Sunday, April 16, 2017

Corruption is a trade of dignity for money - all for lack of interpersonal skills

In the time that I have spent listening to and reading the writing of gun rights activists, I have learned one clear and overarching message: guns don't kill people, people kill people, and I agree with them. Guns may provide a ready release for the temptation of one person to kill another, but left alone, a gun does nothing. It still takes a person to load it, point it and shoot it. 

So, not too long ago - mere days in social media time, someone suggested that money corrupts people. On this point again, I happen to disagree. Money itself does not corrupt people. If you believe that, then you believe that guns kill people, too. In the same way that people choose to use a gun to kill another person, people choose to allow themselves to become corrupt as a result of money, often because they believe they have no better choice. So, why do people allow themselves to be corrupted for money?

Notice the language above. I replaced "by money" with "for money". People allow themselves to be corrupted in exchange for something else. In the process of corruption of character, there is a give and take, an exchange of dignity for power. Just ask Golem. "Wraiths! Wraiths on wings! They are calling for it. They are calling for the precious."

It has been said that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I believe that all corruption stems from child abuse and/or the imposition of adult will in the form of punishment and reward. In fact, I believe that every crime is a result of and can be traced back to child abuse and the punishment and reward regime that is so popular in America for behavior modification. Child abuse and punishment and reward operate on the same assumption: that kids lack the motivation to do better. Apply more force, more coercion, more threats and the behavior should improve, but it never really does.

To save a few keystrokes and perhaps my sanity, I'm going to lump child abuse and punishment and reward into the term "abuse". The reason punishment and reward is included in abuse for the purposes of this article is that punishments and rewards do not teach skills. I know this from personal experience because I've just never seen it work not with me.

Here is my personal experience. I was grounded for an entire summer by my dad over my falling grades in junior high school math, but he was far too busy to actually teach me how to develop the discipline of doing the homework. He just expected me to feel pain from the punishment of isolation and to comply to escape the pain. He never offered any help, assistance or his know-how, and God knows how good he is at math.

I wanted to do better, I really did. But I didn't have the skills to comply with his demands. I could do the math. That wasn't the problem. I just didn't have the discipline to do the homework and had no model or mentor to work with. The only thing left for me to do was resist, so I did. So much so that things didn't improve until he came to my room one night, a little inebriated and crying over this conflict and he surrendered. This is how awful he felt about it, and I could see it. After that I just resolved to do my homework so that I wouldn't break him.

What my father (bless his heart), and most American parents don't know is that punishment reinforces behavior just as much as rewards do, but neither will teach a skill required to achieve the compliance objectives they set for their kids. More than 30 years of empirical evidence bear this out and made easy for laymen to read in books like "The Explosive Child" and "Raising Human Beings", by Dr. Ross W. Green, PhD. Both books provide excellent guidance in how to distinguish punishment and reward from teaching skills.

Abuse does not teach a survival skill. When kids are being abused, they are not learning skills that they can use to improve their life or even save it. Every minute spent at the hands of an abuser is a minute that could have been spent teaching the skills kids will need later on in life to function as an adult. When presented with abuse, kids respond instinctively, with biological programming for survival. You know, like fight or flight. When kids (and adults) descend into instinct, they are not thinking about their responses, so they just act on thousands or millions of years of adaptation built into their genes. Instincts are not about skills, they are built in responses to the environment.

What kinds of skills are we talking about, then? Problem solving skills. How to get your needs met. How to get along with others. How to pay the bills. How to say, "please". How to say, "sorry". How to find your talents and use them to the best of your ability. My job as a parent is not to inflict pain on my kids. They do that to themselves without my help just figuring out how the world works. My job is to help them discover who they are and avoid hurting themselves or others.

Every kid faces problems they need help solving - we often call them "growing pains". When kids encounter a problem they cannot solve, especially under duress inflicted by parents, they exhibit challenging behavior. Most parents will respond to such behavior by imposing their will upon the kid rather than work with the kid to solve the problem. That's because most parents make the assumption that challenging behavior on the part of kids is a sign of kids being "willful", as if skill had nothing to do with it. Often, this leads to abuse in the form of physical punishment or coercion. When children are abused, they experience developmental delays that prevent them from resolving the problems they face as kids and have a strong tendency to go through the same problems as adults. When children are abused, they are not taught the skills they need to solve those problems. For more information on this concept in generous detail, check out, an organization dedicated to helping kids and parents founded by Dr. Greene.

People become corrupt for money when they believe their needs will not be met any other way. Corruption can also be seen as acting out the fate of their childhood, often imposing the fate of one's childhood upon others. Corruption is challenging behavior by adults, learned as kids.

How else do we explain why a Wall Street hedge fund manager engages in insider trading when he's already worth more than $100 million? I'm not even talking about a billionaire here, just a petty millionaire with enough money that he needn't work for the rest of his life.

That hedge fund manager already knows how to grow money. Without even skirting the law, our humble hedge fund manager could park that money in a Vanguard 500 mutual fund with consistent historical appreciation of about 5% per year. In such a fund, $100 million would yield $5 million a year, and 20% of that would be taxed if taken as income. Heck, a reasonable person would be fine on a million a year and let the rest appreciate.

That means, once a year, our hapless hedge fund manager could sell $1 million worth of his stakes in the mutual fund and live off that for a year. For the rest of us, that is easily more than 20 years of income. Lop 20% off for taxes and that's still a tidy sum to live on for a year. So, if you should happen to win the lottery, you know one place to put your money instead of blowing it all on a lost weekend.

Yet, the news pages of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and of course, numerous websites who track this sort of thing go on and on about how some high society individual was caught trying to get still more without playing by the rules. Insider trading, pump and dump, kickbacks, pay for play and the list goes on. Who do these people think they are? Why turn to corruption when they could just kick back and watch their money grow?

With wealth often comes impunity. There's that word again. For a completely scathing review of how some wealthy people allow themselves to be corrupted for money and power, check out this article by Chris Hedges. It's well worth the time to read it for it shows, by a man who has been a personal witness as an innocent bystander and a journalist, just how far down people can go with power and money. But at the end of all that, we must remember that these are only symptoms. Money is not the cause. Left sitting in a pile, money does nothing. Only people can give it power.

With impunity comes a lack of empathy, for if you believe that money separates your fate from others, you have no skin in the game. For some infected with impunity, it seems like they can change the people in their lives like a bad or worn out part. Middle aged men with money think they can change their wife for a better one, younger, prettier, more willing. Frontman for Oingo Boingo Danny Elfman nails this kind of behavior perfectly in his song, Ain't This The Life (video). But money is no substitute for interpersonal skills. The same relationship problems recur until the skills to resolve them are learned. No amount of money can cure this. Interpersonal skills must be taught, not bought.

There is something else that can happen with people and money: they may begin to think they're better than everyone else just because they have money. A few years ago, I happened upon this article in Slate, "Social Darwinism Isn’t Dead: Rich people think they really are different from you and me", by Matthew Hutson. In it, Hutson describes an interesting concept, "social class essentialism", is a sort of belief system that says, "I'm rich because I deserve it, because I'm better than you". Yet, few people of wealth would want to believe that luck or circumstance would have anything to do with their position. It's all hard work, right? From the article:
In several experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Michael Kraus of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and Dacher Keltner of the University of California at Berkeley explored what they call social class essentialism. Essentialism is the belief that surface differences between two groups of people or things can be explained by differences in fundamental identities. One sees categories as natural, discrete, and stable. Dogs have a certain dogness to them and cats a certain catness. 
Kraus and Keltner looked deeper into the connection between social class and social class essentialism by testing participants’ belief in a just world, asking them to evaluate such statements as “I feel that people get what they are entitled to have.” The psychologist Melvin Lerner developed just world theory in the 1960s, arguing that we’re motivated to believe that the world is a fair place. The alternative—a universe where bad things happen to good people—is too upsetting. So we engage defense mechanisms such as blaming the victim—“She shouldn’t have dressed that way”—or trusting that positive and negative events will be balanced out by karma, a form of magical thinking.
That "deserving" belief strikes me as one of a culture steeped in reward and punishment. "I do good and I'm rewarded, I do bad and I'm punished." Skill has nothing to do with it. There is a limit to how much good skill can do for you, and that limit is set by circumstances beyond your control. When wealthy people engaged in criminal acts such as collusion or extortion, they are realizing the limits of their abilities just as much as a poor man attempting to rob a liquor store. Both acts have the same source, a sense of entitlement or need, and a lack of skills to fulfill that need, maybe even a lack of awareness or an inability to articulate what that need really is.

Regardless of social class, when people are frustrated in their ability to meet their needs, they exhibit challenging behavior. This challenging behavior is familiar to us on the local news as murder, rape, robbery, and assault. It is less familiar to us from higher classes of crimes including collusion, extortion, bribery, and racketeering. I guess they weren't kidding when they said that "shame is the rocket fuel for success." Watch any CSI show and you'll see fictional dramas of the same thing. Watch any daytime soap opera and yes, it's the same thing.

To sum it up very simply, challenging behavior on the part of adults is when people use force to get their needs met instead of applying skills to do the same thing. This what I mean when I say that people allow themselves to be corrupted for money. Corrupt people go for the use of force against others instead of learning and applying the skills needed to get their needs met. They might not even know what need they are trying to meet when they apply force against another.

This is not to say that all or even any wealthy people are bad people. There are no bad people. There is no evil. Evil is a religious concept, a supernatural explanation for challenging behavior in kids and adults. The most logical explanation for corruption is not the money, it's the lack of skills. It would follow then, if people can't be corrupted by money, money won't make them happy either. To put it another way, if people must allow themselves to be corrupted for money, they must also allow themselves to be happy with money.

When I look at the news of the corruption in the halls of power like Wall Street and Washington, DC, I do not see adults. I see children in adult bodies who lack the skills to identify and articulate their needs, and to get those needs met. If they're lucky, they say "What the hell happened?" and change course.

For the kids that are growing up now, we can change our perspective. We can stop worrying about their motivation to do better and start teaching them the skills they need to make the world a better place. Happiness is a skill that we must teach to change the world.
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