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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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Minister Farrakhan & Mom

This past Sunday, Minister Louis Farrakhan told a large gathering of the Nation of Islam in Chicago that “What you’re looking at in Tunisia, in Egypt. . . Libya, in Bahrain. . . what you see happening there. . . you’d better prepare because it will be coming to your door, “ (Chicago Tribune, February 28, 2011).  I don’t often listen to what Minister Farrakhan has to say.  The same speech included praise for Qaddafi and weird commentary about Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.  I seriously doubt that mass protests on the scale of those we’re seeing in the Arab world and leading to political regime change are coming anytime soon to the United States.  But his comment did remind me of a remarkable conversation I had with my mother some years ago.

Mom had recently sold her home and had moved into a comfortable retirement community near my sister.  The pleasant but relatively modest home she and my father had bought in the early 1950’s for probably $40,000 sold for over $500,000 in 2000.  Priced at the very bottom of the market in an increasingly fashionable suburb of New York, my childhood home was described as a “perfect place to start out.”  Indeed, the people looking to buy her home were all thirty year olds wanting to move from a New York apartment and start a family.  While the sale price enabled my mother to live comfortably and without financial anxiety well into her 90’s, she was not unaware of the moral questions raised by all of this.

We had been watching television – probably Bill Moyers –during one of my visits, a show documenting the increasing plight of the very poor in this country and, in particular, the income disparities that had been growing more profound during the decades of the 1990’s, disparities pretty obvious to a person who had just watched a parade of young families deciding whether her lovingly maintained $500,000 home that apparently now “needed” a new kitchen, probably a new master suite, and perhaps a second garage, was worth investing in.  “I frankly don’t understand why we don’t have class warfare in this country,” she blurted out.  She wasn’t talking about Wisconsin state house protests; she was talking about civil unrest.  Not something I was used to hearing from my 87 year old mother, liberal in her views but hardly a revolutionary.

That’s a baffling question, particularly these days when the move is on to replace “Obamacare” with “Boehnercare” as unions that supported the working middle class are demonized, and as the financial leaders who wrecked our economy, unleashing unemployment and foreclosures on hundreds of thousands of people seem to face no consequences – legal or financial – for their white collar crimes against humanity.

A recent study on American’s attitudes toward wealth inequality adds intriguing data to this question.  Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, economists at Harvard and Duke, surveyed 5,500 Americans in 2005.*   They wanted to know what Americans felt was a “just” distribution of wealth for our society and what they actually knew of the real distribution.  The first question they asked was, “what would be an ideal distribution of wealth (defined as the total value of everything someone owns minus any debt he or she owes) look like in the United States.  The respondents said that they believed twenty percent of the population ought to control about 33% of the wealth, the next 1/5 about 21%, the middle 1/5 another 21%, the next 1/5 about 15%, and the 1/5 at the bottom of the economic ladder about 10 %.  Remarkably, when examined for differences based on income, gender, and political leanings, there was far more consensus than disagreement.  Americans seem to share, at least in theory, fairly democratic notions of what sort of income distribution is ok, and what is not.

They next asked their respondents to estimate what they thought the real distribution of wealth actually is.  Again, a pretty strong consensus thought that 1/5 of the population probably owned about 55% of wealth in this country, the next 1/5 about 20%, the middle 1/5 about 13%, the next 1/5 about 7%, and the bottom 1/5 about 5%.  In other words, the Americans who were sampled estimated that the real income distribution was much less fair than their ideal.  But what is the real picture?  At the time of the survey (before the Great Recession), twenty percent of the US population controlled 84% of the wealth.  The next 1/5 owned about 10%.  The middle 1/5 owned about 5%.  The fourth 20% owned .2% of the wealth, and the last 20% owned .1%.

The good news in all of this seems to be that a representative sampling of Americans holds to a relatively just or at least egalitarian view of how wealth ought to be distributed in a democratic society.  The less good news is that in spite of these views, the typical American appears willing to tolerate a distribution of wealth far less just than their self-professed sense of the ideal.  The really bad news is that the typical American has no idea how imbalanced the distribution of wealth really is between the relatively few “haves” and the vast majority of “have nots” in this land of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Maybe this answers, in part, my mother’s question.  Most Americans may simply be unmoved by the moderate injustice they assume exists, even as they are completely ignorant of the profound injustice that actually exists.  Would knowing the truth lead to the kind of protest movements that Farrakhan predicts?  Perhaps not.  But it may explain why the ruling political class is not talking much about poverty these days.  Blissful ignorance about the degree of economic injustice has probably made it far easier over the past two decades to keep public policy, including taxes, skewed significantly toward the top twenty percent where political and corporate power is concentrated.

All of this strikes me as rich material to be mined by the preacher eager to take Biblical notions of wealth and economic fairness seriously.  After all, the people in our pews are likely to resemble the random sampling our researchers polled.  “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the Land!”  (Isaiah, 5.8-9)  Our researchers concluded, “Americans exhibit a general disconnect between their attitudes toward economic inequality and their self-interest and public policy preferences, suggesting that even given increased awareness of the gap between ideal and actual wealth distributions, Americans may remain unlikely to advocate for policies that would narrow this gap.”  This seems to me to be as much a moral and theological challenge as it is a political and psychological one.  With Lent approaching, it may be a good time not simply to consider the personal sins we commit against neighbors, family, and friends, but also the corporate evil we tolerate and often profit from.  The upheavals spreading across the Arab world may not soon be replicated in America.  But left unattended, the winds we sow may return as whirlwinds, and as unlikely a pair as Louis Farrakhan and my mother may prove to be prophetic.

*Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, “Building a Better America – One Wealth Quintile at a Time,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 6(1), pp. 9-12.

John H. Thomas

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