Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Economic Justice for All

This month’s election was full of ironies. One was that many blue collar voters in the so-called Rust Belt were so worried about their stagnant, or disappearing, wages that they voted for a billionaire who has a history of mistreating workers to be their rescuer.
Another irony is that neither of the presidential candidates made much mention of a major problem in the U.S.: poverty and the lack of what some term “economic justice.” In spite of all that was said from both sides, there was little attention given to the worrisome conjoined twins in contemporary USAmerican society: racial injustice and economic injustice.
The Bishops’ Document
Ten years ago, Diana Hayes gave the annual Romero Lecture in Camden, New Jersey. The title of that significant talk was “The Color of Money: Racism and the Economy.”
Dr. Hayes is an outstanding person: she was the first African-American woman to earn a Pontifical Doctorate in Theology, and until her retirement in 2011 she was Professor of Systematic Theology at Georgetown University.
In her 2006 lecture, included in the book Romero’s Legacy (2007), Hayes introduced “Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy,” a document the National Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted in November 1986.  

Ten years later the same Conference issued a new document: A Decade after Economic Justice. In the “Introduction” the bishops noted three nations in our midst: one “prospering and producing in a new information age,” one “squeezed by declining real incomes and global economic competition,” and the third “an American underclass.”
My guess is that in this month’s election a majority in the first nation voted for Clinton, a majority in the second nation voted for Trump, and a great many in the third nation didn’t vote at all.
Six moral principles
In the original document issued 30 years ago, the bishops set forth six moral principles—all of which still need to be considered conscientiously today:
Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person.
Human dignity can be realized and protected only in community.
All people have a right to participate in the economic life of society.
All members of society have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable.
Human rights are the minimum conditions for life in community.
Society as a whole, acting through public and private institutions, has the moral responsibility to enhance human dignity and protect human rights.
Concerning the fifth principle, the bishops quoted Pope John XXIII, who stated that “all people have a right to life, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, education, and employment.” The bishops then explained that this means that “when people are without a chance to earn a living, and must go hungry and homeless, they are being denied basic rights.”
A small step forward?
Given the problem of economic injustice in the nation, the lingering question is, What can be done?
Ten years ago Hayes averred that justice is not being done when a “million or so have slipped into poverty because of our refusal to raise the minimum wage” (p. 87). One presidential candidate did promise to reverse that refusal. Unfortunately, she lost.
Under the new President-elect and Republican Congress, raising the minimum wage doesn’t seem likely to happen, nationwide at least. However, in the Nov. 8 election voters in four states did approve raising the minimum wage—a small step in the right direction.
Then yesterday (Nov. 29) there were widespread strikes and rallies pushing for increasing the minimum wage—perhaps another small step forward in the struggle to create economic justice for all.


  1. My concern with raising the minimum wage is that it will accelerate the automation of jobs and will hurt the people that we are trying to be helped. As a technologist, I will do better if the minimum wage is raised - companies buy more automation. Given some states are raising the minimum wage, we will see the natural experiment and can track the results. The US has a $1 Trillion safety net + $600 Billion for education. Not sure the answer but we as a society are trying to solve it. It is just not very easy to solve. See the article that gives one perspective.

    The American Welfare State
    How We Spend Nearly $1 Trillion a Year
    Fighting Poverty—and Fail
    by Michael Tanner

    1. Thanks for your comments and the link to the article, Doug.

      It is always hard to know what the true facts and proper evaluation of those facts are. For example, here is the link to another article, which gives a somewhat different viewpoint:

      The article I linked to says, "Historically, the official poverty rate in the United States had ranged from a high of 22.4 percent when it was first estimated for 1959 to a low of 11.1 percent in 1973. Since its initial rapid decline after 1964 with the launch of major War on Poverty programs, the poverty rate has fluctuated between around 11 and 15 percent."

      It is interesting to see how the poverty rate began to increase in 1980 and again in 2000, when it was almost to the same low point that had been reached in 1973.

      The other question to ask is this: what would the poverty rate be if it had not been for the War on Poverty? Some may say it failed, but we don't have any evidence of what would have happened without that effort.

  2. Here is a video on the challenges of automation that society will face: Humans Need Not Apply

    1. Thanks for sharing this, too, Doug. This was a fascinating, and very disturbing, video. But the repercussions of the "bot revolution" is going to affect a lot more people than those working for minimum wage, and perhaps a lot more dramatically.

  3. At the dawn of history ancient Greeks fought ancient Hittites in the Trojan War. Troy lost the war, and faded into the shadows. Homer wrote about the war much later, for Greece descended into a dark age after the war. Neither side really won, although archeologists have enjoyed unearthing the ruins. The discovery of the actual Troy was quite the story in a world which thought it a mere legend.

    Within the lifetime of many now living, the Berlin Wall fell, and Communism collapsed. Unfortunately, Gorbachev's plan to turn the old Soviet Union into a Scandinavian-style social democracy ran into the neoliberal economists and neoconservative militarists of the Reagan administration, and somehow Boris Yeltsin and the oligarchs came out on top. That disaster lead directly to the Putin government that Americans now confront. With the election of Donald Trump, many now see the final triumph of neoliberal economics as the last gasp of classical liberalism as it collapses before his triumph. What I see instead is the last gasp of neoliberalism as it collapses at the very moment of its greatest triumph due to the full unfurling of the profound internal contradictions within it. Perhaps we will subside into a new dark age like the ancient Greeks, or perhaps we will see a more profound change as happened in the Soviet Union. Watch Republicans trying to square the circle by "reforming" Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act while slashing their funding and trying not to alienate the very rust belt victims who put them in power in the first place.

    If only it was as simple as economic justice versus unfettered capitalist freedom for the very rich it would be quite enough the morality play. However, larger than both is the most profound, and profoundly ignored issue of the election. Our environment that sustains life on earth is sliding into collapse with pollution and mass extinctions expanding around us. Worse yet, global warming threatens the very existence almost all life on earth, humans included. We laugh at North Carolina for writing a law forbidding long range ocean level rise predictions as a basis for official action such as zoning and infrastructure construction, but all of us tend to use only slightly longer predictions to limit our appropriate terror. Even as our great coastal cities are facing flooding from rising oceans, our lands are gradually becoming either swamps or deserts, and the oceans are dying an acid death. The long range predictions that so scare everyone but Donald Trump are actually quite conservative in their parameters, and may be dangerously understating the threat. Ice everywhere is melting, all of the earth is overheating, and we respond by burying our heads in the sands. Read more at this link:

    Doug Hohulin's posts highlight yet another threat to our American way of life, technology. Well, it is a threat to the mythology that an invisible hand makes the free market work for the benefit of all. Of course, even more extreme technology seems to work just fine in the scifi world of Star Trek. How can that be? Simple, Star Trek does not live in a capitalistic universe. Wall Mart has been replaced by a replicator. The crew just ask the machine to make whatever they need (except, of course, for fuel for the ship). No credit card involved. We could do it if we could just imagine it. Suppose all the heavy lifting in society were done by technology. People were encouraged to find their calling and follow it, whether in art, science or service. If a few just decide to become beach bums, maybe one will become a poet or a photographer and give a vision back to the rest of society. If our technology gets good enough we could all be the leisure class. But only if the one percent will share the abundance with the rest of us.

    1. Thanks for your usual erudite comments, Craig!

      Perhaps you saw it previously, but what you wrote reminded me of the disturbing 11/21 article titled "Global warming: where the arc of the moral universe stops." It can be accessed at

    2. Thanks, that was an inspiring link, even if many of the responses following it are anti-science trolling. Painful things get denied all the time, whether it is denying bad news from the doctor (or warning signs we need to visit the doctor), denying the holocaust, denying the safety and efficacy of vaccines, denying racism, or denying the wisdom of 97 percent of climate scientists who believe in manmade global warming. In the trolling of the article, I found it especially ironic that they repeated ridiculed Al Gore's hockey stick analogy, even as we have set a new world record in global warming nearly every month for over a year. Costly natural disasters are already becoming worse, and more numerous. All the talk about the recent Gatlinburg fire has mentioned how unprecedented the ferocity of the fire was. I wonder why that is?

    3. I just stumbled on another global warming article comparing the long arc of moral justice to the short arc of global warming. Find Bill McKibben's article in The Nation at this link:

    4. Thanks for sharing another good link, Craig. I have found McKibben's thinking/writing to be very reasonable and important. And I was happy to be reminded of Jonathan Schell. I read at least part of his "Fate of the Earth" not long after it came out in 1982--and probably needed to spend more time with it as it was a significant book.

  4. Once again Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson makes brief, but quite significant, comments:

    "We’d be wise to listen to Catholic teaching. It’s surprising that some Catholic politicians such as Paul Ryan listen instead to Ayn Rand."

  5. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard also shares substantial comments again this time:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your interesting insights, with which I agree, especially about how the three 'nations' voted in the election.

    "I also strongly agree with the 'six moral principles.' From Republicans, I often hear that 'liberal' government programs have done nothing to help the poor. Actually, the government programs have worked because most of them are only designed to keep people alive (e.g., food stamps, Medicaid, aid to dependent children, etc.).

    "To really fix poverty in America, whether in the inner cities, where minorities live, or in Appalachia, where poor whites live, will require investment far beyond anything so far provided. Food stamps do not provide education or job training. In Chicago, the school system is starved for funding and schools in the inner city are being closed. The state of Illinois, like so many other states, has refused to address the gross inequities in school funding. (Charter schools and vouchers will not fix this problem.)

    "As a first step, we need more, and more effective, elementary schools so that children can be on the right path by the time they reach high school. The poor need education, skills, and jobs. Is the white majority, and the billionaire class, willing to pay the taxes needed for a truly earnest investment in education or job training in distressed areas? Don't hold your breath."

  6. The 6 principles of CAtholic Social Teaching came out while I was in ministry in rural Iowa, during what was called the "farm crisis". They were a powerful guide and encouragement to us who were battling the effects of the "restructuring" of agriculture into global agribusiness at the expense of local families and communities. They need to be much more widely taught and applied.

  7. Thinking Friend Virginia in New Mexico shared the following comment as part of a longer email message in which she talked about the prospective problem of economic justice under the new President-elect:

    "On November 9th, I wrote in my journal, 'Today our worst nightmare has come true.' Every day I hear at least one alarming, distressing thing the president elect has said/done. I pray for good to come out of evil, but it is increasingly difficult to maintain equilibrium, much less optimism."