Over the years, I have learned that empathy is an advantage. Many people have sympathy, feeling sorry for another’s misfortune. It seems empathy, putting oneself in another’s shoes, is rarer. Empathy allows one to evaluate an issue from many points of view. Too often, especially in politics, discussion of issues devolves into us vs. them, winning vs. losing, my way or the highway. Each issue is solely viewed from the point of achieving a particular goal. Polarization and anger are rife. Discussions devolve into ad hominem shouting matches. The consequences are obvious from recent events.
Without empathy, issues are approached as amenable to single solutions that ignore “unintended consequences.” The interests of some are minimized and arbitrarily sacrificed to those of others. A rule in environmental study says, “You can’t do just one thing.” Building a dam may reduce carbon emissions but it kills fish. Creating a lake from an estuary makes it smell better and look pretty, but it destroys a productive and essential habitat. This applies to almost all other human action (nod to Ludwig von Mises.) Let me direct your attention to some locally relevant issues.
Comprehensive state laws control political contributions and reporting. Fair and open elections are the stated goal. Contributors are identified. Contributions are detailed. Rules are clear, if extensive. Good, free tools are provided that ease compliance. Recently, there has been a spate of complaints of rule violations. Fines have been levied against experienced politicians. The likely result is a complaint war. Experienced politicians with extensive resources will not suffer the most. Newcomers and those with fewer resources will. Concentration on who supports candidates clouds their positions. Candidates’ party preference determines voter’s choice rather than their views. Those who support a particular position or candidate are exposed to retaliation. The CEO of a tech company was forced to resign due to his contributions. How many low-level employees have lost positions for the same reason, or not contributed?
My own city of Lacey recently passed a sales tax increase to fund road improvements. Money is, of course, fungible. That’s a fancy word that means once you put a buck in a pile with other bucks, they’re all the same. As an individual you know that when you spend a buck you can’t spend it again. The same applies even if funds go into a special account. Taxes not used for one thing are spent elsewhere. Look at it this way. Added taxes are spent on that which you least support. Paraphrasing a famous quote, “A buck here. A buck there. Pretty soon it adds up to real money.”
A similar analysis applies to tax breaks and subsidies. Lacey provided tax breaks to Cabela’s to encourage it to locate in the city. Advantages of more sales taxes, more jobs, and so forth were touted. Certainly, these were realized to some extent. However, another large sports chain went out of business. Who knows how many other, smaller operations did the same or never arose? How many jobs were lost? How much tax was never collected? Politicians can point to Cabela’s and brag about how much revenue and jobs were gained. No one can point to the negative effects. They are unknown and unknowable.
There is a huge controversy involving the Mazama pocket gopher in rural Thurston County. The gopher is listed by the state and federal governments as a threatened species. A population study is required before any new construction is done. Unfortunately, the study can be done only at certain times of the year. It is extremely hard to schedule one due to personnel and funding limitations. Many people face huge delays in construction and loss of land values. Effectively, they have experienced a de facto loss of their property with no compensation. Positions have hardened on both sides, and the rhetoric is inflammatory.
My purpose is to indicate a better way of analyzing issues. The empathetic approach considers many approaches and viewpoints. It helps expand the discussion and lower the volume. It is the first step to principled compromise. We should look for empathy in ourselves and those we elect. To use a famous slogan from a previous employer of mine: Think.
Ed Pole is an engineer, retired from IBM and Intel, and resides in Lacey. He is a member of the 2017 Olympian Board of Contributors. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.