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The Empathy Gap and the Case for Protest

#OWS arrives at Washington Sq. Park on Saturday, October 8th. Credit:

David Brooks’ column "The Milquetoast Radicals" left me feeling numb. The thrust was that the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters are unsophisticated, unfocused, and unproductive:

The thing about the current moment is that the moderates in suits are much more radical than the pierced anarchists camping out on Wall Street or the Tea Party-types.

Please tell me this isn’t the best response the "moderate" Right can conjure.

The Other 99 percent, as the protesters call themselves, have their statistics exactly right and their zeal is the only proper response to our current crisis. In 2009, roughly 1 percent of Americans earned over $250,000 a year and the industries that pay their salaries have spent over $1 billion since 2009 lobbying Washington -- that’s more than 12 percent of total lobbying expenditures. This undue influence warps public policy, perpetuates inequality, and further imperils our democracy.

Conservative politicians and commentators don’t seem to appreciate our present crisis. America’s 21st century struggles are not about education, tax, and entitlement reform in a vacuum. These important issues can only be addressed meaningfully if we consider the broader context. Both wealth and income inequality continue to grow and faith in the American Dream is waning. There are multiple solutions to the challenges we face, but only a few solve the problem and can renew America’s promise. The others, those promoted largely by conservatives, will only further divide our society between the rich and the poor and destabilize our future.

Last night, in refusing to pass the President's Jobs Bill, Republicans have threatened unemployment insurance benefits (UI) again, though a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study demonstrates that, in 2009, UI saved over 3 million Americans from falling into poverty. Moreover, Republicans view enrollment in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, which fills the budget gap faced by over 45 million Americans with food stamps, as a sign of individual moral failure. Never mind that food stamps are one of the best forms of economic stimulus that we have.

You have to ask yourself why David Brooks and others like him don’t get it. The answer, as far as I can tell, is that they can’t feel what the other 99 percent are feeling. And there’s research to back up this hypothesis. The University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that college students today were 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979. Today, students are less likely to describe themselves as “soft-hearted” or as having “tender, concerned feelings.” They claim to be less disturbed by “other people’s misfortunes” -- and more likely to admit it.

This trend among college age youth is particularly disturbing when paired with finding from another study performed by Paul Piff at the University of California, Berkeley. Piff found that the poor were generally more generous than the rich: “Both real lower-class participants and those temporarily induced to rank themselves as lower class felt that a greater share of a person’s salary should be used to support charity. Upper-class participants said 2.1% of incomes should be donated. Lower-class individuals felt that 5.6% was the appropriate slice. Upper-class participants who were induced to believe they were lower class suggested 3.1%. And lower-class individuals who had been “psychologically promoted” thought 3.3% was about right.”

As our society become more unequal, we’re going to need new ways to make sure that the upper middle class and rich have an appropriate grasp of what ails the rest of America. One way to do this is through education. Another is through protest.

That is why we need Occupy Wall Street. When education and empathy fail, movements interrupt the status quo. Forty-six million poor Americans represent a crisis that deserves our rapt attention and this protest movement has made inequality front-page news. As the numbers continue to grow, Brooks and others will likely write more dismissive and incredulous columns. I wish them well. Their evasiveness, like that of the Wall Street barons, will ironically only embolden this democratic movement for reform.