Are the rich different? I was.

I saw a video recently of a small social experiment.  A young man with a British accent is in a pizza restaurant asking people if they will give him a piece of their pizza, “I’m hungry”, he says, but no one gives him any pizza.  In the next scene, a homeless old man on the street is given an entire pizza in a box.  Minutes later, the same hungry young Brit asks the old man for a piece of pizza and the homeless guy says “help yourself”.  The conclusion the creators of the experiment are implying is that “rich” people aren’t as generous as poor people. 

A friend of mine suggested this was a sort-of apples and oranges comparison – people in a restaurant buying their pizza compared to a guy on the street given a pizza.  Certainly the test would have been better if wealthy people sitting in a park or on a beach had been given a pizza and then the hungry young Brit approached them. Perhaps the homeless guy was willing to give pizza away because he didn’t pay for it, or earn it, or maybe he’s just not hungry.  Yes, scientifically, a better experiment could be concocted. 

However, numerous other social experiments have been performed comparing the empathy and compassion of rich people versus poor people.  The most interesting are those from Paul Piff of Berkeley college.  Piff had dozens of people play a rigged game of Monopoly, that all the players knew was rigged to give a chosen player an unfair advantage of more money, more winnings, more turns, etc.  Despite the fact that the one chosen player knew they had an unfair advantage, after playing just minutes, the designated winners “felt” privileged and entitled. It was evident in their body language and mannerisms and they all reported the feelings afterwards.  It seems we humans are hard-wired to rationalize good-fortune not as simply good-fortune or a game rigged in our favor, but as something earned and deserved

My good fortune over the past decade was to experience a long string of bad fortune.  At the pinnacle of a twenty five year career in a variety of high-tech industries, in 2006 I earned $180,000.  That year capped almost a decade of six-figure incomes, with dozens of weeks of international travel in Europe, Asia, and South America every year, and the completion of a custom-designed and built home on the seacoast of New Hampshire.  Four years later, by the end of 2010, I was living out of my car, homeless, jobless and soon to be divorced.  In a few years I’d gone from the top few percent of American earners to the bottom few percent of American earners.  Since 2010 I’ve earned less than $25,000 a year primarily driving trucks around the country. While I’ve usually had a safe place to sleep every night, most often thanks to friends and lovers, I’ve essentially been “homeless” these past four years.  I just moved onto a tiny houseboat I’ve built which is starting to feel like a home.

While $25,000 a year is double the official US poverty level for a single person, I challenge anyone to live comfortably in America on less than $500 a week.  I’m living in poverty.  100 million of our fellow Americans are also living in poverty – meager paycheck to meager paycheck.  We’re all just one minor catastrophe – a broken-down car, a sick kid, a lost job, an eviction notice, God-forbid a serious illness – away from complete financial collapse.

I say I’ve been fortunate to have gone through that range of incomes and living situations because of what I’ve learned here on my tour through poverty in America.  I’ve learned how a third of Americans must every week decide between paying the bills or eating.  I’ve learned what it’s like to buy the ten ounce jug of laundry detergent for three bucks instead of the 20 ounce jug for just a buck more, simply because I don’t have the buck more.  I’ve learned what it’s like to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the main course of my meals for the last two days of the week until my next paycheck.  Many weeks when I buy groceries in the last few days of the week, I’m down to spare change, enough for some lettuce, a single tomato, an onion and a cheap loaf of bread.  Thankfully I’ve become “mostly” a vegetarian which makes food purchases a lot less expensive (and easier to prepare). 

After living like this for the past few years, now when my bank account approaches zero and often goes negative, I no longer freak out.  Instead I often laugh, confident knowing that at least in a couple days it will have a few hundred bucks in it again.  In the meanwhile I have enough peanut butter, and enough gas in the car to get me back and forth from work.  I just wish that big bottle of cheap wine I bought last week hadn’t already run out.

For me, this is an education and a bit of an adventure.  I “think” I’ll eventually get back into some enterprise (maybe Congress?) that will provide me with more than a few hundred bucks a week. I “think” I’m a tourist to poverty.  But for most of the people I’ve met here in poverty, a few hundred bucks a week is all they will ever see unless they win the lottery.  I can’t imagine the stress people with kids must feel going through this same life.

Lots of people who have never been in poverty and some who climbed out, helpfully suggest that a good education would lift all those people (and me) out of poverty.  While that certainly would have been true for me – had I earned an MBA fifteen years ago, I’d probably still be employed and pulling in well over $200k a year in some (stupid but comfortable) high-tech job.  But for a large segment of the population – a mostly forgotten and ignored segment of the population – getting a good education is not a possibility, even if they could pay for it.  I’ll give you an example of why.

In the first week of 2011, while sleeping on my nephew’s couch, I attended truck driving school in Salt Lake City.  The school starts every week, all year round and continues for four weeks before the graduating students become “apprentice drivers” and head out on the road with a (slightly) more experienced driver for three months.  Nearly every week, all year long, each class starts with more than sixty students.  Mine started with ninety three students.  By the end of the four weeks, less than twenty people in my class graduated with their commercial truck driving license (CDL) – a more than 75% attrition rate!  75% was the average attrition rate all year round.

Truck driving requires good hand-eye coordination, patience, cool-headedness, spatial-reasoning, forethought and planning, and concentration.  After three weeks of daily driving practice, about a quarter of the students were not able to pass the driving tests that require the use or development of all those abilities.  I suppose that’s understandable – many of those abilities are native or would take a lot of practice to acquire.  What surprised me more was that about half the students didn’t pass the written tests. 

Truck driving school is not academically difficult but there are about two hundred new facts, rules, and laws to learn and remember and be tested on.  In my class, about fifty people ranging in age from twenty three (the minimum age to get a CDL) to mid-sixties, simply couldn’t do that academic part well enough to pass the tests. Some of the guys who flunked out were nearly illiterate.  Many others were just plain not able to understand and remember two hundred new pieces of data in just a few weeks.  

Back in 1979 I went to Vermont Technical College and recall sitting in a classroom the first day of school while a professor told us to look at the people sitting around us.  “Half the people in this room won’t be here next semester.” Sure enough, we had about a 50% attrition rate in the Electrical Engineering program.  Some of those people switched to easier subjects (I should have switched to mechanical engineering), but most of them just couldn’t handle the academic part of college. Which means they simply couldn’t learn enough facts and concepts in the required time.

It’s something we don’t talk about in polite company, but after attending trucking school I thought about it a lot – intelligence.  Today “we” (the people with enough focus to have gotten all the way through the 1400 previous words) tend to use the term “education level” in place of “intelligence”.  But my experience at Vermont Tech and in trucking school introduced me to a lot of people who just plain aren’t that bright – at least not in reading and writing and ‘rithmetic – the usual ways we consider intelligence. 

While somewhat controversial, the “Intelligence Quotient – IQ” – is a measure of problem-solving skills and learning abilities across the breadth of a population. Yes, there are many types of “intelligence”, as I will argue below, beyond what the IQ test can measure.  But the standard IQ test is a pretty good test of learning ability via language and symbols.  As with any sample of any characteristic of any population, IQs across a population graph-out as a bell curve.  By definition, an IQ of 100 is at the top of the bell curve – the median intelligence in the population.  So by definition, half the people in any population have an IQ below 100 and half above 100.  I don’t know the IQs of the people who started in my classes at Vermont Tech and at trucking school, but I know the breadth of IQs in the classroom was broader at the beginning of the class than it was at the end.  Some of the people I really liked flunked out of both those schools.  Nice people. Fun people.  But people who were not able to learn the required amount of data in the required time. 

Hmmm.  Have we determined that intelligence has a time component?  Is quick-thinking more highly valued than correct-thinking? Hmmm.  Is this a fundamental problem of our society?

Most of us (who’ve been able to focus long enough to get through the previous 1700 words), just don’t associate with people with IQs on the left side of the bell curve – below 100.  If you’ve made it through college, chances are very good you’re on the right side of the bell curve.  If you’re a “professional” of some sort, you’re probably well down the right side of the bell curve, well above an IQ of 100.  My experience is that people from opposite sides of the bell-curve rarely interact - which is why it’s been so enlightening for me to spend so much time with people on the left-side of the IQ bell-curve over the past few years. 

In the last decade the concept of “multiple intelligences” has arisen and I have to agree that while many people are not good at “readin’ and writin’ and ‘rithmetic”  (or is it that they just weren’t given enough time to excel at those skills before being labeled “dumb” and got so frustrated that they gave up?) they can still be geniuses at other things.  Nearly everybody I’ve ever met has their specific area of specialization – whether they can graduate from trucking school, or college, or neither.  

Yes, some percentage of people have “learning disabilities” – dyslexia, etc. – but I suspect most of the people who didn’t make it through the first semester of college or the first month of trucking school didn’t have “disabilities”.  They simply couldn’t learn new materials quickly enough to stay in the program.   Given an extra month of effort, would the trucking school be able to graduate half the class instead of just a quarter?

When I was in college I would hitchhike nearly every week the sixty miles from my parent’s house to the college, and back.  Being in the car with a stranger for an hour teaches you pretty quickly how to ask lots of questions and get pretty deep into the conversation pretty quickly. I’d get rides with some very unusual people, some of them a little scary.  But I discovered that no matter what their intelligence level, or how weird or scary they were, I could eventually find their area of expertise and their passion.

When I was driving big-rigs across the country in 2011, my hobby was visiting micro-breweries which I would try to find and visit every night.  I had hundreds of conversations with people in micro-breweries, pubs, park benches, and truck stops and found the same thing.  No matter their intelligence level, everyone had some area of expertise well outside of mine.  More importantly, they had something they were passionate about.  

In my tour through American poverty I’ve met plenty of . . .  what’s a kind term for not-so-bright people?  My experience is that most people I’ve met all over the world are “nice”, helpful, and friendly, regardless of intelligence level.  So I don’t want to disrespect anyone for an accident of birth – which is what I think native intelligence is.   I’ve also met plenty of “successful” not-so-bright people.  Successful either financially, or in the expertise required for their careers, or in their collection of a large social circle.  Many not-so-bright people I’ve met have had multiple types of success, despite not being able to carry on a discussion about anything more than last-night’s football game.  Which leads me to think that anyone can learn how to get along in society and be “successful” one way or another – given enough time to learn.

Hmmm.  I seem to be working into a stance against standardized testing in our public schools. Good topic for another exploration.  

Fifteen years ago I was a more typical rich-guy, blaming not-so-bright people for not being able to get a decent job and looking down on them as inferior to me. Today I don’t blame people for their accidents of birth and I don’t de-value anyone.  Today I don’t blame the victims of an educational system that doesn’t give everyone enough time to learn.  Today I don’t blame people for being discarded from their chosen industries after twenty years of increasing income. 

What I do blame is this “system” we’ve developed over the past fifty years that increasingly has favored the natively intelligent, the people of European descent, and the already wealthy.  Today I blame the rules by which our current game of capitalism is being played. Rules that in the name of “fiscal responsibility” don’t provide enough dollars to circulate all the way down to the bottom of our economy, while allowing obscene numbers of dollars to concentrate at the top of our economy.