11/17/2011 01:42 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2012

53%: Stop Acting Like Psychopaths

In America, most of our myriad religious traditions value the concept of "compassion": the idea that helping those in need is worthwhile just because being a good person is worthwhile. When we bring food to the bereaved, help a blind person cross the street, or pick up the mail for our elderly neighbors, we are exhibiting compassion. Despite certain geographical stereotypes to the contrary, Americans are a really commendable bunch when it comes to these small graces.

Our propensity towards "compassion" starts to disappear in the economic realm, however. America's economic system is predicated on the idea that people act according to their own needs and that operating above self-interest ruins the game. As it turns out, however, many of us are not good capitalists. Some Americans, instead of looking out for their own needs, seem to prefer to sacrifice for the good of the uber-wealthy.

Now that the economy is in a tailspin, however, we need to begin thinking more practically. Americans need to chuck out their misplaced sympathies for the rich one-percenters and start thinking more realistically and, dare I say, empathetically about fellow members of the 99%. defines empathy as "the vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another." Essentially, it is the quality that allows us to put ourselves in somebody else's shoes; to identify with them based on our common humanity. It also happens to be the quality that separates regular people from psychopaths.

A couple of days ago, a graphic began making its way through the interwebs that asks, "Why is it easier to believe that 150,000,000 Americans are being lazy rather than 400 Americans are being greedy?"

We all know a lot of otherwise intelligent, compassionate people who think this way. People who would help our 97-year-old grandmother cross the street in a heartbeat but, at the same time, make political decisions that are the equivalent of pushing our grandmother intro traffic. The blog "We are the 53%" is a perfect example of this thinking.

The battle cry of the 53% has focused on accusing the unemployed and underemployed of being lazy and shiftless, but thinking that way is, in reality, pretty lazy. After all, it's hard to understand how the economic system really works; it's far easier to blame the victims.

Interestingly enough, most of the people posting on the "We Are The 53%" blog seem to be hanging on by a thread. They work multiple jobs, juggle massive debt, and are barely staying afloat. Many of them, in fact, are suffering from the same things that the people in the "We Are the 99%" blog complain of. More than make the point that the 53% are harder working than anybody else, the 53% blog really supports the 99%-ers call that nobody is getting a fair shake. It just also makes it clear that some of us exist in a perpetual state of denial.

It is not that hard to do the work of mentally putting yourself in the laid off factory worker's shoes, in the unemployed heavily in debt recent graduate's shoes, or in the minimum wage health insurance-less worker's shoes. They are far more similar to ours than the shoes of our perennial living off the government dole corporate welfare kings, the one percent. Blaming individuals for falling victim to systemic failures does not do anybody favors, except those at the very top of the pyramid.

The capitalist system, true to form, works better if we can be a little selfish -- just selfish with a broader, more empathetic view. After all, policy that benefits us personally is usually beneficial to other people like us. Getting ahead for us regular old non-billionaires does not require us to leave our neighbors behind. The uber-wealthy certainly don't leave each other behind either; they always get richer together.

In their heyday, unions helped working class people from a wide range of industries understand the power of working together for a common goal. Since they ultimately lost collectively whether or not they were organized, organizing was a no-brainer. The bottom 99% of us need to start to view our present condition this way.

In addressing our economic problems, we cannot assume that everybody but us is lazy or think of public investment as an act of compassion that America just can't swing because times are tough. It's not altruism to help those less fortunate using funds provided by the uber-fortunate, it's logical. We live in a society that depends on everyone to perform certain societal functions and hurts at all levels if anyone lacks opportunity.

Why, then, is taking a moment to look at things from the perspectives of other 99%-ers more radical to the 53% than having 99% of us sacrifice in order to benefit a diminishingly small number people who are already rich? Let's stop with all the compassion for the wealthy. Save it for the elderly, the very young, and the unemployed. Instead, let's remember that the economy's success hinges on something as simple as not acting like psychopaths. Thinking empathetically could do the 53% a world of good and, as a bonus, it would help their neighbors out too.