The Poverty of Wealth


I don’t think we’re going to get anything done this week.

Nonetheless, the studious attempts to downplay Ashcroft’s Revenge by the BBC, Tory pundits and even people on the left underscore just how important Piggate is on a symbolic level.

Lawrence Richards wrote:

Outsiders to the British cultural landscape are focusing on the central detail that a leader of a G8 country screwed a dead pig, because it’s hilarious. But the howling laughter of the British themselves goes deeper than just schadenfreude at a man doing something disgusting and getting caught – this is about class.

… And thus part of the reason why the British are so ready to believe Lord Ashcroft’s story, aside from the fact that Ashcroft is a top-tier Establishment figure in a country with absurdly plaintiff-friendly libel laws, is that Cameron’s ideological training is already well understood by the public. There is nothing likable about such a background, particularly when the ruling class it produces is waging a war on the poor and disabled that would have made Thatcher blush.

So to then hear that the guy at the top of that pyramid was peer-pressured into putting his dick in a pig’s mouth or risk not being included in a club of nasty, entitled people, it creates a much more satisfying reaction than mere laughter.

Already people are doubting the veracity of the claims, even though something like this – horrifically surreal and disgusting it may be – is actually tame compared to the weird, disgusting, and downright horrific initiation rites undertaken by some of the most powerful men in the western world (and that includes former US presidents). Then you have Tories audaciously claiming that this is just normal stuff that young men do at college, everyone’s done things they regret, why are you being such prudes, gawsh.

And right there is the true horror of this – this is normal to them.


Doing horrible things to severed animal heads in a creepy ritualistic context is not such a stretch when you consider what they think of the people they are supposed to serve. The dehumanisation of the poor and disabled is not just a cruel initiation rite, it is central to their entire ideology and justification for their warped interpretation of meritocracy. Their insane pronouncements on workfare and the benefits reforms are entirely legitimate to them. So whenever people criticize their destruction of the welfare state and siphoning off the NHS, they think there’s something wrong with their critics.

Their usual defense is that poor people are simply jealous of their success. If only these people put their minds to it, and worked hard, they could be rich too. They could be just like us, because we are awesome, they think. The world looks at all our things, our fancy clothes, our houses with moats, our floating duck islands, our golden thrones, and want it all for themselves. But they are too lazy, too workshy, too inferior to do anything about it.  It doesn’t matter that their definition of hard work and merit is completely at odds with definition. It certainly doesn’t matter that even if they hit rock bottom, they will never have to worry about feeding their family, warming their home, or fuelling their cars – they’ll be bailed out by their friends, enjoy state benefits, safe in the knowledge that they worked to deserve this from childhood onwards. Thus, the lower classes’ position is justified in their minds, as the very way they think is different from those of the upper class.

And in a roundabout way, they are right: extreme poverty does affect the brain. Consider the correlation between poverty and health:

The social class of an individual has been shown to have an effect on life expectancy. In a recent study by Johnson (2011), it was shown that the greatest growth in male life expectancy at birth between 1982–86 and 2002–06 was experienced by those in the lower managerial and professional class (such as school teachers and social workers) at 5.3 years. The least growth was experienced by those in the two least advantaged classes (semi-routine and routine occupations), at 3.8 and 3.9 years respectively. At age 65 the gap in life expectancy between men in higher managerial and professional occupations (18.8 years) and those in routine occupations (15.3 years) was 3.5 years in 2002–06. Similar results were found for females.

Area characteristics also have an impact on life expectancy. A study by Kyte and Wells (2010) examined life expectancy in rural and urban areas of England, taking area deprivation into account. During the 2001–07 period, life expectancy at birth was higher in rural area types than in urban areas. However, there was little difference between densely and less densely populated areas. Deprivation had a considerable impact on the results and inequalities were evident in all area types, particularly among men and in urban areas. Woods et al (2005) also found that area-based income deprivation largely explained geographical variations in life expectancy.

It is difficult to disentangle the impact of individual- and area-level factors on life expectancy. However, the geographic results presented in this bulletin show clear variations between different areas of the UK. Higher life expectancies in the south compared with lower life expectancies in the north are particularly evident. Improvements in life expectancy over time also vary geographically.

Or the studies which show the affect poverty has on education:

Beginning at birth, the attachment formed between parent and child predicts the quality of future relationships with teachers and peers (Szewczyk-Sokolowski, Bost, & Wainwright, 2005) and plays a leading role in the development of such social functions as curiosity, arousal, emotional regulation, independence, and social competence (Sroufe, 2005). The brains of infants are hardwired for only six emotions: joy, anger, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear (Ekman, 2003). To grow up emotionally healthy, children under 3 need

  • A strong, reliable primary caregiver who provides consistent and unconditional love, guidance, and support.
  • Safe, predictable, stable environments.
  • Ten to 20 hours each week of harmonious, reciprocal interactions. This process, known as attunement, is most crucial during the first 6–24 months of infants’ lives and helps them develop a wider range of healthy emotions, including gratitude, forgiveness, and empathy.
  • Enrichment through personalized, increasingly complex activities.

Children raised in poverty are much less likely to have these crucial needs met than their more affluent peers are and, as a result, are subject to some grave consequences. Deficits in these areas inhibit the production of new brain cells, alter the path of maturation, and rework the healthy neural circuitry in children’s brains, thereby undermining emotional and social development and predisposing them to emotional dysfunction (Gunnar, Frenn, Wewerka, & Van Ryzin, 2009; Miller, Seifer, Stroud, Sheinkopf, & Dickstein, 2006).

Rather than their education affecting their poverty, it is their poverty which affects their education:

“Our research has shown that the effects of poverty on the developing brain, particularly in the hippocampus, are strongly influenced by parenting and life stresses experienced by the children,” co-author Joan Luby, of Washington University, said in an editorial accompanying the study.

The researchers were surprised by how strongly poverty correlated with poorer test scores. About 20 percent of the achievement gap between well-off and poor students could be explained by the developmental differences in the frontal and temporal areas of the brain.

“In developmental science and medicine, it is not often that the cause and solution of a public health problem become so clearly elucidated,” Luby said. “It is even less common that feasible and cost-effective solutions to such problems are discovered and within reach.”

Think about that, Kezia, next time you wonder why child literacy rates are experiencing problems in Scotland that just happens to coincide with the horrendous rise in child poverty.


So if it is scientifically plausible that extreme poverty can adversely damage the human brain, what about extreme wealth?

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

This isn’t just jealousy, or stereotype – the notion that the extremely wealthy are less empathetic, less honest, more selfish, and more unethical, is scientifically supported:

In one study, Piff and his colleagues discreetly observed the behavior of drivers at a busy four-way intersection. They found that luxury car drivers were more likely to cut off other motorists instead of waiting for their turn at the intersection. This was true for both men and women upper-class drivers, regardless of the time of day or the amount of traffic at the intersection. In a different study they found that luxury car drivers were also more likely to speed past a pedestrian trying to use a crosswalk, even after making eye contact with the pedestrian.

And all the time, they convince themselves that they deserve it:

Finding #1: We rationalize advantage by convincing ourselves we deserve it

The study: In a UC Berkeley study, Piff had more than 100 pairs of strangers play Monopoly. A coin-flip randomly assigned one person in each pair to be the rich player: they got twice as much money to start with, collected twice the salary when they passed go, and rolled both dice instead of one, so they could move a lot farther. Piff used hidden cameras to watch the duos play for 15 minutes.

The results: The rich players moved their pieces more loudly, banging them around the board, and displayed the type of enthusiastic gestures you see from a football player who’s just scored a touchdown. They even ate more pretzels from a bowl sitting off to the side than the players who’d been assigned to the poor condition, and started to become ruder to their opponents. Moreover, the rich players’ understanding of the situation was completely warped: after the game, they talked about how they’d earned their success, even though the game was blatantly rigged, and their win should have been seen as inevitable. “That’s a really, really incredible insight into how the mind makes sense of advantage,” Piff says.


It shouldn’t need pointing out, but our elected representatives are rarely our betters, and indeed, we often find ourselves represented by people acting against our own interests – even that of the planet itself. Yet we let them, because not only have the elite convinced themselves that they are operating a meritocracy, they’ve convinced us to let them get away with it.

That’s why we have a Chancellor of the Exchequer who cannot answer a 7-year-old’s maths question.

That’s why we have a Health Secretary who wrote a book advocating dismantlement of the NHS.

That’s why we have a Foreign Secretary who thinks migrants “threaten our standard of living.”

That’s why we have an Energy and Climate Change Secretary who strongly votes against stopping climate change.

That’s why we have a Justice Secretary who wants to abolish the European Convention of Human Rights in the UK.

That’s why we have a Work & Pensions Secretary being investigated by the UN for human rights violations.

That’s why we have a Prime Minister who appointed a cabinet of millionaires, and is now the laughing stock of the entire world.

Human beings are not extremophiles: we cannot survive extreme cold or extreme heat unaided; we cannot live outside a small band of atmospheric pressure without technological assistance; we cannot subsist on any single substance indefinitely. So it is with wealth: extremes on either end twist the mind in different ways. The difference is we consider one of those extremes a state to aspire to.

(There are at least three songs called “Eat The Rich.” The Rich should probably worry.)


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