Jim Wallis, America's leading prophetic voice, came to The City Club of San Diego recently to speak about his new book, "On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn't Learned about Serving the Common Good."
Dr. Wallis said:
"At the height of America's near economic collapse during George W. Bush's presidency, seven percent of the wealthiest people in our country saw their incomes rise 28 percent; the other 93 percent saw theirs decline four percent!"
As often noted in the 89 monthly columns preceding this, the greatest threat our democracy faces is not from terrorists but from the ever-widening wealth divide.
No democracy can stand, even the world's oldest, when one percent of its people control 43-percent of the wealth and the next four percent control an additional 29 percent (source, Forbes Magazine). A fact dramatically illustrated by five members of one family, the Waltons of Walmart, having more wealth than 150,000,000 of the rest of us.
Assuming Forbes is right that five percent of our citizens own 72 percent of all wealth the other 95 percent own only 28 percent. The magazine also pointed out the average annual income of the "one percent is $770,000 compared to the average income of the rest of the population, which is around $51,000." ("Average America vs. the One Percent"; Forbes, April 21, 2012.)
Alan Dunn, in his Forbes article, wrote, "The real disparity between the classes isn't in income, however, but in net value. The one percent are worth about $8.4 million, or 70 times the worth of the lower classes."
These figures did not come from The Nation or The Progressive or some other publication of the left, but from capitalist loving Forbes.
William Warren Sweet in his Methodism in American History quotes the church's council of bishops during the Great Depression in 1933, when one-quarter of the nation was unemployed, as issuing a statement which warned that depending upon the old economic formula was, "to trifle with a terrible catastrophe...The naïve faith in our present economic Gods must go...no system built upon poverty, suffering and injustice can no longer be allowed to go unchallenged.
"The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a steadily narrowing minority, the control of the means of production and distribution, the ownership of resources of the nation by the privileged few threaten the economic freedom and security of the people as a whole."
The bishops' statement was 80 years ago. Is any part of what they said then, in a time that ranks among the darkest periods in our history, untrue today?
In the 2012 presidential campaign President Obama often spoke of restoring the "Middle Class." But at no time then, nor in the five months since he was entrusted with a second term, has our president mentioned the poor among us; meaning in his public statements he has consistently ignored 40 million Americans - 50,000,000!
Which is not to say the administration's policies provide no relief to the poor, they do; and they do so in ways that would be unthinkable in a Republican administration (as that party is presently constituted and as it continues its war against the less fortunate among us), but more is required, beginning with President Obama using the powers of his bully pulpit to call attention to the plight of the poor.
But as great as that need is, there is a greater need, one the president has substantively ignored - what to do about the wealth divide in the USA?
True, occasionally he bring the subject up, but my sense is he does so in the politics of the moment, to placate a certain audience, not because he holds an in-depth concern that America's future is threatened.
Can I categorically state the president lacks long-term concern over wealth and the ruinous divisions it has created? I just did. But I do not make that charge because I believe there is a short-term solution to income disparity, because I don't; but unless the president appeals to the better angels of our nature and calls upon all of us, from Wall Street to Main Street, to come together, this condition, like cancer ignored, will destroy the body, soul and spirit of the people of the United States and consign us to third world status.
Or, to put it another way, as it relates to Mr. Obama, while I allow he has the intellectual gravitas to understand the problem (he prefers you not know he's an intellectual) the greater question is whether he also has the moral commitment to act upon his understanding?
In the 53 months of his presidency, while he has been morally right on any number of positions he has taken, policies backed and causes endorsed, there is sufficient ambiguity about other issues to leave open the question on the depth of his moral commitments.
Now, he has 43 additional months to demonstrate his concern and willingness to design an answer to the great wealth divide.
But we won't know that absent his leadership and absent a great rising up by the rolled over and run over and trampled down Middle Class and poor, who must push hard for change and who will accept nothing other than substantive change - change that benefits the many even if it comes, as surely it must, at the expense of the few.
And therein, my brothers and sisters, is the rub.
There is little chance the one percenters, or five or seven, are giving anything up unless convinced their children's futures are at risk, which they will be when "class warfare" become something other than a Republican sound bite - and what we witness today is a presentiment of what will come (or do you think the French Revolution was an aberration of history or one peculiar to France, but before you answer, know their revolution was inspired by ours).
How do we initiate the change we need?
It starts with you and me demanding of our political "leadership" they act, not with the next election in mind but with the next millennium, not out of concern for their own political futures, but ever conscious of the future of 310 million Americans - and counting
I don't know if the president's hubris keeps him from seeking counsel apart from his inner circle, but if he did he might learn the first step in narrowing the wealth divide is fixing our tax code. A fact made abundantly clear when we learned that Apple avoided $74 billion in taxes.
Fixing America's immoral tax code is essential to resolving the wealth divide, but it also requires presidential leadership - and on this the president is silent.
This essay is entitled with Peggy Lee's haunting words, "Is that all there is?" Meaning, is this all there is, the circumstances of the present day in your America and mine?
I don't think so, but the reality is that unless there is a great movement by The People, one that begins with you and me, this will be all there is.