Inequality: The Problem No One Can Tackle

Two essays crossed my desk recently, both of which in different ways focus on the issue of income inequality and both of which, somewhat strangely, seem unaware of the religious and moral frameworks with which Americans have traditionally discussed the issue of social equality. At a time when the most visible religious leader in the world, Pope Francis, has made inequality such a central theme of his pontificate, this absence is bizarre.

The first essay is Harvey Kaye’s review of Steven Fraser’s The Age of Acquiescence published at the Daily Beast. Kaye recapitulates the thesis of the book, which has been stated in other reviews I have seen (full disclosure – I have not read the book), which is that in the first Gilded Age in the 19th century, average Americans fought back against the economic elites but in our own time, Americans seem willing to roll over and let the rich continue to rig the game, purchase ever larger slices of our democratic government and monopolize ever larger slices of our purportedly democratic economy. It is an interesting thesis, but what is stunning in Kaye’s treatment is his unwillingness to recognize the moral impulses behind events like the New Deal.

Take this paragraph as exemplary. Kaye writes:

A critical weakness of The Age of Acquiescence—which because of all the energy that fuels the first part of the book does not become apparent until the second part—is that it does no give sufficient attention to popular politics and thought. Gilded Age movements emerged and took up the fight and liberal and radical intellectuals wrote books and proposed schemes. But American working people themselves weren’t just fighting against the concentration of power and wealth; they were also fighting for America. So, what drove and inspired them to rally, join together, and do battle against corporate exploitation and oppression? From where did the idea of a Cooperative Commonwealth emanate? While Fraser does not completely ignore the legacy and memory of the American Revolution, he does not make enough of how generations of Americans came to not only feel and regularly renew the democratic imperative and impulse that the Revolution gave to American life, but also, believing in America’s exceptional promise and possibilities, continually endeavored to make real the vision of the nation projected in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and rearticulated in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and FDR’s Four Freedoms. As a consequence, while Fraser goes on in the latter half of the work to render a powerful indictment of financial capitalism, the political-economic and cultural order it has created, and what it is doing to us, he ultimately fails to appreciate the persistence of that democratic spirit and what we might make of it. 

It is true that these more secular resources of the American imagination are often untapped on the left, and indeed ceded to conservatives who then claim them as their own. Later on in the essay, Kaye acknowledges that the Tea Party, whatever else its faults, is not shy about staking its claim to America’s found principles. But, Kaye seems unaware that “the persistence of that democratic spririt” has been hobbled by the increasingly secular tone of politics on the left. Americans may have warmed to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, but they did not warm to his anti-clericalism and atheistic beliefs, and the celebrated pamphlet, though undoubtedly influential, was able to be understood and accepted by late colonial Americans only because they had long been instructed in a Biblical narrative of deliverance from the slavery of Pharaoh, which had been transformed by country whig rhetoric, into a contemporary tale of deliverance from the slavery of Popery, and all its accoutrements. Paine’s pamphlet may have been the single most widely disseminated tract in revolutionary America, but by far the most widely published tracts for decades were sermons.

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I need not recapitulate the influence of Catholic Social Teaching on the New Deal: I wrote the book, Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats. The influence was not only particular and elite, in the person of Msgr. John A. Ryan, nor FDR’s quoting from Quadragesimo Anno in the final days of his 1932 race. It was the millions of workers looked at the circumstances of their lives, knew that things were not as they should be, and had Catholic Social Teaching to provide a counter-model of how things could be better. There was a fluency in the moral language of social justice that grew out of, and was sustained by, the alliance of Church and Labor. Many locals of many unions held their first meetings in Church basements and many union organizers fled to the Church for sanctuary when big business sent out their thugs to break the unions. Now, big business sends out Republican governors to break the unions and, regrettably, too many bishops fail to defend the Church’s unequivocal teaching on the rights of labor. The silence in Wisconsin has been deafening – and Kaye has a brilliant turn of phrase when he indicts Gov. Scott Walker’s “Dixification of the Badger State.” Our bishops used to stand for the rights of all workers, and they continue to be a strong voice for undocumented and migrant workers. But, there are millions of Americans whose dignity is not honored in the labor market today, and the Church can praise Gov. Walker and others for their stance on abortion without giving him a pass on his effort to make Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state.

The other essay was from George Will, which also takes its cue from a new book, this one by John Tamny entitled Popular Economics: What the Rolling Stones, Downton Abbey and Lebron James Can Teach You About Economics. Will calls this tome “cheerful” and “mind-opening” but from what he shares, it is mostly a defense of Social Darwinism come to dance in the drag of contemporary income inequality. What to make of these morally coarse paragraphs:

The best way to (in Barack Obama’s 2008 words to Joe the Plumber) “spread the wealth around,” is, Tamny argues, “to leave it in the hands of the wealthy.” Personal consumption absorbs a small portion of their money and the remainder is not idle. It is invested by them, using the skill that earned it. Will it be more beneficially employed by the political class of a confiscatory government?

“Nothing,” Tamny demonstrates, “is easier to understand than economics. It is everywhere you look.” Readers of his book will subsequently look at things differently.

I remember, ruefully, the days when conservatives began their critique of Marx with the observation that he over-emphasized the significance of economics. Those were the days. And, if this thesis is true, how to explain the growing inequality in the U.S. these past thirty years when the wealth really has been left in the hands of the wealthy? This is not mere conjecture. And, I am dying to run into Mr. Will on the street so I can ask precisely what “skills” the plutocrat hedge fund managers possess that deserves the verb “earned,” still less the presumption that they will best know how to invest that money? And, is a government that sets a living wage “confiscatory” seeing as such a proposal does not produce any additional revenue for the government, it merely levels the economic playing field between worker and employer. And, as a Catholic, I do not believe that economics is everywhere. Like the dying curate in Diary of a Country Priest, I believe that Grace is everywhere, not economics.

Social Darwinism on the right is as ugly as the religious ignorance of the left. Look at the outrage in recent days over the Indiana law, which has its problems, but is also not as significant a problem in our society as is the growing inequality, of income and of social capital, that stalks American society. It is dangerous, however, to tell the poor to eat cake. One of the moral arguments for FDR’s reforms was that they saved capitalism from itself. Who will do the same today? 


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