In the current strident debate about unemployment, we hear politicians and pundits argue about economic policy. The talk is about deficits and economic stimuli and tax policy.
All of this rancor obscures a more fundamental issue: We choose the kind of society in which we live. The choices we make are moral choices and, as moral choices, they are ultimately based on our central religious values.
We tend to treat changes in the economy as if they were like the weather -- natural phenomena governed by forces beyond our control. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have chosen to live in a society with high unemployment and with income distribution that is becoming medieval. A tiny percentage of Americans owns most of the wealth. Meanwhile millions of willing and able people are without work. This did not just happen. We created this situation.
An economics professor once taught me that if you focus on money, you will never understand economics. What he meant was that the economy is a huge system of human relationships in which people produce and exchange things and services. Money is not the economy; money is a way of keeping score.
As social creatures, one of our fundamental needs is to be in relationship, to participate, to give as well as to receive. Look at what happens to people when they are not employed, especially for long periods. Not only does their income go down, so does their sense of worth. They feel isolated and rejected. Having real work to do gives us a sense of dignity, belonging and value.
Some would argue that we should even treat the right to work as a fundamental human right like the freedom to vote or to choose one's religion. In fact, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to work and protection from unemployment.
When we realize that the economic system is a human creation which we chose and which we can change, we see important moral choices everywhere. Levels of taxation are a moral choice driven by our religious values. So is the level of unemployment.
For example, we could choose to live in a society with low unemployment. We could choose to have less economic growth if it meant more people would have work. We could choose to pollute less.
Given the choice between living in a country with a few rich people, lots of unemployed people, low taxes and high pollution or a country with fewer rich, more people with jobs, higher taxes and environmental sustainability, I know the choice my religious values point me toward.
It's a no-brainer. I would choose the latter.
What would you choose? The choice is ours to make.