There is a gospel of the Good Old Days that runs as an undertow in American economics and politics, rolling silently and deadly, seeking to drag under the unsuspecting. It is based on a truth-- that America is certainly not as great as it once was. We know this. Here we sit in an alleged recovery that has skipped by most of us like a stone. We are struggling to get back to where we once were. The latest blow was the analysis published recently that showed that the median household has lost nearly 40% of its net worth since the start of the recession in 2007. But the reasons for our decline lie in the very gospel we are told to believe.
It is a gospel that looks back on the past with a rosy eye and seeks to restore a business climate based on unequal distribution of income that this country has not seen since the Gilded Age of the late-nineteenth century or the "Roaring" 1920s. And in each instance, the inequality was unsustainable and actually diminished us as a people, much less as an allegedly Christian nation, as so many are wont to proclaim us, then and now. And yet the gospel of wealth that was propounded then and now actually was a gospel of poverty for the vast majority of the American people.
First, let's consider the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. This was a time when the average workers lived in squalor in tenements no matter how hard they worked, a world in which public high schools were rare luxuries, and most Americans were lucky to get five or six years of rudimentary schooling (my own grandmother, born in 1890, had perhaps a third grade education, because she had to help take care of her brothers and sisters). It was a world in which there was no such thing as illegal immigration-- any who could come were welcome, most of whom to be shunted into the mills to be ground to grist in the machinery of the rising American industrial machine, and who were also conveniently used to prevent unions from gaining traction to challenge the political power of those same industries. It was a world in which there were often recessions and panics caused by speculation in land. Death came early for most-- the average life expectancy was under 50 years of age. The average worker earned less than $1.75 a day, and only 45% of American workers earned more than the poverty line of $500 annually. 92% of the 12 million families in the US made less than $1200 a year. This was the situation that spawned the middle-class supported Progressive movement, that introduced political reforms including the direct election of senators, woman suffrage, income tax, consumer protections such as the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, the initiative and referendum process, and the secret ballot, to name a few. And it was lucky for the wealthy that these economic and social reforms were enacted. Yes, lucky. Because in other countries, when the poor have felt that they had no voice, revolution has inevitably been the result. This is one of the reasons why people on both sides of the political divide supported Progressivism. Its reforms probably prevented a much bigger and more violent reorganization of the social order from occurring.
But by the 1920s, in the shock against the brutality of World War II and the failed Treaty of Versailles, conservative isolationists once again took control of US government, and their business philosophy sought a return to the 1890s. Wealth once again was concentrated in the hands of the very few while America developed into a consumer society-- two situations that can not logically coexist. Add in unrest in a Europe beset by economic devastation as a result of the First World War, and the worldwide Great Depression was the result. We are more familiar with the economic situation that occurred during this time, so I won't elucidate in the depth I used in the previous paragraph. However, here is one sobering fact: during the 1930s, for the first time in decades, life expectancy DECREASED in the US. And once again, recovery required Americans to work together to resolve the crisis. The New Deal programs laid the groundwork for recovery, and the collective action required by all citizens upon American entry into the Second World War sealed the deal, although it certainly wasn't simple. Nonetheless, we recovered and contributed to the defeat of Fascism only by working together. Everyone's sons-- rich and poor-- were subject to the draft; everyone was subject to rationing and urged to recycle and conserve for the war effort. By the end of the war, America was at the apogee of her power and influence in the world. We used the Marshall Plan to rebuild western Europe, which benefitted us greatly both economically and politically. We used the GI Bill to expand levels of education to heights never before even dreamt of, which furthered the growth of the American economy for the next forty years. We expanded the roles of those receiving social security even under Republican presidents because people could still remember how horrible the conditions were without such programs mitigating the excesses of an unrestrained capitalism. The biggest public works program ever-- the Interstate Highway Act-- connected the country and physically unified the scattered population centers. Our country began to finally, fitfully, tentatively, even reluctantly fulfill the promises that the Civil War was supposed to deliver to our African American citizens. The postwar world was a conservative world-- and yet we used government as it was supposed to be: by, of, and for the people, as Abraham Lincoln so cogently reminded us in a plea to encourage Americans not to turn on each other.
And that is the situation we are in now. So many of us feel insecure economically, and rather than attempt to diagnose and ameliorate the situation, some of our leaders encourage a fearful bunker mentality which turns American against American. As the number of the poor multiply, we are told to fear them, to hate them, to despise them as parasites-- even as ever larger numbers of us edge toward poverty ourselves. We are told that only tax breaks create jobs, and yet thirty-five years of tax breaks have left us at record levels of unemployment not seen since the end of World War II not to mention at record levels of debt. At a time when more Americans than ever are losing jobs or are chronically underemployed, we are cutting state Medicaid programs, food stamp programs, and cutting funding for education and infrastructure. We tell workers to blame other workers for their economic insecurity rather than the government and business policies of the last forty years. We tell parents that their only hope is the demise of public schools without pointing out the fine print-- that once public schools are imploded, and vouchers are instituted, the only thing that will happen is that private schools will be able to raise tuition --thanks to that flood of tax dollars-- to still keep out the undesirables. And the collapsed public school systems will become warehouses for those who have disabilities in earning as well as learning.
Here's a sobering fact: from 1983 to 2004, from the midpoint of Reagan's presidency through the midpoint of George W. Bush's presidency, 94% of all the wealth created went into the hands of the top 20% of the American population (and 42% of the new wealth went to the top 1%!). That means that during that same time period, eighty percent of the US population only earned 6% of the wealth created. Is this an indictment of the work ethic of the 80% of the US population? Can we really believe that most Americans are lazy deadbeats who want a handout? And furthermore, given our consumption-based economy, this disparity has suppressed the ability of Americans to purchase goods, even with relatively easy access to credit up until the last few years, which in turn suppresses the growth of the economy (which was supposed to be a founding promise of supply-side economics).
We should just vote the rascals out, right? But we are told that we should be suspicious of democracy by people who claim to be patriots, when that sounds like the most un-American claim possible. But it makes sense: If you create a tiny oligarchy of the wealthy, you have to undo democracy to prevent the majority from using their sheer numbers to protect themselves. If the wealthy are legally enabled to devote sizable chunks of their wealth to buying themselves a colossally disproportionate voice in the political process, the job is more than half done.
Worse, this oppressive situation is the opposite of the gospel that many of us claim to guide us as Christians. It is time for us to come out of the trance we have been under by the beautiful lie that wealth can be concentrated in the hands of the few not through the hidden hand of the marketplace but only through the co-option of our political processes, only through being able to use excess wealth to create political committees who then purchase the voted of our representatives who themselves are hardly representative of the average American in terms of income. This situation is inimical to our own self-interest, much less to the gospel call to attend to the interests of the least in society.