makes them special is that they were ‘too smart’ to make such choices.

    This sort of person has no conscience or interest in the greater good, unless it advantages themselves in some way. A**holes make bad president’s. Romney would be even worse the W.

  33. 33

    More evidence that modern conservatism is just counterfactual wishful thinking born of (and designed to defend the prerogatives of) privilege.

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