Sunday, June 26, 2011

Economics Again

Humanity is not on earth to serve economics; rather the function of economics is to serve humanity, in accordance with God’s loving purposes.
J. Philip Wogaman, Economics and Ethics, 38

Maybe it is that my son is looking for a job right now, or maybe it is the brief moment I stopped on Fox News today to listen as some folks argued that unions are nothing but job killers, but news about the economy keeps capturing my attention. Actually, this is a long-standing interest. When I was working on my Ph.D. in Christian Ethics I had, for a time, considered writing a dissertation on economic ethics. Instead I decided on another side of Christian social ethics, Christian ethics and political democracy.
Anyway, there were a couple of interesting items about the economy in the most recent issue of The Atlantic (July/August 2011). Between 2002 and 2007, 65 percent of all income growth in the U.S. went to the richest 1 percent of the population…. Today, half the national income goes to the richest 10 percent…. In 2007, the top 1 percent controlled 34.6 percent of the wealth – significantly more that the bottom 90 percent who controlled just 26.9 percent. These figures represent a significant shift from the recent past. During the Second World War, and in the four decades that followed, the top 10 percent too home just a third of the national income…. The last time the gap between the people on the top and everyone else was as large as it is today was during the Roaring ‘20s.
As the gap between the rich and others widens, what about the middle class? Since 2002, median household income has declined in real terms, as many middle class jobs have been either destroyed by technological innovation or lost to competition from overseas.
These economic realities raise moral questions. Granted that in a vibrant economy, there will be some persons who benefit more than others, is there some point beyond which inequitable distribution becomes counter-productive for the economy and damaging to persons? What are the larger effects of job insecurity and stagnant wages for middle class persons? If people feel the current economic policies and systems provide little security and insufficient opportunity, what may be the result?
These are tough times. They require tough thinking matched with compassionate hearts.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Life Saved By Rock and Roll

What it comes down to for me – as a Velvets fan, a lover of rock and roll, a New Yorker, an aesthete, a punk, a sinner, a sometime seeker of enlightenment (and love) (and sex) – is this: I believe that we are all, openly or secretly, struggling against one or another kind of nihilism. I believe that body and spirit are not really separate, though it often seems that way. I believe that redemption is never impossible and always equivocal.
Ellen Willis in Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island

The very first issue of Rolling Stone I ever bought had Peter Frampton on the cover. It was February 1977 and the year before his album “Frampton Comes Alive” was a huge success. Songs from the record played frequently on the radio – “Show Me the Way” and “Baby I Love Your Way.” Every two weeks for awhile thereafter, until I started to subscribe, I bought a copy of the magazine to see what was happening in the music world.
The pattern developed early for me, I think. My enjoyment of most anything is enhanced by reading about it. When I fell in love with baseball, I started to read about some of its history and best players. With my eighth grade experience of God’s love in Jesus, I began another journey of reading – mostly evangelical and charismatic writings. When some of that reading brought me to more questions, other journeys began – philosophy, psychology, and rock and roll.
In April of 1977, Rolling Stone, in an issue with Hall and Oates on the cover (remember them?), published a long article by Ellen Willis about her spiritual journey – which was also a journey with rock and roll. I don’t recall how much of it I actually remember, but I found it on-line and was moved in re-reading by its deep honesty. What I remember vividly, the first time I read the article was this quote from a song called “Rock n Roll” by a group I had never heard of, The Velvet Underground. The quoted line in the article read: “her life was saved by rock and roll.”
Life saved by rock and roll. What could that mean? Jesus saved, but I was doubting what that meant. In my first encounter with Jesus it meant that those who believed in him, believed that his death was a necessary requirement for God’s forgiveness of our sins, were saved from the eternal punishment of hell. If you did not so believe, well…. I had come to a difficult place with all that, though. How could I write off people of other religious traditions when I knew virtually nothing about them? Cartoonish condemnations of existentialism and pragmatism left me wondering what these philosophies might teach. I wondered if the full impact of Christian faith in Jesus was really meant to be focused on another life? I did not want to give up on Jesus, but I wanted a Christian faith that could help me think more deeply and that could take into account so much that I was learning and encountering.
Part of what I was encountering was rock and roll and writing about music that matched the music’s artistry. A writer like Ellen Willis could pen words that discussed music and spirituality. Her words were truthful. I too, think we struggle against nihilism of one kind or another. I too believe that body and spirit are not really separable. I believe that redemption is never impossible, and always equivocal – by that I mean our embodiment of God’s love and grace is real but momentary, and in the next moment we can lose our way a bit. I learned this from Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and Ellen Willis.
In the end, I believe that Jesus saves – that is, through Jesus I experience the grace and love of God which lead to a greater degree of wholeness in my life, and lead me to work for the healing of the world. I also believe that the grace I know in Jesus comes to me in different, and sometimes surprising, ways – including rock and roll and the words written about it. This life was saved by rock and roll, at least, in part.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Economy and Justice

We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity
Preamble, United States Constitution

But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
The prophet Amos (5:24)

There must be some way out of here
said the joker to the thief.
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine.
Plowmen dig my earth.
None of them along the line,
know what any of it is worth.

Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower”

This spring I read two books that indicate we may be in a time of economic confusion, a time to ask about what things are worth, about the meaning of justice and welfare.
Tyler Cowan, The Great Stagnation is an e-book that David Brooks has said may be “the most debated nonfiction book so far this year. “America is in disarray and our economy is failing us,” Cowan begins his book. He argues that we are in the midst of a multi-decade economic stagnation that began in the 1970s. Median wages have risen only slightly since then. Recent economic recoveries have been relatively jobless. Our economic success earlier this century, he contends, was based on picking “low-hanging fruit”: abundant land, rapid technological development, and a pool of bright, but uneducated children and youth. His words about technology are particularly interesting given many of the new developments we have experienced. Today… apart from the seemingly magical internet, life in broad material terms isn’t so different from what it was in 1953. We still drive cars, use refrigerators, and turn on the light switch (9). To make his argument, Cowan notes the rate of growth of median family income. It slows significantly in 1973. From 1947-1973, median family income doubled; from 1973-2007, it grew less than 22%. Cowan believes that until we find the next new low-hanging fruit, we might expect much the same – the great stagnation.
The other book, which I also read on an e-reader this spring, published in 2006 prior to the recent economic meltdown, is Jacob Hacker’s The Great Risk Shift. It comes at our recent economic history from another angle. For decades, Americans and their government were committed to a powerful set of ideals – never wholly achieved, never without internal tension – that combined a commitment to economic security with a faith in economic opportunity. Animating this vision was a conviction that a strong economy and society hinged on basic financial security, on the guarantee that those who worked hard and did right by their families had a true safety net when disaster struck…. Today, however, the social fabric that bound us together in good times and bad is unraveling. Over the last generation, we have witnessed a massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as by government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families. (8-9, 15) Hacker acknowledges growing economic inequality in our economy. From 1979-2003 the average income of the richest Americans doubled, factoring for inflation, while the middle class saw their average income rise 15%. The incomes of middle-class families aren’t much higher today than they were in the 1970s – and they are much more at risk. (24) Hacker is less concerned about inequality than the great risk shift.
Weaving the arguments from these two works together we can say that at a time when economic opportunity seems more limited and difficult, average families are being asked to assume more economic risk. What might the meaning of justice be in such circumstances? How do we care for the general welfare? How do we balance sufficient government revenue for an adequate safety net with the encouragement of economic opportunity? These questions do not lend themselves to easy answers. My greatest frustration is that too few are even asking them.

With Faith and With Feathers,