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Humanist Essay for October 2013
"The Compassion Gap"
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[Reprinted from the HSNM October 2013 Newsletter.]

Here are some items that have come to my attention lately that speak to the growing economic inequality in the U.S., an issue humanists should be concerned about and are in a unique position to address - if we have the courage to do so.

* NPR, 8/9/13, "Study: Poor Are More Charitable Than The Wealthy." Guy Raz interviewed psychology researcher Paul Piff, whose game-playing subjects received 10 credits (in lieu of cash) and determined how many, if any, would be given to a partner that was a stranger to them. "[W]hat we found was that the lower-class people ... were inclined to give away 44 percent more [of their credits]," Piff reported. "[I]t's really compassionate feelings that exist among the lower class that's seen to provoke these higher levels of altruism and generosity toward other people."

* Money News, 9/13/13, "Krugman: Growing Inequality is Becoming Extremely Destructive" by Michael King. King quotes Krugman: "Inherited privilege is crowding out equality of opportunity; the power of money is crowding out effective democracy," and cites these numbers: "95 percent of the gains from economic recovery since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent....more than 60 percent of the gains went to the top 0.1 percent, people with annual incomes of more than 1.9 million."

* Albuquerque Journal, 9/19/13, "Census: N.M. poverty rate increased from 2000 to 2012" by Barry Massey. The article notes that 43 other states have seen the same trend.

* CNN, 9/21/13, "House bill would take 3.8 million off food stamps" by Jennifer Liberto. The legislation would cut $40 billion over the next decade.

Some might accuse me of engaging in "class warfare" for simply citing these items. If the term applies at all, then who is making war on whom? It seems like the rich are making war on the poor, not the other way around. But the moneyed interests cry foul whenever we bring up income disparities and ask that weath be shared for the good of all. I guess it hurts the billionaires' feelings when we peons dare to suggest that no one is deserving of the kind of personal income that rivals the budgets of small countries.

Call it what you will, there seems to be a compassion gap every bit as wide as the financial divide. Humanists would do well to engage this debate. We reject out of hand the underlying puritanical mindset by which greed is rationalized as merely holding on to what was divinely granted, and suffering is either a hallowed martyrdom or something actually deserved. Further, we embrace scientific method and critical thinking, through which we can put aside emotions and assumptions to collect measurable data and compare results objectively. By objective standards of prosperity such as mortality rates, education and employment, the U.S. is falling behind. That should tell us something about our brand of capitalism.

We humanists have our own blindspots and self interests. Shall we reject the supernatural gods only to embrace without question an equally whimsical concept - money? If you feel I have blasphemed in the way I phrased that, then I've made my point. Money is a kind of god and capitalism is its religion. I propose that a society where some people starve while others get $2 million per year from businesses that deplete and despoil their nation's natural resources has severed its connection to reality every bit as much as a society ruled by superstition and religious dogma.

"Non-participation is itself a form of dissent," a wise man once told me. We see an example of this in the Albuquerque Journal, 9/19/13 letter, "Radical simple living is good for me and the earth" by Don Schrader. Don describes his satisfction with his drastically scaled-down lifestyle. He does not paint himself a martyr or judge the rest of us, but closes simply with: "Change as fast as you can as long as you enoy it and are quite sure you will stick with it for life."

Few of us are as brave or committed or contrary or crazy - or whatever you want to call it - as Don Schrader. We see the need all around us, and we aspire to increased prosperity as much for others as ourselves. The question in my mind is this: Can fairness, equality and security ever be attained under our existing economic construct, or are we stuck in a game in which there will always be - there must be - lots and lots of losers in order that a few will win big? If the latter, then we are going down the path of many a fallen empire.

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Copyright © 2013 Zelda Gatuskin

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