Empathy for the 1% …

So, on Emily Yoffe’s advice column, she recently had a letter from one of the 1% (self-admitted) about trick-or-treaters from other neighbourhoods coming to hers to trick-or-treat:

I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, but on one of the more “modest” streets—mostly doctors and lawyers and family business owners. (A few blocks away are billionaires, families with famous last names, media moguls, etc.) I have noticed that on Halloween, what seems like 75 percent of the trick-or-treaters are clearly not from this neighborhood. Kids arrive in overflowing cars from less fortunate areas. I feel this is inappropriate. Halloween isn’t a social service or a charity in which I have to buy candy for less fortunate children. Obviously this makes me feel like a terrible person, because what’s the big deal about making less fortunate kids happy on a holiday? But it just bugs me, because we already pay more than enough taxes toward actual social services. Should Halloween be a neighborhood activity, or is it legitimately a free-for-all in which people hunt down the best candy grounds for their kids?

Yoffe’s response — and the response of most of the people I’ve seen talk about it online — has been typically negative:

In the urban neighborhood where I used to live, families who were not from the immediate area would come in fairly large groups to trick-or-treat on our streets, which were safe, well-lit, and full of people overstocked with candy. It was delightful to see the little mermaids, spider-men, ghosts, and the occasional axe murderer excitedly run up and down our front steps, having the time of their lives. So we’d spend an extra $20 to make sure we had enough candy for kids who weren’t as fortunate as ours. There you are, 99, on the impoverished side of Greenwich or Beverly Hills, with the other struggling lawyers, doctors, and business owners. Your whine makes me kind of wish that people from the actual poor side of town come this year not with scary costumes but with real pitchforks. Stop being callous and miserly and go to Costco, you cheapskate, and get enough candy to fill the bags of the kids who come one day a year to marvel at how the 1 percent live.

What has often struck me while reading these sorts of responses, and indeed the overall arguments over the 1% and income equality and the rich, is that while many of these people argue that we should live our lives according to empathy — which most readers of this blog will know is an argument that I not only do not make, but argue against — they tend to lack empathy for people they don’t understand very well. By which I mean not that they feel sorry for people in that situation and “feel their pain”, but they have a very hard time seeing things from their perspective.

So, let me us this analogy to show what I mean. Imagine that you are a recent graduate, with a good, full-time job, who still hangs around with your friends from university. When you go out to lunch with one of them, in general you pay for it because you have a job and the spare income for it, and they don’t, and, hey, you’re happy to help out. Now imagine that this effectively becomes expected; none of them ever offer to even pay for themselves, let alone you. Now imagine that they also decide when these things happen, and so at times it seems like the reason they set up one of these lunch dates is because they don’t want to pay for lunch … and they get more and more frequent. Now also imagine that where you go is determined by them, and thus you end up often going to places that are more expensive than you feel necessary. Also imagine that they don’t tend to order reasonable dishes, but tend to go from the more expensive dishes at every lunch. At that point, don’t you think that you’d start to feel like their were taking advantage of you? I mean, it does make sense for you to pay because you can afford it and they can’t, and you do somewhat enjoy the lunches, but it really does start to seem like they’re using you as a lunch-providing machine; even if you believe that they enjoy your company, you have to start to feel like they are taking advantage of your good nature and financial situation. Now, imagine that you protest this, and get told that you’re just being selfish, and that you should just suck it up and keep paying for whatever they want because you have more money than they do, and that that gives you privilege, and that having graduated a year earlier just reflects you being a year older, and isn’t something you earned. Do you think you’d take that well?

I think that the letter above reflects a lot of that kind of feeling, which I think is a feeling that a lot of the purported 1% feel when they protest things like this, or higher taxes, or less tax exemptions, etc, etc. In the above letter, what she has is the vast majority of the kids coming to her door being kids who do not live in the neighbourhood. And many of these kids are kids who are not just in a neighbouring neighbourhood wandering here because it’s closer, or because they’re making a long trick-or-treating run. Many of them are being driven in from what may be long distances away, from neighbourhoods that could indeed provide decent trick-or-treating, simply because they think they’ll get a better haul by doing so: either they’ll get better candy because the people in that neighbourhood can afford the good stuff and don’t have to get the cheap stuff, or they’ll get more of it for the same reasons. But the primary reason they put on a show for Halloween is to celebrate that with their neighbourhood, and kids who skip their own neighbourhood in order to run to theirs just because they’ll get more candy seem to be taking advantage of the fact that they can afford more. And the problem then is that either they have to anticipate those kids and buy cheaper or less candy and get called cheap by those kids and their neighbours, or outlay a lot more money in order to provide the same quality of candy to all of these kids. So, no, it’s not just a matter of running out to Costco and getting more candy, since that wasn’t what they were buying the first place. Either way, the expectation that kids can go to the wealthier neighbourhoods to get better candy hurts their fun and, in fact, makes them feel taken advantage of.

The same thing, I think, can be said about taxes and social programs and a lot of those things. I think that a lot of the 1%ers are indeed happy to help others, a lot of the time. But what they tire of is the expectation that they’ll do that, and the constant arguments that if the government has a shortfall that they should just raise taxes on them to get it, regardless of how they feel about the necessity of the program. Any protest is met with accusations that they’re just being selfish and trying to provide for themselves and not for others. And this is caused by a big tension in the reasonable positions on the topic: the 1%ers feel that they earned their money and that it’s taking advantage of them to presume that if those who have less want something, the 1%ers should provide, while those who do not have do see that the 1%ers could provide that without really hurting themselves and so it’s only reasonable for them to at least bear the burden of it. And this probably could be worked out, except for the extremists on both sides. On the 1% side, there really are people who feel that what they have is what they have and anyone who doesn’t have that should just work harder and they’ll get it, and on the Occupy(?) side you have people who really think that the problem is that the 1%ers have more than anyone else, and so that must be adjusted (think people who call for income redistribution).

It’s too easy, in this sort of environment, to think of the 1%ers who protest the presumption that they’ll fund what the 99% want just because they have more money and could do it as simply people who don’t want to share the wealth, and it’s too easy to think of the 99%ers who want to ensure certain basic needs and wants are met as being people who simply feel entitled to what the 1%ers have without working for it. This is where empathy is required … and where it fails miserably. What we need is a reasoned discussion about what things are for, why they are necessary, and what everyone’s obligations are. After all, all of those lovely things that Yoffe loves about Halloween? They don’t happen if all or most of the kids from a poor or middle-class neighbourhood run off to the rich ones for the people in those neighbourhoods. I don’t get trick-or-treaters if all of them run off to the rich part of town, and so I lose out. Is that a problem? Should this be an event for neighbourhoods, in general, to get to have all of the neighbourhood kids running around showing off their costumes and getting treats for it? Or is it nothing more than a candy grab? These are the sorts of questions we should be able to talk about, without generating comments of “Suck it up and take it”. And the current environment draws everyone to the extreme sides, and at the extremes you don’t have discussion.


2 Responses to “Empathy for the 1% …”

  1. Crude Says:

    My standard for talking about charity is the following: If someone is not prepared to discuss what the duties of the poor are, then I can’t take their input on this topic seriously. I think that applies here as well. What attitudes should the wealthy have towards out-of-neighborhood trick-or-treaters, and what attitudes should the poor have about these things?

    • verbosestoic Says:

      And the attitude that most people have about this is, essentially, the rich have the good stuff, so let’s go there and get the best we can. This sort of attitude was what made it so that it wasn’t worth it for me to even give out candy anymore on Halloween, while commenters on the post Jerry Coyne made expressing this very sentiment pointed out that the huge number of children made it so that they couldn’t give out very much anymore.

      Sounds like the worst of all possible worlds …

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