Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Where is Our Dickensian Sense of Outrage?

Some must reading:

A very interesting New Yorker piece about working in high end retail.

A Guardian commentary comparing the minimal abuse of the food stamp programs with the huge abuses on Wall Street.

And a piece from BusinessInsider about how the very rich blow through millions without thinking about it.

We have one family in this country that is richer than the whole bottom third of the population. That would be the Walton family, the owners of WalMart, the largest private employer in the country, perhaps in the world.

They instruct their employees to apply for public assistance and food stamps to survive because they refuse to pay them enough to live on.

I wonder how many millions they spend each year lobbying to cut food stamps and public assistance. It would be easy enough for a news organization to find out.

Every Christmas thousands of very comfortable Americans put on their best clothes and drive their expensive cars to the theatre to see the annual production of Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol”, and they smile and shed a tear and applaud, and they learn nothing. They put on their best clothes and drive their expensive cars to their richly appointed churches on Christmas Eve and hear the familiar verses and sing the familiar hymns about Jesus, and they ignore His explicit instructions to care for the poor.

To a great extent this failure to hear the inconvenient reminder to help the poor just when you’ve bought yourself a very expensive Christmas present is understandable. We dislike feeling unworthy and greedy. So churches and theaters and news organizations which rely on the dollar support of the wealthy soft peddle the harsh reminders and focus on the cozier stories. They quote Thessalonians–––that the poor will always be with us, as if that lets anyone off the hook––– and ignore what Jesus actually said about the poor.

(Have you ever noticed how our news refuses to include stories about the unfairness of our economy? This story might explain it. And this one.)

And so the economy grows more top-heavy, and the public conversation is steered toward justifying that, as if it wasn’t only bad Christianity but very bad economics. The rich need justifications for their wealth, and they’re willing and able to spend billions to shore up their flimsy rationale. Those billions would do a lot more for them and the country if it were directed into decent pay for their employees. Their failure to do that makes them Scrooges, but I doubt any of them see the resemblance. Failure to pay fairly is also very very bad for business and for the health of our economy.

(There are some alarming measurements of the damage recent decades have done to most working people's lives...but you won't see these measurements on your nightly newscast. Probably because they need ad dollars from WalMart.)

Since Reagan reshaped America’s thinking, our economy has changed. By pretending union workers were greedy, Republicans destroyed the working middle class. By pretending welfare recipients were eating lobster and driving Cadillacs, they persuaded us to cut benefits to the poor and vulnerable.

At the same time this was happening, church membership in America changed too. Mainline denominations which preached the gospel, including the uncomfortable words Jesus had about our neglect of the poor and our personal greed, lost members to the new freelance megachurches with their aggressively pro-greed “gospel”, their prosperity gospel that twisted Jesus’s teachings into a justification for the wealth of their expensively dressed preachers. It’s disappointing how gullible Americans are.


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