Inequality, domination, community and human nature


Murali did his undergraduate degree in molecular biology with a minor in biophysics from the National University of Singapore (NUS). He then changed direction and did his Masters in Philosophy also at NUS. Now, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Warwick.

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36 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:


    Regarding your three questions down at the bottom there, why do you only ask about how folks feel about those wealthier than they? Isn’t it a two way street? I know several VERY wealthy people who get all up-in-arms if they see someone less wealthy then them who are able to indulge in the same “elite” and “exclusive” experiences that the wealthier person assumed was reserved only for them and their ilk. Some of these folks go to great ends to maintain this exclusivity, using artificial means to shut folks out of experiences they might otherwise be able to indulge in. This, to me, is very problematic and is often ignored when we talk about relative wealth and status and inequality.Report

    • Murali in reply to Kazzy says:

      Right, I have never thought such a thing before and never imagined that any real person in this day and age would think like that. I will update accordinglyReport

      • Kazzy in reply to Murali says:

        Oh, they do and they can.

        Their is a phrase that I have heard on more than one occasion. And as ugly as it is, I will not censor it, because I think it is important to understanding how some (not all, not even most… but some) people think. The phrase is “nigger rich”. I heard it used when, as a teenager, I noticed that many of the black folk in my town (whom everyone assumed were poor because, well, they were black) drove nicer cars or wore nicer clothes than some of the white folks (whom everyone assumed were rich or at least richer than the black folks because, well, they were white). I was told that they were simply “nigger rich”. They spent whatever money they did have and exhausted all their credit to buy nice cars or clothes. They certainly weren’t REALLY rich… not like OTHER folks were… no, no… there was something ugly about their indulging in privileges previously assumed to be reserved for folks not like them. The venom that dripped from people’s mouths when they said this was appalling. And, I think, captured how some (again, not all, not even most) folks felt about those previously kept on the outside making their way inside. They couldn’t be acknowledged as equals and have their successes celebrated. Nope. They were nigger rich. Plain and simple. Who cares if many of them were doctors or lawyers or businessmen and women? They were black folk, black teenagers (!!!) driving BMWs and wearing gold chains.

        (There is absolutely room for conversation around different values around spending and wealth. Some folks absolutely do spend more money on material goods while neglecting things like retirement or savings. Folks tossing around phrases like “nigger rich” were not engaging in this conversation.)Report

        • Murali in reply to Kazzy says:

          This is completely and way outside my experience. I’ve met more than my share of racist folk but never encountered sentiments like you described.* I’ve always thought it is easy to be happy for people who were once worse off than you but now doing as well as you (unless you antecedently hate their guts because they stole your lunch money in elementary school) I never knew racism could reach unto an actual hatred for the other in such an ugly way.

          *The kind of racist sentiments I heard people express are along the lines of: all those people are smelly, or lazy or would eat anything (even the pig’s trotters)Report

          • Morat20 in reply to Murali says:

            It’s not just racial. Class-based as well. The newly rich have never been the same as the old-money rich. Ever.

            Heck, a famous quote about the Clintons echoes it — something like “they came to town like they owned the place, and it’s not their place”?

            A lot of beltway resentment to the Clintons was motivated by class — Clintons were barely rich hicks from Arkansas, not the scions and peers of the people that actually “ran” Washington.Report

            • Kimmi in reply to Morat20 says:

              you mean like Al Gore? 😉
              The newly rich, in general, are Democrats. They earned their money, they can always earn more of it — from the lower or middle class. Because they’re good at innovating and coming up with new ways to convince us to give them money.

              The “old money” is a fearful class, full of people nearly paranoid about other people taking their wealth. Theyve’ only ever known richness,and they tend to be pretty risk adverse.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

                if old money loses a dollar, they’re pretty sure it’s never coming back.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Kimmi says:

                That’s not really what I’m saying, Kimmi. I’m not talking about people who might be genuinely threatened by changes in inequality, wealth, etc. I’m talking about folks who get upset about others getting there’s, especially if those folks got it more easily because of how things have progressed. The guy who paid $10,000 to be one of a select group of people with a 100″ TV doesn’t feel so special when other folks pay $5000 for an 80″ with superior technology.Report

              • Morat20 in reply to Kazzy says:

                That goes back to status symbols. Keeping up with the Joneses and all.

                it does you no good if some poor person is aping your status symbols. How can you tell the ‘real’ rich from the ‘fake’ rich. God knows, you might end up sharing champagne with the wrong sorts.

                This is basically high school clique dynamics. We might as well be picking out fleas and grooming each other, this is primate level signaling.Report

              • Murali in reply to Morat20 says:

                Which is why if this kind of signalling is so inbuilt into us, that we cannot channel it into non-monetary areas without coercion, thenwe have to care about inequality. c.f. hte third argument.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to Murali says:

            As Morat says, it really is much more about class than race, though race is a huge element of it. I mean, the phrase “nouveau riche” exists for a reason.

            It generally manifests itself as a certain bitterness and often exists among the middle to middle-upper classes. “Hey! I busted my ass to get where we are and we figured once we got here we’d be on the inside! And now EVERYONE is on the inside? What the F?”

            It is really hard to explain well. There are those who are inside and those who are outside. Often these lines are carefully drawn and painfully maintained. When those lines are obliterated, and folks who defined themselves and prided themselves on being on on the “inside” suddenly don’t have that to fall back on, things can get ugly.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

              Money isn’t something you *MAKE*, child. Money is something you *HAVE*.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

                “I met the most clever man, darling. He actually reaches into people’s heads and repairs their brains. He’s saved ever so many lives. May I have him over to dinner some time? He has such fascinating stories.”

                “I’ve met that sort of chap. They put on such airs, for tradesmen.”Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Murali says:

        Saw the edit. Well handled. Thanks! I’ll offer my responses below.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Murali says:

        (Kazzy asked me to copy this comment into this thread.)

        I don’t recall which prince it is the story’s about, but at age 16 he’s introduced to the wonders of physical love by a famous and skilled courtesan. After they’re done, she explains to him that it isn’t only fun, it’s also how babies are made.

        “Royal babies, of course. But how do peasants have babies?”

        “The same way.”

        “Nonsense. It’s too good for peasants.”Report

  2. Kazzy says:

    1.) Liberal. Primarily because I can’t find a better word to describe myself, though I am increasingly finding myself to be an atypical liberal. Or at least not a stereotypical one.
    2.) 8. I’m relatively confident that we can achieve the realistic goals we have. While traveling the world wantonly in our later years and paying for our not-yet-conceived children’s college tuition would be great, I don’t consider these to be realistic goals and thus would not be frustrated if they were not realized.
    3.) 8. Generally speaking, assuming the people in question made their money in moral ways, I don’t really have much issue with them. I might be bothered by some of the attitudes that I see embodied in some of these people, but that is really more about them than their wealth (though the attitudes are often borne out of their wealth). And I should say that I have regular interaction with folks wealthier and far wealthier than I as a result of teaching in private schools.
    4.) 10. Great! Good for them! With the same caveat being that they made their money/acquired access through moral means.Report

  3. Roger says:


    Thanks. I am still wrestling with a few of the ideas you are introducing, especially the end on inequality introduced by procedural unfairness…

    My answers
    1) Classical Liberal
    2) 10. I am in the bottom quintile voluntarily as I have chosen other interests than pursuing wealth. This may say more about the inadequacies of income as a measure of prosperity though. Retired people can be technically poor and well off.
    3) 10. I wish there were lots more rich people and that they were all making lots more money. I believe we could solve a lot of problems as they would pay even more of our taxes, and could use their money to drive investments.
    4). 10. I wish everyone could become rich. Indeed, I believe the biggest problem with inequality is that a class of the poor is stuck in poverty. This is what I believe we need to address.Report

  4. Patrick Cahalan says:

    * How do you self identify politically?

    Socially fairly far left of center from a political standpoint (much closer to center from a cultural standpoint). Economically a tad right of center.

    * What is your assessment of your financial situation relative to the various goals you have in life? Do you feel that you are financially capable of securing your most important goals and projects? answer 0 if none of your projects can be satisfied and 10 if all your wants can be satisfied

    This one is tricky. I’m in the top quintile but I also live in a very “non-cheap” region. Call me an easy 6. I could be as high as an 8 with rigorous discipline, but there would be enormous tradeoffs in psychological well-being at that point.

    * How do you personally feel about those who have lots more wealth than you do? 0 if they’re stinkers, 10 if you think “good for them!”

    5-/4+. Most rich are – at worst – disconnected from people below them. I think they’re generally about as inclined to be oblivious as the average guy. I feel a tad snarky towards people with high power and less of a sense of responsibility than the next guy, though. So, no fault of their own, really, but a slight negative impact in practical terms.

    * How do you personally feel about luxuries that you and your compatriots previously enjoyed exclusively but are now enjoyed by others poorer than you? 0 if they should keep to their place, 10 if you think “fantastic, the more the merrier!”


  5. mac says:

    I stopped at point 1 since it, prima facie, wrong.
    See poll from yesterday for example

    • clawback in reply to mac says:

      Well, that’s too bad, because you missed point 2, where he tells us that he’s OK with might makes right as long as the powerful are implementing the policies he likes. Nothing could possibly go wrong with that plan.Report

      • Murali in reply to clawback says:

        There are alternative ways to getting the powerful to craft the right kinds of policies. For example, if congressperson’s salary was pegged to the average income (inclusive of welfare payments) of the lowest 10%, then congresspersons, in an effort to earn more, will go for the policies that really do help the poor and not just those that make a good show of it.Report

        • clawback in reply to Murali says:

          But we don’t have such a system, nor any prospect for getting there because the system is controlled by the rich and powerful.Report

          • Murali in reply to clawback says:

            Well, we could try to include it as part of a constitutional amendment. Congresspersons who don’t vote for it? Well obviously they’re not willing to put their money where their mouth is. There are ways and means to sell such an amendment. We can accompany such an amendment with an additonal clause that readjusts the current pay schendule to within an equivalent range within the private sector. And we tie the two together so that they cannot vote for one part without the other. (Because if they could just vote themselves private sector salaries without doing the work, they would)Report

            • clawback in reply to Murali says:

              Under the premise of your point 2 (and also in reality) policy is controlled by the rich and powerful. So again, the question is where this deus ex machina would come from, since a system in which representatives are rewarded for privileging the non-elite is not in the interests of the elite.Report

              • Murali in reply to clawback says:

                Well, there are two ways I can go about this:

                One way is to say that this is a bit of ideal theorising. If I were king… or if I were setting up a charter city in Somalia, I could set things up this way from the very beginning. The fact that the problem is more intractable in the US is not necessarily a dispositive argument against it. If it could never be succesfully implemented in any real world country, that would be a more serious criticism. However I think there are some places in the world where something like this could be successful.

                The other thing to note is that by implementing the amendment, there is an immediate massive increase in congressman annual salary.

                Remember that there is a readjustment every 15 years such that congressman salary is in the same ballpark as the 95% percentile salary in the private sector. So we calculate how many percentage points larger the top 5%’s salary is than the average income of the bottom 10% and call this number k. k will be recalculated only once every 15 years. Lets suppose that the average income of the everybody from the bottom to the 10% mark is $x. Then for any one year, the congressman’s salary will be $kx. since k is constant over the long term, congressmen can only increase their salary by increasing x. At the same time, they have reason to adopt the amendment because of the immediate massive upward readjustment.

                I am somewhere between being ambivalent about campaign finance reform to sorely tempted. What I’m tempted to do is say all campaigns shall be publicly funded and then just ‘forget’ to put any money into the campaign finance account. Or to be even more draconian, limit political campaigning to just 3 months before election day. This actually works kind of well in Singapore. Politics ends up being a lot more boring (which is the whole point) and actual governing gets done instead of the deadweight loss that is the year round political campaign. It is also why I blog here rather than at a Singaporean site.Report

              • clawback in reply to Murali says:

                Fair enough. But leaving aside the hypothetical of a benevolent monarch putting in place a fair and just system, those of us living in a real existing system have to deal with the reality of a system that reflects the interests of the powerful. This returns us to the topic at hand, the role of inequality in maintaining injustice. In the system we live in, the government responds to the interests of the powerful, power comes largely from wealth, and the greater the wealth disparity, the greater the power disparity. It really is that simple despite all the bad-faith misdirection from the right about “envy”.Report

              • Murali in reply to clawback says:

                well as it stands, government may respond to the political preferences of the powerful. But that doesnt always co-incide with their narrow insterest. Quite by coincidence, policies that may be in their interests may also be in the interests of everyone else. Or more pessimistically people may have political preferences that serve no one’s interests. Moreover interests are yet again one step removed from justice, which is the thing we should care about. There are certain kinds of interests, no matter how many people have them should not be satisfied. for example if I had an interest in interfering with what consenting adults did in the privacy of their bedrooms, then no matter how many people shared my intersts, this would nto be an interest that shoul be fulfilled.

                Given that political preferences are thus removed from justice, it is far from clear that democratic procedures are the best way to achieve justice.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Murali says:

          But that’s exactly how it works now. Forget the salary, that’s chump change compared to the tens of millions spent on congressional campaigns and hundreds of millions spent on presidential campaigns.

          Want to win a case? Get a good lawyer. Most of these politicians are lawyers in point of fact. Only as politicians, they get to make the damned laws. Investing in a politician is getting the system to work on your behalf. Believe me on this. This isn’t going to be changed by pegging their salaries to how well poor people do in life. These politicians aren’t in it for the money, they’re in it for the power. The people with the money, they need representation. They’ll take care of the politicians who take care of them.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Murali says:

          As it is, most people, in Congress are quite well off and don’t need to depend on their salaries. Your proposed amendment would just exacerbate that.Report

    • Murali in reply to mac says:

      What does the link have to do with my point 1?Report

  6. b-psycho says:

    1) Left-libertarian.
    2) 2. I honestly don’t have that many concrete goals to begin with — mostly I just want to make enough money so I no longer have to borrow from anybody while still having enough free time to do what I really want to and enjoy life. Compared to what I actually make right now, $50k/year would be positively Ballin’. Things are difficult, I have to pay a bill late every now & then & I kinda get down on myself at times over it, but things could always be worse. I guess that’s one benefit to having little ambition.
    3) It depends on how they got it. People that work hard and get paid well for it I have no animosity for and give a 10. Inheritance types I’ll give a 2, because they didn’t work for it & tend to look down on people even though they just won a genetic lottery, yet at least somebody worked at it to leave it to them in the first place (while I understand the sentiment, I wish more consideration of how that could warp the kids’ perception of the world took place). People that maintain wealth via rent-seeking (which IMO is equivalent to armed robbery) I wish I could go into negative numbers for.
    4) 10. If you can afford it, fine.Report

  7. Mike Schilling says:

    > How do you self identify politically?


    > What is your assessment of your financial situation relative to the various goals you have in life? Do you feel that you are financially capable of securing your most important goals and projects? answer 0 if none of your projects can be satisfied and 10 if all your wants can be satisfied

    8, but I’m not really materially oriented.

    > How do you personally feel about those who have lots more wealth than you do? 0 if they’re stinkers, 10 if you think “good for them!”

    10 if they came by it honestly. 5 bonus points if they use it to do good works, like Mr. Gates. 5 demerits if they just buy themselves toys, like Mr. Ellison. And I always root against the Islanders.

    > How do you personally feel about luxuries that you and your compatriots previously enjoyed exclusively but are now enjoyed by others poorer than you? 0 if they should keep to their place, 10 if you think “fantastic, the more the merrier!”

    If they appreciate what they’ve got, great. I get annoyed with people who have season tickets to the Giants and can’t explain the infield fly rule.Report

  8. Nob Akimoto says:

    1) Liberal
    2) 2. I’ve kind of chosen a somewhat difficult life course in that I’ve had to spend down a lot of the savings I acquired for the sake of career goals, and I’m not really sure if at this point I can reach the goals I’d set. I think it was perfectly reasonable to expect to be able to finish my master’s and get my JD, but without the ability to debt finance my education, I’m pretty much up a shit creek at the moment. Lack of employment also hurts from a budgetary perspective. And I suppose I’m not really socially where I want to be.
    3) 5. It’s in the middle because it really does depend. On average, I’m rather appalled at the lack of Noblesse Oblige in the usual super rich who whine about not having as big a yacht as his neighbor. But I’m also highly impressed with people like Bill and Melinda Gates.
    4) 20. There’s no such thing as things being too good for people, but rather most things aren’t good enough for the majority. Everyone should be able to enjoy luxuries at some point in their lives. That they don’t is a failure on the part of greater humanity. Post scarcity can’t come soon enough.Report