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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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Not “Yes, We Can” but “No, We Won’t”

Two months after Barack Obama was inaugurated I visited with a group of pastors and church leaders in Germany.  Like many progressive church people in the United States they were excited about the “Yes, we can!” promise of the new administration.  One pastor asked me what kind of radical shifts I saw coming in American economic life as a result of the election.  “If you think President Obama is an economic radical or revolutionary,” I said, “you’re going to be very disappointed.”  “At most he may be an economic reformer.  But he will essentially be leading from within the current mainstream.”  Sometimes it would be nice to be proven wrong!  I fear, however, that it is not to be in this instance.  While many are wondering how “yes, we can” turned into “no, we can’t,” a more apt assessment of the current situation is that the mainstream political leadership of all stripes is all about “no, we won’t” when it comes to addressing the real sins of our economy.

History will show whether swift government action in late 2008 and early 2009 kept the economy from spiraling into a full blown recession.  But in the years since, caution, moderation, and the protection of the privileged have been the order of the day.  The big banks that plunged the housing market into a catastrophe were rewarded with bail outs, their bond holders protected and their executives quickly reaping bonuses as if nothing untoward had happened.  The budget deficit narrative has overwhelmed the unemployment narrative, thwarting meaningful efforts to assist the most vulnerable in our society.  Public employees have been turned into scapegoats while enormous tax benefits to the fabulously wealthy are touted as the road to jobs, despite all evidence to the contrary.  Wall Street has recovered from its binge of bundled mortgages with stocks rising to benefit those of us with investments of one sort or another, perhaps softening the blow of other personal reversals.  Meanwhile, millions deal with the enduring toxicity of homes that won’t sell after years of responsible stewardship of their loans and properties.  Almost no one has been held accountable for the crimes that brought suffering upon so many, and attempts to restore regulatory sanity to a market run amok have been beaten back as if they were assaults on motherhood and apple pie.

The current budget impasse in Washington is often portrayed as an epic battle between the left and the right.  In fact, it is a cynical negotiation between the center and the far right, an exercise in preserving the status quo for comfortable Americans.  Obamacare is mocked as a socialist experiment, but an honest look reveals it to be a rather elegant reconfiguration of traditional capitalist market interests rather than a revolutionary rethinking of how health care could be fairly distributed.  The experts in risk management managed their risk quite nicely in this reform effort!   Meanwhile, the Supreme Court relentlessly opens doors for more corporate influence in our political processes, unlocking the flood gates of campaign contributions from the beneficiaries of the status quo to ensure that “yes we can” always reverts to “no we won’t.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. is usually remembered as the martyred civil rights leader.  In fact he was assassinated in the midst of his efforts to support sanitation workers, and the campaign he was leading at the time of his death was not focused on segregation but on poor people.  Few will be left unpunished in this country for attacking the sin of a society that allows so many people to live in poverty.  President Obama’s election led many to wonder whether the United States was on the road to a post-racial society.  Few have cause to wonder, however, whether his election implied a fundamental change in how we view economic matters.  Nothing in this Great Recession seems to have challenged the notion that the status quo prior to the economic collapse should be protected and rewarded during the long climb out.  The evisceration of poor neighborhoods is everywhere apparent in city neighborhoods like those I see on the bus along Garfield Boulevard in Chicago’s South Side where boarded up homes proliferate amid fast food joints peddling unhealthy food and pay day lenders preying on the working poor.  Meanwhile, condos are starting to rise again on the city’s Gold Coast and Near North Side.  If there is light at the end of the tunnel, far too many were buried in our man made financial collapse long before they had a chance to see it flicker.  The rules of the day ensure that only the few will bask in its warmth.

Angry Tea Party libertarianism is no answer to the mainstream Democrats’ or Republicans’ “no we won’t” response to poor people in this country.  What is needed is a reclaimed sense of the commonwealth, that we are in this together and that my wealth cannot be sustained in the long run unless the wealth of all is attended to.  Those who are playing economic chicken in Washington today with one eye on their portfolios and one on the next election cycle would do well to remember Isaiah before they once again tack on “God bless America” to their speeches:  “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and your are left to live alone in the midst of the land!”

John H. Thomas

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