Economic Inequality in America

Economic Inequality in America

Rev. Anthony Makar

Jan. 18, 2015


The spirit of Dr. King gathers us here today, as congregations around the nation remember this great man and his message of social justice. Early on in the recently-released movie, Selma, he asks his friend, confidant and fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy what is the use of integrating lunch counters if black people still could not afford the items on the menu.


That is exactly what a prophet of social justice asks. A prophet who sees completely the tragedy and complexity of our situation. It’s not racism over here and economic exploitation over there. They travel together. They go together. With all the other terrible –isms.


But did you know that it was not until the late 19th century that the very phrase “social justice” came to exist? It was coined during that time, as a way of articulating the main insight of a progressive movement called the Social Gospel. Social Gospel leaders like Walter Rauschenbusch said that the church needs to stop emphasizing individual salvation in some afterlife as the full story. We have to start talking about how the church can help save society in THIS life—how churches can inspire and support initiatives that will impact public policies and institutions and take them in the direction of Beloved Community. How churches can bring salvation to the broken-down human community, and not just to private souls.


From this turning point of consciousness, the phrase “social justice” comes, and Dr. King took up the baton and he ran the next leg of the race and he was faithful. He was faithful. May we pick up the baton and be faithful in our turn.


So I ask the question today: Can we afford the items on the menu? Can we do that, whatever our skin color happens to be? The Unitarian Universalist Association, at its 2014 General Assembly, selected “Escalating Inequality” to be the question that Unitarian Universalist congregations across the land are asked to wrestle with in the next several years. Back in 1964 LBJ declared a War on Poverty, and Dr. King’s voice was lightning and thunder on that, but here we are in 2015, and … just exactly how is that war going? Now people are talking about another kind of war: to preserve the middle class!


It’s a sad story. America’s “shining city on a hill” has become, among all the advanced countries of the world, the one with the greatest level of inequality. Of all the cities of our nation, income inequality is greatest right here, in the Big Peach, the City of Trees, the Empire City of the South.


Who by now has not heard the statistics? The top 10 per cent of the US population appropriated 91 percent of income growth between 1989 and 2006, while the top 1 percent took 59 percent. CEOs enjoy salaries that are on average 295 times that of the typical worker, a much higher ratio than in the past, without any evidence of a proportionate increase in productivity. Dr. King said “It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages”—and the crime still goes on. Bankers, among the strongest advocates of the government keeping their hands off economics, were only too willing to accept hundreds of billions of dollars from that very same government in bailouts during the Great Recession. Big Money triumphs, and Big Money takes care of its own. We say democracy, but really, how can democracy withstand the enormous political influence of the Koch brothers and others like them? Don’t say democracy—say oligarchy. Rule by the wealthy….


In all of this, perhaps the saddest part is the internalized hatred of the poor. One of our Unitarian Universalist writers, Kurt Vonnegut, talks about this in his book Slaughterhouse Five. “Americans, like human beings everywhere,” he says, “believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times.” He goes on to say, “Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor.” That’s what Kurt Vonnegut says, and let me emphasize how increasing inequality only intensifies this assault against people’s inherent worth and dignity. As the worlds of the oligarchy and the insecure widen, it only becomes easier for one to misunderstand the other and to blame it. The oligarchy imagines itself as truly human and projects onto the other animalism and unworthiness. Which of course translates into oligarchy-made social policies that are merciless and only make things worse. Downward spiral.


Warren Buffett has said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”


It is a sad, terrible story…


But must we keep telling it? Over and over and over?


Go back to the Social Gospel and progressives like Walter Rauschenbusch. He had a vision. He once said that what we need to do is create structures in society which incline people doing bad things to reverse course and do what’s good. This is soft power, not hard. Structures in which cooperation is rewarded, not selfishness, not greed. Set up reward systems that make a better society. Just as the architecture of cities can incline people to go in some directions and not others, so can an architecture of choice do the same…


The Social Gospelers got all excited about this vision, but then what happened next was World War I. The war knocked the air out this positivity, as just as Vietnam did to the War on Poverty. The Social Gospelers ultimately found themselves passed over, and then: silence.


But you can’t keep a good idea down forever. Listen to the insights that come from some contemporary holders of the vision of choice architecture: Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the one from the University of Chicago, the other from Harvard—both drawing on research in psychology and behavioral economics in their enormously interesting book entitled Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Here, I’m highlighting chapter 3 of that book which focuses on creating collective change by drawing on the very human tendency to be influenced by others. As in, if you see a movie scene in which people are smiling, you are more likely to smile yourself (whether or not the movie is funny). As in, peer pressure, as the following case study illustrates: “People were asked, ‘Which one of the following do you feel is the most important problem facing our country today?’ Five alternatives were offered: economic recession, educational facilities, subversive activities, mental health, and crime

and corruption. Asked privately, a mere 12 percent chose subversive activities. But when exposed to an apparent group consensus unanimously selecting that option, 48 percent of people made the same choice!” That’s power! Power of peer pressure…


But how to leverage that power for the common good?


We already know that people tap into it for other kinds of purposes.


“Advertisers,” say Thaler and Sunstein, “frequently emphasize that ‘most people prefer’ their own product, or that ‘growing numbers of people’ are switching from another brand, which was yesterday’s news, to their own, which represents the future. They try to nudge you by telling you what most people are now doing.” “Candidates for public office, or political parties,” they continue, “do the same thing; they emphasize that ‘most people are turning to’ their preferred candidates, hoping that the very statement can make itself true. Nothing is worse than a perception that voters are leaving a candidate in droves. Indeed, a perception of that kind helped to account for the Democratic nomination of John Kerry in 2004. When Democrats shifted from Howard Dean to John Kerry, it was not because each Democratic voter made an independent judgment on Kerry’s behalf. It was in large part because of a widespread perception that other people were flocking to Kerry.”


It’s the power of “most people prefer,” the power of “growing numbers of people.” The power is simply there to be used. So make it smart, say the choice architects. Make it responsible, say these inheritors of the Social Gospel vision. Turn it to the common good.


That’s what I want to do, right now. Nudge you by simply informing you of what one of the elite 1 percenters—one of the members of the American oligarchy—is doing, and it’s quite surprising.


I encountered the story in the Huffington Post:


Aetna Chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini announced on Monday that the health-insurance company will be raising wages for its lowest-paid employees. Starting in April, the minimum hourly base pay for Aetna’s American workers will be $16 an hour, according to a company press release.


The 5,700 workers affected by the change will see an average pay raise of about 11 percent. The lowest-paid workers, who currently make $12 an hour, will get a 33-percent raise.


The Wall Street Journal reported that Bertolini recently requested that Aetna executives read Capital In The Twenty-First Century, by the French economist Piketty. The book, which has been hailed as the “most important book of the twenty-first century,” warns that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is heading toward Gilded Age levels of inequality and calls on the world’s largest economies to fix the problem.


The U.S. government, which last raised the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour in 2009, has not exactly scrambled to respond. Aetna’s move is one way companies could help close the gap. “It’s not just about paying people, it’s about the whole social compact,” Bertolini told the Journal.


That’s what one of our American oligarchs is doing. “He’s doing it,” we can say to the other American oligarchs, “so what about you?” We already know that nothing’s worse than a perception that voters are leaving a candidate in droves; so why not create the perception that economic elites are leaving a fundamentally foul arrangement of excessive inequality and moving towards something far more sane?


I’d rather help create this perception (which IS based in reality but we want to make it more and more real) than revert to a standard strategy of the 99 percent which is to tell folks all about how wealth infects people and makes them evil. I mean, there is article after article floating out there that essentially wants to demonize the financial elites.


But I will not do that. Yes I’m frustrated and angry. Yes I am! Yes I am! But I will not go there. Because it is not helpful to freeze people in time. It is not helpful to decide in advance what is and is not possible for the human heart. It is not. Cornel West (whose vision we explored a couple weeks back) says something of key importance to progress around economic equality: “Our elites are not to be demonized. Elites can make choices. They’re not locked into a category. Choices that are connected to truth and justice. But it takes courage.”


At first I thought he meant courage in the 1 percent—the kind of courage that Aetna CEO Mark Bertolino shows. But maybe it also takes courage in the 99 percent. For the people who are not elite to believe that as a nation we just don’t have to keep on telling the same sad small story. Psychologist Jean Houston once said, “If you keep telling the same sad small story, you will keep living the same sad small life.”


Don’t demonize, says Cornel West. Do this instead. Make elites see. Believe that they can see. “Democracy,” he says, “is always a movement of an energized public to make elites responsible; at its core and its most basic foundation is the taking back of one’s powers in the face of the misuse of elite power.”


Don’t demonize but democratize.


Make the American oligarchs responsible and responsive to what’s happening, using the power we have: of giving them examples of how other oligarchs have shaken off the stupor of greed and have done the right thing. Tell these stories. Shout these stories from the mountaintop.


An American oligarch has really said, “It’s not just about paying people, it’s about the whole social compact.” He had other American oligarchs read Capital In The Twenty-First Century, by the French economist Piketty, so they could see, like he does, the disaster that awaits for all of us unless, as a nation, we are born again.

That is a conversation among peers we want to encourage.

We should buy a thousand volumes of that book by Piketty and distribute them like Gideon Bibles. That’s what we should do.

Don’t freeze the elites but free them. Defy the tragedy that we see again and again all throughout history, as suggested by Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who says: “The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.”

Let’s not allow it to be too late in America.


Let it be not sunset, but sunrise, in America!


This sermon is a democratic message to America….

Writer Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”

We are most definitely not ready for the harvest. Right now where economic inequality is concerned we are in a terrible place. As a nation. Here in Atlanta. But there is still hope. We need to be smart. We need to know what our power actually is, and use that power.

Plant seeds….

I still want to believe my vote has power. I still want to believe that the politician I vote for will legislate in ways that heal the poor and defend the middle class. I am most certainly not going to stop voting and stop hoping. But rock beats scissors, just like money beats the ordinary citizen’s vote….

But I also know this: money is not unbeatable. Thank God. Paper beats rock, and human connection beats money. The Bible tells me so, and so does science.

So use it. Use the power of human connection to nudge people to walk in the ways of social justice. To walk the ways of righteousness, not greed.

Fulfill that old Social Gospel vision. Fulfill the dream of God.

Bring salvation to our nation. Turn sadness to gladness.

Dr. King hands the baton to us, and now it is our turn. It is our time.