Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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On Jobs and Bling
Remember how much fun we had as children when our parents bought a new refrigerator and we got to play with the enormous cardboard box it came in? This was bliss for several days. A play house. A fort. A racing car. A space ship. The possibilities were endless. I thought of this recently while reading an article in the paper about parents who are building high end play houses for their children.* Sinclair’s parents in Houston built a $50,000 playhouse for her in their backyard, complete with a second story, vaulted ceilings, scaled down furnishings, hardwood floors, a mini-kitchen with stainless steel sink and refrigerator, and an upstairs sitting area with a 32 inch flat screen TV. Oh, and since its Houston, the playhouse is air conditioned. “I think of it as bling for the yard,” said Sinclair’s mother, Kristi Schiller.
Apparently wealthy folk like the Schillers aren’t the only parents eager to provide something special for their children. A growing number of companies and independent craftspersons have begun building high-end playhouses, some of which can cost as much as $200,000. One business reports that sales are up 40% and that the average price of the structures it builds has more than doubled from $26,000 to $54,000. A more modest set of parents spent only $2,450 on their child’s playhouse. “I didn’t want something revoltingly expensive, but I didn’t want anything pathetic, either.”
This phenomenon may help explain the rationale for retaining extensive tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans in the debt ceiling agreement passed and signed this week. How is it that these benefits to our richest neighbors solve our unemployment mess? After all, the cuts have been in place now for a number of years and close to 10% of Americans are still out of work. Now I get it! People like the Sinclairs are helping the economy. They are employing architects and contractors to build bling in their backyard! They are putting people to work creating a life of privilege for their children that matches their own. What an amazing stimulus deal! The only thing that would improve this is to allow these parents to count the investment in these “second homes” as part of their mortgage deduction on their income tax returns.
People who have been out of work for months, watched their homes move into foreclosure, and who face the end of unemployment benefits at the end of the year (extensions were not permitted in the Congressional deal) may find it hard to understand how the “five figure playhouse jobs stimulus plan” will trickle down to them. No one in their neighborhood is placing orders for playhouses they will be employed to help build. For that matter, no one is even buying a refrigerator to provide a magical cardboard box for their children. Indeed, these people, who most economists acknowledge will bear the brunt of the spending cuts planned over the coming years, may even be offended by the claim that no tax cuts for the wealthy are actually good news for them.
Is my sarcasm showing through? Probably. The sanctimonious refusal in Washington to ask everyone to fairly share in the economic hardships we face is more than offensive, and the lies about how the tilt toward the fabulously rich in our public policy will help us all is an outrage. And yet the political winners in all of this appear to be the very ones who promote the growing income divide that threatens the moral fabric of our society. Where’s the rage? Last week a few religious leaders were arrested in the capitol rotunda protesting the direction of the negotiations. It received passing notice, at best.
When was the last time you preached, or heard, a sermon on the economic injustice that has become the hallmark of American life in the last decade? When will our pulpits take on the Schillers of this world – and the politicians they help fund to keep them flush – and tell them that Sinclair shouldn’t have her own lavishly furnished play house as long as children are hungry in Chicago or Houston? Psychologists warn that these expensive playhouses are unlikely to help children develop their creative imagination any more than a refrigerator box will. Preachers ought to warn that these playhouses may well stunt the development of a child’s moral imagination. But just as too many pulpits were silent while we were manipulated into the demonic war in Iraq, so now they are silent as poverty is ignored for the sake of the privileged. Sinclair, no doubt, is a nice little girl. Certainly her parents love her. Sermons shouldn’t offend; they should uplift. The Schillers have pastoral needs, too, don’t they?
By the way, Sinclair has a second playhouse at her parents’ Texas ranch to complement the one she enjoys in their primary residence. More bling. Washington, which not only tolerates this, but promotes it, should be ashamed. And if the church refuses to expose this sin, we should be ashamed too.
John H. Thomas
*The New York Times, Thursday, July 21, 2011, D1