Wednesday, December 11, 2013

December 11, 2013
A few days after Christmas in 2011, I listed several measures of our economy which demonstrated that the pre-redemption Scrooge would be right at home in twenty-first century America. I won’t revisit the entire list, but it’s clear that the situation has not changed, at least not for the better.
At that time, the six Walton heirs possessed wealth equal to the total wealth of the bottom thirty percent of the American population; now it’s forty-two per cent.[142]   The six own about half the stock of Walmart, which continues to support its, and their, exalted financial position by paying its employees substandard wages. That was dramatically illustrated by a photo of a donation box in an Ohio Walmart, asking employees (associates) to "donate food items so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner." Apparently that is not the only Walmart conducting such a drive, and no wonder: like McDonald’s’s and other prosperous large companies, Walmart pays its "associates" very little, one reason that the company had a profit of $15.7 billion in 2011. It did manage to give its CEO a compensation package of $17.6 million, so it isn’t entirely heartless. (His compensation was 796 times that of the average employee).[143]
By one measure, one in six Americans lives in poverty.[144]  Whatever the exact number, this is a disgrace, a moral outrage, and a national failure. As an article in The Nation put it, referring to homelessness and food stamp cuts, "In a minimally functioning political system, there would be a debate about potential solutions to these unfolding disasters."[145]
Conservatives tell us, repeatedly, that we are a Christian nation. Shouldn’t we then rally around efforts to help the poor? Isn’t that in the spirit of Christianity? Well, no, according to many amateur theologians on the right. Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) supported cuts to SNAP (food stamps) by citing 2 Thessalonians 3:10: "For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat."[146]  One of his colleagues, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), hid behind the same passage.[147]  Leaving aside whether they took the quote out of context — and the consensus of those who can speak with authority appears to be that they did — how does it apply to children, the elderly, the disabled and the large segment of recipients who are, in fact, employed? It is simply an excuse, an offensive excuse, for playing the I’ve-got-mine game, which seems to form the core of Republican politics.
Using Christianity to defend such attitudes is not confined to members of Congress. According to Ken Blackwell of the Family Research Council, there is "nothing more Christian" than "not locking people into a permanent dependency on government handouts, but making sure they are participants in their own upliftment and empowerment so that they in fact through the dignity of work and can break from the plantation of big government." In true reactionary spirit, he would privatize charity: "We are not lacking in churches in church communities across this nation in making sure that basic human needs are met without creating another government program that establishes rules that have very low expectations for self-discipline."[148] Is private charity adequate to the task? Of course not, but never mind. Tony Perkins, also of the Family Research Council, can’t find a relevant text: ". . .the government has a responsibility to care for the poor? That’s not what the Scripture says."[149]
Gary Bauer, President of American Values and a self-described evangelical Christian, asserts that "nowhere in the Bible are we told that government should take one man's money by force of law and give it to another man."[150]  That is not a new thought among the preachers of the gospel of property. Pat Robertson showed the way:
God's order recognizes the sanctity of private property. The eighth commandment, "You shall not steal" means that the God of Jacob forbids a citizen to take what belongs to another citizen. . . . In God's order there are no schemes of wealth distribution under which government forces productive citizens to give the fruit of their hard-earned labors to those who are nonproductive.[151]
There are, happily, exceptions. Rev. David Beckman and Rev. Gary Cook, of Bread for the World, opposed cuts in food stamps and countered the Perkins-Bauer argument by citing Biblical references to aiding the poor. More to the point, why should a supposed Christian require an express commandment to support programs which help people? Has Christianity been reduced to an excuse not to care, to prevent government from doing what we fail, inevitably, to do adequately as individuals?
Fox "News," the secular arm of the comfortable and uncaring, added mockery to the mix, in the form of an idiotic stunt in which a "reporter" posed as a beggar — for an hour; talk about deep research — then returned to the studio to claim that begging is a sweet deal, that most on the street are phonies, and that those who give are enablers. The mandatory blonde added, no doubt from a wealth of objective data, that other beggars are "scammers," apparently meaning that begging is so profitable, to say nothing of dignified, that it beats work.[152]

How about the minimum wage? Raising it would aid those at the bottom, diminish glaring inequity, lessen the need for food stamps and — here’s comfort to the nervous prosperous — dampen any tendency toward more drastic measures — so it must be universally supported. Well, no. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) told the National Journal that he thinks the country should get rid of the minimum wage. "I think it’s outlived its usefulness," he said. "It may have been of some value back in the Great Depression. I would vote to repeal the minimum wage." So would Senator Lamar Alexander. Sen. Marco Rubio declared: "I don’t think a minimum wage law works."[153]  Speaker John Boehner apparently subscribes to the job-destroying argument: "When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it."[154]  His guess (excuse, cover) is more ideology than fact.
Increases in the minimum wage have lagged behind average wages, productivity and increases in income for the top 1%. The last is, strictly speaking, irrelevant, but it is an image of our increasing inequality and the creeping conversion of a democracy into a plutocracy. Had the federal minimum wage tracked increases for the one per centers, it would be $28.34, not $7.25.[155]  Some states, including Washington, have enacted automatic increases, to match inflation. Our current minimum is $9.19, the highest in the country (followed by Oregon and Vermont), and will increase to $9.32 on January 1. A total of nineteen states have minimums above the federal rate. However, many only match it, five are lower and four have no state minimum; raising the federal rate is of critical importance in those states.
Rand Paul doesn’t want to reauthorize extended unemployment benefits. Anything beyond 26 weeks "do[es] a disservice to these workers." Why is that? "When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you're causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy."[156]  Ah yes: it’s such sweet deal that people will snooze in those hammocks Paul Ryan fantasizes about. Actually, unemployment benefits are a stimulant to the economy — more money to spend creates demand — which will create jobs, which in turn will allow more people to return to work.[157]
Meanwhile, corporations make lots of money, pay little in taxes, squirrel cash away overseas and expect taxpayers to bid for their presence, in effect contributing capital but receiving no stock in exchange. (A formerly local company, one of the Dow thirty, symbol BA, is currently the most notorious).

145.Michelle Goldberg, "Poverty Denialism," November 25, 2013
151. The New World Order (1991), pp. 241-42, emphasis in the original.
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