Whose Share is it Anyway? Changing Rules in the National Debt Debate

ruleThe winter holiday season has arrived, and although Halloween is a bit more of a distant memory, I’m still chuckling at the display of anger and frustration exhibited by little munchkinsaround the US when  their parents declared they had ostensibly eaten the candy of their little  looters while they slept (Thanks, Jimmy Kimmel!).  Little ones across the country were hollering in utter frustration when the unspoken rule of an  American tradition – keeping one’s spoils after a hard night’s toil of “trick  or treating” – appeared to have been broken.

Folks – it’s rough to think we have had our candy stolen from us!

This becomes abundantly clear in the war cries of stolen money sounded in the debates about our national debt – who has the money, who took it for their own purposes, who deserves it and for what purposes, etc.?  Screams of  violation reverberate across the country in painfully high decibel levels, and resonate with the cries of the littlest victims of candy thievery:

“What the heck? Are you serious? Good for you – now you’re probably going to get a belly ache!”

While the intent of Kimmel’s project was to engender a bit of comedic laughter, in fact it illustrated well the psychology of human behavior when people in general believe rules have been violated.  These comedic spoofs shed some light on the impasse we are facing as a country in our current efforts to rectify our glaring national debt.

People across the US are shouting angrily as their shares of “candy” diminish.  In fact, using asimple tale of candy corn, Robert Smith of NPR’s Planet Money team explained how the distribution of wealth over the past 30 years became concentrated disproportionately among the wealthiest, while the poor barely increased their share of wealth.

To quickly summarize Smith’s candy illustration, over the past 30 years the poorest have added 2 candy corns to their original stash of 10 (roughly an 18% increase) while the middle class have added 12 to their original stash of 30 (roughly a 40% increase). Meanwhile, the richest have added 550 candy corns to their original stash of 200 (roughly a 275% increase).

But folks, let’s be clear – while candy suggests excess calories and unnecessary pleasure, this debate is not about excess for the majority.  It is about survival – putting food on the table, heating one’s home, getting an education, securing a job, seeing a doctor.

Given the glaring disparities, many incredulous observers ask: how is it that those with such excess are balking at giving up a small portion of their excess, so those with so little can have a just a tad more for their mere survival?  In fact, the shouts of anger are not just from those whose shares are diminishing, or rising disproportionately – but from those who have the largest shares and are angry at the notion of losing some of their shares to those with less.

Perhaps we should turn to social psychology and the study of human behavior for a bit of understanding. It may turn out that it’s all about perceptions and rules, specifically believing rules are being changed on them in the middle of the game.

Faye Crosby is one of the pioneers in considering how perceptions of rule violation affect issues of social justice.  Through a series of experiments, Crosby and her associates explored how the “haves” (read “privileged”) felt when rules were abruptly changed on them in the middle of a game.   Turns out, when rules were changed midstream, people were furious!  However, when the same rules existed from the outset, folks were just fine.

“In practice it may be difficult to convince those privileged by the status quo that rule change differs from simple rule-breaking,” states Crosby.

Could it really be that rule violation blinds the wealthiest from seeing alternatives to having millions of Americans go without healthcare and access to good education, toll at wages significantly below their bosses, as well as from shouldering some of the burden by giving up a bit of their candy?

Folks at the top believe rules are being broken when policies change midstream.  Robin Hood is stealing their candy and giving it to others.

Perceptions have to shift, folks.

As evidenced by the growing disparities in health, education, and income, the rules aren’t working.  The rules need to be changed – not broken.

Perhaps our lawmakers would benefit from a bit of learning from the field of social psychology in order to gain a better understanding of how folks perceive rule changing as rule breaking.

Maybe they can begin to shift the rhetoric and frame for the national debt debate – understanding the perception of rule violation, and from that place of understanding seek to find a better solution.  One where all have access to health care, education, and food necessary to live in a sustainable fashion…

No one wants a Robin Hood government that goes around breaking rules; stealing from the rich to give to the poor… we’re changing the rules, to better care for everyone.

Crosby, F. J. & Franco, J. L. (2003).  Connections between the Ivory Tower and the Multicolored World: Linking  Abstract Theories of Social Justice to the Rough and Tumble of Affirmative  Action. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7 (4), 362-373.

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  • Anonymous

    Jenny, you raise some interesting points. The goal of my Robin Hood article was to show that relative wealth is not as important as absolute wealth. If the poor have more – on a real basis – that is a good thing. In the candy corn example, it is good that everyone has more corn than before (again as long as it is a real, inflation-adjusted increase).
    As long as there is more to share than there was before, this scenario is better for everyone, regardless of the distribution.
    The other point I tried to make, although not as explicitly, is that government is good at taking away but not giving back. If you want someone else to have less, the government is man for the job. But if you want everyone to have more, let the economy grow.