10.03.2008

Straight talk?

We’ve come to an Alice-in-wonderland time. A time where politicians of all stripes are bashing the untrammeled greed of the very financiers that the politicians set free (thanks to lobbying) to be greedy. A time when a time when the only way to curb the greed of the wolves is to give them most of the cash left in the chicken coop. A time when a conservative administration is proposing moves that, in the words of conservative pundit George Will, make it the most leftist administration in American history!

This is trickle down economics taken to its absurd conclusion: If we don’t cough up heretofore unthinkable bailouts to the entities whose greed created this problem, we’re told, nothing will continue to trickle down to us on Main Street.

We may be at a time where the only reasonable option to protect the poor and developing economies, as well as regular Americans, is to do whatever it takes to prop up broken parts of our economy. It certainly is a time when we need new kinds of regulation to protect against the greed unleashed by deregulation.

But it is also a time to admit the truth. The operative principle of the economy for at least 30 years, that a rising tide lifts all boats, is a lie.

As we have spread and grown our faith in the belief that only unfettered markets can sustain growth, we have watched while a few amass incredible wealth while less and less trickles down to those of us on the main streets and in the cul-de-sacs. Even less trickles down to the poor, to developing nations. The richest nation in the history of the planet hasn’t shared well with the least of these within its borders, and is one of the stingiest nations in terms of foreign economic aid.

This philosophy has given us less, financially and in terms of well-being. Its given us generations now of Americans working harder and being more productive and still barely able to sustain a modest life. It’s created an egregious and escalating gap between the rich and the poor. Many poor Americans don’t have access to the means to get out of poverty, and developing nations are crushed under relenteless debt. It has pushed massive amounts of debt neatly out of sight onto our children and grandchildren. This birth tax just magnifies the advantages that accrue to the well-off.

Let’s face it. After nearly three decades of this approach, Americans are less secure – financially and geopolitically.

In addition to bailing out the troubling waters that threated to swamp our economy, its time to ask our leaders for a new moral vision for that economy. Such a new moral vision should be one in which:
  • No child left behind is not just a slogan but a reality, where the benefits of success based on use of common goods, such as education and natural resources, to name a couple, are reinvested back in the society and the world as a matter of structure, not charity.
  • There is a sense of “enough.” Many have faulted the American drive for more, more, more, the unrealistic expectations of endless record growth, for causing the current crisis. Ancient Israel’s prophets often chided those who were only concerned for their own gain and comfort while their fellow citizens struggled, and promised divine intervention on behalf of the poor. Those passages speak to all of us who strive for trappings of wealth while so many, here and abroad, struggle just to earn daily bread and find clean water.
  • There is concern for sustainability. The ability of the world’s richest few to consume staggering percentages of the globe’s resources comes at the cost of consuming those resources – oil, food, coal, diamonds, etc. – at alarming rates. Scientists warn that if we don’t curb our consumption and its negative byproducts (such as carbon emissions) our planet may not survive. A sustainable economy will have to be driven more by common investment and less on personal consumption, which is the main engine of the US economy.
  • The playing field is leveled. Our recent policies have not only widened the gap between haves and have-nots but have made those gaps permanent. By making it easier to amass, shelter and pass on wealth, and cutting taxes that could be reinvested in better education, access to college, health care, and lowering barriers to entry to business and professions, we have made it harder for many to try to improve their status. Ancient Israel knew that bad decisions, idleness, and luck would force some persons into poverty and even into servitude, and recognized that there are those who can not provide for themselves. So they set up systems, such as the Jubilee year, that ensured that debts and being disadvantaged did not last forever but were occasionally righted, and lived under a mandate to care for the unfortunate.

There are elements of all these points in the US and global economies now. But they are now byproducts rather than drivers of the economy. We need a new moral economic vision that respects our creation by living within its limits, and respects the imprint of our Creator on every man, woman and child by requiring responsibility for the common good of all in accordance with their means.

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