Friday, March 9, 2012

It's All Relative

What do people want? It’s a broad question that could spur a discussion well beyond the confines of a single blog post. There is one succinct answer to this question which highlights a disturbing aspect of the political noise coming from conservative America. Before getting to that, let’s set a scene we all know well . . .

Waiting in line. We’ve all done it. So, it’s not difficult to imagine yourself waiting in line. For purposes of illustration lets imagine you’re in line for movie tickets. Your happiness in the moment will likely depend on the speed of the line. Even if you are very patient when it come to lines, spending 5 minutes in line is better than 30 minutes. So let’s say you spend 15 minutes in line. Now your happiness has been adjusted down by a set amount equivalent to spending 15 minutes in a line. That’s probably not really an adjustment at all. You, like most people, will be about as happy as you were when you started waiting in line.

So now let’s add to the scenario. Instead of one line for movie tickets, there are four. Four separate lines, and you pick one at random. Now imagine standing in line while three other lines move toward the same goal: precious movie tickets. This time, your line whizzes by, while the other three lines stand relatively still. That feels pretty good. So if your speedy line still takes 15 minutes, you’re probably a bit happier at the end than you were in the single line scenario.

But what if, and you know where I’m going by now, your line moves like molasses. It seems that every person ahead of you line contemplate for ages on which movie to see, and then decides to pay in pennies dug from the bottoms of their pockets. You’re line still takes 15 minutes. 15 agonizingly long minutes while the other three lines move forward with a steady efficiency. We’ve all been there. It’s frustrating.

So in all three scenarios you wait in line for 15 minutes. It’s the same result. And yet the emotional reaction to each scenario will be dramatically different.
So what do people want? One of many answer is that people want to be better off than other people. It’s hard wired into our very being. We’d like to think that we want that line to move quickly. But, when it comes down to it, we’re pleased if our line moves faster than everyone else’s line.

It’s a disturbing reality that poisons a lot of political discourse on government benefits, wealth and employee benefits.

The Republican Party is largely the party of privilege. White Christian men trying to hold onto the privilege afforded to them by the nature of their position. Privilege is really just a stand in for doing better than others. Even a poor man is master of his wife. Even an uneducated white person can look down upon the immigrant.

So much of the Republican Party rhetoric seems to be about slowing down other people’s lines. About taking away food stamps, or benefits, or retirement. This message taps into something deep and dark within people.

Unfortunately it isn’t an easy message to counter. It takes clarity of purpose and reason that isn’t always easy to communicate.

The difference is the difference between hearing that a retired California government worker is living on a six figure retirement income and thinking “why does he get all that” versus thinking “why don’t more workers get that”

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