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The Moral Challenge of 'Shared Sacrifice' to Income Inequality in the Second Decade of the 21st Century

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In previous blogs I stated that the Presidential Election of 2012 may be the most important one in our nation's history since the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. It will be a referendum on our values, priorities, and our view on the use and limits of federal power to achieve or defeat national economic, political and social goals.

Tom Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, in a recent article, captioned "Go Big, Mr. Obama", wrote:

"President Obama has a clear choice on how to approach the 2012 election: He can spend all his energy defining Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or whoever ends up as the Republican nominee in as ugly a way as possible, or he can spend all his energy defining the future in as credible a way as possible. If he spends his energy defining his Republican opponent, there is a chance the president will win with 50.00001 percent of the vote and no mandate to do what needs doing. If he spends his time defining the future in a credible way and offering a hard, tough, realistic pathway to get there, he will not only win, but he will have a mandate to take the country where we need to go."

However, the 2012 election will also provide an opportunity for us to revisit the moral and religious values that have come to comprise the soul of America.

We are reminded repeatedly that we were founded as a "Christian" nation with an abiding belief in God; and, that under our Constitution, Americans are free to practice or not practice their religious beliefs without fear or intrusion by State or Federal power. While we assure that all religions can be publicly expressed, we are also told that America is a country based on Judeo-Christian beliefs and precepts.

So where do all of the mean-spirited attacks on the poor, and now more frequently on our nation's middle class families come from? Much, but not all seems to be expressed by Christian Evangelicals and "Tea Party" members. What they propose and oppose seems to contradict and be contrary to the moral and Biblical precepts and teachings of their Christian faith.

How can they morally oppose assessing greater taxes on the wealthiest part of our population for funding jobs and other Obama proposed programs to reduce unemployment, expand health care and increase equal economic opportunity?

Such opposition contradicts the ethical and moral precepts enshrined in Christian religious teaching. How can such opposition be justified as consistent with such basic Christian religious tenets, among others, as:

"For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul" Mark 8:36

"Let your light so shine before me that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" Mathew 5:16

"Do unto the least of the theses as you would do for me. 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". Matthew 25:35

"For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of the wickedness" Psalm 84:10

"A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked" Psalm 37:16

"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there by any praise, think on these things." Philippians 4:8

In addition to these Christian religious precepts there is "Tzedah", the concept of charity and righteousness from the Old Testament which says that it is the responsibility of every Jew "to give aid, assistance and money to the poor and needy."

There also much literature, which one way or another, has dramatized or highlighted previous periods in our history during which we struggled to find a balance between the material benefits from a productive profitable capitalist economy and the needs of those with less income and wealth, if not downright in poverty.

In 1899, Thorsten Veblen, a Norwegian author, in his book, "The Theory of the Leisure Class" introduced the concept of "conspicuous consumption". The term was used to describe the behavior characteristics of what Veblen then called the "nouveau riche" and the upper class that uses their enormous wealth to demonstrate its social and economic power.

Then, of course, there are classics like Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" and John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath". Published in 1925, Dreiser provided a detailed portrayal of the dark side of the American Dream -- the story of what can happen when an ordinary man's desire for wealth and status overwhelms his moral sense. (For those unfamiliar with Dreiser, check out the 1951 movie "A Place in The Sun", winner of six Academy Awards directed by George Stevens and featuring Montgomery Cliff and Elizabeth.)

Steinbeck sought to provoke the nation's conscience against those who were responsible for keeping the American people in poverty. The Grapes of Wrath tells the specific story of the Joad family in order to illustrate the hardship and oppression suffered by migrant laborers during the Great Depression.

In 1962, Michael Harrington, in his "The Other America", wrote about the "invisible poor". He added this voice to those of Dreiser and Steinbeck. In words that would influence the White House domestic policies of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Harrington commented that:

"It is more important to understand that the very development of society is creating a new kind of blindness about poverty. It is increasingly slipping out of the very experience and consciousness of the nation."

"The American city has been transformed. The poor still inhabit the miserable housing in the central area, but they are increasingly isolated from contact with, or sight of, anybody else... The business or professional man may drive along the fringes of slums in a car or bus, but it is not an important experience to him. The failures, the unskilled, the disabled, the aged, and the minorities are right there, across the tracks, where they have always been. But hardly anyone else is... This new segregation of poverty is compounded by a well-meaning ignorance".

"The poor are politically invisible. It is one of the cruelest ironies of social life in advanced countries that the dispossessed at the bottom of society are unable to speak for themselves. The people of the other America do not, by far and large, belong to unions, to fraternal organizations, or to political parties. They are without lobbies of their own; they put forward no legislative program. As a group, they are atomized. They have no face; they have no voice."...

During years subsequent to Harrington's "The Other America" we've had "Studies" and "Commissions" up the kazoo focusing on poverty, income disparity and their social and economic consequences on our body politic, including but not limited to:

  • "The 1965 White House Moynihan Report On the Crisis in The Negro Family", 1968 Kerner Commission Report which concluded that "Our Nation is Moving Toward Two Societies, One Black, One White -- Separate and Unequal",
  • The Walker Commission Report on Domestic Violence,
  • The Eisenhower Foundation Report on the Recommendations of the Kerner Commission 40 Years Later, and
  • The more recent reports from the Brooking Institution, The Bureau of Census and the
  • Report on "The Income Rollercoaster, Rising Income Volatility and Its Implications" by Karen Dynan.

The Eisenhower Report on Kerner said: "We do not yet know whether the dramatic 2008 election breakthrough will be short term or will frame a long term trend. What is clear, however, is that the hope represented by the 2008 election contrasts with the failure of America to meet many of the other goals of the Kerner Commission, as documented"

Over 40 million Americans live in poverty today in the richest country
in history. 50 million or more are without health insurance, and over 40 percent of
the poor are unprotected. The child poverty rate increased from 1968 to 2007. For
children aged 5 and younger, the poverty rate in America is almost 25 percent today.
The American child poverty rate is about 4.5 times the average child poverty rate for
Western European countries. The African American poverty rate has dramatically increased since 2000 and has continued to rise after Jan 19, 2009, the inauguration of President Obama.

The Eisenhower Report updating Kerner continued: "To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values." The Report declared that "a commitment to national action poverty and income inequality is needed" including "a compassionate, massive and sustained (commitment), backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will... " The vital needs of the nation must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted.

"Over the last 40 years, America has had the most growth in wage inequality in the industrialized world. Since the Kerner Commission, productivity has increased significantly in America, but corporations have increased wages little, in real terms".

At the time of the Kerner Commission, CEOs of large American companies earned about 40 times as much as average workers. Today, CEOs of large American companies earn about 275 times or more than the average worker.

These are the economic disparities within our country in 2011 that Occupy Wall Street has been trying to bring to the attention of those who will listen. Are we yet prepared to support the moral challenge of the 99 percent for "Shared Sacrifice" by the 1 percent of our population? If you agree with OWS, surely we can raise our voices, 24/7, to President Obama, Congress, The Tea Party and Republican presidential nominees that, like Howard Beale at the fictional TV Network, UBS, in the 1976 film "Network" and shout, for everyone to hear: we're "mad as hell and not going to take this anymore!"

Presumably, Congresspersons, Evangelical Christians and members of the Tea Party are aware of some if not all of the information recited in this blog. They and other voters in 2012 will have to make a judgment as to whether the net number of jobs lost since January 19, 2009, (the date of President Obama's inauguration,) until November 8, 2012 has been sufficiently material or immaterial to warrant Obama's reelection? And, if he and the Democratic Party have a credible and doable political strategy and plan to reduce our $16.7 Trillion dollar gross federal debt, now exceeding our gross domestic product (GDP)?

Somewhere between of Fox News and MSNBC, there should be an opportunity for a moratorium on partisan political dueling. This might enable jointly sponsored TV Town Hall meetings where a more erudite and objective discussion of America at a moral crossroads in the 2012 presidential election could occur.

In either case we will have to wait to see whether or not President Obama should "go big" as Tom Friedman suggests.

What do you think?

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