From Rags to Republican

One of the dishwashers at the restaurant where I work likes to light-heartedly discuss politics with me. “How are things this week on the left?” he might ask. Not even in his twenties yet, he can impressively explain why it’s wrong to conflate communism with Stalinism. He believes the best government would be a communist one, but until we figure out how to establish it, our best option is to go republican. He loves Rush Limbaugh. One day I was talking about disparities in school funding when he began telling about why he doesn’t think that sort of thing is important. “I did horribly in school, but I decided I wanted to learn on my own.”

He went on to tell me about a terrible period he went through growing up, after his parents got divorced and his mother was left nearly destitute. The young dishwater had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. The story struck me because about two weeks earlier I’d been discussing politics with a customer in the dinning room who told a remarkably similar one. He was eating with his wife and their new baby. When I disagreed with him that Obama’s election was a national catastrophe he began an impromptu lecture on conservative ideology. I interrupted him, saying, “I understand top-down economics; I just don’t agree with it.” But when I started to explain the bottom-up theory, he interrupted me with a story about how his mom was on food stamps and they had nothing when he was a kid, and yet here he is, a well-to-do father (he even put a number on his prosperity). “I’m walking proof that it is possible.”

I can go on and on with more examples. It seems like the moment anyone takes up the mantle of economic conservatism for the first time he (usually males) has to put together one of these rags-to-riches stories. I guess I could do it too, with just a little exaggeration. “My first memories are of living in government subsidized apartments, and my parents argued about money almost every day of my life when I was a kid, and then they got divorced and I was devastated—I put on weight until I was morbidly obese and I went to a psychologist for depression because I missed a month of school in fourth grade.” (Actually, that’s not exaggerated at all.)

The point we’re supposed to take away is that hardship is good and that no matter how bad being poor may appear it’s nothing a good work ethic can’t fix. Invariably, the Horatio Alger proceeds to the non sequitur that his making it out of poverty means it’s a bad idea for us as a society to invest in programs to help the poor. Push him by asking what if the poverty he experienced wasn’t as bad as the worst poverty in the country, or where that work ethic that saved him came from, and he’ll most likely shift gears and start explaining that becoming a productive citizen is a matter of incentives.

The logic runs: if you give money to people who aren’t working, you’re taking away the main incentive they had to get off their asses and go to work. Likewise, if you take money away from the people who have earned it by taxing them, you’re giving them a disincentive to continue being productive. This a folksy version of a Skinner Box: you get the pigeons to do whatever tricks you want by rewarding them with food pellets when they get close to performing them correctly—“successive approximations” of the behavior—and punishing them by not giving them food pellets when they go astray. What’s shocking is that this is as sophisticated as the great Reagan Revolution ever got. It’s a psychological theory that was recognized as too simplistic in the 1950’s writ large to explain the economy. What if people can make money in ways other than going to work, say, by selling drugs? The conservatives’ answer—more police, harsher punishments. But what if money isn’t the only reward people respond to? And what if prison doesn’t work like it’s supposed to?

The main appeal, I think, to Skinner Box Economics is that it says, in effect, don’t worry about having more than other people because you’ve earned what you have. You deserve it. What a relief to hear that we have more because we’re just better people. We needn’t work ourselves up over the wretched plight of the have-nots; if they really wanted to, they could have everything we have. To keep this line of reasoning afloat you need to buoy it up with a bit of elitism: so maybe offering everyone the same incentives won’t make everyone rich, but the smartest and most industrious people will be alright. If you’re doing alright, then you must be smart and industrious. And if you’re filthy rich, say, Wall Street banker rich, then, well, you must be one amazing S.O.B. How much money you have becomes an index of how virtuous you are as a person. And some people are so amazing in fact that the worst thing society can do is hold them back in any way, because their prosperity is so awesome it benefits everyone—it trickles down. There you have it, a rationale for letting rich people do whatever they want, and leaving poor people to their own devices to pull up their own damn bootstraps. This is the thinking that has led to even our democratic president believing that he needs to pander to Wall Street to save the economy. This is conservatism. And it’s so silly no adult should entertain it for more than a moment.

A philosophy that further empowers the powerful, that justifies the holding of power over the masses of the less powerful, ought to be appealing to anyone who actually has power. But it’s remarkable how well these ideas trickle down to the rest of us. One way to account for the assimilation of Skinner Box Economics among the middle class is that it is the middle class; people in it still have to justify being more privileged than those in the lower classes. But the real draw probably has little to do with any recognition of one’s actual circumstances; it relies rather on a large-scale obliviousness of them. Psychologists have been documenting for years the power of two biases we all fall prey to that have bearing on our economic thinking: the first is the self-serving bias, according to which we take credit any time we succeed at something but point to forces beyond our control whenever we fail. One of the best examples of the self-serving bias is research showing that the percentage of people who believe themselves to be better-than-average drivers is in the nineties—even among those who’ve recently been at fault in a traffic accident. (Sounds like Wall Street.) The second bias, which is the flipside of the first, is the fundamental attribution error, according to which we privilege attributions of persistent character traits to other people in explaining their behavior at the expense of external, situational factors—when someone cuts us off while we’re driving we immediately conclude that person is a jerk, even though we attribute the same type of behavior in ourselves to our being late for a meeting.

Any line of thinking that leads one away from the comforting belief in his or her own infinite capacity for self-determination will inevitably fail to take hold in the minds of those who rely on intuition as a standard of truth. That’s why the conservative ideology is such an incoherent mess: on the one hand, you’re trying to create a scientific model for how the economy works (or doesn’t), but on the other you’re trying not only to leave intact people’s faith in free will but also to bolster it, to elevate it to the status of linchpin to the entire worldview. But free will and determinism don’t mix, and unless you resort to religious concepts of non-material souls there’s no place to locate free will in the natural world. The very notion of free will is self-serving to anyone at all successful in his or her life—and that’s why self-determination, in the face of extreme adversity, is fetishized by the right. That’s why every conservative has a rags-to-riches story to offer as proof of the true nature of economic forces.

The real wonder of the widespread appeal of conservatism is the enormous capacity it suggests we all have for taking our advantages for granted. Most people bristle when you even use the words advantage or privilege—as if you’re undermining their worth or authenticity as a person. But the advantages middle class people enjoy are glaring and undeniable. Sure, many of us were raised by single mothers who went through periods of hardship. I’d say most of us, though, had grandparents around who were willing to lend a helping hand here and there. And even if these grandparents didn’t provide loans or handouts they did provide the cultural capital that makes us recognizable to other middle class people as part of the tribe. What makes conservative rags-to-riches stories impossible prima facie is that the people telling them know the plot elements so well, meaning someone taught them the virtue of self-reliance, and they tell them in standard American English, with mouths full of shiny, straight teeth, in accents that belie the story’s gist. It may not seem, in hindsight, that they were comfortably ensconced in the middle class, but at the very least they were surrounded by middle class people, and benefiting from their attention.

You might be tempted to conclude that the role of contingency is left out of conservative ideology, but that’s not really the case. Contingency in the form of bad luck is incorporated into conservative thinking in the form of the very narratives of triumph over adversity that are offered as proof of the fatherly wisdom of the free market. In this way, the ideology is inextricably bound to the storyteller’s authenticity as a person. I suffered and toiled, the storyteller reasons, and therefore my accomplishments are genuine, my character strong. The corollary to this personal investment in what is no longer merely an economic theory is that any dawning awareness of people in worse circumstances than those endured and overcome by the authentic man or woman will be resisted as a threat to that authenticity. If they were to accept that they had it better or easier than some, then their victories would be invalidated. They are thus highly motivated to discount, or simply not to notice contingencies like generational or cultural advantages.

I’ve yet to hear a rags-to-riches story that begins with a malnourished and overstressed mother giving birth prematurely to a cognitively impaired and immuno-compromised baby, and continues with a malnourished and neglected childhood in underperforming schools where not a teacher nor a classmate can be found who places any real value on education, and ends with the hard-working, intelligent person you see in front of you, who makes a pretty decent income and is raising a proud, healthy family. Severely impoverished people live a different world, and however bad we middle-class toilers think we’ve had it we should never be so callous and oblivious to claim we’ve seen and mastered that world. But Skinner Box Economics doesn’t just fail because some of us are born less able to perform successive approximations of the various tricks of productivity; it fails because it’s based on an inadequate theory of human motivation. Rewards and punishments work to determine our behavior to be sure, but the only people who sit around calculating outcomes and navigating incentives and disincentives with a constant eye toward the bottom line are the rich executives who benefit most from a general acceptance of supply-side economics.

The main cultural disadvantage for people growing up in poor families in poor neighborhoods is that the individuals who are likely to serve as role models there will seldom be the beacons of middle-class virtue we stupidly expect our incentive structure to produce. When I was growing up, I looked up to my older brothers, and wanted to do whatever they were doing. And I looked up to an older neighbor kid, whose influence led me to race bikes at local parks. Later my role models were Jean Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger, so I got into martial arts and physical fitness. Soon thereafter, I began to idolize novelists and scientists. Skinnerian behaviorism has been supplanted in the social sciences by theories emphasizing the importance of observational learning, as well as the undeniable role of basic drives like the one for status-seeking. Primatologist Frans de Waal, for instance, has proposed a theory for cultural transmission—in both apes and humans—called BIOL, for bonding and identification based observational learning. What this theory suggests is that our personalities are largely determined by a proclivity for seeking out high-status individuals whom we admire, assimilating their values and beliefs, and emulating their behavior. Absent a paragon of the Calvinist work ethic, no amount of incentives is going to turn a child into the type of person who tells conservative rags-to-riches stories.

The thing to take away from these stories is usually that there is a figure or two who perform admirably in them—the single mom, the determined dad, the charismatic teacher. And the message isn’t about economics at all but about culture and family. Conservatives tout the sanctity of family and the importance of good parenting but when they come face-to-face with the products of poor parenting they see only the products of bad decisions. Middle class parents go to agonizing lengths to ensure their children grow up in good neighborhoods and attend good schools but suggest to them that how well someone behaves is a function of how much they have—how much love and attention, how much healthy food and access to doctors, how much they can count on their struggles being worthwhile—and those same middle class parents will warn you about the dangers of making excuses.

The real proof of how well conservative policies work is not to be found in anecdotes, no matter how numerous; it’s in measures of social mobility. The story these measures tell about the effects of moving farther to the right as a country contrast rather starkly with all the rags-to-Republican tales of personal heroism. But then numbers aren’t really stories; there’s no authenticity and self-congratulation to be gleaned from statistics; and if it’s really true that we owe our prosperity to chance, well, that’s just depressing—and discouraging. We can take some encouragement for our stories of hardship though. We just have to take note of how often the evidence they provide for poverty—food stamps, rent-controlled housing—are in fact government programs to aid the impoverished. They must be working.