Friday, December 2, 2011

Empathy -- One Thing The 1% Lacks

We always hear about the haves and have-nots, and we know to "have" means to possess financial security -- or at least the illusion of it. Most Americans have no such illusion of financial security. The vast majority lives hand to mouth, and stands one paycheck from ruin. But, there are those who rise to the pinnacle of affluence, they are a minority but they dominate American society. In fact, through corporate sponsorship of politicians, they own our government and dictate the conditions under which the rest of us subsist.

Wikipedia defines empathy as follows:
Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion. The English word was coined in 1909 by E.B. Titchener as an attempt to translate the German word "Einfühlungsvermögen", a new phenomenon explored at the end of 19th century mainly by Theodor Lipps. It was later re-translated into the German language (Germanized) into "Empathie," and is still in use there.
How many of us have worked for sleazy martinets who repeatedly make astonishingly unsympathetic demands of employees. How many times have we heard the pleas of employers who insist a minimum wage intrudes unfairly on the free-market, who insist collective bargaining impairs competitiveness, who insist taxes on business profits impede job creation. And while the chiefs ardently make their pleas for unfettered, Darwinist capitalism, they extract from the same ostensibly suffering business salaries and bonuses that reach many multiples of the least well paid in their organization, multiples that exceed in some cases more than 10,000 times the wage of their lowest paid staff, i.e. $20,000 vs. $200,000,000 per year.

How do these crass entrepreneurs, these venal captains of industry justify such incomes for themselves while at the same time justify meager pay and benefits, meager financial security, for the least compensated? The simple formula derives from the fact that the best paid feel a sense of entitlement to such largess derived from an over-inflated sense of self worth, while they feel absolutely nothing for those whose labor enables their compensation. They feel no sense of obligation, much less shame when they take so much, and give so little.

How is that possible? How is it possible to accrue so much to oneself, and to feel no compulsion to share collectively attained profits with the staff, the nation, the culture that created the conditions for generating that wealth? The answer derives from one condition: those who freely exploit exist unburdened by empathy. Empathy is the force that holds the majority back, prevents them from demanding -- from taking -- that which is rightfully theirs. As the empathy-bound majority stills their hand from justifiable action, a tiny majority who feels no compunction to share wealth -- wealth created by the majority -- grab as much as they can and declare themselves righteous victors. And then they smile and say, "To the victor goes the spoils." In their eyes, after all, life is a battle, and since they feel nothing for their victims, no empathy whatsoever, they are the perfect free-market soldiers.

For an egregious example of the empathy-less, perfect free-market soldier, consider the folks who invented Pay-Day loans with interest rates that exceed 400%, loans made to the least capable of enduring such usury; people who earn minimum-wage, with no health insurance, and no savings to buffer them against day to day exigencies; the most vulnerable, marginal workers in our economy. Yet, the Pay-Day loan-makers see only a source of profit in the wages of kitchen staff, motel housekeepers, nursing home orderlies, farm workers, convenience store clerks. The Pay-Day loaners claim to provide a valuable service. They truly believe that line. They lack empathy.

Consider the profiteers who dreamed up sub-prime loans with ballooning interest rates they knew perfectly well their clients could never sustain. The underwriters laugh at clients put on the street while surrounding home values plummet and millions lose the life savings invested in their homes. They laugh at deceived 401K investors who saw their retirement accounts evaporate when they bought securities derived from bundles of these worthless mortgages; securities rated AAA by ratings agencies. Yet, the underwriters feel no sense of responsibility for the pain they inflicted on homeowners and middle-class investors. They lack empathy.

Consider investment bankers who execute proprietary trades to bet against the securities they sell to deliberately deceived pension fund managers. The pensions of thousands evaporated while the bankers took home immense windfalls. Yet, the bankers feel no shame. They are proud of their market acumen. They boast of their domination of the witless. They lack empathy.

Consider weapon vendors who sell overpriced weapons to our government with the implicit threat that not buying such weapons consigns our nation to destruction by invisible but implacable forces of evil, that politicians who object to such excessive expenditures of our national treasure are complicit with forces of evil. After they shame politicians -- and bribe politicians -- into compliance, they lobby those politicians to provoke hostilities with other nations. This insures they will sell even more weapons, while unjustifiable war wreaks havoc on millions of innocent civilians. Yet, the politicians and war profiteers feel no shame, no guilt, no sense of obligation to those whose lives they ruin. They lack empathy.

Even amongst the exploited, amongst the indebted, wage-earning majority there are multitudes who lack empathy, and hope one day to do the exploiting for a change. They are not evil. But they lack empathy. Consequently, they lead hollow, empty lives, and grow angry because they never get the material compensation they feel owed. Among them, it seems, are observers who insist they do not "get" Occupy Wall Street. Surely, most of the obtuse who claim the point of the occupy protests escapes them are well and truly part of the 99% -- likely even the bottom half of the 99% -- they have at least one thing in common with the exploitative, venal 1%: they are incapable of empathy.

Who possesses empathy and puts it to good use? Think of those who sacrifice what little free time and spare change they have to the public good; to leave the world a better place; to give more than they take: environmental activists, animal rights activists, child-welfare advocates, human-rights advocates, anti-war protesters, labor activists, government accountability activists, progressive taxation activists, etc, etc. Gnawing, relentless empathy drives them to act. Those who lack empathy condemn the activists amongst us as simple-minded do-gooders, as busybodies, as tree-huggers, as smelly hippies, as -- wait for it -- socialists.

Those who lack empathy do not understand the urge that compels the empathetic to upend the status quo. The notion frightens them into self-induced rigor mortis. Think of the activists who founded this country. They had empathy. Think what the status quo-ers of our society -- the Fox News bloviators and their minions -- would do with them. Empathy must prevail. It will.

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