In an international meeting last week with economists, business executives, non-profit organizational leaders, and theologians, my colleague Stewart Wallis of the New Economics Institute succinctly summed up the problems of the current global economy: it's unfair, unsustainable, unstable, and is making many people unhappy. These issues of the "un-economy" were at the heart of our discussions at the World Economic Forum, and the Occupy Wall Street encampment I just visited in New York City.
Since the Occupy Wall Street movement began, the talk about inequality has been greater than I can remember it being for a very long time. This has been the elephant in the room in our discussions about the economy that nobody wanted to say out loud. In the last hundred years, there have been two peak periods of great inequality in American society--just before the Great Depression, and in 2008, right before our current Great Recession. And in the mysterious and secret global transactions between investment bankers and hedge fund traders, the profits continue to grow.
From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector peaked at 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. In the 1990s it reached postwar period highs by going between 21 and 30 percent. But this decade it hit 41 percent. These profits weren't from products, and weren't always from finding the best use for capital, but from money making more money for a new class of super rich financial traders. And now, when their risk taking, greed, and selfishness created a mess for so many others, we bailed them out and left everyone else to suffer in the economic wilderness of unemployment, home foreclosures, pension losses, deep middle class insecurity, and shamefully, rising poverty rates.
Opportunity is a lost hope for many, as social mobility in America is now less than in Western Europe. And if you search the scriptures, you'll find that God not only cares about poverty, but especially, unfairness and inequality. That's what the young people at Wall Street are angry about.
If everybody had a Ferrari, the planet could not survive. And the earth groans as the ethics, or non-ethics, of endless growth are measured only by corporate shareholders in quarterly profit and loss statements. "Short-termism" was a term I heard over and over in the broad conversations about values at the World Economic Forum. A global economy based on dirty energy and creating unjust regimes, angry populations, endless terrorism and war, and dangerously warming the planet (apologies to those presidential candidates who have disavowed science) is clearly unsustainable. Add to that an advertising industry that systematically, psychologically, and even spiritually turns "wants" into "needs," is a formula for human and ecological disaster.
It's time to move from a narrowly defined shareholder economy to a stakeholder economy that includes workers, consumers, the environment , and future generations -- all in our economic calculations and decision-making.
Another conversation that is taking place alongside the values discussion, both at the World Economic Forum and at Occupy Wall Street, is about the dangerous and growing conflicts over the resources of food, water, land, and energy. Conflicts, both present and future, will not be over ideology alone, but over survival in the face of resource scarcity or resource mal-distribution. Contrast that to the two principles of God's economy: There is enough, if we share it.
Much of the most hopeful talk at the Occupy movement sites is about new economic approaches based on local, cooperative, and sustainable models of market activity. My god-daughter, Korla Masters, is engaged in the mushrooming urban gardening movement in my home town of Detroit, and she tells me that if only half the vacant land in the city were cultivated, it could provide up to three quarters of the need for vegetables and fruits in the Motor City--imagine non-petroleum based food economies with little transport involved.
Being rich doesn't make you happy. Of course, happiness and well-being are connected to a modicum of economic security that we all need. But "enough is enough" is proven to be a better guide to a happy life than the maxim "greed is good." The logic and metrics on a manic consumer economy is that you are never supposed to be satisfied with what you have, but that you always demand more. That endless striving and never ending desire is not making people happy, but rather is highly pressured into a lifestyle of constant stress. In Detroit, we are seeing the burgeoning urban gardens producing several things: jobs, good and clean food, and a sense of community--all of which are ingredients for a happy life.
So here's our mission.
1. Don't expect the Occupy Wall Street movement and sites across the nation and world to produce a set of demands. They are instead raising some fundamental questions about the un-economy, and creating the space for a new cultural and political conversation about it. It's our job now to push that conversation forward -- an especially good role for the faith community as our biblical values and theological assertions are integrally involved in these matters. It's time to put our faith values forward in the midst of what could become a new global conversation about what a fair, sustainable, stable, and happy economy might look like.
2. Don't worry about endorsing the Occupy Wall Street movement (all the diverse elements involved wouldn't even endorse each other!), but rather engage it. I asked a young African American man I met at Occupy Wall Street what churches could do to help. He suggested three things: inspiration, consultation, and presence. I think that's a very good guide. Worship services are already being held at many of the sites led by local clergy of many faiths. Take a potluck meal down to the site as a chance to sit, eat, and talk with the people there. Take your youth group, or members of your congregation down there after church just to see, meet, and listen. Offer the occupiers support--material and spiritual--along with prayer and love.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.
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