I was reading Jim Wallis' thoughts on President Obama's budget proposal and was struck by these lines:
The growing inequality in America over decades is a sin of biblical proportions, and it's time to bring our principles of social justice to bear. As columnist E.J. Dionne wrote,
"The central issue in American politics now is whether the country should reverse a three-decade-long trend of rising inequality in incomes and wealth. Politicians will say lots of things in the coming weeks, but they should be pushed relentlessly to address the bottom-line question: Do they believe that a fairer distribution of capitalism's bounty is essential to repairing a sick economy? Everything else is a subsidiary issue."
It is that question that should guide our moral audit of the budget. The fundamental moral question in the upcoming budget debate is whether to begin to reverse the rapid and massive increase in American inequality which has grown over the past thirty years -- and has dramatically increased during the past eight. I believe it is time to stop helping the undeserving rich, under the now demonstrably false assertion that this will then benefit the rest of us.
I don't know what to make of this. I don't know how the disparity between today's rich and poor is relevant or meaningful or particularly disturbing. Wealth and poverty are relative. What difference does it make if one person has enough income to be comfortable, but someone else has a hundred times as much? What difference does it make if that gap widens every year as long as the "poorer" person is not regressing in absolute terms. The inequality that Dionne and Wallis should be talking about, and rejoicing in, is the inequality between our contemporary poor and those who were wealthy in almost every other period of human history.
I say they should rejoice because our poor are astonishingly wealthy, at least in material goods, compared to almost everyone else who has ever lived, even the wealthiest people.
A multi-millionaire from a hundred and fifty years ago actually had a lot less and in many ways had it a lot harder than most Americans living below the poverty line have today. They had more and bigger houses than do today's American poor, of course, and lived in safer neighborhoods, but that's about it. Those houses were not air-conditioned and often indifferently heated. The rich didn't have telephones much less cell-phones, so communication was much more difficult. They didn't have electricity, artificial light, refrigeration, television, radio, or reliable plumbing. They couldn't listen to music any time they wanted or watch movies or television news. They didn't have computers or the internet to facilitate communication and learning or video games to entertain them. Their clothes were certainly less comfortable and in many ways more poorly crafted. They couldn't get food, paid for by the taxpayer, by walking to the corner supermarket, where the choices and variety would astonish someone transplanted from the late 1800s. They could afford the best medical and dental care of the day, but the best care was nowhere near as good nor as convenient as what is available today, even to our poor, whose bills are paid by medicaid. The poor today have access to a plethora of medications undreamt of by the wealthy of the 19th century - aspirin, penicillin, novocaine, blood pressure medicine, depression medicine, etc. - all of which make life infinitely better than it was for the rich 150 years ago. Today's poor are much more mobile thanks to public transportation, than were the earlier rich who had to rely on carriages drawn by horses which needed to be maintained. The rich had houses at the beach, but it took lengthy train and carriage rides in hot, dusty uncomfortable conveyances to get there. Poor families today often have access to a car that can get them to the beach for a day's recreation in relative comfort, on excellent highways, and with relative speed.
Relative to the wealthier classes today our poor may seem to have little, but they're immeasurably rich relative to the unfortunate "wealthy" wretches who happened to be born a century and a half ago. Indeed, if somehow a contemporary member of the lower economic classes were transported back 150 years, but able somehow to live like they can live today, their neighbors would marvel at their extravagance and quality of life.
None of this is to say that modern poor people don't have needs that must be addressed, but it is to say that the claim that our system is unjust because there's a gap between rich and poor is hard to credit.
So, the next time someone in your hearing complains about the unfairness of the disparity between rich and poor in this country ask them what it is, exactly, that's unfair about it.RLC