Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Ultra-rich—Intelligent? Talented? No, Lucky and Brutal

The ultra-rich 1% claim that they have unique qualities that explains why they are where they are—among the ultra rich. They credit themselves with success for which they were not responsible. Many got certain richly rewarded jobs by a ruthless greed or by being born to the right parents, talents that they would rather not boast about, so they claim it is intelligence, creativity, hard work, enterprise or acumen, much more acceptable talents.

In findings that have been widely replicated, psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, winner of a Nobel economics prize, studied for eight years the results of 25 wealth advisers. Their average performance was zero, but, when their results were above average, they got bonuses. Traders and fund managers across Wall Street had their massive compensation for success hardly or no better than random. Doubtless they got bonuses even when they did badly because everyone is allowed to have a bit of bad luck! Surprise, surprise, the city slickers did not want to hear Kahneman's findings.

So much for the financial sector and its super-educated analysts. As for other kinds of business, you tell me. Is your boss possessed of judgement, vision and management skills superior to those of anyone else in the firm, or did he or she get there through bluff, bullshit and bullying?

In another study “Crime and Law”, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon psychologically tested 39 senior managers and CEOs of leading British businesses, then performed the same tests on patients at Broadmoor hospital, a mental hospital for convicted criminals too insane for prison. On certain criteria, the manager’s scores matched or exceeded those of the criminally insane patients, beating even some psychopathic patients. These criteria are just those which closely resemble the characteristics that companies look for in managers. Some are:

  • their skill in flattering powerful people to manipulate them
  • egocentricity
  • a strong sense of entitlement
  • a readiness to exploit others
  • a lack of empathy and conscience.

Paul Babiak and Robert Hare also point out in their book Snakes in Suits, that psychopathic traits are more likely to be selected and rewarded in modern management. So, while those with psychopathic tendencies born to a poor family are likely to go to prison, those with psychopathic tendencies born to a rich family are likely to end up as top managers. CEOs now take from their businesses “rewards” disproportionate to the work they do or the value they generate. Business has been rewarding the wrong skills.

The über-rich are called the wealth creators, but they have preyed upon the earth’s natural wealth and workers’ labour and creativity, impoverishing both people and planet. Now they have almost bankrupted us. The wealth creators of neoliberal mythology are actually wealth destroyers. In the US:

  • between 1947 and 1979, productivity rose by 119%, while the income of the bottom fifth of the population rose by 122%
  • between 1979 and 2009, productivity rose by 80% , while the income of the bottom fifth fell by 4%
  • in roughly the same period, the income of the top 1% rose by 270%.

In the UK:

  • the money earned by the poorest tenth fell by 12% between 1999 and 2009, while the money made by the richest 10th rose by 37%
  • The Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, climbed in this country from 26 in 1979 to 40 in 2009

The undeserving rich are now in the frame, and the rest of us want our money back.

George Monbiot

George Monbiot writes, usually excellently penetrative articles, in The Guardian and on his own website. In the article above, his latest (8 November) essay is summarized in slightly edited form. See the originals at the link given here, or at The Guardian.

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