“The rules don’t apply to me”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

How much misconduct, corruption, and abuse in our society can be attributed to powerful people who believe the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them?

I find myself coming back to this question over and again whenever I learn about significant legal or ethical violations committed by those in positions of considerable power. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Google the phrase “does power corrupt” and you’ll get tons of hits to studies and commentaries that basically say, yes, it often does. For example, in a 2016 piece for PBS NewsHour, Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley details results of lab experiments where subjects are assigned higher power status:

Just the random assignment of power, and all kinds of mischief ensues, and people will become impulsive. They eat more resources than is their fair share. They take more money. People become more unethical. They think unethical behavior is okay if they engage in it. People are more likely to stereotype. They’re more likely to stop attending to other people carefully. It’s just this paradoxical quality of power, which is the good in human nature gets us power, and then power leads to the bad in human nature.

The effect is a chemical one, as Dr. Keltner explains:

When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. That’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.

Now, I am not a high-and-mighty moralist when it comes to following rules for their own sake. Yes, there are rules of law and of everyday behavior that we should do our best to follow. However, I believe that some rules are unjust and/or unwise, and that discretion, mercy, and understanding should enter the picture too. But I’m not talking about the gray areas here, rather, I’m referring to abuses of power by those who have a lot of it.

What are the solutions? Citing a growing body of research, Dr. Keltner suggests that accountability and genuine transparency are key among them:

This really interesting new literature shows that when I’m aware of what other people think of me, when I’m aware of my reputation, I cooperate more in economic gains. I am more likely to sign up for environmentally efficient services. I am more likely to pay taxes. Just this sense that my actions are being scrutinized and my reputation is at stake produces better behavior for the public good or the greater good.

In addition, I’ll weigh in wearing my legal and public policy hat: The vital concept of checks and balances on power fundamentally shapes the United States Constitution and roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. I think it’s a good idea for us to implement or reinforce such mechanisms in our public, private, and non-profit institutions. Also, when one individual, cohort, or institution becomes too dominant, we need what economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” to challenge these exercises of control.

We live in an age where abuses of power are common. The fixes are fairly easy to identify but hard to implement. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

“Being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart”

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If you can spare an hour to listen to a remarkably far-ranging and compassionate mind at work, please click to this December 2016 lecture by Dr. Michael Britton at the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City. The occasion is the workshop’s Don Klein Memorial Lecture, which provides the speaker with an opportunity to paint — in strokes both broad and hard — a connective, contextual, historical picture about our society and how we move forward in the quest for human dignity. Here’s Michael’s bio, and here’s how the lecture is described on its YouTube page:

Michael Britton gives the Don Klein Memorial Lecture on the morning of December 8, 2015, Day Two of the 13th Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, which took place at Columbia University in New York City, December 8 – 9, 2016. Michael Britton is concerned with integrative thinking across neuroscience, in-depth psychotherapies and historical/cultural living, Michael’s work looks at how participation in the historical life of our times and interior life are deeply intertwined.

At the outset of his talk, Michael acknowledges the “struggle between how you keep faith, love, and joy strong in the midst of . . . also feeling fear and angst about some of the things going on in our country and our world.” He goes on to recognize the challenges of “being present with intelligence, knowledge, skills, and strength, but anchored in heart.”

Michael has a unique ability to integrate individual change and social change, making connections between topics such as childhood neglect and abuse, politics and policy, the environment, and human rights. He is not a hell fire and brimstone speaker, so if you’re looking for someone shakes the rafters, you may want to look elsewhere. Rather, he is a calm, intelligent, impassioned voice who gives us reason for hope without ignoring the challenges we face.

Dear readers, in this age of short attention spans and Twitter, suggesting that you invest some 60 minutes in an old-fashioned lecture is asking a lot, I know. My suggestion? Give this lecture 15 minutes and decide whether it’s worth your time to watch the rest. I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth watching the rest.

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Group photo of our workshop

Bully Nation: How economic power and inequality are fueling a bullying culture

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Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society (2016) by sociologists Charles Derber (Boston College) and Yale R. Magrass (UMass-Dartmouth) takes a “big picture” look at how the economic Powers That Be have fueled a deeper, broader culture of bullying behaviors. Here’s part of an excerpt published on AlterNet

Any economic or social system based on power inequality creates potential or latent bullying that often translates into active bullying, by institutions and individuals. So this is not a problem exclusive to capitalism; bullying was brutally manifest in systems claiming to be socialist or communist, such as the Soviet Union, and it is also obviously a major problem in China today. But capitalism is the dominant system currently and has its own, less recognized, institutionalized bullying propensities.

This looks like a promising book. Unfortunately, however, Drs. Derber and Magrass also take an unmerited swipe at the anti-bullying movement, by suggesting that we have failed to link bullying to the broader economic and political forces that frame their analysis:

Though the bullying of vulnerable kids in schools gets a lot of attention, the bullying of vulnerable workers usually is ignored. If the mass media mention it at all, they typically parrot the corporate view that the agitating workers are troublemakers who deserve punishment. The failure of scholars in the “bullying field” to see even illegal (not to mention legal) corporate threats, intimidation, and retaliation as bullying is another profound failure of the psychological paradigm that views bullying only as a “kid thing” in schools. Such scholars are blind to the adult and institutionalized bullying that is endemic to our economic system.

It appears that the co-authors neglected to do the necessary homework to learn more about the workplace anti-bullying movement. Indeed, the ongoing campaign to enact legal protections against workplace bullying has its philosophical roots in the value of employee dignity. In the law review article that led to my drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill, “The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection” (Georgetown Law Journal, 2000), I explore the social and economic conditions that are fueling bullying at work.

In addition, I connect the dots between the state of workers’ rights, employee dignity, and economic power in my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (University of Richmond Law Review, 2009). My 2014 blog post drawing from that piece stated:

American employment law has been dominated by a belief system that embraces the idea of unfettered free markets and regards limitations on management authority with deep suspicion. Under this “markets and management” framework, the needs for unions and collective bargaining, individual employment rights, and, most recently, protection of workers amid the dynamics of globalization, are all weighed against these prevailing norms.

Furthermore, we know darn well about the plutocratic forces that want to keep workplace bullying legal. Here in Massachusetts, a powerful corporate trade group, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, has spearheaded opposition to the Healthy Workplace Bill. The Chamber of Commerce and the Society for Human Resource Management are among the other corporate friendly trade groups that have opposed employer accountability for severe workplace bullying.

This oversight aside, it appears that Bully Nation has the potential to raise our collective consciousness about how concentrated power is fueling abusive behaviors. I look forward to taking a closer look at it.

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A $400 question: America’s desperate and dwindling middle class

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Neal Gabler is a successful writer whose personal account of sliding down the economic ladder due to career ups and downs, kids’ college costs, and questionable spending decisions has gone viral. Published in the current issue of The Atlantic, Gabler’s tale of being in the heart of midlife with precarious personal finances and dubious retirement prospects has struck a chord.

Before jumping into his own story, Gabler shares facts and figures that should give all of us a chill, including a recent Federal Reserve Board survey of American consumers, which featured a question about how respondents would cover an unexpected $400 expense:

The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?

Holy smokes.

Gabler counts himself among those who would have trouble scrounging up $400. He makes clear that he’s not blaming the world for his situation; in fact, he takes responsibility for his actions and decisions:

I don’t ask for or expect any sympathy. I am responsible for my quagmire—no one else. I didn’t get gulled into overextending myself by unscrupulous credit merchants. Basically, I screwed up, royally. I lived beyond my means, primarily because my means kept dwindling. I didn’t take the actions I should have taken, like selling my house and downsizing, though selling might not have covered what I owed on my mortgage.

It’s a thought provoking and sometimes disturbing piece about middle class anxieties, pressures to keep up with the Joneses, and how quickly both time and money pass through our lives.

Lingering effects of the Great Recession

Gabler may not be blaming his personal finance woes on our economic system, but plenty of evidence suggests that most Americans are subject to the slings and arrows of an unforgiving market economy and significant wealth inequalities.

Nicholas Fitz, writing for Scientific American, documents our misconceptions about wealth and income distribution in the U.S.:

The average American believes that the richest fifth own 59% of the wealth and that the bottom 40% own 9%. The reality is strikingly different. The top 20% of US households own more than 84% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% combine for a paltry 0.3%.

. . . The median American estimated that the CEO-to-worker pay-ratio was 30-to-1, and that ideally, it’d be 7-to-1. The reality? 354-to-1. Fifty years ago, it was 20-to-1.

Ben Leubsdorf, in a piece for the Wall Street Journal, writes about the lasting economic and psychological trauma of the Great Recession:

The recession ended seven years ago, but persistent joblessness and underemployment marred the economic expansion that followed. A growing body of research suggests the economic trauma has left financial and psychic scars on many Americans, and that those marks are likely to endure for decades.

About one in six U.S. workers became unemployed during the recession years of 2007, 2008 and 2009. Today, nearly 14 million people are still searching for a job or stuck in part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time work.

Even for the millions of Americans back at work, the effects of losing a job will linger, the research suggests. They will earn less for years to come. They will be less likely to own a home. Many will struggle with psychological problems. Their children will perform worse in school and may earn less in their own jobs.

Retirement prospects

Labor economist Teresa Ghilarducci (New School for Social Research) is one of the nation’s leading experts on retirement funding. Though most of her work is contained in academic articles and studies, she has recently authored a slim 116-page book, How to Retire with Enough Money: And How to Know What Enough Is (2015), which I highly recommend. Two years ago, Dr. Ghilarducci told The Week (subscription may be necessary) that “This is the first time that Americans are going to be relatively worse off than their parents or grandparents in old age.” Figures cited in the article back her up:

A stunning 45 percent of all American households with people still in their working years have nothing at all saved for retirement. Among those ages 50 to 64, 75 percent have less than $28,000 put away. Even among the most prepared Boomer households, savings average just $140,000, far too little to fund a 20-plus-year retirement. All told, Americans are at least $6.8 trillion short of what they need for a comfortable retirement, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security.

In her book, Ghilarducci avoids pointing the finger at individuals for alleged overspending or failure to save. Rather, stagnant incomes and a sharp decline in employer-sponsored pension and retirement plans are among the major culprits. She urges readers to undertake both personal and political action to improve America’s retirement security prospects.

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My conclusion? We’re facing a major reckoning on a national and global levels when it comes to economic issues big and small. I concur with Dr. Ghilarducci that the responses will have to be both personal and political.

More to come: The experience of everyday wealth differences

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A guest contributor to The Guardian‘s “What I’m really thinking” column — apparently a female student — writes about the awkwardness of making social plans with friends who have a lot more money than she does:

“I’ll meet you there,” I say. “I’ve got something to do first.” That’s a lie. I just don’t want to take an hour-long taxi with you; the fare for that is outrageous. No, better to take public transport and spend an extra hour and half to save the money.

. . . Make no mistake, I am by no means poor, but by your standards I might as well be. When we go out for dinner, I scream inside at the cost. Often I don’t eat, saying I’ve had something already or I’m not hungry. Some people ask if I’m anorexic, because they never see me eat a proper meal outside school.

Iceberg ahead…and we’re steaming into it, full throttle

Of course, the socially awkward dilemmas confronting a younger person with less disposable cash than her friends are one thing, while deep inequalities in income and wealth are quite another. At least here in the U.S., I believe those inequalities have been, and continue to be, intentionally baked into our economic and political infrastructure. And they are becoming evident across the generations.

For example, here’s a piece of writer Sarah Kendzior’s insightful take on the “post-employment economy” that confronts many recent graduates:

A lawyer. A computer scientist. A military analyst. A teacher.

What do these people have in common? They are trained professionals who cannot find full-time jobs. Since 2008, they have been tenuously employed – working one-year contracts, consulting on the side, hustling to survive. They spent thousands on undergraduate and graduate training to avoid that hustle. They eschewed dreams – journalism, art, entertainment – for safer bets, only to discover that the safest bet is that your job will be contingent and disposable.

On the other end of the generational spectrum, you have late Boomers and early Gen Xers — a cohort that just missed out on the golden era of employer-provided pensions — hurdling into middle age and beyond with scant retirement savings. For example, a 2015 study by the non-profit National Institute on Retirement Security concluded, among other things:

The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $2,500 for all working-age households and $14,500 for near-retirement households. Furthermore, 62 percent of working households age 55-64 have retirement savings less than one times their annual income, which is far below what they will need to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

My prediction? Without significant changes, we are going to see more and more instances of everyday inequality staring us straight in the face. For some, this will mean quietly bowing out of pricier social activities due to a money crunch. For others, it will mean trying to maintain appearances of “middle class” status while opting for a dinner of macaroni & cheese from a box. And these will be among the folks who actually have “choices.”

I haven’t yet said a word here about climate change.

Saving ourselves from a dystopian future

Yes, I know I’m sounding overwrought. But too many indicators are suggesting that (1) we have yet to pay the full price for our inequalities and excesses, especially during the past thirty-five or so years; and (2) we have not come to a reckoning about the mess we’ve made.

For those who can afford it, there are things that can be done on an individual level: Be generous. Give to good charities. Pick up the check. Leave a nice tip. To help someone dear who is in a financial bind, give, don’t loan, and do it without fanfare. Instead, be grateful that you can afford it. (I try to hold myself to these standards, while confessing that I sometimes fall short.)

More broadly, all of us, regardless of financial status, must grasp how our economic, political, and social systems have stoked massive inequality, nationally and globally, and then help to do something about it. 

I’m not sure of all the answers, but I believe they will be a combination of changing how we live, building a more robust yet inclusive economy, and repairing our social safety net. We will have to be smarter and kinder in creating a society that places greater value on human dignity and the common good.

On being a globally oriented citizen

In my more self-deluded moments, I like to think of myself as being something of a “global citizen.” After all, I do some international travel, engage in work that has some transnational relevance, donate to global charities, and gratefully have friends in and from many different countries. Hey, I even subscribe to the Guardian Weekly and the Economist!

In reality, however, I’m yet another professor whose travel experiences, work, and network of friends have international dimensions. I’m just as likely to check on the fortunes of my fantasy baseball teams as I am to click to news stories of key developments in other parts of the world.

By contrast, I know a good number of people whom I count as genuine global citizens. Whether they travel around the world or not, they have a genuine international orientation that gives them a broader perspective on this planet we inhabit. Some, like my friends and colleagues connected with the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, devote significant energies toward furthering peace, social justice, and humanitarian initiatives around the world.

How can we become more globally oriented citizens? This question has been crossing my mind frequently during the past year, especially in the wake of terrorist attacks around the world. Many of us should embrace a broader worldview, thus contributing to a more informed citizenry as a result. Sure, we can attend to our own little corners of the planet, but let’s also look at the world beyond our immediate surroundings.

This could be as simple as paying closer attention to news developments from around the world. It may mean bringing a more inclusive spirit to our lives, one that celebrates variety and diversity and naturally builds bonds with people from other cultures. At its most challenging levels, it can involve trying to understand and address the seemingly intractable differences that are causing so much strife today. For as President Kennedy said in his compelling 1963 speech on the urgent need to curb the nuclear arms race:

And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

“Friendly Fascism”: The terrifying clairvoyance of Bertram Gross

Some three and a half decades ago, social science professor and former senior public official Bertram Gross authored a remarkably prescient book about politics and society in the U.S.: Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America. First published in 1980, with a revised edition issued in 1982, Friendly Fascism eerily anticipated the descent of America into a state of plutocracy — an increasingly authoritarian society run by the wealthy and powerful for their own benefit.

A defining fork in the road

In the preface to his 1982 edition, Gross identified two conflicting trends in American society:

The first is a slow and powerful drift toward greater concentration of power and wealth in a repressive Big Business-Big Government partnership. . . . The phrase “friendly fascism” helps distinguish this possible future from the patently vicious corporatism of classic fascism in the past of Germany, Italy and Japan.

…The other is a slower and less powerful tendency for individuals and groups to seek greater participation in decisions affecting themselves and others. . . . It is embodied in larger values of community, sharing, cooperation, service to others and basic morality as contrasted with crass materialism and dog-eat-dog competition.

Gross went on to identify a group of people who were consolidating power in America:

I see at present members of the Establishment or people on its fringes who, in the name of Americanism, betray the interests of most Americans by fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.

Not-so-friendly fascism?

Unfortunately, it appears that the second societal vision identified by Gross — one of community, sharing, cooperation, service, and morality — has been overcome by massive concentrations of power and wealth.

We have no clearer evidence of this than the real possibility that Donald Trump will be the Republican Party standard bearer in the fall election. At the time Gross penned his book, Trump was a young, arrogant, and obnoxious (e.g., here and here) New York businessman primarily interested in money and self-promotion. However, I doubt that even Gross could’ve guessed that the Trump of today would be an exemplar of “fomenting militarism, applauding rat-race individualism, protecting undeserved privilege, or stirring up nationalistic and ethnic hatreds.”

Indeed, we are now at a point where “friendly” fascism is being supplanted by a much more aggressive, violent brand, reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s. Folks, this is not politics as usual. If Trump wins the GOP nomination and goes on to win the Presidency, then America will have chosen a dangerous, hateful path. Recently The Economist, long a voice of solid conservatism, put it well in expressing its alarm over the possibility of a Trump Presidency:

That is an appalling prospect. The things Mr Trump has said in this campaign make him unworthy of leading one of the world’s great political parties, let alone America. One way to judge politicians is by whether they appeal to our better natures: Mr Trump has prospered by inciting hatred and violence. He is so unpredictable that the thought of him anywhere near high office is terrifying. He must be stopped.

Republican policy analyst Peter Wehner has called out Trump on his constant appeals to political violence:

It is stunning to contemplate, particularly for those of us who are lifelong Republicans, but we now live in a time when the organizing principle that runs through the campaign of the Republican Party’s likely nominee isn’t adherence to a political philosophy — Mr. Trump has no discernible political philosophy — but an encouragement to political violence.

Even if Trump is stopped short of the White House, the ripple effects of his brand of thuggish, bullying rhetoric and behavior will have seeped into our communities, schools, workplaces, and civic life. Those of us committed to a more decent, kindhearted, and inclusive nation have our work cut out for us. After all, as Bertram Gross pointed out many years ago, we didn’t get to this terrible place overnight.

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