Bush's Empathy Shortage
Let's consider our political moment through a story.
Suppose a chauffeur drives a sleek limousine through the streets of New York, a millionaire in the backseat. Through the window, the millionaire spots a homeless woman and her two children huddling in the cold, sharing a loaf of bread. He orders the chauffeur to stop the car. The chauffeur opens the passenger door for the millionaire, who walks over to the mother and snatches the loaf. He slips back into the car and they drive on, leaving behind an even poorer family and a baffled crowd of sidewalk witnesses. For his part, the chauffeur feels real qualms about what his master has done, because unlike his employer, he has recently known hard times himself. But he drives on nonetheless. Let's call this the Chauffeur's Dilemma.
Absurd as it seems, we are actually witnessing this scene right now. At first blush, we might imagine that this story exaggerates our situation, but let us take a moment to count the loaves of bread that have recently changed hands and those that soon will. Then, let's ask why so many people are letting this happen.
- On average, the 2003 tax cut has already given $93,500 to every millionaire. It is estimated that 52% of the benefits of George W. Bush's 2001-03 tax cuts have enriched the wealthiest 1% of Americans (those with an average annual income of $1,491,000).
- On average, the 2003 tax cut gave $217 to every middle-income person. By 2010, it is estimated that just 1% of the benefits of the tax cut will go to the bottom 20% of Americans (those with an average annual income of $12,200).
- During at least one year since 2000, 82 of the largest American corporations -- including General Motors, El Paso Energy, and, before the scandal broke, Enron -- paid no income tax.
In the meantime, the poor are being bled. Long-term unemployment has risen while the Bush administration has cut long-term unemployment benefits. Most American cities are looking at 15% cuts in already bare-boned budgets, which will close more libraries, cancel more after-school and esl programs, and limit access to health clinics.
Proposed budget cuts beginning in 2006 are threatening the funding given to low-income programs. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, with these cuts in place, low-income programs will be significantly reduced over the next five years.
By 2010, elementary and secondary education funding will be cut by $4.6 billion, or 12%; 670,000 fewer women and children will receive assistance through the Women, Infants, and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program; Head Start, which currently serves about 906,000 children, will serve 100,000 fewer children; and 370,000 fewer low-income families, elderly people, and people with disabilities will receive rental assistance with rental vouchers. Bush proposes to cut housing and community-development aid by more than 30% in 2006 alone.
It's not hard to understand why the millionaire, with the power to satisfy so many desires, might want to claim another's bread. But why does the chauffeur open the door? Why do about half of lower- and middle-income Americans approve of tax cuts that favor the rich and budget cuts that deprive the poor?
The Slipping of the American Dream
We often hear two explanations for this. First, George W. Bush has deflected public attention from the bread transfer at home to political enemies abroad. Second, Americans have been repeatedly told over the last three decades that the government -- military spending aside -- is grossly wasteful and hopelessly inefficient. So why not pocket a little money yourself, no matter who gets the lion's share, if it's being wasted anyway?
But, by itself, can anti-government propaganda -- added to war fever -- explain why so many Americans are rolling over in the face of such an extraordinary transfer from poor to rich? Most Americans used to believe, after all, that the government could help people achieve the American dream.
In 1970, when America had far fewer homeless children and millionaires, it helped people more, and taxpayers begrudged it less. Most people were proud that the United States was a middle-class society, without much in the way of an overclass or an underclass. They credited their government for fostering this ideal. Many Christians among them thought taxes on the rich and programs for the poor expressed a vital Christian ideal: sharing.
But three things have changed since 1970: attitudes toward governmental redistribution, economic times, and the shape of empathy. Attitudes toward redistribution are different -- even among those who would stand to benefit the most.
When asked in a 2003 Hart and Teeter poll, "Do you think this (Bush) tax plan benefits mainly the rich or benefits everyone?" 56% of blue-collar men (those without a college degree) who answered "yes"(the plan favors the rich) still favored the plan. For blue-collar men living on annual family incomes of $30,000 or less, half supported it.
Apart from the super-rich, who overwhelmingly vote Republican, an interesting pattern emerges: Even many of those with a fragile grip on the American dream go along with taking bread from the poor and giving it to the rich.
What is being forged, then, is a strange, covert moral deal between the millionaire and the hard-pressed chauffeur, sealed by the right-wing church. It is a deal that says, in essence, "Let's ignore the needy at home, exacerbate the class divide, wage war after war abroad, and sustain the idea that all this is morally good."
The Empathy Squeeze
What is happening in the heart of the chauffeur? He has himself known hard times, and is as capable as anyone else of compassion. What about his circumstances, his religious beliefs, and Bush's manipulation of these might lead him to harden his heart?
For some time now, many families have felt squeezed between high hopes and declining prospects. Most Americans strongly believe in working hard and moving up the ladder of success. They "identify up" with people more rich, famous, and lucky than they, rather than "identifying down" with people more poor, obscure, and unlucky. However underpaid, our chauffeur dreams of becoming a millionaire more than he dreads lying homeless in the street. If others can rise to the top, he figures, why can't he?
And in decades past, he had good reason to aim high. For every decade in the 150 years before 1970 -- including the decade of the Great Depression -- real earnings rose. As University of Massachusetts economist Rick Wolff points out, however tough a man's job or long his hours, he could usually look forward to a bigger paycheck.
But after 1970, the real earning power of male wages -- and I focus here on men, for they are the closer fit to the profile of the chauffeur -- stopped rising. Their dream was linked, it turned out, to jobs in an industrial sector that been automated out or outsourced abroad. Their old union-protected, high-wage, blue-collar jobs began to disappear as new non-union, low-wage, service-sector jobs appeared. Indeed, the man with a high-school diploma or a few years of college found few new high-opportunity jobs in the much-touted new economy while the vast majority ended up in low-opportunity jobs near the bottom. As jobs in the middle have become harder to find, his earning power has fallen, his benefits have shrunk, and his job security has been reduced.
As a result, Wolff argues, two things happened. First, life at home became tougher. Wives took paid jobs -- and this in a society that had given little thought to paid parental leave or family-friendly policies. For men as well as women, hours of work have increased. From 1973 to 1996, average hours per worker went up 19%. Since the 1970s, increases have occurred in involuntary job loss, in work absences due to illness or disability, and in debt and bankruptcy. The proportion of single mother families rose from 12% in 1970 to 26% in 2003.
Tougher times have led, in turn, to an "empathy squeeze." That is, many people responded to this crisis by withdrawing into their own communities, their own families, themselves. If a man gets fired or demoted, if he can't make his house payments, if his wife is leaving him, or if his son is failing in school, he feels like he's got enough on his hands. He can't afford to feel sorry for so many other people. He's trying to be a good father, a helpful neighbor, and friend to people he knows who themselves need more help. He localizes empathy. He narrows his circle of empathy in a way that coincides with George W. Bush's hourglass America. Pay a tax to help a homeless mother in another city? Forget it. Charity begins at home.
Despite this, many people who voted for Bush may feel real qualms about the homeless mother and her hungry children. They experience the chauffeur's dilemma. In his heart of hearts, the chauffeur feels bad that he has put such space between himself and the homeless woman's plight. If he goes to a Christian church, he wants to be a good, giving, sharing Christian.
And here is where Bush and his social-issues team make a stealthy empathy grab. How? They "privatize" the chauffeur's morality, and in two ways. They do it first by redefining "good" as a matter not of giving or of sharing but of judging. The chauffeur is offered the chance to feel good by disapproving of homosexuals and of economic failures while quietly setting aside the idea of helping the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, and the unemployed.
Second and more importantly, Bush proposes the idea of giving through private, religious channels, and thus offers moral cover for the idea of giving less. We will stop giving to the less fortunate as citizens through our government and start giving as parishioners through our churches. But, quite apart from this as a bid to expand the fold, it is a way of offering a moral free pass to the act of replacing a lake with a drop of water.
Rather than fixing the problems that make people anxious, Bush takes advantage of the very feelings of anxiety, frustration, and fear that insecurity creates -- and that his policies exacerbate -- while deflecting hopes away from government help. He makes life quietly harder at home while pointing a finger of blame at one enemy after another abroad. He is, I think, deregulating American capitalism with one hand while regulating the resulting anxiety with the other. And to do this, he has enlisted powerful allies on the corporate and religious right.
The Chauffeur and the Rapture
This leads me to a second effect of economic distress that Wolff notes: rising membership in nontraditional Protestant churches. Among these are some churches that promote the belief that the world is coming to an end, and that, following this, Christians will ascend to heaven in a Rapture while all others will suffer in hell. Those who hold to these beliefs are not a minor group. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 36% of Americans believe that the world is coming to an end. The 12-volume Left Behind series of Christian novels has sold more than 62 million copies.
We can understand the appeal of the idea of a Rapture, though not, or not only, in the believer's terms. There is a world literally coming to an end -- the industrial world of the well-paid blue-collar worker. It is a world to which the working man and woman have already sacrificed much time and from which the promised rewards are disappearing.
Belief in the Rapture provides, I would speculate, an escape from real anxiety over this very great earthly loss. Internet images of the Rapture often portray thin, well-dressed white people rising up into heaven to join awaiting others. The excluded are welcomed. The rejected are accepted. The downwardly mobile become upwardly mobile. The Rapture creates a celestial split between haves and have-nots, with no one in the middle. And in this vision, those caught in a social class squeeze are at last securely on top. The Rapture absorbs the sting of being hardworking losers in the harsh and rigged winner's culture of the radical right.
In a just society, of course, there need be no permanent economic losers. It is well within the capacity of a wisely led American government to restore a living wage to every worker. The power of the people once pointed in that direction. Popular uprisings in the 1930s led to massive demonstrations, strikes, and eventually Works Progress Administration projects, unemployment insurance, and our Social Security system.
But today's impulse to protest goes into blockading abortion clinics and writing Darwin out of school textbooks. The inner-city homeless, children in overcrowded public schools, unemployed in need of job retraining, and the 18% of American children who don't get enough to eat each day become part of the glimpsed world the chauffeur passes by, and his church can only do so much for them.
Like many others, I felt moved by the Christians who knelt in prayer for the family of the late Terri Schiavo, the comatose patient on life support in Florida. But it made me wonder why we don't see similar vigils drawing attention to near-comatose victims of winter living on city sidewalks. They've been taken off life support, too.
The chauffeur knows this and wants to do the moral thing. But he's worse off himself. He feels he has less to give. Bush offers him a way to feel good about giving less -- make a general ethic of giving less. He can downsize his conscience and still feel good. This deal, first struck between right-wing anti-tax interests and evangelicals back in the 1970s, offers a way to satisfy the chauffeur's better angel while getting his OK to take the bread. If right-wing ministers have talked our chauffeur into believing in the Rapture, this belief, too, can become just another reason to drive on.
In a sense, Bush is exploiting the common man twice over -- once by ignoring his own plight and that of the poor and twice by covering it over with military drums and tin-man morality. We really need to turn both things around. But to do that, we need to remind the chauffeur, wherever he is, that it's within his power to stop the car -- tax the millionaire, help the homeless, and offer new hope to those in between. Otherwise, the deal Bush is brokering between millionaire and chauffeur will impoverish the chauffeur -- in his pocketbook and in his soul.
This article appears in the July issue of The American Prospect magazine (Vol. 16, No. 7).