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The rich get richer. So?

Mirror of Justice contributor Thomas Berg has an excellent post on what Catholic social teaching may have to say about growing economic inequality.

1. "Great disparity seems likely to make it harder for people to practicethe value of solidarity, that is, 'see[ing] the "other"--whether aperson, people or nation--not just as some kind of instrument . . . butas our "neighbor," a "helper" (cf. Gn. 2:18-20), to be made a sharer ona par with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equallyinvited by God' Solicitudo Rei Socialis, para. 39."

2. "Greater income disparity can make it harder to have economic and social mobility."

3. "Expenditure cascades" exacerbate the fincancial burdens on the lower classes. An expenditure cascade occurs when the spending of the rich results in increased spending of the poorer classes, even though their wealth hasn't increased.

Much, much more to chew on over at MoJ.

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Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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O.K., so now what do we do?Income inequality has been a serious problem in the United States for decades. It seems to get worse no matter who is running Congress or the White House. It's clearly rooted in structural aspects of our economy that policymakers only have a limited ability to control.So I'm not quite sure what the solution is. Clearly, progressive taxation helps, but it's not clear to me that the public has an appetitite for the kind of progressive taxation rates that would be required to make a serious dent in income inequality. I think you could add 2-3 more brackets onto the current system (35 and 40 percent?) and the U.S. would still have a very, very unequal income distribution. So I'm all for holding on to the estate tax, repealing the Bush tax cuts on upper income families, etc. But we shouldn't get an illusions that this is going to make a big dent in income inequality per se.

Why not?

There is one statistic in the MoJ post that disturbs me, and that is that the real income of the lowest wage earners dropped slightly from 2000-05. That being said, the recovery in the economy only began in earnest in 2003 and the low end of the income scale lags the high. Also the sector of the economy hit hardest in 2001-02 was services, which I suspect employ many, if not most of the lowest income earners.All that being said, discussions like this leave me very confused. Unless those at the top are becoming wealthy at the expense of those at the bottom, or there are insufficient resources for the basic needs of those at the bottom of the income distribution, who cares? I dont understand a Christian imperative for us to correct income disparity just because there is income disparity. The wealthy may have Christian responsibilities regarding the use of their wealth and helping those less fortunate, but why is there a social imperative to fix the problem.If your child comes to you and says, Jimmy has an X-Box, why cant I? If you cant afford one, you say, We cant afford one. You dont say, No fair, lets take some money from Jimmys family so we can have an X-Box, or more likely Lets take some money from Jimmys family so no one can have an X-Box.As for a lack of income mobility, where is the evidence for that? The MoJ comments are speculative. Having lived abroad, in countries with far less income disparity, I can tell you a janitors kid in the US has far more chance of becoming a doctor or a successful businessman or woman than pretty much anywhere in the world. I work in a field where I suspect most of my colleagues are in the top 10-20% of income earners, and almost all of us were in the bottom third waiting tables and washing dishes 20-25 years ago.From a Christian perspective, is wanting to level the field for its own sake motivated by a desire for justice or jealousy?It should be noted that in today's world, among other rights, the right of economic initiative is often suppressed. Yet it is a right which is important not only for the individual but also for the common good. Experience shows us that the denial of this right, or its limitation in the name of an alleged "equality" of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen. As a consequence, there arises, not so much a true equality as a "leveling down." Sollicitudo rei socialis para 15 right back at you

Thanks for linking to my MOJ post, which had a modest goal: suggesting reasons why large income inequality is a matter of concern in itself, independent of poverty and independent of envy. My co-blogger Rick Garnett had asked why this was an independent concern, and so I tried. I don't have an answer for how to make it a lot better, but you can't keep it from getting worse -- with more top-tier tax cuts and an estate-tax repeal -- unless you can explain why it's a problem.I'm not sure whether Sean H. read past the first paragraph of my post. As I wrote, a key point in the "expenditure cascades" analysis is that it's not just about envy: if you want to get a decent school for your kids, for example, more and more you have to go to towns where house sizes, as well as per-sq-ft. prices, are driven up by top-end spending. As for mobility, at least one of the studies I referred to shows we have less intergenerational mobility than numerous advanced western nations (France, Germany, the Scandinavians) and, among measurable nations in that group, rank ahead of only the UK. Finally, of course preserving significant levels of initiative is important; the point is that there's something on the other side of the balance as well.Tom Berg

I don't think the church requires us to fix income disparity; in fact, I think some income disparity is probably healthy.However, caring for those who cannot care for themselves (poor, elderly and, especially children) is something I would expect a Catholic legislator to bring up from time to time, and to encourage other legislators to debate whether that care is adequate and justifiable given the average standard of living in our nation. Then let the democratic process have its way. (And I will write my cranky letters to my representativs telling them where their priorities are screwed up.)There are, of course, problems with "the government dole." From a spiritual perspective, It separates the giver from the recipient, and makes it easier for the giver to begrudge the gift.Churches (not just Catholic ones) often step in to provide better help than the government can, but many churches are strapped for cash themselves.

I think Sean has offered valid perspective here. Like others, I think we have a Christian duty to help those unable to care for themselves. I also think we should help the less fortunate among us to help themselves in moving up the ladder, e.g., tuition grants, childcare, adequate healthcare. I think initiative is a very important consideration (and one to which I've likely never given much attention). I do not want our country to return to a social welfare system, however, that essentially paid poor women to have more children, thus helping perpetuate a "culture (psychology) of poverty." Better a hand up than a handout for the less fortunate who are able to reach up and have potential to improve their lot in life.As for government's role, I'm not against it, and I do have some problems with Bush's "faith-based initiatives" policy/program. Whether run by government or private entity, human services programs need transparency and accountability.

Tom,On the "expenditure cascade" issue and schools, I think we have to be careful. First, there is the whole chicken egg thing. For a brief time I lived in Fairfax, VA, which boasted the "best school system in America" based on test scores. Aside from being fairly wealthy, my neighbors were higher ranking military officers, government bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and business people. As my Dad used to say, "Elephants beget elephants and mice beget mice." Without putting a genetic spin on it, my point is that these kids came from families, by-and-large, where education is highly valued. After leaving there, instead of sending my kids to the upper middle class town public school, I sent them to a parochial school in a more working class city next door. There the kids were from a broad variety of families from upper middle class to working class and in my opinion, it was a much better school. In other words, I am not impressed when schools that turn out kids in the 75th percentile come from families where mom and dad did too.That brings me to the second point which is the schools in this country that spend the most for schools have the worst school systems. Look at NY, Wash DC, Boston, LA, and Detroit. They all spend way more than my upper middle class town (more than twice as much) and have worse schools.As for all the other examples of "expenditure cascade" like who has a HUMVEE and who wears an Italian designer suit - this has ALWAYS been the case.I am not saying we, as Christians, have no responsibility for helping the less fortunate, I am only saying that government policies that aim at fixing disparities for their own sake are more likely to kill the goose than distibute its golden eggs.

Darn it: this is America! I have a right to make as much money as I can. So do the less fortunate amongs us. Just because they don't why should I suffer? And you really want to TAX the money I make and want to give to my kids? Just because they didn't earn it has nothing to do with it. It is THEIR right to inherit MY money.(Open foot; insert mouth; gag at will ....)

>>I have a right to make as much money as I can. So do the less fortunate amongs us.<

The more one makes they then have a responsibility to help the poor. In other words, freedom is to what we ought not what we want. We don't want the government to take this on completely as we do not want live under socialism because then our freedom to help the poor gets taxed away. We need to live our Catholic values this means if we have more we help with a hand up and not out. We want to encourage them also so these folks can help them selves with our help. We need to realize that material goods are only important in need and not wants!

Grant,Actually, I think that's exactly what the MoJ piece was arguing - that disparity, in and of itself is damaging and dangerous, whether people at the low end are actually poor or not.I have to say that when I was younger I bought in to the whole fairness argument myself, but ultimately emphasizing fairness over freedom just makes everyone equally miserable. If you look at the world today, without exception, every place where there is economic growth and prosperity the common thread is not resources or history, but economic freedom. Hong Kong - resource poor - economically rich - same with Singapore. India floundered for 50 years and is now emerging because they are abandoning a socialist vision (thank you very much Ghandi). Africa is one of the most resource rich places in the world, but the poorest. You can't blame it all on the vestiges of colonialism, because very successful nations in Asia have at least as much colonial history and racist discrimination as Africa. What makes Africa different is the absence of free markets and stable legal systems that protect property rights. Here in the States we see people wearing $100 tennis shoes complaining about economic injustice. Is there really a systemic poverty problem? I am not saying there aren't any poor people in the US, there are, but look at the census. Almost every home in the US has a color television and an automobile. If you read the MoJ post, it talks about SUV's and suits. I'm sorry, I spent most of my adult life in the military, I've seen REAL poor people. I'm sure other people who read this will have seen REALLY REALLY poor people. That some people want to buy a Lois Vuitton wool suit or a Land Cruiser and can't isn't keeping me awake at night. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying Christians don't have a responsibility to the poor, and there are a lot of them. All I am saying is that using the coercive mechanism of the government to "level the playing field" is almost always disasterous to both the rich and the poor - but mostly to the middle class who keep everything running.I say change hearts not political policies. It is easy enough to to say raise the marginal rate to 50% and much harder to say whatsoever you do to the least of these . . . .

The Christian conception of social justice, if I understand it propely, seeks structural changes, i.e. laws, negotiated employer-employee relations, health care, and educational opportunities, that provide as well as is feasible for the flourishing of every person, wherever he or she lives. This is an ideal against which all social arrangements are to be measured. Pursuing this ideal is of course a trial-and-error process with no finally fixed content. Nonetheless, this ideal ought to guide us in suporting or opposing the structures that actually exist at any particular time. I grant that this ideal requires us constantly to evaluate present practices to determine whether they ought to be retained or changed. That's tough and neverending work. But this is what social justice calls for.Today in the United States, health care is a disgraceful mess, the minimum wage is ridiculously low, public education leaves much to be desired, etc. I admit that I donot have sure-fire solutions. But frankly, I do not see anything Christian about being satisfied with the status quo or anything that closely resembles it.

Bernard, I think you're confusing two different, though possibly interrelated, questions.The first involves the basic goods which any society is morally bounds to seek for its citizens. I would hope that virtually all Christians would be in agreement as to these.The second involves the means by which basic conditions of a society can be arranged in such a way to nurture authentic human life.You seem to think that affirming the first necessarily involves affirming a particular construal of the second. I disagree. The positions of, say, a Michael Novak (!) have, in my opinion, done immeaurably more good to help the world's poor than every P&J Catholic academic on the planet.

What might be useful and seems terribly lacking here is the idea of the common good. A large dollop of Bryan Hehir's book of a couple of years ago and especialy the chapter pointing out the problem of poverty in our country as central to that issue might make good reading.As in an earlier thread, it's importtant that we examine ourselves on how much politics directs our faith rather than vice versa.Also, from an earlier thread, if consumerism is a major affront to faith today, is "who cares?' about disparity a rational approach?

There are lots of issues being addressed here, but one I would like to speak to: It is the incessant attempts to lay a guilt trip on Americans, especially Catholic Americans. On of the many ways this is done is by the use of emotion-laden terms like "consumerism", which is never defined. We all "know" that "consumerism" is really, really "bad", but what exactly does that term mean? We all consume food, clothing, shelter, education, and (feel free to add your own example), so we are all "consumers". So does consuming the above listed items add up to "consumerism"?"consumerism" is what I refer to as a word weapon: It is not used to illuminate a position but to try demonize a person or position.And I'm quite sure that everyone will have a different definition.

Just for the record, I do believe that there is a serious problem of poverty in the United States and that not only individuals, but also the government, need to do more in this regard.It does, in my mind, seem wrong to be cutting taxes at a time when we have significant unmet social needs and when the federal deficit is so large. I think the current Administration has been absolutely reckless with regard to the latter problem.But I stand by my statement that the ability of policymakers to significantly affect income inequality is probably limited and that for politicians to promise to do something about something over which they have limited control is probably unwise.

Peter,Why is it wrong to cut taxes in this time of war, unmet social needs, and ballooning deficits? I'm still not clear on why you think governmental control of wealth accumulation is so limited as to preclude political promises in that regard. Why promise to cut taxes, then? How do you explain the wealth explosion at the top-most tier under Bush? Happy accident? I appreciate your willingness to stand by this position, but I would like to know why.

Poverty is a serious problem that almost all recognize. Income inequality is a problem to which academics accord almost equal attention, though few specify the level of taxation or the degree of progressivity in the tax structure that is implicit in their redistributionist goals. Some income inequalities are declining - across regions in the US, for example. Between men and women, for another. Black and white college graduates for still another. And even when income inequality across individuals or families occurs it's not always unwelcome. Many would welcome immigration of low skilled workers even though it inevitably results in increasing inequality in the US along with a decline in global inequality.

Grant:I don't have all the data at my fingertips, but I remember back in the 1990s being surprised at how much inequality had increased during the Clinton Administration. This was after Clinton had raised taxes on the top 2% and expanded the EITC. Things definitely improved for the folks on the bottom end of the income distribution, but inequality (at least if I'm remembering right) still increased.There was a time (1950s and 60s) when rapid economic growth truly did seem to lift all boats at a roughly equal rate. But since the 1980s, periods of rapid economic growth seem to disproportionately benefit the people at the top end. As I argued earlier, I think this has a lot to do with structural changes in the economy (e.g. increasing premium for advanced education; two earner couples, etc.) and has less to do with specific choices made by policymakers than people tend to believe.The primary reason to raise--or lower--taxes is not (or should not be in my view) to redistribute income and wealth in the abstract. Rather, I expect political leaders to 1) tell me what public needs exist and 2) tell me how they plan to pay for them. If unmet public needs exist (and I think that there are many), by all means let us consider raising taxes (although looking at eliminating expenditures that are not neccessary should perhaps be the first option) and let the burden of those taxes fall more heavily on those better able to bear that burden, i.e. those with more incomes.Clinton, by the way, did this brilliantly. He didn't talk about "inequality" or redistributing income. He said our fiscal house needs to get into order and I'm going to ask those who have more (i.e. the top 2%) to contribute more. It was a framing of the issue that won reasonably broad public support.I remember when I worked for a labor union in the 1990s, we did some focus groups where we tested whether messages about "inequality" resonated with our members (janitors, nursing home workers, etc.) You might have expected these folks to be deeply upset about income inequality, but rather surprisingly (to me, at least), they weren't. The hand-wringing over "inequality" didn't resonate with them at all. What did resonate was the idea of "fairness," i.e. that those with more ought to contribute more to our common needs. If there was something that upset them, it was the idea that people who should be paying higher taxes were getting away with paying less. Again, we're back to the "people who work hard and play by the rules" theme that Clinton used so effectively in 1992.Hope that helps clarifiy my position.

Reply to mlj and to anyone else who is inteerested: I do not dismiss the distinction between principle and policy. Mlj expresses agreement with te principle that everyone deserves basic goods. I would add that if state A is so imoverisned that it can't insure these basics, there is some--admittedly hard to specify-- responsibility for well to do states to help. Basic rights and obligations know no absolute border. In other words, what we today call state to state foreign aid can, in the aforementioned conditions, be an obligation of justice.How in fact to respect this principle is always a matter of policiey. My point is that properly to assess some policy p, one should ask whether p is conducive to or detrimental to observing the principle as well as one can. The answer to this latter question depends on time and circumstances and can often only be anwswered in terms of "likelihood." The strength, and limitation, of the principle in question is that it serves more to rule out flawed policies than to point to benign ones. But principle should shape the debate about proposed policies. So, for example, if someone wanted to defend our prresent governmental health care policies, he or she would have to show either that they were indeed compatible with the justice princilpe or they were likely to be less bad than any available alternative.It seems to me that sometimes people appeal to some alternative principle, e.g. that one is entitled to the fruits of his or her talents and labor, that they think either overrides or at least is of equal importance to the basic social justice principle. Until I see a alternative to the justice principle that makes Christian sense, I'll hold that, among principles, the justice principle is trumps.Peace, mlj, and thanks for giving me this opportunity to be clearer,

Andrew Hacker's NYRB piece on this subject: a helpful primer on the subject, complete with facts, here: it's behind TimeSelect.

Those who want to understand what Ms. Gordon meant by "consumerism" can easily find the whole conversation with Moyers at the Faith and Reason website.Strangely, the topic came up at this week's homily. Father quoted from an essay by a theologian at Mt.St. Mary's, " the TV is my shepherd...itmakes me to lie down on the couch, the remote is my comfort and stff..." etc. His point is how easily we seduced from the really inportant by the ethic of what sells,Having watched the DD of "Good night and Good Luck" the previous night, themessage resonated more.From where I sit, to the Master's "you cannot serve God and mammon," we seemed to have backslid into a kind of christian materiaism that says,"sure we can."

Those who want to understand what Ms. Gordon meant by "consumerism" can easily find the whole conversation with Moyers at the Faith and Reason website.Strangely, the topic came up at this week's homily. Father quoted from an essay by a theologian at Mt.St. Mary's, " the TV is my shepherd...itmakes me to lie down on the couch, the remote is my comfort and stff..." etc. His point is how easily we seduced from the really inportant by the ethic of what sells,Having watched the DD of "Good night and Good Luck" the previous night, themessage resonated more.From where I sit, to the Master's "you cannot serve God and mammon," we seemed to have backslid into a kind of christian materiaism that says,"sure we can."

Rowan Williams usefully discusses how we have damaged childhood by, among other things, training them to be consumers

To Robert Nunz:I took your advice and looked up the transcript of the Moyers/Gordon/Mcginn talkfest to see if consumerism was adequately defined. The only section that contained the word "consumerism" I could find was the following excerpt:Ms. Gordon:"And one of the most disturbing phenomena in the world as I experience it now is that everything seems to be about money. What can be commodified, what can be sold. The notion that there's never enough money. That greed seems to be okay. That the value of an artistic or a literary production is how many mega bucks it makes. That the value of a vocation seems to be gone. It's what can you do that would make money. And so, I feel that these two narratives which intertwine in some poisonous way that I don't quite understand, both of them make me feel very vulnerable."So then if I understand Ms. Gordon correctly, "consumerism" could be defined by utilizing the following list (taken from the above excerpt):1) Everything seems to be about money.2) What can be commodified can be sold.3) There's never enough money.4) Greed seems to be okay.5) The value of an artistic or a literary production is how many mega bucks it makes.6) Its what can you do to make money.and concatenating these statements in a manner such that we have a philosophically coherent "narrative", and we will have arrived at a succinct and clear definition of "consumerism, correct?It seems to me that someone is blowing smoke and waving a lot of arm, and I stand by my previous comment.

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