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CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, Elon Musk speaks to a crowd of people who had gathered to participate in Tesla Motors test drives outside the Texas Capitol building in Austin

CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, Elon Musk speaks to a crowd of people who had gathered to participate in Tesla Motors test drives outside the Texas Capitol building in Austin. (Photo: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)

Why Do Tens of Millions in US Support an Economic System That Doesn't Benefit Them?

If people throw away money, opportunities, and their very lives chasing destructive delusions, then we might as well revert to divine right of kings or the selection of leaders by lottery.

Mike Lofgren

For nearly two centuries, literature from Marx and Dickens to Thomas Picketty and Barbara Ehrenreich has dissected and denounced the machinations of the greedy rich. Turn their pockets inside out, make them pay their fair share, and a more just society might be possible. 

No one is strapped to a chair and forced to watch drivel like Fox News. Perhaps the most insidious propaganda is voluntarily self-administered.

That sentiment is not wrong. If someone like Elon Musk has a higher net worth than the gross domestic product of a country like Ukraine, with over 40 million people, something is out of whack. But what if the analysis is incomplete? Suppose there is more collusion with the rich and the powerful, and not just from their public relations people, lawyers, and financial advisers, but from tens of millions of people who derive no benefit?

Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, wrote about a conservative acquaintance. Years ago this person, an immigrant from Britain, admitted that he didn't like firearms and didn't want them near his children. But he agreed with the NRA position on guns as a matter of ideological solidarity. Lately, he bought a firearm and sees himself protecting home and family from the crazed criminal hordes a la Night of the Living Dead.

Marshall then discussed the police position on gun control. Traditionally, they were in favor of it; that made sense, since they were the people authorized and paid by the citizens to face down armed killers. Hence their campaigns against armor-piercing ("cop killer") bullets, high-capacity automatic rifles, etc. But now, consistent with the right-wing politicization of police unions, they are silent on gun control or against it.

Although the conservative guy and the police see the issue from different existential situations, they both took positions that were against their rational self-interest. The conservative is far less likely to save his family in a fantasized shoot-out than to see his kids endangered by a shooter at their school or other public place. And the cops' attitude is crazy if literally everyone may carry a concealed weapon under any circumstances, anywhere, without a license, as several state legislatures are considering.

These are examples of irrational thinking, an aberration whereby one's picture of the world does not align with one's own enlightened self-interest. The people affected are reducing the odds of their own biological survival in favor of some hazy, un-thought-through "ideal."

Progressive have puzzled over why this occurs in economic matters. At one time in our history this was rarely the case. Farmers in the late 19th century knew exactly how the railroads, grain wholesalers, and banks were screwing them. Likewise, organized labor from the Homestead Strike to the Battle of the Overpass fought and died in shocking numbers for the simple dignity to work like free men rather than as wage slaves.

No longer. In 2016, the farm vote went 70-80 percent to a candidate who told them clearly that he would ignite a tariff war with the farmers' largest overseas customer for soybeans and pork. For good measure, he would cut off the source of labor they needed for harvesting and downstream processing. Farm income plummeted and rural suicides spiked. No matter; they voted for that same candidate in 2020 in even higher numbers.

In 2019 a vote on whether to unionize was held at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant. VW, which actually has union members on its board back in Germany, said it was neutral on unionization, so there were no heavy-handed Amazon-style tactics used against the plant's hourly employees. The workers voted to reject it.

Why? It is facile to say that people are insidiously bamboozled to act against their own interests on behalf of the wealthy and powerful. Sure, pro-business propaganda suffuses the national domain, but so it did during the Gilded Age, when paeans to laissez-faire like Acres of Diamonds flooded off the presses. And no one is strapped to a chair and forced to watch drivel like Fox News. Perhaps the most insidious propaganda is voluntarily self-administered.

There is a tradition as old as this republic, a republic whose settlement was kickstarted by feckless English gentry looking for gold in the malarial swamps of Jamestown. John Steinbeck described it: "The poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." Normally this attitude was not dominant, but perhaps the seemingly effortless prosperity of the post-World War II years caused the self-preservation reflexes to atrophy.

Combine this with the rise of fundamentalist religion. Many sects push the prosperity gospel: riches are a sign of God's favor; poverty is a mark of divine disfavor. In concert with the ever-present scamming in evangelical circles (a gift to the church—i.e., the pastor—is a "love offering" that will bring good fortune to the donor), as well as religion's dislike of critical thinking generally, the parishioners play the role of sheep awaiting the shears. Yet fundamentalism combines this money obsession, weirdly, with the notion that the material world is an illusion and the "real" world is an invisible realm of the spirit.

Critical thinking is not much in vogue these days. In 2017 (the last year on file and before COVID reduced people's visits to stores), Americans spent $71 billion on lottery tickets nationwide, an average of over $1,000 per year per consumer. With the odds of winning the Mega Millions at one in 302 million, there is good reason why mathematicians do not play the lottery. There is equally good reason why the platform of the Texas Republican party has a clause opposing the teaching of critical thinking skills in public schools.

This irrationality applies even when one's very life is on the line. Why would a disabled retiree in Kentucky, finally receiving medical treatment via Obamacare, vote for Matt Bevin, whose signature campaign theme was abolition of Kentucky's Obamacare program? There are countless instances in which people voluntarily went to painful deaths to prove that COVID was a hoax; admittedly, some were cases that so resembled poetic justice that you had to have a heart of stone NOT to chuckle.

These conclusions are not the result of theoretical study. I remember a long-time colleague on Capitol Hill when I worked there. I'll call him Roger, because that was his name. Like a surprising number of people in Washington, he hated government while spending a career on its payroll. His passion was proposing compensation and benefit cuts for federal employment. As you might imagine, this caused some consternation among fellow employees.

Eventually he had to leave government with a fatal illness. Another former employee related to me how Roger complained to him when he visited him in the hospital where his life would end, that he had somehow been screwed on his retirement and medical benefits. A sense of irony may not have been his strong suit.

Current political science, sociology, and economics are all based to some degree on the rational actor model; that people make choices based on rational interest. So too, is representative government incorporating separation of powers: somehow, magically, optimal solutions and "the greatest good for the greatest number of people" will emerge from the free play of countervailing and rationally explainable interests. 

That theory is overdue for revision. If people throw away money, opportunities, and their very lives chasing destructive delusions, then we might as well revert to divine right of kings or the selection of leaders by lottery.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a former Republican congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His books include: "The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government" (2016) and "The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted(2013).

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