I confess I’m obsessed with this depressing recession. It results from, and brings out, some of the worst aspects of our people and society. And yet, it is an opportunity to see and actualize some of the best.
When I was born in 1945 a single man could support his whole family on his average income of $2,400 while living in a house that cost about twice that. Mom, like most moms then, stayed home as homemaker. I was the first of five children born over the next ten years or so. By then, houses had appreciated to a whopping $8,500. But salaries were up too, up to $4,400, again about half the cost of a house. I remember my Dad made about $6,000 in the late 50’s. I resolved to make more than him. And now I do; I make twice what he made then! However, my $12,000 income is four times less than the median American income of about $48,000.
This isn’t our society’s fault; I always was more interested in other aspects of living, learning, and loving than merely making money. But making money and doing meaningful work matter a lot to me, especially when lacking both.
I’m not alone. It now takes two people to earn what one did back in the 50’s. Touting “family values” in no way actually helps to value families. We’re in this together. We still fly the flag and love our country, but flag-flappers have long-since sacrificed nationalism to international capitalism. Millions of jobs have been eliminated. Whole industries, complete with know-how and machinery, have been sent to Mexico, China, etc. Real wages, adjusted for inflation, have remained flat since the 1970’s. Personal and national debt has skyrocketed since the 80’s. Progress seems a brief thing of the distant past. Some say what we now make is on par with what our grandparents made in the Great Depression.
Ah, the Great Depression. What a name! Why not the Horrible Depression? And why do they call inflation inflation? The numbers may be bigger but the reality is smaller. Twice as much turns out to be four times less. I grew up in the shadow of the Depression. Memories of scarcity and strife, of mistrust and cynicism, were what my parents, uncles and aunts held. The eldest of five, I knew not to take too much. Food and house heat were limited. We wore out our clothes.
I don’t know if that is typical of the long-term human condition, a sort of cellular memory of hunger, cold, joblessness and hopelessness from the eons of effort, or whether we’ve lived better than that like I got used to from the 50’s to the 80’s.
That’s when it seemed to change, in the 1980’s. That’s when our personal and national debt shot upward exponentially. That’s when our health care, energy, and banking costs jumped up every year – way beyond the general inflation. That’s when the fairness doctrine got dropped from our television and radio broadcasts and we got inundated with the deceptive mantra that the reason we’re feeling poor is only due to high taxes. The way to fix our woes and worries, we were repeatedly told, is to attack our own government, de-fund it, and let the magic of the market work its wonders on us.
Well, it has. Karl Marx could sneer from his grave, “I told you so.” Somehow, the worth of our work is inversely proportional to the value of it. Those who actually work, providing services to those who need it or goods for us in general, are paid the least. Those who do nothing beneficial for society and who in fact are simply good at exploiting and draining it, like high-level bankers, make the most. Health would seem a precious part of our communal temple, but recent staggering rises in premiums and costs show that only wealthy people have their care assured.
To me, Marx’s dialectic only begins to explain the dynamic. I see the root of our malaise in our country’s religious philosophy: We’re poor and mean because that’s how God made us; we’re born flawed, likely to be greedy while always wanting more; we’re born of a great assumption of humanity being divided into the chosen and the damned. The Protestant Work Ethic not only worked because those who were frugal and industrious, who didn’t spend it all on liquor and fast women, did well, but because their wealth was a sign of being saved. The poor obviously weren’t saved and probably deserved their plight. While this great assumption seems to accurately apply to some, it overstates the division and becomes an excuse to not care about structural advantage and disadvantage. Worse, it assumes the Free Market will somehow be fair. “All against all” is the operating assumption of a Win/Lose world where ethics dare not intrude. Being good to and for each other has nothing to do with such a religious philosophy any more, for mere belief is the fix for our sin. Belief, not behavior, has become the mark of the religious person. Faith and fanaticism are favored over intelligence or caring. Heaven is limited to a few chosen. Let the damned be damned.
More people believe in Jesus than believe Jesus. He had an egalitarian lovingness for the despised and marginal. He cared for the poor widow, pointing out that her little contribution meant far more than the big, showy one of the rich Pharisee. Our own James Luther Adams corrected Max Weber’s view of the Protestant Work Ethic, noting the shining city on a hill was not to be built on a festering slum. Our Universalist side reminds us we’re all in this together. Christian charity and compassion aren’t gone from the human animal; they’re merely eclipsed by the current phase of Christian selfishness shored up by self-righteous smugness. In the name of Jesus, Christianity keeps putting him and other brave, honest, loving people on the cross of suffering.
“If you are going through hell,” said Winston Churchill, “keep going.” Don’t get stuck in that tar baby, punching its sticky, phony goo. Recessions come from time to time, almost regularly. The Jains know that life is sometimes Sushama Sushama (extreme happiness) and sometimes Dushama Dushama (extreme unhappiness). The back pages of our newspapers display a sad story that scares us: huge paragraphs of small-pint legalese showing a forcing of some family out of a home, reminding us we’re all vulnerable in an unfair economic system that favors a few by undermining the many.
A few years ago some eco activists yearned for a meltdown of our economic order so that we would come to question and change our wasteful, polluting ways. I winced at this hope, for when scarcity and strife run rampant, people get stingy and desperate. Understanding soil loss, water pollution, biodiversity, and climate change requires high brain functions. But anxiety and anger trump that with mid and low brain reactiveness. “I and mine” runs rampant over “us.” This serves to sell medicine during the nightly news broadcasts and keep anxious, angry political parties in power, but it fractures our communal society and commonwealth.
In the 1950’s CEO’s made about 30 times more than the workers in their companies. By the 1980’s it was 42 times. In 1990, 85 times. By 2008 it was up to an astonishing 531 times. In the 1950’s the tax rate for the wealthiest in our country was over 90% and corporations provided some 45% of our country’s tax revenue. Now the top tax rate is 35% (complete with ample loopholes and other evasive mechanisms) and many of our largest corporations pay nothing to the society that supports them. In the 1950’s unemployment was under 3%. Now it is way over 10%. Yet still we’re told the reason we’re poor and jobless is taxes.
I calculated the difference between the spendable income of a millionaire with a wife and three children if the Bush temporary tax cuts would have expired and the recent compromise plan that protects the poor millionaire from that tax. Instead of having only $13,183 dollars a week to spend, he would have $13,356, a $173 dollar a week advantage to him and loss to our common government. If he made 150 times a million (as a few do) he would have only $85,500,000 to spend a year instead of the $95,500,000 he now keeps. Ten million dollars a year seems a lot more to pay in taxes until you realize he’s still got eight or nine times that for housing, transportation, food, fun, etc. He’s way beyond needing food stamps. An extra ten million a year helps buffer trying to live on a mere $85 million, so it is important that we all sacrifice to keep our system going. Pity the poor rich. Or so we’re told.
Wait! I’m getting stuck in that tar baby. I’m punching at the inured rich, asking, like Brer Rabbit, “Where’s your politeness?” But politeness, civility, and a concern for our commonwealth are not what many politicians and media analysts care for. Even so, it is what we can care for. In the midst of all the scarcity, stress, and sniping, who are we, and what are our values? Do we look for and try to live into “justice, equity, and compassion” in our human relations? Do we see and serve the “inherent worth and dignity” of the damaged and drained masses, collectively and individually? Can we go through life without getting our paws stuck in the various tar babies put on our path to trap and incapacitate us?
Two thirds of Americans perceive our economic stress as serious. The trust we held for each other and our economic and political systems is badly dashed. Cynicism can worsen our relations and our mood. Anxiety and anger warn and wear. The forces are beyond us, but our response and resolve is within us.
We must of course tend to the practical side of this situation. We may need to get tough with ourselves, organize better, prioritize tighter, bargain better, and lower our expectations more. We ask what are our real needs and dearer hopes. But the spiritual side of this time calls on us to not get mean or measly. Worry can drag us all down, while trust (in ourselves, each other, nature, and Gods tar babies put on our ) can open connections to the better angels of our being. Job was full of boils and troubles until he reached out to his hurting neighbor with sympathetic help. We have the capacity to lift our own mind and mood to become a spiritual being in a retched situation, providing a bit of warmth, wisdom, humor, or practical help to those around us who need it. Just moving from cynicism to compassion helps.
Like it or not, we’re in this together. The news is not all bad. Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Ted Turner, and George Soros all give heartily from their billions. Poor widows who come into money share some with those they know. We can buy chocolate, coffee, and other foodstuffs from companies practicing fair trade. Estrangement from impersonal enterprises leads many to buy local and support only those companies acting responsibly in our shared ecosystem. Cooperative generosity pervades many places on the Internet, from Wikipedia to TED. The Bioneers look to empower entrepreneurs in their innovations towards “right livelihood.” Via the UN and the scientific community, we can tend our common planet towards long-term viability. Finally, the recession drives us out of soulless jobs and into our creativity and care. We’re hurting, but at least we’re hurting together. Comity in community is far cozier than isolated cynical callousness.
When all is said and done, our current plight is a familiar one. We have practical and spiritual needs to be met. None of our spiritual teachers counsel we get mean and stingy, that we take from the widows to fatten the Pharisees (as conservative political and religious leaders currently are doing). None foment anxiety and anger as healthy or wise. Rather than let the recession lead to depression, confess your vulnerability and access your nobler nature, both within and among you. At core, we are not fallen souls out to win at another’s loss, we are good creatures out to bring out that goodness in ourselves for each other. We come to church to be reminded we are one, that times can get tough, and that we are blessed with bounty even in tough times. We haven’t the affluence we once knew, but we’re wary of the ways of wealth that lead to an obese yet malnourished spirit. A bit of lack reminds us of what is truly good: this blessed creation, our creative caring within it, and each other.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
January 9, 2011