One of my favorite primate behavior studies involves getting two capuchin monkeys to do the same task. If you reward both equally, all is well. If you give one a grape (a superior reward) and the other a cucumber, the one given the cucumber will often refuse the cucumber. If you reward one with a grape for doing nothing, but offer the other a cucumber for returning a token to the researcher, the slighted monkey will often throw its token away in presumed disgust. (If you have access to a subscription to Science, you can read about the research here. Here is a write up in the general press.)
I often think about this research when I'm feeling like life is not fair. I've thought about it while sitting in a line of traffic and watching somebody speed past me to cut in to the front of the line. I've thought about it while pondering the gender pay gap. And I can't help but think about it now while I listen to stories on NPR about the current financial crisis and the escalating attempts to stop it.
For so many years, I have watched other people take risks I would never contemplate to buy homes in my expensive Southern California housing market. Hubby and I kept renting until we had a down payment saved up and could afford a modest home in a neighborhood that met our criteria.
We worked at our mid-level jobs, and didn't really begrudge the executives their high pay. Our jobs pay pretty well, and we figured that we're doing well enough out of the global labor market, so can't really complain that other people, with even scarcer skills, are doing better. Besides, those executives earn the high salaries for the long hours, high stress, hard decisions, and inherent risks in their jobs. You'd certainly have to pay me a lot to be a CEO of even a small company.
I've never even begrudged the government my tax dollars. I don't like to think about the amount I pay, but I believe in government services and a safety net for people who fall on hard times.
Now, each morning when I get in the car, I am treated to a new story about how my tax dollars will be bailing out firms even as their executives continue to draw their big salaries. Or about proposals to rescue people who have more mortgage than they can afford, not because they lost their jobs, but because they used an inherently risky type of mortgage to buy a better house than they could afford. Of course, by "rescue" I don't mean "keep them from starving", but rather "rework their mortgage so that they can stay in the home they couldn't afford".
For years, these people had grapes while I made do with cucumbers. Now they want my cucumbers, too?
I know that we need to fix the financial mess we're in, or no one will have any grapes or cucumbers. I know that finding a way to keep houses from going into foreclosure and banks from going belly up are logical things to do to try to fix this mess. I get all of that, really, I do.
But the monkey in me wants to throw my dwindling supply of cucumbers at someone.