Fatal Privilege & Essential Empathy

Posted in Anthropology, Politics by Arasmus on October 28, 2008

With our presidential election just a number of days away, I found it interesting to revisit the themes that Jared Diamond explores in his book Collapse. In this video lecture, Jared summarizes his thesis. In doing so he relates the astonishment of his UCLA students when faced with examples of societies that cause their own collapse. These students ask how was it possible that the people in those societies did not see the collapse coming – what did the individual who cut the last palm tree on Easter Island think he was doing? Diamond points to a disconnect between the reality that a society is experiencing and the reality perceived by its leaders. The various chiefs of the doomed Norse society on Greenland wanted more and more livestock because the chiefs were in a competition with each other on this metric, even though the overstocking that it caused was reducing their people to poverty. In short, there was a conflict of interest between the interests of the leadership and the interests of the society they lead.

Turning now to the choice before the American people, one has to ask which of the two candidates has the experience to best appreciate the conditions that American society is going through today? Which of the two know poverty? Which of the two know uncertainty? Which of the two know the conditions that are necessary for people to move themselves from poverty to security?

Both John McCain’s father and grandfather were four star US Navy admirals. His current wealth has been widely commented upon. It is fair to say that John McCain has lived a privileged life that was in no small part due to the family into which he was born and that into which he married. These factors, suggestive of patrician envelopment, do not preclude his potential to be a good president. One could argue that this financial position allows him to make independent decisions or that by virtue of his background he comes to the job with a species of institutional knowledge. But the same could have been said for the Norse chieftains that drove their societies to extinction. By virtue of his background, McCain has been immune to the hardships and constraints felt by the majority of the American population. By contrast, Barack Obama came from an economic position in society that is closer to that of the majority. For example, his experience of his mother arguing with health insurance companies from her death bed allows him to better empathize with, and represent the interests of the 45.7 million Americans that live without health insurance. John McCain has never experienced that life-lesson. He does not know what it feels like to live, and know that one’s family lives, in perpetual fear of getting sick. Furthermore, Barack Obama is a self-made man.  He owes his position to his own hard work rather than a multi-generational inheritance. He has first-hand experience of the conditions that are necessary for others to similarly advance and it appears to me from his speeches he believes that one of the key components is access to education. McCain’s record shows that for him education was a rather annoying chore.

As if to further illustrate Diamond’s thesis, the presidency of George W. Bush has clearly taught us that we all need to carefully consider who we put in power. The incompetence of the Bush administration, in particular its attitude towards financial regulation (if not foreign policy), has brought our society to, and many other societies beyond the brink of collapse. Over a decade of wealth creation has now been erased. Our world today is too interconnected for any one of us (American or not) to think that he will be unaffected by the choice of US president. I challenge anyone to point to a single asset class anywhere in the world where an isolationist can park their wealth and be beyond the incompetence of George W. Bush.  In such a delicate world, facing the sort of threats described by Diamond, and of which every single one of us is now aware, we must ensure that the individual to whom we give executive power has the deepest understanding and empathy of our condition. Most of us do not have the ability to right our mistakes with a check from the family. Most of us take care of ourselves. Most of us got what little we have by working hard for it. That is why, at this point in our history, in a world as interdependent as ours is today, we cannot afford a privileged president.  We need one who has lived with the same tradeoffs, incentives and compromises with which the vast majority of Americans live every day. From this point of view at least it seems clear to me that Barack Obama’s experience and achievements in life make him more likely than John McCain to make better decisions for the American people.


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