What the empathy gap means for college students

Okay, so now that this is a blog, because of a decree I made yesterday, I need to start engaging with some writers. First up, is Matt Bruenig. We both blog at Policyshop and are pretty liberal cats. So I like his newest piece in Salon (where I intern) with Elizabeth Stoker, who studies Christian ethics (I hope she doesn’t hate my latest), about the distorted way elites view teenagers. I’m not writing to respond, only to add. I think my post on the “empathy gap,” really gets to the heart of why this is happening:

Discussion is growing of an “empathy gap” rooted in our society’s dramatic increase in inequality. As David Madland argues in Democracy, “Studies across U.S. states, of the United States over time, and across countries all find that societies with a strong middle class and low levels of inequality have greater levels of trust of strangers.” This trust brings about economic advantages. Madland cites one study which found, “a 10 percentage-point increase in trust increases the growth rate of GDP by 0.5 percentage points” over five years.” International studies have confirmed this effect.

This decline in social trust begins a downward spiral. Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner note in a fabulous paper for World Politics, “The best policy response to growing inequality is to enact universalistic social welfare programs. However, the social strains stemming from increased inequality make it almost impossible to enact such policies.”

The lack of social trust caused by inequality makes increasing opportunity harder (as I’ve noted above) which further erodes social trust and increases inequality. Wealthy citizens see themselves as “makers” and the poor as “takers,” while the poor see the rich as selfish. Rothstein and Uslaner continue later, “Unequal societies find themselves trapped in a continuous cycle of inequality, with low trust in others and in government and policies that do little to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor and to create a sense of equal opportunity.”

Because elites are so detached from the average working person, they say dumb things about the minimum wage, poverty and the safety net.

When Matt and I see the world, we don’t see universal opportunity, because it’s not there. Without that opportunity (and, I would argue with it) there’s a real need to redistribute. The problem is that while my circle of friends includes a lot of fuck-ups, elites generally hang with people who are “poor” if they make $250,000 a year. Cynthia Freeland writes in Plutocrats of millionaires whining about how victimized they are:

The clincher, Peterson said, came from one of her dinner companions.

“She turns to me and she goes, ‘You know, the thing about twenty is’ ”—by this she means $20 million per year—“ ‘twenty is only ten [after taxes].’ And everyone at the table is nodding.”

When you have the “skyboxification,” (Michael Sandel’s word) it changes who you interact with and it eliminates the social bonds necessary to underlie the welfare state. Worse, it means rich people stop seeing struggling poor people. As I write in an upcoming article,

the War on Poverty never aimed to rid the country of poverty. It was just to get the poor out of our sight. And by that measure it has worked. It’s much easier to hate the poor when you can’t see them. Make no mistake, we could have ended poverty in America. If affordable housing could be dropped on Arabs or food stamps shot at Communists, I’m sure there would be more than enough to go around. America is a Potemkin village, the poor hidden behind the facade of EBT and SNAP instead of stuck in bread lines. By creating an atomistic society, the elite have perpetrated the ultimate deception – the poor, ever with us are now invisible.

So, while I see lots of kids struggling to pay for college (or even get in), elites see a bunch of kids graduating Harvard ready to grab the world by the balls.

Anyways, long story short, Matt’s got good ideas. I’m hoping to use this blog to start engaging them more. I can see some points of tension between us, and I hope he’ll humor me with a debate in the future.

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