Noah Baron, Assistant Editor
Ideology: Progressive | Writing from: Philadelphia, PA
For too long, our economic policy has been mistaken for one of the mind and not of the heart
The religious right might point to poorly-translated portions of Leviticus for their “moral issues” of the day, but a true understanding of the Bible will lead to one inevitable conclusion: social justice is more of a “moral value” than the defending traditional marriage could ever be. It is written: “If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks” (Deut. 15:7). Yet it is not enough to simply give to the poor: “Open your mouth for the dumb, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy” (Prov. 31:8ff).
But this is a moral issue not only because of the Biblical commandments, but also as a result of what Americans must confront on a daily basis. In the wealthiest nation on Earth, it is unacceptable that there are children who starve, mothers who are worked to the bone but cannot get by, fathers who must choose between medication and food for their family.
Conservatives frequently cite anecdotal evidence about the “unfair” dispensation of welfare or social security checks to people who “don’t deserve it”. Yet the real question here is, and Hyman Bookbinder put it best: “Has every defense contractor yielded a perfect product, at minimal cost? Has every cancer project brought a cure? Has every space launching succeeded? Has every diplomatic initiative brought peace? Why should a less-than-perfect record for social programs be less tolerable to society than failed economic, military, or diplomatic policies?”
And, indeed, as humans are imperfect, we can only expect our social programs to reflect that. Yet the fact that the program is flawed does not necessarily override our moral obligations for a fair and just society.
In the past decade, the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest has widened considerably. As a result of this economic crisis, for many, the gap of wealth has turned into a gaping abyss into which they might plunge at any moment – and into which many have already plunged. The recognition of poverty as unacceptable is no recent phenomenon. During his powerful, if tragically brief, campaign for the presidency, Robert Kennedy said, “I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” Politicians both before his time, and long after, have echoed this very same sentiment.
And, indeed, Kennedy’s turn of phrase remains applicable today, as it has always been and always will be: the issue of poverty is one of moral good and evil. Though we have recognized that at some point there is a tradeoff between the size of our GDP and the equality of our people, we must at some point question the true moral cost of a large GDP. If, indeed, it is at the expense of our poorest that we place caviar on the plates of the richest, by what justification can we continue such policies? If only through continued unemployment of those who can the trust funds the children of our wealthy weather the storm, can we truly deny an injustice perpetrated?
Advocates of the laissez-faire will claim that a rising side lifts all ships – yet come low-tide, when the fishing boats of the poor are crashed against the rocks of fortune and the yachts of the wealthy remain floating high, these same advocates nonetheless ignore the reality. Instead, they claim, eventually, the tide will return – instead they ignore the wrecks already occurred and the damage which must be repaired. For, indeed, an economy must do not only well, but good.
Truly unfortunate, however, has been the fact that the reality of the laissez-faire and the theory are as equally divergent as the promises of the communists and the results of their theories in practice. Secure in their nearly theological faith in the so-called “free” market, such ideologues will point at the heretical Europeans, claiming their social safety nets perpetuate a stagnant class system in which mobility is extremely constrained. Studies by economists have consistently demonstrated the opposite: as journalist Thomas Frank writes, “When economists measured mobility over the period 1986-91 they found that, in comparison with low-paid workers in European countries, American workers actually enjoyed…less class mobility, not more.”
This, after the promises of the Reagan and Bush administrations, after the deregulations of our economy, allowing corporations – including the airline industry – to, sometimes, quite all too literally, fly fast and loose with ourselves and our money. One can only imagine what the results of the continuing deregulation have been. As the religion of the unregulated market and crony capitalism has spread throughout the world, the effects have been devastating.
While the effects of the Clinton and Bush administration’s policies on class mobility may remain to be seen, there is little question on how they have changed other aspects of our society. Today, measures of social inequality show India, Poland, and Bulgaria are all more equal in their distribution of wealth than the United States. Our leaders should be utterly ashamed of this failure of capitalism – but of course, it has never been a secret that the goal of unfettered corporations is not to encourage equality, only profit. Indeed, the Gini index – a measure of income inequality – shows the United States in 1993 as more unequal than it has ever been since the Great Depression, the last great failure of capitalism which many have conveniently forgotten.
As more American children now recognize the Nike swoosh than Jesus, and as increasing numbers attempt to worship both credit card and G-d, it is time for a reconsideration of what we, as a people value. Will we accept a world in which we claim that we want to reward hard work, which, apparently, can be done by paying billion-dollar severance packages to CEOs who run their corporations – and, most recently, our entire national economy – into the ground? At what point was it no longer morally reprehensible that the top 1% of our population held nearly half of this nation’s wealth?
Those who venerate Wal-Mart as the savior of the working poor – answer me this: of what use would their union-busting, sweatshop-using ways be were the collective wealth of the American people distributed in a way such that mothers and fathers did not have to choose between college for their children, dinner for their family, or medicine for their parents?
The economic right will shriek about “totalitarianism” or “socialism” or, yes, even “fascism”, as if a regulation were the moral equivalent of silencing speech or torture. But, really, how democratic is a system in which there is little in the way of accountability of those who run it, whose calculator of worth rewards massive layoffs of the workforce while the perpetrators of unemployment make over one-thousand times the average salary of their employees?
Frederick Douglass once said, “in respect to any great change, (no matter how great the good to be attained, or the wrong to be redressed by it), may be calculated with as much precision as can be the course of the stars. They hate all changes, but silver, gold and copper change! Of this sort of change they are always strongly in favor.” Were one not already aware that this quote referred to the slaveholders of the 19th century, one might presume it referred to the capitalist radicals whose ideology seems so often at odds with what should be in their hearts.