Thank you for that generous introduction, Serene. And thanks to all of you for that generous welcome. It is always a joy to be here at Union Theological Seminary among so many kindred spirits.
I had to think twice when Gary Dorrien invited me to speak in this series in memory of Forrest Church. I was honored by the request, but humbled at the prospect of trying to do justice to the man. Forrest was a complex compound of passion and principle. Both eloquent and earthy, in the public eye he was supremely self-confident, yet in private as embattled as any one of us who must fight the longest war of all, the war of the self – that civil war described by Emily Dickinson when she wrote:
I felt a cleaving in my mind,
As if my brain had split—
I tried to match it seam by seam—
But could not make it fit.
None of us is a seamless web, none, no matter how well intentioned, escapes a tear, a rift, a split in the inner garments of the self. Perhaps this is one reason why Forrest himself once acknowledged, “I don’t come thundering out of the pulpit with the quote-unquote truth. I am involved in a search, and all of my conclusions are tentative.” But of some things he was certain. He led All Souls Church in a far-reaching ministry that included homeless shelters for women, food for the hungry, and a task force that went about the city posting placards that read: “AIDS is a human disease and deserves a humane response.” In plain-spoken but learned sermons he challenged complacent living and in his more than 20 books he challenged conventional thinking. He was a questioning man; his was a questing soul.
After reading his book The Seven Deadly Virtues I called him up and asked him to join me for a conversation on my weekly television series “World of Ideas.” That interview remains one of my favorites from a long life of encountering lively minds. It was 1988. We had both just watched the televised hearings from Washington into the Iran-Contra scandal – President Reagan’s illegal sale of weapons to Iran and his administration’s troublesome encouragement of insurgency in Central America. One of Reagan’s loyal subalterns, Colonel Oliver North, was a seminal figure in the scandal and had been called before the Senate committee to testify. His Bible-thumping, flag-waving performance was so charismatic – so demagogic – that he turned public opinion in his favor. Forrest had written in his book that “the devil almost always appears in drag,” so I asked him to expand on the idea. He answered:
“Well, the devil is evil in disguise and often disguised as goodness…. [so]… One has to be particularly careful, therefore, in…the celebration of virtues because virtues –particularly great virtues – can veil great evil…I listened to Oliver North’s testimony… and he was able to justify every one of his acts according to the highest of virtues: faith and love and hope and fortitude and justice. The testimony, I think, was so powerful to the American people because, rhetorically and superficially, it represented everything we admire. But, for that very reason, it’s the more dangerous because the flip side, the dark side, isn’t being seen and we can do tremendous evil in this world in the name of good and in the name of God.”
You have an insight there into the thinking of the man for whom this lecture series was instituted. You can learn much more about him in the bracing and captivating biography–Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church, published just last year. The author – Dan Cryer, veteran journalist, indefatigable reporter, talented storyteller, and longtime member of the Unitarian Church of All Souls – is here tonight. Thank you for a work so lucid and engaging that Forrest’s story will now outlive him.
My text this evening is three-fold:
First, The Washington Post, November 9: a story by Steven Mufson about what happened at Murray Energy, an Ohio-based coal company, on the day after the election last week. Murray Energy is the largest privately owned coal mining company in the country. It is notorious for violating safety regulations, sometimes resulting in injuries and deaths, and for polluting the environment by repeatedly spilling coal slurry into a nearby stream. Robert Murray, the chairman and CEO, is known as a cutthroat businessman. Earlier this fall he reportedly forced miners to attend a Romney campaign speech. Now, after Barack Obama’s re-election, he called together some of his staff and read them this prayer:
Dear Lord. The American people have made their choice. They have decided that America must change its course, away from the principals of our Founders. And, away from the idea of individual freedom and individual responsibility. Away from capitalism, economic responsibility, and personal acceptance. We are a Country in favor of redistribution, national weakness and reduced standard of living and lower and lower levels of personal freedom…The takers outvoted the producers. In response to this, I have turned to my Bible and in II Peter, Chapter I, verses 4-9 it says, ‘To faith we are to add goodness; to goodness, knowledge; to knowledge, self control; to self control, perseverance; to perseverance, godliness; to godliness, kindness; to brotherly kindness, love.’ Lord, please forgive me and anyone with me in Murray Energy Corporation for the decisions that we are now forced to make to preserve the very existence of any of the enterprises that you have helped us build. We ask for your guidance in this drastic time with the drastic decisions that will be made to have any hope of our survival as an American business enterprise. Amen.
Then Robert Murray fired 156 of his workers.
Second, the Gospel of Luke, Chapter l0, a story told by Jesus of the lawyer who, intending to nettle him stood up and said:
“‘Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life? He said to him: What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ [The lawyer] replied: ‘You must love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘You have answered right,’ said Jesus, ‘do this and life is yours.’ But the man was anxious to justify himself and said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied: ‘A man who was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hand of brigands [robbers]; they took all he had, beat him and then made off, leaving him half dead. Now a priest happened to be traveling down the same road, but when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite who came to the place saw him, and passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion when he saw him. He went up and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. He then lifted him to his own mount, carried him to the inn and looked after him. Next day, he took out two denarii and handed them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and on my way back I will make good any extra expense you have.’ ‘Which of these three, do you think, proved himself a neighbor to the man who fell into the brigands’ [robbers’] hands?’ ‘The one who took pity on him,’ [the lawyer] replied. Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do the same yourself.’”
Third, a short story by the late Stevie Smith, told through her poem “Not Waving but Drowning”:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Modern capitalism has turned the greed once considered sinful into virtue. Oliver Stone famously captured the transformation in his 1987 movie Wall Street. The high roller Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) has used information obtained by his ambitious young protégé, Bud Fox (played by Charlie Sheen) to manipulate the stock of a company that Gekko intends to sell off for a huge personal windfall while throwing overboard its workers, one of whom is Bud’s own blue-collar father. The younger man is aghast and repentant at having participated in such duplicity and chicanery, and he storms into Gekko’s office to protest, only to be abruptly reminded of how the world now works:
“It’s all about bucks, kid; the rest is conversation,” Gekko tells him. “Hey, buddy, you’re still going to be president [of this firm], alright? And when the time comes, you’re going to parachute out a rich man. With the money you’re going to make, your dad’s never going to have to work another day in his life.”
“So tell me, Gordon, when does it all end? How many yachts can you water ski behind? How much is enough?”
“It’s not a question of enough, pal. It’s a zero-sum game. Somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred from one perception to another. Like magic. This painting here, I bought it ten
years ago for $60,000; I could sell it today for $600,000. The illusion has become real and the more real it becomes, the more desperately they want it. Capitalism at its finest.”
“How much is enough, Gordon?”
[And Gekko answers]: “The richest l% of this country owns half our country’s wealth – $5 trillion. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds from inheritance – interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons, and what I do – stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got 90% of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing; I own. We make the rules, pal: the news, war, peace, famine, upheaval; the price of paper clips. We pull the rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you buddy? It’s the free market and you’re part of it.”
That was 25 years ago, in the high-flying 80s. Today the New Gilded Age roars down on us like an uncaged tiger on a rampage. The Greek historian Plutarch (ca. 46-120 CE) long ago warned that “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” Yet inequality in America has soared to the highest level since the Great Depression, with the top one percent taking 93% of the income earned in the first full year after the recovery from the Great Collapse of 2008.
When I was a young man in Washington in the 1960s, most of the country’s economic growth actually accrued to the bottom 90% of households – in other words, to the majority of everyday people. From the end of World War II until the early 1970s, incomes grew at a slightly faster rate at the bottom and middle of the economic distribution. The economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez looked at tax data from 1950 through 1980 and found that the share of all income going to everyone BUT the rich increased to 65%. The average income for 9 out of 10 Americans was growing, too – from $17,719 to $30,941. That’s a 75% increase in income content in constant 2008 dollars, when their study was published.
Then something happened. Since 1980 the economy continued to grow impressively, but most of the benefits went to the top. Workers were more productive but shared less in the wealth they were helping to create. As the richest among us began to capture the rising share of economic growth the line flattens for the bottom 90%. In the late 1970s the richest one percent received nine percent of total income and held 18% of the nation’s wealth. By 2007, they had more than 23% of total income and 35% of the wealth. Now, more than 50% of all the income gains go to the richest one percent. The 400 wealthiest individuals on the Forbes 400 list own more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans; those 400 possess more wealth than half the country combined. At no time in modern history has the top one hundredth of one percent owned more of our wealth or paid so low a tax rate.
This phenomenon has changed America, because inequality matters. Surveying its impact…
On economic growth, which it slows;
On health, which it undermines;
On social cohesion and solidarity, which it erodes;
On education, affordable housing and other public services, which it starves;
On government, which it hijacks.
The scholar Robert McChesney concludes, sadly: “This isn’t what democracy looks like.”
It isn’t. Bruce Springsteen sings of “the country we carry in our heart.” The real country is far different.
Let’s bring it down to where we live. Of America’s 25 largest cities, New York is now the most unequal, rivaling the questionable status of a third world country. The median income for the bottom 20% last year was less than $9,000, while the top one percent of New Yorkers has an average annual income of $2.2 million. Yet the powers-that-be recently awarded Donald Trump the right to run a luxury golf course in the Bronx which taxpayers are being charged at least $97 million to build. You’ve heard about the crane that the recent storm almost toppled from the skyscraper going up on West 57th Street. That crane has been serving the construction of what will be the tallest residential building in the city, which the The New York Times has already dubbed “the global billionaires club.” At least two of the apartments are under contract for more than $90 million each. More modest ones have been priced from $45 million to more than $50 million.
Another snapshot: In October The Daily News reported on how the mega-star Beyoncé delivered her baby – Blue Ivy – at Lenox Hill Hospital in a posh full-service suite that costs $1,700 a night. Babies cared for in those suites receive nearly one-on-one nursing care. “Two floors above,” the reporter Greg Smith wrote, “up to 18 newborns are sometimes tended by a single nurse.” Nurses told him the ratio is putting the babies’ lives at risk, because by contract, nurses are only supposed to work with eight newborns at a time.
So inequality impacts negatively on economic growth, health, solidarity, public policy, public services, and politics. Yet none of the embarrassing questions raised by this vast inequality were addressed in our recent campaign. They might have been if instead of establishment journalists from inside the Beltway the debates had been moderated by someone like, say, the distinguished literary critic Terry Eagleton. The author of Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, is a visiting professor at Notre Dame University. Last year, in The Chronicle Review, he asked:
Why is it that the capitalist West has accumulated more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless to overcome poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality? What are the mechanisms by which affluence for a minority seems to breed hardship and indignity for the many? Why does private wealth seem to go hand in hand with public squalor? Is it, as the good-hearted liberal reformist suggests, that we have simply not got around to mopping up these pockets of human misery, but shall do so in the fullness of time [perhaps in Obama’s second term]? Or is it more plausible to maintain that there is something in the nature of capitalism itself which generates deprivation and inequality…?
These are questions politicians, financiers, and CEOs are not eager to discuss. As Eagleton recognizes, they no longer seem willing even to talk about capitalism. Not surprising. The recent economic crash forced us once again to think of the setup under which we live as a whole. “Whenever you hear capitalists talking about capitalism, you know the system is in trouble. Usually they prefer a more anodyne term, like ‘free enterprise’” [or ‘job creators,’ the euphemism of the season.] This, too, is not surprising. If we think too hard about the system, if we talk too candidly about it, we have to acknowledge it isn’t working for working people. Wages are stagnant. Twenty-three million Americans unemployed, underemployed, or no longer looking for work. Forty-seven million need food stamps. Life expectancy has been contracting by five years for women and by three years for men. Oliver Goldsmith’s famous lines seem taken right from today’s headlines: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”
Too harsh? Reality is harsh. Next weekend I’ll be in Milwaukee filming for the latest chapter in a series of documentaries our team has been producing over the past 20 years – the ongoing story of two families, one black, one white. Both families lost their breadwinners in the first wave of downsizing in 1991 as corporations speeded up the moving of jobs out of the city and out of the country. Since then we’ve been chronicling their efforts to cope with wrenching changes and finding a place for themselves in the so-called “the new global economy.” The Stanleys and the Neumanns are the kind of people my mother would have called “the salt of the earth.” They love their children, care about their communities, attend church every Sunday, and work hard all week. They thought of themselves as middle class.
To make ends meet after the layoffs, both mothers had to take full-time jobs. Both fathers became seriously ill. When one of them had to spend two months in the hospital, the family went $30,000 in debt for lack of adequate health coverage. We were present with our cameras when the bank began foreclosure on the modest home of one of the families because they couldn’t meet the mortgage. It’s one of the most heart-wrenching and revealing scenes in any film we’ve ever done. Like millions of Americans, the Stanleys and the Neumanns were playing by the rules and getting stiffed by the system. By the end of the decade they were running harder and slipping further behind, and the gap between them and the prosperous top of America was widening.
We called our first documentary on these two families “Minimum Wages” because they had gone from good-paying jobs at the beginning of the 90s to minimum wages at the end of the decade. Here’s what I said at the conclusion of that film, which aired in 2000:
Making it in America today means more family members working longer hours for less pay and fewer benefits. If the trend continues it will change radically America’s workforce and America’s future. Economic progress will come to fewer and fewer of us, the divisions among us will grow and millions will find that poverty and a paycheck go hand in hand. Our prosperity requires a workforce that can pay for its goods and services. Our society requires the simple justice that rewards hard work. As a nation we face no problem more vexing than people who can’t support themselves and families that barely survive – even when they are working hard.
As I say, that first documentary was broadcast 12 years ago. We called the next one “Surviving the Good Times” because prosperity was increasing for the top while people like the Stanleys and the Neumanns were just barely making it in a country where the middle class was slowly coming apart. Our team is in Milwaukee as I speak, filming with those same two families for the final film. One morning earlier this week they met the father of one family at 6 A.M. as he set off to pick up garbage for the City of Milwaukee. Later in the day they filmed the mother of the second family. She is a home health aide, divorced, caring for a disabled 15-year-old boy, making $9 an hour. She has no health insurance and says that if she wasn’t living in a spare room with a relative, she would likely be homeless. Nobody in her family has climbed up the economic ladder. They appear to be sinking into the growing ranks of the permanent underclass. They are not waving but drowning.
You don’t need to read Das Kapital to understand what’s happening, or to see that the United States has become one of the harshest and most unforgiving societies among the industrial democracies. Just read The Economist – arguably the most influential pro-capitalist, business-friendly magazine in the English-speaking world. I keep handy a sobering warning published in the magazine almost ten years ago, on the eve of George W. Bush’s second term. The editors examined the growing body of evidence and concluded that with income inequality in this country reaching levels not seen since the first Gilded Age, and social mobility rapidly diminishing, “The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.”
Mind you, this was before the financial collapse, before the bailout of Wall Street, before the recession which accelerated the gap between the Superrich and everyone else. Accentuated by the Bush-Cheney tax cuts for their donor class, the great sucking sound we have been hearing is of wealth being redistributed upward from the middle and working classes to the very top. The degree to which our income distribution has skewed unequally is, as Robert McChesney writes, “historically unprecedented and so dramatic it is almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around it. It is like trying to calculate the distance from Earth to a distant galaxy in centimeters using Roman numerals.”
A century ago, in an essay appropriately titled “Utopia of Usurers”, the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton wrote that “In every serious doctrine of the destiny of men, there is some trace of the doctrine of the equality of men. But the capitalist really depends on some religion of inequality.”
Exactly. But this religion is not revelation, it is invention. Pundits, politicians, and economists tell us that this vast inequality is driven by globalization and technology, inevitable change brought on by universal pressures. Sorry: that diagnosis just isn’t good enough. It completely ignores the whole cloth of reality, including the work of such respected political scientists as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. They spent years researching their book, Winner-Take-All-Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. They conclude: “Step by step, debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many.”
In even fewer words, “It’s the politics, stupid.” The staggering inequality of today was politically engineered over the last 30 years.
To help the cover-up of this phenomenal heist our financial and political class needed an intellectual gloss. So they recruited – and subsidized – various public intellectuals who turned “globalization,” “neo-liberalism,” and “the Washington consensus” – whatever one chooses to call it – into a theological exercise. The “dismal science” of economics became a miracle of faith. Wall Street glistened as the Promised Land, and hardly anyone noticed that those angels dancing on the head of the pin were really witchdoctors with MBAs brewing voodoo magic. Their numbing narcotic injected into the body politic turned greed into a divinely sanctioned creed that underpins the religion of inequality. One of its high priests, Lloyd Blankfein, beholding all that Goldman Sachs had wrought, pronounced it “God’s Work.”
One prominent neoconservative religious philosophy even articulated a “theology of the corporation.” Thus it came to pass that the celestial chorus began to sing of wealth creation as participation in the Kingdom of Heaven Here on Earth. CEOs were now partners in the work of the Creator. Never mind that the philosophy of the atheist Ayn Rand – that altruism is evil, the self-preeminent, and government the enemy – seemed more influential with this crowd than the teachings of John Paul II, not to mention those of Jesus himself. Distorted derivatives of traditional doctrine became window dressing to promote an economic system based solely on self-interest. So help me, at one point I thought they were going to mount a crusade to change the Lord’s Prayer from “Give us this day our daily bread” to “Give me this day my daily bread – and everyone else’s, too.”
Back in the 1980s, when this neoconservative worldview was ascendant, I was struck by its silence – even indifference, if not hostility–toward the role of Catholic social teaching on the struggle of workers to organize in the 1930s. I am not Catholic, but this was an era and subject of interest to me because my parents were thrown out of work as tenant farmers when the Great Depression hit, and my father never had a stable job with decent wages until many years later when he finally joined a union. After meeting and filming with Dorothy Day, the inspiration with Peter Maurin behind the Catholic Social Workers, I began to read as much as I could about faith-based action during the Depression and the struggles which had preceded it in the populist and progressive eras.
That’s how I came upon the 1891 Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor. That’s the one that opens by taking note of the “unmistakable elements” wrought by “the spirit of revolutionary change” that were “disturbing the nations of the world” through “the vast expansion of industrial pursuits and the marvelous discoveries of science,” “the changed relations between masters and workmen,” and “the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses.” The third paragraph of the Encyclical is remarkable to this day. Remember, this is 1891. The Pope is calling for “some opportune remedy” to be found “quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.” In short pungent strokes the document describes how “the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place…Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.” And then, a stinging condemnation of injustice by which [quote] “a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”
When that Encyclical was published, America’s First Gilded Age was in full swing. Workers were fodder for the new machines of the industrialists, farmers were at the mercy of the banks and railroads, and in the south freed slaves had been betrayed into indentured servitude. The Pope got it right, and the message got through. In the same folder where I keep a copy of that Encyclical, I also keep an essay by the historian Perry Bush, describing how in the 1930s Phillip Murray of the steel workers, James Carey of the electrical workers, and John Brophy of the CIO (the Congress of Industrial Organizations) were fiercely pursuing justice with the hot breath of Catholic social teaching as the wind in their sails. When John Brophy was heckled at a labor rally, he shouted back: “Yes, I am a Catholic, and because I obey Catholic teaching I go forward in my chosen calling to fight against greed and privilege.”
Can’t do better than that, especially if you’re on the front lines of a class war launched from the top down.
The fight for what the Encyclical called “the laboring poor” was an ecumenical affair, as the historian Bush writes. Martin Luther King Jr. was a newborn when a handful of courageous ministers in the Deep South embarked upon “the dangerous task of cobbling together a biracial union” on the strength of common class interests. Joining with African-American Baptist ministers they sought to “pull sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta out from under the crushing system of debt peonage.” [Pay attention, indebted students: you are the new peons.] Against the threat of Jim Crow “justice” – which included the flaming crosses of the KKK and the lynching tree – these clergy were sustained by a Christian ethos that informed their organizing vision. Six of the 14 members of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union were preachers, Perry Bush tells us. Their meetings began and ended with prayer and were marked by hymns and spirituals. Just as Paul the Apostle had set forth in his letter to the Ephesians, they began to break down the dividing walls of caste and class “and helped model God’s reign in the midst of injustice.”
So, in 1950, did two young Catholics who had been assigned as “priests to the poor” in California’s Central Valley. Thomas McCullough and Donald McDonnell traveled relentlessly to meet farm workers who had been beyond the reach of the Church. They sat on the banks of ditches next to the fields and in the workers’ chicken-coop housing and talked about strength in numbers. They soon met the young organizer Cesar Chavez, who would later recall how the three of them read together from Pope Leo’s encyclical upholding labor unions. That, as Chavez would say, inspired his own efforts to infuse a powerful movement of “the laboring poor” with a dynamic faith at its core. There were nightly rallies blessed by priests; pray-ins outside a boycotted farm with striking farm workers kneeling and praying for the strikebreakers; crosses and statues of the Virgin carried aloft by the faithful on their pilgrimage of protest to Sacramento. Cesar Chavez himself fasted for a month trying to forestall the violence of frustrated field hands. These and all the other images, Perry Bush wrote – battle-weary mine organizers quoting scripture, clerical collars in picket lines in Youngstown and Chicago; white Presbyterian and black southern Baptist ministers proclaiming words of hope to sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta – “speak to a powerful theme that pulsed through much of American history over the course of the past century.”
Yet here in this chapel among the spirits of our progressive tradition and you, its living agents, I admit to feeling weak in our cause. The great theological disputes that once made martyrs of our ancestors and toppled kings to make them free, have passed. Faith-based social movements seem a remnant of decades past more than a political force for the future (There were, alas, no pray-ins, outside Murray Energy after those workers were fired last week following Obama’s re-election.) As we see in the stories of the Stanleys and Neumanns, injustice is slower these days, although no less inexorable. It is experienced statistically rather than as a shared experience or through a soul on fire like Murray, Carey, Brophy, McCullough, McDonald, Chavez or King Jr. We have our faith, each of us. But what will become of our country?
And what happens to all those people who are not waving but drowning?
When the brilliant young French observer Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the 1830s, he was excited by the great democratic fervor he witnessed. Perhaps it was that excitement that caused him to exaggerate the equality he also celebrated. At the time Boston’s richest 15% of households controlled roughly 86 % of the wealth, and roughly 30% of America’s labor force was enslaved. But close readers of de Tocqueville will notice that he did in fact warn of aristocracy’s staying power, even in this new country. A half-century before the full flowering of the Gilded Age, he saw that that aristocracy would remake itself. In the second volume of Democracy in America he dedicated a chapter to examining organized capital – or what he called “aristocracy created by business.” He described it as among “the harshest ever created in the world,” and suggested further that “if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate the world, it may be predicted that this is the channel by which they will enter.”
And so it did. With the Gilded Age the new aristocracy surged and soared. Once again, the industrialists, robber barons, and Wall Street tycoons who celebrated it needed a theory to justify their exploitation and define their status. The most influential of their intellectual enablers was the Episcopal minister-turned-Yale professor of political economy, William Graham Sumner. As he famously explained, “Competition…is a law of nature” and nature “grants her rewards to the fittest, therefore, without regard to other considerations of any kind.” Logically, then, if “there be liberty…”
“Men get from [nature] just in proportion to their works, and their having and enjoying are just in proportion to their being and doing. Such is the system of nature. If we do not like it, and if we try to amend it, there is only one way in which we can do it. We can take from the better and give to the worse. We can deflect the penalties of those who have done ill and throw them on those who have done better. We can take the rewards from those who have done better and give them to those who have done worse. We shall thus lessen the inequalities. We shall favor the survival of the unfittest, and we shall accomplish this by destroying liberty. Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative; liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.
From this first flowering to its resurgence today, from the essays Sumner wrote against social legislation and trade unions in the violent infancy of those basic reforms, to the ravings of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and their imitators, to Paul Ryan’s budget and Mitt Romney’s write-off of half of America, to the everyday fare of the right-wing media machine, the goal and effect of this worldview has been to legitimate and protect a hierarchy of monopolized resources, small powerful networks of privilege, and yawning differentials of political influence across our population. We can only be amazed at how the religion of inequality is again being touted precisely in a time when it should have collapsed from self-incrimination along with the markets. A privileged faction in a fervent culture of greed brought us to the brink of a second Great Depression, then blamed government and a “dependent” 47% of the population, and ended up richer and more powerful than ever.
How can this be?
Here is one explanation – from one of America’s richest men – Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s biggest hedge fund. He earned between two and three billion dollars in 2011 and wound up #55 on the Forbes 400 list. The New Yorker reports that he is a philosopher at heart. He claims to have figured out not only how the economic machine works but how the principles of natural selection – “the survival of the fittest” – apply to business. He has even produced a collection of maxims to explain, as he puts it, how “almost everything is like a machine. Nature is a machine. The family is a machine. The life cycle is a machine.” To succeed in this kind of world, he wrote in one essay, you need to “Be a hyena. Attack the wildebeest.”
(Wildebeests are antelopes native to southern Africa. They are no match for the flesh-eating dog-like spotted hyena that gorges on them.)
Here’s what Ray Dalio wrote about being a Wall Street hyena:
“When a pack of hyenas takes down a young wildebeest, is that good or evil? At face value that might not be ‘good’ because it seems cruel, and the poor wildebeest suffers and dies. Some people might even say that the hyenas are evil. Yet this type of apparently ‘cruel’ behavior exists throughout the animal kingdom. Like death itself, it is integral to the enormously complex and efficient system that has worked for as long as there has been life. It is good for both the hyenas who are operating in their self-interest and the interest of the greater system of the wildebeest, because killing and eating the wildebeest fosters evolution (i.e., the natural process of improvement.) In fact, if you changed anything about the way that dynamic works, the overall outcome would be worse…Like the hyenas attacking the wildebeest, successful people might not even know if or how their pursuit of self-interest helps society, but it typically does…”
Moreover, he concludes: “How much money people have earned is a rough measure of how much they gave society what it wanted.”
I don’t think so, Ray. Not this time. What we got this time was a disaster – the second almost-fatal catastrophe brought on by speculators in the past 70 years. Collapsing shares and house prices destroyed a fifth of the wealth of the average household. Americans were saddled with greater debt, holes were torn in the safety net, and broad financial risks were imposed on workers, investors, and taxpayers. The free-market for hyenas became a slaughter for wildebeest. By the hyena’s accounting that’s a social good – “an improvement in the natural process,” as Ray Dalio put it. Nonsense. Human beings have struggled long and hard to build civilization; this doctrine of “progress” would take us back to the jungle.
Our Founders warned against the corrupting power of a privileged faction to capture the machinery of democracy. James Madison, for one, studied history through a tragic lens. He saw that the life cycle of previous republics had degenerated into anarchy, monarchy, or oligarchy. He and others knew the republic they were creating could go the same way. They attempted to erect safeguards to prevent narrow private interests from subverting the moral and political compact that begins, “We, the people.” That foundation of our experiment in self-government has been under siege for three decades now, and something tells me we have reached the breaking point of this long crisis.
The recent Frankenstorm benignly named Sandy brought home to us just how much we need each other – and government. David Morris, one of our ablest citizens and public thinkers, reminds us that it was the government weather service, using data from government satellites, that delivered a remarkably accurate and sobering long range forecast that both catalyzed action and gave communities some time to prepare. It was governors and mayors who called for the evacuation of low lying areas, and public employees – police and firefighters – who saw that it happened peacefully. It was government 911 and 311 telephone operators who responded to hundreds of thousands of calls for help; public schools and other public buildings that were converted into temporary shelters; tens of thousands of National Guard troops who were mobilized to transport essential equipment and supplies, assist at evacuation center, clear roads and bridges. Public agencies swung into action to protect sewer plans, to organize a cleanup, repair infrastructure, and come to the relief of homeowners and businesses. Hurricane Katrina, says David Morris, showed the tragic consequences when government fails its duty, but that was the exception that proves the rule. Government can reach across jurisdictions and bring together both the public and private sectors exactly because its mission “is not to enhance its balance sheet but to preserve the well being of its citizens.”
And once again we saw human beings at our best: volunteers – many of them the members of Occupy – swarming into the devastated area to lend a hand; neighbors taking in neighbors; first responders risking their lives; visiting nurses climbing dark stairs and groping along dark hallways to reach isolated and desperate people; the doctors and nurses at Bellevue Hospital – the oldest public hospital in the country – forming a bucket brigade to lift fuel up 13 flights to backup generators so that its 32 stalled elevators might start working again. We’ll never know the name of all the heroes. We never do.
And of course there are exceptions. Hardly had the food store near our home in New Jersey hauled in a generator in order to open the next morning that thieves stole all the gasoline from it. A reminder of why the social contract matters in the first place.
All this drew me back to a small book by the gifted essayist Rebecca Solnit: A Paradise Built in Hell. Spurred by her own experiences in California’s Loma Prieta earthquake, Solnit reached back into other disasters to see what they had in common: the 1917 explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia; the 1985 Mexico City earthquake; 9/11 in New York; and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She found that in the aftermath of each disaster ordinary people became altruistic, resourceful, and brave, reaching out to strangers in kind and helpful ways. Paradoxically, some people found then the sense of purpose that had been absent from their everyday lives. Solnit concluded: “The desires and possibilities are so powerful that they shine from wreckage, carnage, and ashes.”
Some of you saw my series with Joseph Campbell on The Power of Myth. In the first episode – “The Hero’s Journey” – we were talking about the influence on Campbell’s own thinking of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Because Schopenhauer believed that the will to live is the fundamental reality of human nature, he puzzled over how some people override it and give up their life for others. In a famous essay Schopenhauer asked himself: “How is it that a human being can so participate in the peril or pain of another human being that without thought, spontaneously, he (or she) sacrifices his own life to the other? How does it happen that what we normally think of as the first law of nature – self-preservation, survival – is suddenly dissolved, and we put another’s well-being ahead of our own?”
Campbell wrestled with this question in our conversation. He then told me the story of what had happened once near his home in Hawaii, in the heights where the trade winds from the north come rushing through a great ridge of mountains. People go there to experience this force of nature, to let their hair be blown in the winds – and sometimes they go there to commit suicide.
One day, two policemen were driving up that road when they saw, just beyond the railing, a young man about to jump. One of the policemen bolted from the car and grabbed the fellow just as he stepped off the ledge. His momentum threatened to carry both of them over the cliff. But the policeman wouldn’t let go. Somehow he held on to the man and the railing long enough for his partner to arrive and pull the two of them back to safety. When a newspaper reporter asked the first policeman, “Why didn’t you let go? You would have been killed,” he answered: “I couldn’t…I couldn’t let go. If I had, I couldn’t have lived another day of my life.”
Campbell then asked: “Do you realize what had suddenly happened to that policeman? He had given himself over to death to save a stranger. Everything else in his life had dropped off; the wishes and hopes for his lifetime no longer matter. What mattered was saving that young man, even at the cost of his own life.”
How can this be, Campbell asked? And once again invoking Schopenhauer, he answered his own question: “Such a psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical reality, which is that you and that other are two aspects of the one life, and your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time. Our true reality is our identity and unity with all life,” so that sometimes instinctively, sometimes deliberately, our actions affirm that reality, through some unselfish act, some personal sacrifice. It happens in marriage, in parenting, in our relations with the people immediately around us, and in our participation in building a society based on reciprocity. Give us this day our daily bread.
Rebecca Solnit puts it this way: “What actually sustains life is far closer to home and more essential, even if deeper in the shadows, than market forces, and much more interesting than selfishness. Most of the real work on this planet is not done for profit; it’s done at home, for each other, for affection, out of idealism, and it starts with the heroic effort [of parents] to sustain each helpless human being for all those years before fending for yourself becomes feasible…”
And that work travels outward, into “a shadow system of kindness that provides soup kitchens, food pantries, and giveaways, takes in the unemployed, evicted, and foreclosed upon, defends the indigent, tutors the poorly schooled, comforts the neglected, provides loans, gifts, donations and a thousand other forms of practical solidarity, as well as emotional support,” until inch by inch – inch by inch – people “reform or transform the system from the inside and out.”
Campbell said that the command to love our neighbor is obviously one of the hardest of all religious concepts. But to recognize our connection to others goes to the core of life’s mystery, and when you claim this as “the truth of your life” – when you live as if it’s so – you are threading yourself into the long-train of history and the fabric of civilization. You are recognizing at some deep level what the writer Alberto Rios once said: “I am in your family tree and you are in mine.” This recognition honors something more profound and more essential in us than the hyena’s appetite. Perhaps the simplest way to say it is that “We’re all in this together. We are all first responders to one another.”
The gods of the religion of inequality have failed. They are false gods. Once we admit this, we can get on with the work of liberating the country we carry in our hearts.