For many folks, the joy and excitement that marks the holiday season is now muted, replaced by anxiety and apprehension over a persistent and deep economic recession that threatens the American dream. Is this a prolonged but acute downturn, or is it the new normal? Has America reached its zenith of broadly shared affluence, or is it experiencing a painful reboot of the economic model that will resume the growth of the middle class?
The smoldering angst over these questions has ignited the Occupy Wall Street movement and has fingered greed-induced wealth disparity as the cause or our economic woes, the proposed solution for which is more equitable wealth distribution.
The culprits in this simple analysis are the economic elite, the top 1 percent — considered to be pathologically greedy, cheats and pirates, while everyone else, the 99 percent, are greed’s innocent victims, considered to be nobly deserving, honest and hard-working — even those who spent irresponsibly for a lifestyle they could not afford.
So much to consider here — I doubt it can be done in a single column — but let’s start with the founder of this holiday season, one Jesus Christ. How would Bethlehem’s most famous Birthday Boy address this inequitable economic situation?
Well, what he said is that there would always be poor people, and that it is virtually impossible for rich people to gain divine acceptance — unless they give up all their wealth? He once told one of his disciples to stop whining about losing a coat to a thief who, Jesus said, probably was in desperate need of the garment. Regarding taxes, he noted that government was the creator of money and recommended that it be given back to government.
Nor did Jesus appear to hold capitalists in high regard. He angrily trashed Jerusalem’s financial sector, calling it a den of thieves (some things never change). It was always a down-market day for the money changers and goat retailers working the temple trade when Jesus came to town.
Sounds like Jesus and Ayn Rand would not find much in common. I wonder if the Christian right and the political right-wing nuts who go about proudly proclaiming their piety understand that their God is a leftist. I wonder how they cram Christian socialistic charity and capitalistic self-interest into the same ideological container.
Given Jesus’ apparent anti-business attitude, it is ironic that his birthday has become an essential element in a capitalist economy that is driven by wanton consumerism. Economists, politicians (at least Democrats), and everyone who frets about the sagging economy are rejoicing over the upturn in Christmas spending this year — although I’m not sure how buying a bunch of stuff made in China is going to increase employment and wage scales in America and revive our economy.
Meanwhile, wealth disparity and the Great Recession is not the fault of the 1 percent, but apparently someone has to be blamed for it. I know quite a few people among the 1 percent. None of them attained their wealth by cheating, stealing or victimizing others. Most of them worked long and hard, some risking bankruptcy while struggling to eventual success. All of them provided employment and health benefits for hundreds of people. Yes, they became multimillionaires, but they effectively shared their wealth by creating wealth.
The canard that the rich do not pay “their fair share” is a subjective accusation, maybe born of envy. The rich pay far and away most of the income taxes. The poor pay nothing or nearly nothing while receiving the bulk of tax-funded welfare. Such tax-induced income redistribution has been standard practice in the United States for decades now.
The object of blame should not be the 1 percent, per se. Being rich is no more a result of unethical behavior than being poor is always a result of indolence. The blame belongs to those whose cannibalistic greed has forged a ponderous chain of corruption and collusion among our institutions of finance, industry, education and government. Our economic system needs redemption from these insatiable predators. Free markets without impartially enforced, reasonable regulation become mercilessly, treacherous economic jungles.
The glue that holds a big, diverse America together is equal opportunity to pursue individual happiness — essentially economic opportunity and upward mobility, which is manifested by a robust, growing middle class. There is no entitlement to happiness, only the freedom to pursue it on a fair game board, and that is what is threatened by an economic system that is rigged to favor the few at the expense of the many.
The perpetrators of unethical greed — whether bankers, lobbyists, industrialists or politicians — should have all their personal wealth forfeited to the public treasury. It’s sort of an economic guillotine, but a punishment befitting the crime.
And, think, once deprived of their ill-gotten gains, they will no longer be disqualified from entry into the kingdom of God — true redemption. And, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?