Great Recession

The Rich Get Richer

ECONOMIC INEQUALITY ISN'T NEW. But this spring it became trendy, especially after Pope Francis dropped the tweet heard ’round the world in April: “Inequality is the root of social evil.”

Around the same time, Capital in the Twenty-First Century—a just-short-of-700-page book by French economist Thomas Piketty—became a best seller. Piketty, while not quite as concise as the pope, also sees wealth inequality as a problem—he focuses on its damaging effects on democratic institutions. Using extensive data, Piketty makes the case that escalating wealth inequality is built into capitalism. Without specific interventions, he writes, our politics and culture will be dominated by a small elite controlling vast amounts of primarily inherited wealth. It might create a new Gilded Age for some, but it won’t be any shinier for regular folks than the first one a century ago.

When class and economic status become news, the conversation tends to get a little shrill. Terms such as “Marxist” and “anti-business” were tossed around freely in reference to both Piketty and the pope. Some, of a more spiritual bent, sought to warn the pope and other Christians who decry inequality about the biblical sin of “covetousness,” offering reminders of the virtue of hard work. (I guess the hidden message of the parable of the rich man and the beggar at his gate is that Lazarus is envious; the real issue must be Lazarus’ poor work ethic and lack of get-up-and-go!)

But the inequality gap should be of concern to everyone, whatever their income or ideology. The point is not the fact that there are differences in wealth—those exist in any human society. And it’s not necessarily helpful or productive to seek scapegoats or assign broad characteristics to particular classes; neither poor people in general nor rich people in general are inherently noble, lazy, or scheming—temptations may vary, but good and evil can be found in people of every economic status.

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To Whom Do They Answer?

Beds in a homeless shelter, Nathan Kresge / Shutterstock.com
Beds in a homeless shelter, Nathan Kresge / Shutterstock.com

During this Holy Week, Christians around the world turn inward to reflect on the mystery and miracle of the death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Those two surpassing events are more than good enough to occupy the mind and heart of every believer. 

But they are not all that Jesus did in these eventful days. As any student of the scriptures will know, Jesus did not go quietly to the cross. Three days before his execution, he stormed the temple and challenged the seat of theocratic power in Jerusalem, condemning the pharisaic elite who "preach, but do not practice" and "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the people's shoulders." (Matt. 23:3-4) He accused as hypocrites leaders who make token offerings yet "have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness … Inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." (Matt. 23:23,25)

In his final teaching before the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday began, Jesus embraced those who are oppressed and cautioned his disciples that acts of love and mercy are the measure of a heart touched by grace. "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (Matt. 25:35-40)

In honor of the occasion, Congress will close its doors and lawmakers will head home to be with their constituents for the Easter recess. If inside reports are to be trusted, they will leave Washington "armed with excuses" that explain away the latest fiscal fiasco, and the people will have little to say in reply. I pray it isn't so. 

From the Editors

Even while Occupy Wall Street and the worldwide movement it has helped ignite captured the public’s attention this fall, some observers claimed not to understand what the protests were all about. They wanted a clear list of demands, or a detailed plan for fixing what ails our economy and our society in general.

Many of the attacks on the Occupy protests seemed a bit disingenuous. After all, it’s pretty much impossible to deny the destructive role played by an under-regulated financial sector—that would be the “Wall Street” that’s being occupied—in sparking the Great Recession. But the transgressions of Wall Street itself are really only the tip of the filthy-lucre iceberg, as the gap between the super-wealthy and the rest has grown to titanic proportions. The statistics, which should serve as icons for our reflection and enlightenment—they’re that crucial—tell a heartbreaking story. What does it mean when the country’s top 1 percent has more wealth than the bottom 90 percent? It means that many, many people are suffering, while (and because) a very few thrive.

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The Good of Manufacturing

High unemployment and declining incomes are changing America so drastically that we’ll soon have a country our grandparents wouldn’t even recognize. And our best and brightest lack the imagination to do anything about it.

Those are the messages, overt and implied, in a recent run of brilliant analytical journalism by Don Peck, an editor at The Atlantic. In March 2010, The Atlantic published Peck’s supremely important, and very long, article “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America.” September 2011 brought a follow-up, “Can the Middle Class Be Saved?” and the material in both pieces has been expanded into a book, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It.

In that first Atlantic article, Peck successfully does what almost no one ever does: He pulls together the relationship between economics and culture. On the economics side, he establishes that what we are experiencing today is no ordinary “business cycle” recession, but something more like a slow-motion equivalent to the Great Depression. And he cites studies of previous generations that entered the work force in times of high unemployment to show that the effects of the hard times didn’t wear off, but instead persisted over a lifetime of lower earnings and diminished happiness.

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The Morning News: Monday, Nov. 28, 2011

Policy-Making Billionaires, Poverty In The Midst Of Plenty: Hunger Persists In The United States; The Religion Of An Increasingly Godless America (OPINION); Evangelicals Flocking Toward Newt Gingrich; Rev. Jackson Calls For New War On Poverty; Improving Social Justice Indicators Will Create A Better U.S. (OPINION); Is The Black Church The Answer To Liberal Prayers?; Catholic Charities' Human Trafficking Program Loses Federal Funds; Air Force Academy Adapts to Pagans, Druids, Witches and Wiccans.

The Gospel Should Be Offensive

kibera1

Scripture constantly should be challenging our assumptions about our lives and in every aspect of society. Transformation is needed on a personal and also a political level. Scriptural priorities shouldn't be glossed over in order to protect political ideologies and comfort zones.

If we believe that what Jesus taught remains just as relevant today as it did when he physically walked among us, then it should still be a comfort to those on the margins of society and offensive to the wealthy and powerful. That doesn't mean that the wealthy and powerful can't be good and faithful followers of Christ, but Jesus did warn them that their walk will be a hard one. Wealth and power bring unique and difficult temptations ... If you never feel uncomfortable when you read the Gospels then you aren't paying attention.

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