Let the rich get richer, conservatives say. The benefits will “trickle down” to all the rest of us. It’s a neat, simple concept, except, it doesn’t always work as advertised.
October 14, 2010 (based on A Biblical Basis for Liberal Politics by David Chandler)
I find it interesting that the “Religious Right” in the U.S., the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, etc., is so active in politics. By all appearances, one might think that conser- vatism somehow equates to Christianity. But all who claim Jesus as Savior are not Republicans. So, where is the Religious Left? If it even exists, why don’t we hear about it in the media? Could it be that liberals are more inclined to accept the concept of separation of church and state? Yes, I think so.
As I dialogue through this blog with those who share the con- servative persuasion, I’m often assailed with the argument that America’s greatness is the result of an economic system whose driving force is the profit motive — capitalism. True, at least in part; our economy rewards self-interest, aka greed.
In classic economic theory, greed is good. A person motivated by greed will create unintentional byproducts that benefit everyone. These benefits include goods and services, employment, and advances in technology. The wonders of the modern world, jet airliners, TV, computers, the Internet and cell phones are just a few examples. So, let the rich get richer, conservatives say. The benefits will “trickle down” to all the rest of us. It’s a neat, simple concept, except, it doesn’t always work as advertised.
John Kenneth Galbraith, famous 20th Century Canadian-American economist, criticized trickle-down economic theory, calling it the “Horse and Sparrow” theory. “If you feed enough oats to the horse, some will pass through to feed the sparrows.” George Herbert Walker Bush, called it “Voodoo” Economics.
The truth is that a rising tide does not raise all boats. Under a purely capitalistic system wherein the government keeps its hands off things and allows the market to decide for itself what is needed, what is fair and proper, wealth does not flow down from the top. It flows up from the bottom. So, rising tides tend to swamp smaller boats.
One would think that, after decades of deregulation, tax cuts favoring the most wealthy, downsizing by America’s corporations and the “off-shoring” of good-paying American jobs, all of this resulting the shrinking of the middle class and growing disparity in the distribution of wealth, that American’s would understand this. But no, most Americans still think that tampering with the market system to promote fairness and equal opportunity, and a progressive tax code to redistribute the wealth and assure that the unemployed, the poor and disabled are helped and protected, is tantamount to socialism. And most Americans think that socialism is bad. But what does Jesus think?
By now, I think you know where I’m going with this.
Jesus spoke most about the Kingdom of God. But He also talked a lot about wealth and poverty. To the poor He said, “Blessed are you, for yours is the kingdom of God,” (Luke’s version). To the rich he said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth,” and “go, sell what you have, and give to the poor.” When the rich turned away from Him because they had so much wealth, He observed, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
According to Jesus, helping the poor and the outcast is not an option. It is the essence of what it means to love God. In the parable of the last judgment, He welcomes the righteous into heaven saying, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” When the righteous answered that they didn’t recall doing any of these things for Him, He said, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
We are to “forgive our debtors” and “give to everyone who begs from us.” But don’t handouts contribute to moral decay? Jesus, I think, was more concerned about the moral decay in those of us who are so attached to our wealth that we would hoard it for ourselves and our issue rather than share it with others who are less fortunate.
Our better angels tell us that giving does not corrupt. We sacrifice to give good things to our children and do our best to provide them with every opportunity as they grow up. We do this to give them a sense of security and a foundation for growth because we love them. Many of us will reach out to help friends in hard times even though we know that we will never be repaid. We do this because we love them. But how many of us contribute regularly to charity? How many of us give a full and righteous tithe? How many of us divert our eyes and pass by the beggar on the street? No, we do we not love the stranger. So, it is in dealing with need in the abstract that we fall back on the “moral decay” argument.
What does Jesus have to say in Scripture about trickle-down economics? Well, recall the story Jesus told about a rich man and the beggar, Lazarus, who desired only to be fed by what fell from the rich man’s table. Needless to say, the story ends with Lazarus going to a better place than the rich man.
Trickle-down theory is about crumbs falling off the tables of the rich, it’s about oats passing undigested through horses. Therefore, those of us who say that we should settle for crumbs or a few oats, those of us who advocate free-trade, laissez-faire economics would also have most of us become beggars or sparrows.
There is economic inequality in the world, the haves and the have-nots. There always has been. In response to this reality, Jesus admonishes us to share our wealth.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy, who had been shocked by the hunger he saw in West Virginia, made the fight against hunger a theme of his presidential campaign. After his election he created the modern food stamp program, which today helps millions of Americans get enough to eat. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, thought the issue of hunger in this, the world’s richest nation, was something to joke about. In his famous speech in 1964, A Time for Choosing, he said, “We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well, that was probably true. They were all on a diet.” Later he clarified saying that hunger in America was simply a problem of distribution.
Distribution? What does that mean? In a business/economics sense it means moving products from factory or farm to wholesaler to retailer to consumer. But this involves the exchange of dollars, money flowing upstream from consumers to the entrepreneurs and corporate owners. To Jesus, however, distribution means something else.
Recall the story in John 6 (1-14) wherein Jesus fed the 5000 with five barley loaves and a couple of fish that were offered up by a boy who had come to hear Him speak. Did you ever think on hearing or reading this story why Jesus used the proffered loaves and fish? Why didn’t he just turn rocks into bread and grass into fish? Would that not have been an even more impressive miracle? Well, I think the story has more to do with distribution (sharing) than it does with miracles. I think that there was plenty of food among those who followed Jesus that day. I suspect too that, by telling his disciples to take the loaves and the fish and distribute them freely to the crowd, He compelled those with food to join him in giving it away. It was an object lesson for the disciples, for the people who there that day. It was an object lesson for us. But some hear and do not listen; some look and do not see.
Ok, you say, as a Christian I agree that I should be concerned about the poor. But shouldn’t this concern be simply a private matter to be handled through donations to churches and other charities, George H. W. Bush’s Thousand Points of Light. Why should government have anything to do with it? Hold that thought.
Americans are a generous people. According to the National Philanthropic Trust, charitable giving for 2010 will total 2.2 percent of our GDP. By comparison, according to the Congressional Budget Office, federal social program spending alone, not counting Social Security, Medicare, CHIP and unemployment, will total 12.5 percent of GDP this year. Now, if Washington were to suspend all this social program spending and reduce income taxes by a corresponding amount, Americans would surely increase their charitable giving by that same amount, right?
Surely, you get the point. Left to the private sector alone to care for the less-fortunate, Hoovervilles would return to open spaces in and around our cities.
Our economy is currently in the worst condition it’s been in since before the beginning of the Second World War. It’s based on a system that has the potential to produce tremendous wealth, but it has failed to maintain its lead over foreign competition. Consider the possibility that this could be, at least in part, because the system fails to distribute wealth equitably. It neglects the poor and it corrupts the rich. On both counts, it destroys community. It divides us against one another. It pushes more and more of us toward the margins. It warehouses more and more of us in prisons, and it creates an increased burden for government to provide services without having to borrow from the rest of the world. But why would those who profit from the system want to change it? They wouldn’t.
The Bible calls upon rulers to create just societies, and, in our democratic form of government, in theory at least, we are the rulers. The choices our representatives make, or should make, are extensions of our own choices, our own actions. And by our participation in government, or passive consent, we share responsibility for what our nation does or doesn’t do.
A decent life for all in a land of plenty is a matter of simple justice, not charity! There are remedies that will make the system work better in the interests of all of the people without resorting to Soviet-style socialism, which we all know doesn’t work. But mixed economies do quite well. Consider how well-off the average Dane is, or the average Swede, or the average Norwegian compared to the average American. But it will take active political involvement by an informed, compassionate electorate to implement these remedies.
So, would Jesus be more of a capitalist or more of a socialist in today’s world? What do you think?
I invite your comments.