Though not much read, Americans still revere the novels of Horatio Alger, Jr. Writing nearly 150 years ago, in the midst of Post-Civil War turmoil, Alger taught his young male audience that hard work, good personal hygiene and moral rectitude were a sure path to a brighter, wealthier future.
These so-called "rags to riches" stories remain popular in the American imagination because they mesh well with other cherished aspects of our national identity. Namely, that the United States is a land of opportunity, where all people are created equal, but those who rise to the tippy-top do so because of their extraordinary contributions to society.
If these ideals were ever true, however, in 2012 they must be recognized as myths, says Joseph E. Stiglitz. He is the Nobel Prize-winning economist and professor at Columbia University, who recently published a new book, "The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future." Stiglitz was also the featured speaker at a new lecture series on Economics and Theology inaugurated this week at Union Theological Seminary, and jointly sponsored with The Institute for New Economic Thinking.
Hearing Stiglitz address a crowd of several hundred people who gathered at Union last Wednesday evening was nearly a spiritual experience for me. I found myself saying "yes!" out loud, so relieved was I to hear such a clear-eyed look at the issue of social justice. I was also surprised to discover how many viewpoints Stiglitz and I, an economist and a theologian, hold in common. Uncertainty and hope. Greed and fear. These are concepts, of course, that drive the stock market and our consumer-based economy. They are also concerns which roil the human soul.
From the way he thunders in his book's pages, Stiglitz sounds like a biblical prophet. He is demanding that America wake up and become aware of the bad path we are on, as well the wrong choices we've made. Here are just two of the startling statistics he offers.
Fact: Today, the wealthiest 1 percent of households have 225 times the wealth of the typical American, almost double the ratio in 1962 or 1983.
Fact: The combined wealth of one family, the Waltons, meaning the six heirs to the Wal-Mart empire, is $69.7 billion, or equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 30-percent of U.S. society!
The only way to address this nearly incomprehensible imbalance of wealth, Stiglitz believes, is by questioning our faith in what is actually America's true religion: capitalism. And therein lies the problem. Because as my friend, and fellow panelist at last Wednesday's lecture, Betty Sue Flowers, points out, both fervent capitalists and religious zealots manifest an extreme unwillingness to rethink any aspect of their sacred ideologies. "Some say, if you tinker with religion, you'll end up in Hell," Flowers noted. "Others say, if we mess with capitalism, we'll all become socialist."
It reminds me of something the economist John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote, "The emancipation of belief is the most formidable of the tasks of reform, the one on which all else depends."
Stiglitz teaches us that the way we think about economics shapes our values. We need to have the strength to evolve away from stale myths. Only then can change occur. In the same way sexism and racism were ideologies that too-long went unquestioned in America, we now must reconsider capitalism.
Is America still the land of opportunity? No. Horatio Alger is dead. Horatio Alger remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves?
You may recognize echoes of Freiderich Nietzsche in those sentences, as with very similar words did Nietzsche, in 1887, shock the world with his views on the death of God. Say what you will of his thesis (and I, for one, do not believe God is dead), we must at least hail Nietzsche for his willingness to confront and provoke. Oh, that a similar fire, and anger, might burn here in America!
There is something profoundly wrong with our moral values, where we have become so desensitized to the gross economic disparity existing in the United States. We live in a society where we have traded virtue for material rewards. We should have more conversations about our deep diminishing of human life; talk less of success, and more about love.
For if we don't, we will continue to pay the price of inequality. And that cost is high.