Monday, October 13, 2008

Give Me Back My Cucumbers!

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.


  1. Amen, my sister. Except that I'm not so sure we need to keep those people out of foreclosure. Housing prices are so high that there are not enough people with salaries sufficient to (responsibly) purchase them, and there is no way that salaries will go up high enough to make that change. Housing prices have to fall to get things back into equilibrium. Someone has to take the hit. We've saved 20% and stayed in our rental for the last several years rather than stretch to buy a house that is outrageously overpriced. We've lost thousands (about 50K) in rent and have not gained the tax benefits or comfort and quality of life benefits of owning a home. And now we are supposed to pay for someone else who acted atrociously to keep a house that they can't afford and shouldn't have bought? At our salaries, if we had bought a house as far out of our reach as the average person facing foreclosure has, we would have a house "worth" about 1.4 million dollars. Would you cry big tears for us and bail us out for that "victimization"? I think not. Even worse, this will not ultimately allow more people to get into homes and fulfill the American dream - prices are still way too high. And that isn't even getting into the unfairness of supporting the companies who caused this crisis knowing full well that what they were doing was irresponsible, risky, and ultimately dangerous. Why would we ever want to pay for and reward such heartless, mercenary greed? That's not even a cucumber - it's a pickle! Your (and Ann's) friend from UofC, Julia

  2. Amen to you and Julia!!

    My husband and I often talk about this in the same way. These stories are driving me a bit crazy too. Things never should have gotten this far. Now, we all have to pay.


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