Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Empathy Gap

"Rich People Just Care Less" - Daniel Goleman, NYT

Money is obviously a corrupting force, but in the editorial above Goleman discusses the "the empathy gap," or what I call "the politics of contempt." Science is showing that wealthy folks struggle to see the people below them as worthy of attention, meaning they are unable to recognize the humanity of others.

The well-heeled disregard ordinary folk. They're predisposed to tuning into people in equal or higher positions of power. The rest of us they just ignore. That partly explains why wealthy politicians can shut the government down in our face and aggressively dismantle key life-saving programs like EBT and WIC. 

It's ironic we valorize the rich when in reality they are the most dangerous class among us. The desire for power and wealth always involves a certain degree of narcissism and entitlement. But in reality it takes a village to raise a millionaire. They build their empire on the backs of our labor and talent utilizing an infrastructure paid for by our tax dollars. And then claim we're lazy, while refusing to share in the increased wealth resulting from increased worker productivity. 

We should stop glamorizing the rich because according to the newest research they exhibit some basic sociopathic tendencies. If money makes people less humane, then we can conclude that rich people are bad for society and the survival of our species. They certainly shouldn't be our leaders because they don't value us little people, their constituency.

Further reading: "The Money-Empathy Gap: How Money Makes People Act Less Human" - The New Yorker 

Friday, October 11, 2013

It's the Economy, Stupid

This week I had the pleasure of catching up with several old friends. Some I hadn't seen for almost a decade. Most are in their late forties or early fifties, and despite the fact that their careers crisscross diverse fields and economic brackets, our conversations were dominated by a single theme: the tanking economy and the plight of the poor and working classes.

At first I assumed the choice of conversation was my own fault, as someone fixated on and negatively impacted by the "prestige economy." Perhaps it was my orbit pulling them in, I thought. But I was wrong. No one was orchestrating a thing, conversation was organic and the topic compelling because we were articulating our individual needs.

And surprisingly, those I thought best poised to dodge the recession hadn't.

Pretty accurate.

My friends are not optimistic about the future. For the most part, they fear it. It's a bugbear of sorts because they are all job insecure, even if currently employed.

Two were recently laid off decades deep into their careers. Another fears his company will be liquidated at any moment due to shareholder cupidity and corruption. Another hasn't found good work despite years of unflagging effort. Sometimes she wonders if she has a better shot of building a secure life in her hometown of Baghdad, despite it being ranked the least inhabitable city in the world by reputable Mercer 2011 Quality of Living Survey. (Thanks 'Merica.)

My professor at Evergreen is the only one fairing well, besides the open-heart surgery he's anticipating next month (I'm confident he'll make a full recovery). His age and career have allowed him to sidestep the carnage of the recession, but he reassured me my exasperation wasn't unique. Most of his former students are experiencing chronic underemployment as well, including the one who joined our lunch halfway through. She's currently a part-timer at a local NGO. Part-time nonprofit work, no matter how worthy the cause, is always precarious and poorly compensated and rarely provides health insurance.

My professor tried to cheer me up with a loving barrage of boosterism about the brightness of my future, but with my nerves so raw, I found myself feeling worse, less deserving, as I caught myself losing faith in those who have the most faith in me.

Everywhere I turn, people are telling me the same distressing story. Swapping gloomy tirades, I recently wrote to a friend:

"This job market is fucked." Precisely. And so is this country. I don't see a future here for me. Neither do most people I know my age. Your story is one I hear repeated over and over again, especially among those I lost touch with. It's surreal. I am glad to hear you feel these times are unprecedented. Nice to know things weren't always this way, even though I'm extremely cynical about the future. The American Dream is dead.

I am part raging and part demoralized by this new(ish) reality. The richer get richer while the rest of us languish. With the middle class shrinking, wages stagnating, benefits shrinking, disproportionate income gains going to the wealthy, and student debt (over $1 trillion) outpacing credit card debt, the possibility of a decent life recedes.
It's all fucked.

I don't see a Master's being a way out credential wise, but studying abroad will help me internationalize my network. I see myself living abroad for years.

Hell, if I don't find work here in three months I am willing to head back to Egypt. At least I can teach English there and study Arabic. I rather face chronic political instability and violent clashes than this bullshit state of permanent vassalage. So tired of it and I haven't even established a career yet.

My dream job? Writing, academia, activism. But the first two are extremely elite occupations. The amount of credentials and prestige it takes to enter those fields is seriously unattainable for me. I'm not sure I would want to be part of such a prestige network that locks so many people out. Rather work to dismantle it. But activism is tough, pays poorly, if at all. But it will definitely define some aspect of my future work.

So I don't know. Head overseas in two years to Belfast for a masters and hope I don't return.

Right now I am just looking for something to pay the bills. Thank god I have no student loan debt. Average person under 35 has $27,000 worth. Why completely cripple the next generation? It's madness.

Each conversation (especially in person) leaves me more fired up but weary; the adrenaline fades as quickly as the malaise sets in. I currently have no job to provide me with a buffer, or the illusion of security. And I'm too aware of the structural constraints and injustices of our system to fault the individual.

The problem is huge, systemic, jarring. It's not a recession issue but a human rights issue. The people are at the mercy of a colluding, two-fold juggernaut: corporate greed and dysfunctional government.

So to make my life easier, I decided to marshal the statistics I use most when discussing the economy. Some sound obscene, impossible. And I admit, I've had to double check the numbers a few times after feeling ridiculous reciting them. But yeah, they're kosher.

Humbly, I present them, read 'em and weep.

The Economy:

  • "Top 1 percent own more than 40% of the nation’s approximately $54 trillion in wealth, they earn about 19% of the income. That leaves the bottom 80 percent with a meager 7 percent of the wealth, or, to look at it another way, the wealthiest 400 Americans have the same combined wealth of the nation’s poorest – more than 150 million people, which is almost half the population" (Could America's Wealth Gap Lead To A Revolt? - Forbes).

  • Massive generational wealth gap - "The wealth gap today between younger and older Americans now stands as the widest on record. The median net worth of households headed by someone 65 or older is $170,494, 42 percent higher than in 1984, while the median net worth for younger-age households is $3,662, down 68 percent from a quarter century ago, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center." (Are Millennials the Screwed Generation? - Newsweek).

  • "Happier people live in countries with a generous social safety net, or, more generally, countries whose governments "tax and spend" at higher rates, reflecting the greater range of services and protections offered by the state. (These findings come from analysis of data from the World Values Surveys for the 21 Western industrial democracies from 1981 to 2007 for my book "The Political Economy of Human Happiness." Similar findings have been reported in peer-reviewed journals like "Social Research" and the "Social Indicators Research.")" (Western nations with social safety net happier - CNN).

  • Americans work the longest hours for the least in return - "Meanwhile, the average German worker puts in 394 hours less than an American each year -- or nearly 10 fewer weeks. Germany is way smaller than the United States in area, population and resources, but still manages to be the fourth largest economy and third largest exporter in the world"(Why the 40-hour workweek is too long - MSNBC)

Higher Education:

$1 trillion in student debt. [Bloomberg]

Millennials and the economy

- See more at:

Millennials and the economy

- See more at:
Don't get me started on healthcare: "Epic Failure: The American Healthcare System."

Some solutions:

Redefining our values:

Redefining the economy:

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Taking On The Prestige Economy

The first step to a collective solution is to realize this is a collective problem.

If you are under 30 (and probably older), you are on the same sinking ship. It does not matter if you work at Burger King or at a think tank; odds are you can’t pay your bills and have an education you are being told is worthless. You are also told, either explicitly or tacitly, not to talk about it.

We need to remove the shame from struggle and privation. The exploiter should feel ashamed, not the person exploited. If people do not feel comfortable discussing their financial hardship, or their misgivings about an economy in which they are unfairly advantaged, then no progress will be made. Erase the stigma. Redefine success and failure. Don’t be ashamed of who you are. You are not your job — especially because you probably do not have a job.

If you grew up in the prestige economy, you have been trained to see life as a competition. But if you are young, you are losing no matter what. You will have better luck in the long run by rearranging the social order, rebuilding broken institutions, and broadening opportunity for all.

And that means you need to look out for the people at the bottom, because they know the score. Go talk to people — all kinds of people. There are lines of class and race and geography that are drawn — cross them and find similarities. If I had a more direct solution than this, I’d tell you. But we are in the beginning of this fight, and broadening the conversation, finding out what people want and what barriers they face and how to eliminate these barriers. That is the first step.

A denied dream is something that matters; it is not something to be dismissed for anyone, regardless where they come from or whose “fault” people believe it is. Mistaking bad luck for bad character is one of the great cruelties of our time.

A prestige economy promotes superiority through affiliation. Make your affiliation other people, not institutions set to screw you. Build new affiliations through empathy. You are in this together, so fight together — through legal channels, through public dialogue, through organized protest, but most of all, through standing up for others, seeing their struggle as your own. 

Prestige is not the same thing as respect. You can have self-respect; you cannot have self-prestige. Show respect to yourself and to others.