Economic Justice

Economic Justice.  A sermon by by Rev. David M Bryce

Summary: One of the congregation-wide themes for this year is economic justice.  There are major economic challenges in our world to day; Some thoughts on how do our UU values apply to them and to possible solutions.

This sermon is in some ways part one of two.  Today I will speak more about our values and principles and how they apply to the topic.  On April 07 when I preach on the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee I will touch on some particulars of what we might do to actively support our values in the world. 

I am not an economist, but I am a citizen of a democratic nation and as such we are called upon to make economic decisions on the macro level each time there is an election, because we choose an economic course when we choose our leaders.

I also am a minister and therefore am called to speak to moral issues; and economic structures offer a wealth of opportunity to do that.

And so on both counts–citizenship and ministry–I am qualified to speak to economic issues.

I also acknowledge that economics is a bit like both religion and politics.  People believe what they believe and will continue to do so despite tons of evidence contradicting their beliefs. 

For example, in the economic sphere, I know that claims that tax cuts create jobs have been proven false time and again, yet people continue in their fallacy.  People who believe in tax cuts look at the same evidence and say that I am the one who is wrong.   But of course, I am not.

The Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association that apply directly to this topic are three in number:

1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

3. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Unitarian Universalism is grounded in the Enlightenment belief in the rights of the individual, the belief that there is a sphere of action around the individual which no one else has a right to trespass on: not government; not other individuals, no matter how wealthy or powerful they may be; and not employers or corporations. 

That belief in individual rights gave rise to and underlies the systems of democracy and of capitalism. 

Neither the philosophy of individual rights nor the system of capitalism guarantees that everyone will have the same income or the same level of wealth.  However, a belief in basic equity of person underlies democracy, capitalism and much of religious teaching, including that of Unitarian Universalism.

The ancient prophets Isaiah in Judah and Amos in the northern kingdom of Israel–seeing a growing economic disparity within those nations–saw the suffering of the poor, called for justice and attacked those wealthy who ignored the plight of the poor.  Amos looked at the wealthy who lived in a wealthy section of Israel called Bashan on Mount Samaria and said the following:

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
   who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
   who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’
2 The Lord God has sworn by his holiness:
   The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
   even the last of you with fish-hooks.  End quote.

Tough words. 

Like Isaiah and Amos, we also live in a time of growing economic disparity. 

Oxfam International reports that globally in the last 20 years the richest one per cent has increased its income by 60 per cent with the financial crisis accelerating rather than slowing the process.

They also report that in 2012 the richest 100 billionaires (100 billionaires!) had $240 billion in net income and that would be enough to end global poverty four times over.  Where is justice?

Jeremy Hobbs, Executive Director, Oxfam International, said: “We can no longer pretend that the creation of wealth for a few will inevitably benefit the many – too often the reverse is true.

“Concentration of resources in the hands of the top one per cent depresses economic activity and makes life harder for everyone else – particularly those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

“In a world where even basic resources such as land and water are increasingly scarce, we cannot afford to concentrate assets in the hands of a few and leave the many to struggle over what’s left.”

“…the levels of inequality now being seen are in fact economically damaging and inefficient. They limit the overall amount of growth, and at the same time mean that growth fails to benefit the majority. Consolidation of so much wealth and capital in so few hands is inefficient because it depresses demand”. 

He goes on to say, “Wages in many countries have barely risen in real terms for many years, with the majority of the gains being to capital instead. If this money were instead more evenly spread across the population then it would give more people more spending power, which in turn would drive growth and drive down inequality….As a result growth in more equal countries is much more effective at reducing poverty. Oxfam research has shown that because it is so unequal, in South Africa even with sustained economic growth a million more people will be pushed into poverty by 2020 unless action is taken.”

That from Oxfam International

So growth does not automatically raise all boats.

My comment on that is that concentration of wealth does not serve human need or the social interest, and it is unjust.

Recently the World Economic Forum—an independent group which brings together economist, business and government representatives for discussion–met in Davos, Switzerland. 

This come from a World Economic Forum survey of some of their members: The global risk that respondents rated most likely to manifest over the next 10 years is severe income disparity, while the risk rated as having the highest impact if it were to manifest is major systemic financial failure.

Severe income disparity is a global risk.  Oxfam and the World Economic Forum have concentrated on the global economy.  What of the US economy?

Joseph Stiglitz is a Nobel Prize winning US economist.  Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos he said the following: The richest 1% of Americans now hold 25% of the country’s wealth and more needs to be done to boost equality.

Mr. Stiglitz said this was a result of the top 1% seeing their wealth double since 1980.  By contrast, he said that the median income level in the US had not changed since the early 1990s.

Now if Mr. Stiglitz is correct that the median income has not changed, but the wealthiest have seen increases, that means that incomes in the mid to low range must have fallen to balance increases in the upper range.

Mr Stiglitz called for more work to boost the educational opportunities of the “bottom 50%” of Americans, higher minimum wages, and more collective bargaining in the workplace.  And he went on to say this: “America likes to think of itself as a land of equality and opportunity, the so-called American dream is very deep to our sense of identity. The stats show otherwise, the US has one of the worst opportunity rates of any of the advanced economies. A child’s life chances are more dependent on the income of his or her parents than most other industrial economies.”  We are misled by our myth. 

Mr Stiglitz contrasted the situation in the US in the past 30 years with that from the Second World War to 1980, when he said the US economy enjoyed “rapid growth in which we all grew together”.

If I had to choose between slow economic growth with justice and fast economic growth without justice, I would choose slower growth.

The good news is that economic justice works better than economic injustice.

Oxfam said world leaders should “learn from the present-day success of countries such as Brazil which has grown rapidly while reducing inequality – as well as the historical success such as the United States in the 1930s when President Roosevelt’s New Deal helped bring down inequality and tackle vested interests.  Roosevelt famously warned that the “political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality.””

I repeat that, “political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality”.   Wealth is power.

Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry, staff members of the International Monetary Fund, posted a report on the IMF web site in which they analyzed economic growth periods.  They said:

“We find that longer growth spells are robustly associated with more equality in the income distribution…Inequality still matters, moreover, even when other determinants of growth duration—external shocks, initial income, institutional quality, openness to trade, and macroeconomic stability—are taken into account.”

Our values of justice, equity and compassion call upon us to change the world for the better and to oppose systems of oppression, including economic oppression.

Our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person calls upon us to ensure dignified treatment so people can live in dignity, including a living wage and decent working conditions. 

This would be true even if there were an economic cost to the United States; but there is not.  We will be better off if economic growth happens with justice.

The voices of our brothers and sisters cry out for justice around the world.  Shall we heed them or shall we, like the cows of Bashan, for more drinks for ourselves.  It is up to us.