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"Rich People Just Care Less": variations on a theme

I enjoy writing blog entries, I really do. 

And yet at times I reflect and notice a bit of repetition in the work, a nagging and perhaps obsessive idea. A fixation. 

Much of what I write here seems to be a variation on a single theme: conservative thought is a powerfully rich tradition whose contemporary exemplars have strayed from some important foundations. The bonds of community, for example, above and beyond the individual. The natural and organic order, the importance of history and tradition. An engaged critique of modernity rather than an embrace of the forces of hypermodern capitalism.

Here's more variation on that theme, in the form of a powerful and critical essay in the weekend New York Times ( After reading this, it seems to me that the Church -- and especially the so-called conservative "traditionalist" wing in the US -- should be addressing not only the growth of inequality and the concomitant stagnation of social mobility, but the growing sense of indifference and even hostility towards the poor. What I see, though, is something like the opposite: the economics of Paul Ryan, the libertarian theology of Robert Sirico.

Are these views representative?  

About the Author

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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What Goleman reports,  that people pay more attention to those who are powerful, can be filed as research confirmation of something that everyone already knows to be true.  His supposition, that powerful Republicans are unempathetic to people who are not powerful, may well be true.  But why wouldn't it also hold true that powerful Democrats and liberals are unempathetic to people who are not powerful?  As it happens, we know that to be true, as it is not difficult to cite instances of Democratic policies that are shockingly unempathetic to those who are weak and powerless.

Traditionalists in the Catholic Church are not numerous, and their influence can be overstated.  In their own estimation, many of them tend to see themselves as the disenfranchised and oppressed ones.  I note this, not to disagree with Robert's contention about Paul Ryan; there are too many conservative Catholics who buy into theories that are cruel to those who depend on government programs for subsistence.  I just wouldn't want to classify them all as traditionalists.  I think it goes well beyond the borders of traditionalism.

My follow up question is: is this an endogeneity issue? In English, does this mean that people who achieve wealth & power lose their empathy, or is an empathy gap a pre-requisite for being drawn to/able to do what is necessary to attain wealth & power? My gut would suggest the latter, but I'm open to being persuaded otherwise.

Another question: do most people in positions of wealth & power have a real sense of what poverty/lack of power means? I'm reminded of the scene from Arrested Development where Gangie asks her son how much a banana costs: $10?

A third question: how are we (and "they") defining community? I read extensively about the right wing. They know exactly who their community is. And the reason they hate the government is that it shifts power, howsoever construed, to the members of society who are most definitely not a part of that community.

Low-income people are invisible to the middle and upper classes.  Perfectly lovely, thoughtful , Christian people simply do not see them.  I am not writing metaphorically.  The non-poor simply do not live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same schools, churches, even grocery stores.  You will not run into a poor mother and her two kids in a Whole Foods.  It's expensive to play little league baseball.  It's expensive to play sports in elementary, middle and high school.  There are few opportunities for poor kids and adults to hang out with people whose resources exceed theirs.  Higher income families are often generous in giving to food pantries, holiday gift drives and the like, but rarely do they come in contact in a social setting with poor people.  There may be some brief contact with a cashier in a convenience store, but that's it.  I've worked professionally in programs that serve the poor in the inner city and in a prosperous suburban area.  When well-meaning friends would ask about my job, they usually were sympathetic to people's struggles, but it came with "advice" on how they could do better.  One has to have an very good imagination to be empathetic to people you have never met and whose lives bear little resemblance to yours.  If you have never been poor (not graduate student poor), never lived in a trailer in a rural slum or in a cold apartment with broken windows, broken appliances, two babies, and no money to pay the electric bill it is not surprising that you cannot relate to those who do.  I wish I had a solution to offer.  So, I think middle and upper income folks may care in an abstract way about struggling people, but in my experience they, in a concrete sense, have no clue.

Thomas --

The Piagetian psychologists have shown that if a person doesn't develop his/her imginative powers of visualizing other people's interior, subjective experience that they cannot develop consciences because they simply don't see the consequences of their actions, so they are not bothered by those consequences.

It seems to me that this is another strong reason to require literature in the schools -- it forces kids to imagine what their own actions do to other people.  No development of imagination yields no conscience yields no morality yields injustice.  Support the literature teachers!

The Northern Ca. Catholic HSs bring their students on a regular basis to the innercity Franciscan Gubbio project. We have not yet  found a way we can entice their upper middle class parents on a tour....see just a short video of the 'others' .

Holloway - I agree entirely.

You're quite right that even ostensibly-democratic activities for children like scouting and soccer are too expensive.  I pay well over $100 for one of my children to play in a house soccer league, and the annual dues for boy scouts were about $100, too.  For a family in perpetual jeopardy of not making rent each month, these may be beyond reach.  Even public schools in this suburban area are expensive, once clothes, supplies and all the nickel-and-dime fees throughout the year are figured in.  And don't get me started on tuition at allegedly-affordable public universities.

I was struck by the NYT piece, too, and anyone who has gone down the socio-economic ladder is very attuned to the way relationships wax and wane with income and status.

Some people will, for a time, accommodate someone's reduced financial circumstances, but eventually, they'll get sick of "slumming" at Big Boy or the coffee shop--the cheaper places poorer people can afford occasionally--and stop inviting poorer acquaintances to social gatherings altogether.  They make money, and they want to enjoy it. Why shouldn't they?

Those in reduced circumstances often don't want to entertain because a) they don't have the money and b) because the accommodations are getting pretty threadbare. They've disconnected the cable, so they can't talk about everyone's favorite TV series. They decline invitations if they don't have the clothes suitable for the venue or the season. One of my students, whose famiy of five lost their house, had to live in their van for six months. She said her teenaged son asked them to let him off several blocks from school so his friends would not know. 

There is a terrible embarassment on both sides of these relationships, pity on the part of the still-affluent and pride on the part of those with dwindling resources. Generally, it's a relationship both parties--unless the friendship is true, lasting, and deep--are eventually glad to end.

Sociologist consider it an iron rule that 20% of the congregation usually contribute 80% of the funds the religious community gets for its support. The first St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York was built in this way just as the 187,000,000 dollar renovation is now being done. That 20% controls a lot of things in society and the church. 

Bill and Melinda Gates are current examples, along with Warren Buffet, of rich people using their money well. Very little of their fortune is going to their children. They are e specially sensitive to poor people in Africa. It does not matter to me whether they are democrats or republicans...or Catholic. They are special people.

Thanks for directing us to this essay.


This indifference developped from lack of community is one reason to discourage the possibility of paying money to avoid things that are inconveniences for the general public.

Once upper middle class people can avoid going to the DMV, they will become indifferent to the squalor, long lines and rudeness present in some places.

If people can pay for dedicated faster lanes, they will become indifferent to traffic jams.

When the internet becomes differentiated, rich people will pay for high quality connections and not care that poor people have bad connections. In fact the internet is close to being congested so we will  have to start sharing bandwidth, something that will soon become a scarce resource. In some places Skype works less well than 10 years ago, and telephones are less reliable. People stream videos, and then others have trouble accessing critical information. How will we get organized to allocate bandwidth and give priority to the transmission of certain informations rather than others, in a way that is fair? It's a big question. Right now information is transmitted in small packets, and I think that, still, all packets are treated the same, regardless of content. That's not going to last much longer, but we don't yet know how to design the next version of the internet. If we end up simply charging more for better quality of service, it'll be yet another way to widen inequalities. (Imagine if you went to the movies and were given a choice between paying $1 for fuzzy images and indistinct voices, or $30 for high-quality image and sound... imagine if the internet was like that...).

Once upper middle class people can avoid going to the DMV, they will become indifferent to the squalor, long lines and rudeness present in some places.

In Illinois, this already is happening.

Jury duty is another civic responsibility that forces the 401K class to rub elbows with the hoi polloi.  It seems to me that quite a few with offices of their own manage to scam out of that as well.

At one time, the military draft was a great social leveller.  Not many on a college track choose to enlist out of high school these days.




 People stream videos, and then others have trouble accessing critical information. How will we get organized to allocate bandwidth and give priority to the transmission of certain informations rather than others, in a way that is fair? It's a big question. 

The precedent for over-the-air broadcast bandwidth is:

  • The federal government owns the bandwidth
  • The government auctioned off slices of it to netwok bidders - so capitalism is part of the process, and big money  became gatekeepers of the content
  • The government regulated the content of the networks to ensure that content meets public needs

Until the advent of the array of media that confronts us today, it actually worked pretty well, it seems to me.  


I invite your attention to Christopher Hayes' "The Twilight of The Elites."

He supports by argument much of what was said in the Opinionator blog.

Of course, he is one of those fuzzy-headed, Jesuit-influenced liberals.

I've noticed two other places where people across the socio-economic spectrum are less likely to mingle: polling places and juries. The rich can usually figure out a way to vote absentee and get out of jury duty.

Jean - at least where I live, in Illinois, voting is intensely local - we're divided into precincts that may encompass only a neighborhood or subdivision, or, as when I lived in Chicago proper, a city block or even a couple of high-rise buildings*   So unless I happen to live in a diverse locale, chances are that the people in line to vote are an awful lot like me.

* At one point, I lived in a building that had a polling place in one of its street-level storefronts, a barber shop - but my precinct was not that one, I had to walk a half-block away to a synagogue to vote.  The precincts must have divided my building by the floor or something, I never did figure it out.


Perhaps instead of fasting in pleasant surroundings to show solidarity with the poor, Catholics should be required to actually fast WITH the poor by spending one hour of their fast day where the poor go--to a health department clinic, to the DSS, to the Goodwill store, to a soup kitchen, to a food pantry. You wouldn't have to work there or even talk to anyone, just spend time rubbing shoulders with the people who have to use those facilities in order to survive, listen to their interactions, see what they need or buy. You could say a rosary while you're in there. Maybe something would click.

One of my co-workers relies on foodstamps, which will run out of $$ at the end of the month, and the state says it won't pick up the tab. The government is not necessarily going to be there for these people, and I suggest everyone consider making generous donations to their food pantries; they're going to be working overtime if the shutdown continues into November.

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