The holiday season is supposed to be a time of giving. We give presents, money and love. We give to show we care, and we give to share our good fortune. But giving isn’t what it used to be.
Years ago, the richest Americans gave a lot more of their income than they do now. Back then, the economy was healthier, the middle class was wealthier, and the nation was less divided. The American experience was a shared experience. Giving, after all, is sharing.
Today, the income gap is growing. It hasn’t been this high since the Great Crash of 1929. The wider it grows, the less the rich associate with the rest of us, and the less they feel the need or the desire to give back.
Recent work by the psychologist Paul K. Piff has shown that people become more narcissistic as they get richer. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the poor and the middle class feel “entitled” nowadays, Piff finds that entitlement is higher among the rich.
But Piff has also discovered something that should give us hope. In one experiment, before he tested them for narcissism, he asked them to write down three benefits of treating other people as equals. Suddenly, their narcissistic tendencies disappeared. In the rest of the experiment, they stopped thinking of themselves and started thinking, well, like everyone else.
The economy is stuck in a rut right now. Most Americans’ inflation-adjusted income hasn’t increased since the onset of the Great Recession. But Piff’s research shows us that this trend doesn’t have to be permanent. We have the power to change it.
That’s what I tried to do in my book Letter to the One Percent. In it, I reached out to the richest one percent of American households. I asked them to do what they did in Piff’s experiment: to think of their fellow citizens as equals.
But the real world is not an experiment. Outside the lab, changing hearts and minds takes a little more convincing.
In another recent experiment, marketing professors Saerom Lee, Karen Winterich, and William Ross found that most people drew a sharp distinction between deserving and undeserving recipients of aid. They were far more likely to donate money, for example, if they were told that a person was poor because he could only find a low-wage job than if they were told that the poor person had a drug problem. They didn’t think of these people as equals.
Since publishing my book, I’ve heard people make this distinction often in response to my message to the One Percent. And so, over the past year, I’ve written posts for The Huffington Post showing that the rich aren’t rich because they work harder than the rest of us; that the poor don’t lie and cheat any more than the rest of us (and in fact the rich lie and cheat more); that you can’t simply get rich by choosing to get an education; that people can’t make more money by being poor or unemployed; and that much, if not most, of the difference between the rich and the poor can be explained by childhood experiences over which they had no control.
Some of us have made better decisions than others. Some have been given better opportunities than others. But the belief on which this nation was founded, “that all men [and women] are created equal,” rings as true today as it did in 1776.
No one is arguing for complete equality of income. Not even close. We celebrate the success of the One Percent, and rightly so. All we ask, especially in this time of giving, is for the compassion, the humility, the shared experience that existed only a few decades ago.
Your voice is more powerful than you might realize. The researchers James Andreoni and Justin M. Rao conducted an experiment where they showed that people tended to give away four times as much of their money if the recipient simply asked for it. If the recipient was silent, the giver only donated a tiny fraction.
The message is clear: Speak up. Vote. And if you can afford to, give back.
This op-ed was originally published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.