The Cost of Economic Injustice

May 20, 2016

Income inequality is one aspect of economic injustice that is getting some exposure this election cycle, primarily from Bernie Sanders. The fact that there is economic inequality is now widely accepted by economists, and felt by most Americans. This may be a good outcome, even if it did take widespread suffering to crush the usual stereotypes about poverty being a function of laziness or some other pejorative.

Horatio Alger’s “rags to riches” America no longer exists. Even with heroic effort and working two full-time jobs, most Americans will not realize economic security. Since the Great Recession, the wealth of 50 percent of Americans decreased an average of 40 percent, while the average hourly wages of the 400 wealthiest Americans increased to over $97,000 per hour. There are structural aspects of our economy, built by political policy, that not only created the recent “Great Recession,” but have also increased the rate of the transfer of wealth since then. This comes at great costs to many social aspects of American life.

A deterioration in health and life expectancy are other negative consequences of inequality. America in the last five years has begun to imitate the conditions of Russians after the Soviet Union fell. In the last five years, the average life expectancy for white women in America has decreased at the same rate as Russian men after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In fact, American women now have the lowest life expectancy of women in any advanced country in the world! One factor in this decline is that the American economy has decreased the wealth of the majority of its citizens, resulting in decreased access to health care. One of the objectives of ObamaCare was to remedy that lack of access to medical treatment, but that was sabotaged when the Supreme Court gave the right of states to opt out of Medicare.

So it is not just a lack of access to education, or any of the traditional vehicles for upward mobility, that have been destroyed by this economy. It is also causing a deterioration in health and other aspects of a quality life. Reagan championed the “trickle down” economic theory that set into motion the greatest transfer of wealth in the world’s history. Since then, the political system has only increased that trickle to a torrent. Our children may be the first generation of Americans to live in a Third World country.

What Can One Man Do?

January 28, 2014

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a prophet. I believe he spoke with a moral clarity that rivaled the tradition of Old Testament prophets, and with the same effect. We recently celebrated MLK Day and, as I reflected on his life and accomplishments, I had mixed feelings but felt a certain inspiration.

At the end of his life, Dr. King was speaking more often about reforming our society not only in terms of racial justice, but more so in terms of economic justice. “Poverty” he said, “was the most insidious form of violence”. He condemned the moral bankruptcy of “a society that spends more on weapons of mass destruction that on programs of social uplift…” and predicted its demise. He condemned a government which ignored the needs of its citizens to serve the interests of a few.

Like many of the Old Testament prophets, he was killed because of his message. It’s difficult for me to identify who has since taken up his mantle, especially in government. Dr. King was instrumental in passing the Voting Rights Bill, instrumental in inspiring the War on Poverty, and the political end of the Viet Nam War.

By 2014, The Voting Rights Bill was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court, and laws suppressing voting rights are flourishing. Even more insidious, was that economic injustice – the violence done to the hopes and dreams of the next generation of Americans – is more profound than it is has ever been in our history. Our own children today face the prospect of being the first generation of Americans to grow up in a third world economy for them and their children.

These days it rare to hear anyone in Congress speaking about the problems we face in moral terms and proposing moral solutions. I am not talking about bigots such as those who invoke “God’s Law” as a reason to hate Gays or women. I mean a person who has the courage to speak out in defense of those who cannot do so for themselves.

Such a Congressman might indeed be a “voice in the wilderness”, but as the life and words of Dr. King proved, one man with moral authority can change a society.