Scarcity or Abundance

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last week, NCR ran an op-ed by Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO. Trumka discussed this oddity in our political dialogue: To hear most politicians tell it, you would think we lived at a time of scarcity, in a relatively impoverished country, not in the richest country in the history of the world at a time of abundance. I believe this insight is one of the most important moral facts in our political life, even if no one, including our moral leaders, has thought to mention it.

Trumka gives an example of what he means by scarcity. He writes:

Scarcity in the form of a bad contract offer pushed nearly 40,000 Verizon workers to go on strike earlier this year for good pay, retirement security and jobs. The truth is, the telecommunications giant can afford it. The company banked $18 billion in profits in 2015, and Verizon's CEO makes in a day what most workers take home in an entire year.

Verizon isn't poor. And neither is America. We produce more wealth today than at any other time in history, but a smaller and smaller part of the population every year keeps more and more of it, leaving precious little for the rest of us.

This economics and politics of scarcity is, as Trumka suggests, connected to an interest, the moneyed interest, which benefits from this narrative and the socio-economic relations that support it. If “we” can’t afford to do the kinds of things our forebears did, build new infrastructure and provide for social security, then we need to cut back, invest less in public works and public policies. No need to think about anything foolish like raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for those things.

Ever since the Reagan years, most economists and many politicians have convinced us of a bunch of moral and economic nonsense to justify the ever increasing avarice of the moneyed interest. We were told that we need to lower tax rates to guarantee incentives for investment but in fact, unless there is a 100 percent tax, there is always an incentive to make more money. We were told that raising the minimum wage would result in higher unemployment, which is not true in most industries: A restaurant hires an additional waiter not based on the prevailing wage but when their customers are waiting too long to get their food without that extra waiter. We were told that we have to cut back on Social Security or Medicare, because we can’t afford it. We were told that lowering taxes would shrink the federal deficit, a proposition that was rightly labeled “voodoo economics” at the time, and not by a Democrat.

The logic of scarcity prevents public investment. The logic of abundance promotes it. And, accompanying the different types of logic, as Trumka demonstrates, are some different, basic attitudes to a variety of social issues. “A vision of scarcity leads to the building of walls, the turning away of refugees, and the denial of vital services to the most vulnerable among us,” he writes. “A vision of scarcity leads us away from compassion and toward a bitter and impoverished society.” This is the vision not just of many rich Republicans but also of the libertarians. It is social Darwinism at its core and it is morally repugnant.

Trumka argues that acknowledging our abundance, which resonates so deeply with the first and foremost disposition of the religious sense, gratitude, can lead to shared prosperity and that is surely true. But, it is also true that only if we start with an acknowledgement of the abundance with which we are surrounded can we begin to create a new economic paradigm, one that is not so slavishly tied to growth as the sole evaluator of success. This growth paradigm leaves us virtually unarmed in the fight for a sustainable environment. This struggle to save the environment is not only one of the principal social justice causes of our day, because environmental degradation invariably harms the poor first and worst, but is one of the principal pro-life causes of our day. Some of pro-life advocates argue that their cause is the foundation on which the entire architecture of Catholic Social Doctrine is built and they are not wrong. But, environmental degradation threatens the whole neighborhood, not just one house, and it threatens all human life. I do not set my opposition to abortion in contrast with my opposition to environmentalism, they are of a piece and hang together, or should. And, we will never be able to introduce points of evaluation for our society’s sense of well-being, points that are not tied to economic growth rates, unless we start from an ethical standpoint of gratitude for our abundance.

Gratitude runs deeper than ethics, and this insight from Trumka is similarly about more than morals. It touches on that part of our humanity that is deepest, what the professional theologians call “theological anthropology”: What do we mean when we say “human person.” It should not surprise us that such an insight came from the head of the labor movement in this country: If you spend time with our friends at the House of Labor, you realize that, for them, solidarity is not a word on a banner, but is a fundamental stance towards the other, what we might call the deepest stirrings of conscience, what Levinas called “the moral challenge posed by the face of the other.” But, I insist on this point: It is more than a moral challenge. It is at that point of our existence where we honestly deliver our own answer to the question: What can we expect from this life? What is its meaning?

For us Catholics, the answer to those questions emerges from a bloody cross and an empty tomb, the answer is a person not a proposition. Others may yield different answers to these deepest stirrings of the human heart. It is interesting to me that it is a labor leader, not a bishop, nor a theologian, who asks such a fundamental question. In their book This Economy Kills, Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi note that Pope Francis is just about the only world leader who questions not this economic policy or that, but the system as a whole and per se. Similarly, Trumka, who is quite a fan of the pope, asks Americans to reflect on our public policy as a whole: Why do we, pardon the expression, buy into a tale of scarcity that is created to protect the richest of the rich? A tale that simultaneously separates us from the most foundation attitude of faith, gratitude? A tale of economic impoverishment that is untrue, but which becomes a tale of civic impoverishment that is in danger of becoming true? I hope some interviewers will ask the candidates about Trumka’s insight. It is the most important thing about politics that has been said all year.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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