Friday, September 17, 2010

The rich you will always have with you (Sunday Reflections for September 19, 2010)

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…. The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. (Amos 8)

In last week’s Reflections column I wrote: "Too easily we are drawn to an irrational problem with a simplistic solution, rather than confront the real problem whose solution may be protracted and complicated." I don’t think there is any doubt that solving the problems our country faces today will be “protracted and complicated,” but that isn’t something any of us want to hear.

Suppose you have a newly diagnosed health problem. Your doctor says you need to exercise, and change your diet, and stop bad habits, and puts you on daily medication—for the rest of your life. Faced with such a challenge, you inevitably ask, “Doc, isn’t there any other way?” already knowing the answer.

But imagine if she said, “Why, yes there is! Here, take this pill once a month and you’ll be fine. It’s something I just invented in my laboratory. I know it will work. And you won’t have to change your lifestyle at all.” Hopefully you would have the sense to leave quickly and find a new doctor.

When our life is on the line, we tend to be pretty sober in our thinking. When it comes to almost anything else, however, we can surprise ourselves how easily we fall for the magic pill or snake oil sales pitch. All that tells us, though, is how badly we want such solutions to work—not that they will.

This week politicians and the media were all a twitter about the supposed Tea Party primary victories. On Election Day, I heard an interview with a self-identified Tea Partier. “We want to return our country to what it used to be,” is how he explained his politics. And I thought, “Where’s the magic pill salesman? We have a customer.”

Mr Peabody and Sherman
This person did not explain what point in the past he wished to return to, or whether he had found Mr Peabody’s WABAK machine (i.e. “way back” for those not conversant with Rocky and Bullwinkle) to accomplish this feat. In any case, over the years the promise of returning to some mythical past is one of the most popular political smokescreens. It kept the Confederacy alive in people’s fantasies for decades after Appomattox (some would say it’s still alive) and Hitler road its magic carpet to electoral victory (though it had much less value on the battlefield).

But the past is past. There’s no going back; we can only go forward (regardless of what theoretical physics might say). The question is whether we want to have a say in our destination, and how we get there, or whether we just want to go along for the ride.

In the nearly five centuries of the modern world, the direction of history has been for increasing numbers of people to have growing amounts of freedom and responsibility for determining their own destinies. This is what the Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment were all about, as well as every political revolution since.

Delacroix "Liberty Leading the People" 1830
That freedom, however, was not something just laying around waiting to be picked up. Freedom always needs to be won, taken, carved out, secured, guaranteed in laws and regulations. The reason is that throughout history, minorities always accumulate power which allows them to use and abuse the majority. These oppressive groups have included royalty, nobility, religious priesthoods, landed gentry, and ethnic minorities.

In more recent years, the most powerful minority in most developed countries have been capitalists: the small minority of the population that owns or controls most of the land, businesses, and money. The notion of getting rid of this group has largely been abandoned. Some say full economic equality could never be achieved (see George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where all are equal but some—inevitably—are more equal than others) and others say it wouldn’t be a good idea in any case. As a recent book concludes, the rich are necessary.

Inevitable or necessary, however, doesn’t mean always good or honorable. We must remember the lessons learned by our ancestors in the struggle for freedom: the powerful, whoever they are, always want to become more powerful. The expansion and preservation of freedom has always meant legislated restraints on society’s empowered minorities.

The past thirty years has seen a steady increase in the proportion of wealth and income controlled by the richest Americans. Numerically this imbalance in the control of society’s wealth is the highest it has been since 1928. This week it was announced that the portion of the population living below the poverty line is the highest in 15 years (and many economists believe if the number was calculated more accurately it would be even greater).

Banksters testify before Congress
 In the past, the poor and weak knew full well who was taking advantage of them. They worked for them, or paid taxes to them, or literally saw them steal what was theirs. The complexity of the modern economy makes this much more difficult, even if it allows for tremendous economic growth. That complexity can be used to benefit those most involved with it and give them an unfair advantage. As a result, one of the primary functions of democratic government has become the creation and enforcement of financial regulation and setting broad economic policy.

In recent years this government role has come under attack and been legislatively curtailed. Now it’s true, of course, that government functions can always be improved and need to be changed as society changes. Yet it is simply a fact that the steady reduction of government regulation of the economy in the past thirty years has been paralleled by the steady growth of social economic imbalance. Bluntly, the rich have been getting richer and the poor—as well as nearly everyone else—have been getting poorer.

The consequences of this are far reaching and potentially disastrous. As I said, economic inequality can’t be eliminated but in a democracy it does need to be held within certain bounds. If allowed to grow too large, people lose a sense ownership or value in society. Cooperation and commitment to common goals wane. Social bonds begin to fray. People lose hope because they are not being adequately compensated for their labor. The system seems unfair. The cards are stacked against them.

Bangkok shopping mall
Complicating this even more is the fact that we are now part of a global economy. Indeed, the rise in economic inequality probably was spurred by the economically powerful trying to protect themselves from the consequences of this change. America’s overwhelming economic predominance after World War II was an anomaly and couldn’t last forever. China, India and countless other nations wouldn’t remain poverty stricken indefinitely. The planet simply cannot sustain everyone living the way we have grown accustomed to the past fifty years.

Adjusting to this new world is something everyone must share in, however. The response of the rich—nearly in a panic—to grab all they can while they can is immoral, unnecessary, and could well end up destroying what they are trying to preserve. We must all rediscover the stake we have in the “common-wealth.” It’s time for our democracy to re-assert its most basic function: to restrain the powerful few from taking advantage of the weak and powerless. While our economics have become more complicated, such basic biblical ethics have not.

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