The National Catholic Review

Here are two representative headlines that say a lot about the economic state of the union in 2013: “Inequality Widened During Post-Recession” and “Fast-Food Workers Strike in Chicago.” The first headline refers to a story about a shocking expansion of economic disparity. The top 7 percent of the nation’s wealth holders added 28 percent to their asset pile between 2009 and 2011, while the remaining 93 percent of the population saw a net loss of 4 percent. That skewed wealth distribution has been exacerbated by the economic turmoil of recent years, but it continues a long-term trend. The second headline speaks to the growing desperation of low-wage workers in the United States, locked into full-time jobs that fail to lift them and their families above the poverty line.

The U.S. economy has always produced winners and losers; that is presumably part of its genius. The risk takers are richly rewarded; the rest are free to pursue more dependable, if less remunerative options. So the tale has been told and retold, part of a cultural narrative that masks a great deal of anxiety and deprivation. Now—after a period of rapid economic and technological upheaval, the loss of millions of well-paying jobs and the bursting of a housing bubble that had enveloped middle-class America’s “safest” asset—the shoddy premises of that story have been laid bare.

Social mobility in the United States is now lower than in the socialized states of Europe; the Census Bureau reports poverty levels not seen since the mid-1960s; and 20 percent of the country’s children are growing up poor. Compared with its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks at the bottom in measures of the equality of income distribution and government social transfers.

Wages have been stagnant for decades, even as large productivity gains have generated vast new wealth. Three decades ago, C.E.O.’s in the United States were paid 42 times as much as the average U.S. worker. Today they earn 354 times as much. On Wall Street the Great Recession is little more than a bad memory even as working people on Main Street lower lifestyle expectations and increasingly give up on higher education for their children, a sure path to a sad generational deflation of hope.

U.S. income and wealth inequities have recently drawn disapproving appraisals from the Federal Reserve Board and the International Monetary Fund. The church has long been concerned by such disparities. Popes Paul VI and Benedict XVI, in promoting the common good over pure profit-making, both warned of “the scandal of glaring inequalities.” And Pope Francis, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, condemned “unjust economic structures that give rise to great inequalities.” Such disparities were especially immoral, he argued, in nations that have “the objective conditions for avoiding or correcting such harm.” Unfortunately, many of those nations, he charged, “opt for exacerbating inequalities even more.”

Over the long term, wealth inequality is an imbalance that threatens the common good in a number of ways. It creates unhealthy class tensions, concentrates economic and political power in an elite increasingly disconnected from the everyday realities of fellow citizens and promotes racial and economic segregation. It gravely reduces opportunities for more balanced and sustainable economic growth by diminishing a vibrant middle class. It encourages corporate and government corruption and lending and borrowing practices that, as the nation already has experienced, can bring ruin far beyond that of individuals and households.

It has taken decades to establish this dangerous disparity in American life; it will take decades to unravel it. It will be a complex job that will call for a reassessment of the impact of proposed austerity policies, the restoration of progressivity to tax structures, increased social spending on health care and services for children and the careful nurturing of better-paying jobs. It will require improvements in educational attainment across regional, class and racial lines; a viable civic space for collective bargaining; and finally, the embrace of a minimum wage capable of permanently removing working people from government social service queues.

To the rich man damned because of his indifference (Lk 16:25), Abraham said, “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.” The parable of Lazarus and the rich man could be taken as merely a balm for the poor and a warning to the wealthy, but it ultimately speaks to a kind of divine balance, to justice “seeking equilibrium.”

In our era tall tales of excesses among the wealthy and the poor are equally enjoying an unpleasant revival. Perhaps a restoration of the social parity suggested in this biblical parable will produce a far more ennobling story to tell.

Comments

LaVoy Thiessen | 9/30/2013 - 3:14pm

Until glaring inequalities in performance between various groups in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) are remedied, glaring economic differences between groups will necessarily remain. Abilities in these areas are essential to maintain technologically advanced societies and achieve economic success. What, if anything, can be done to eliminate these inequalities?

john andrechak | 7/27/2013 - 12:05am

The same commenters defending the huge inequality in our nation would be supporting the divine right of Kings. They are the same part of the Church that stood with Franco, Pinochet, Mussolini, who out of fear of communism made a deal with Hilter, A concordat I believe it was called, knowing full well what the Nazis would unleash on the world. But after all they did protect the "Makers"

Tim O'Leary | 7/27/2013 - 9:43am

Can't you do better, John, than just name-calling - It's all an anti-commie plot. An excuse to not engage the actual arguments.

john andrechak | 7/27/2013 - 9:41am

what name calling? That Catholics, certainly the Hierarchy endorsed the notion of the Divine Right os Kings is simply a fact. That Catholics, the Hierarchy and their apologists have sided with fascism and the Elite, be it landowners or Industrialists, is a fact. In their defense they were picking, what the lesser of two evils? Oh no, that would be moral relativism!

Tim O'Leary | 7/27/2013 - 9:57am

No one below made any argument even remotely supporting the divine right of kings or excusing fascists. As on other threads, you avoid the specific argument under discussion, and just rant about others imperfections.

The key arguments below relate to the way the economical system (taxes, regulations, laws, welfare, unions, family culture) might be most just and consistent with Christian principles. Why not use your space to make a cogent argument on topic?

Tim O'Leary | 7/27/2013 - 2:15pm

A few points late in this conversation.

I know a lot of people talk about inequality as if it was in itself a bad thing. But, it is only a possible surrogate for bad things. The bad is deprivation of some good, not a comparison with how someone else is doing. For example, if the very best athletes make many millions and the second tier athletes make just a couple of million, and the gap is widening between the very best and the second tier, that is no obvious negative effect to the good of the second tier. On the other side of the scale, if the inequality between the middle class and the lower class is getting greater, it may not be the right solution to focus on the difference but to look at the needs of both. Both may be doing worse, or better, irrespective of the inequality.

Also, as pointed out below, the inequality measure is very dependent on what geographic area is being considered. Is it really more Christian to oppose free trade to reduce the inequality in our own country at the expense of the workers in the developing world? There is no doubt that inequality across the world is improving dramatically, with the largest ever increase in a global middle class (especially is Asia). Shouldn't we favor policies that most rapidly reduce the worst deprivation across the world?

Another term I hear used a lot is a "just wage" and the related term "minimum wage". A just wage is a good concept in theory, but is it a good for an employer to pay a father of a large family more than a father of a small family for the same work or less still for a single man or woman? Surely the first father needs more, but it hardly seems fare. And should a wife, whose husband is also working, get less for the same work because she needs less? Shouldn't the employer set his wage based on the value the worker is bringing to the business rather than try to be a judge of the worker's personal needs? If he doesn't, his business will soon become unprofitable and he will have to shut down, with a loss for all the workers. Better for the government to focus on things like high tax allowances to address the needs than put this on the employers or the whole business. Doubling or tripling the child tax credit would be a greater help to the poor families (and encourage families to stay together) than a more blunt instrument like a minimum wage.

So much in economics is frustrated by unintended consequences and neglecting incentives and the fundamentals of supply and demand. For example, Obamacare is almost certainly going to reduce the number of full-time jobs (over 30 hours) and increase the number of companies that stop growing beyond 50 employees for these businesses to keep their costs under control. Why wouldn't a successful businessman open a second company to do the same thing once his business hits 40 fulltime workers? Didn't the inventors of Obamcare think of these incentives? Even the Unions are complaining about this unintended consequence. And it is not easy to fix without other negative effects on jobs.

I think the focus on inequality or minimum wage in government policy has not worked. Certainly, the focus on equality in the last century caused untold suffering. Isn't it the moral thing to pragmatically look for solutions that work? The breakdown of the family (unwed mothers, no fault divorce, and wide acceptance of sex outside marriage) and illiteracy (despite massive increases in dollars for education) are much more likely to cause deprivation of goods (and inequality) than a low minimum wage or a "flatter" tax system.

john andrechak | 7/27/2013 - 9:53am

ObamaCare is certainly going to reduce the number of full time workers...? Your source please! Fox, Rush? Why is it that a faction of the American people use antidotes for debating serious problems?

Tim O'Leary | 7/27/2013 - 1:13pm

John - there are multiple sources across the political spectrum but the one you might find most credible is the letter written earlier this month by the leaders of 3 major unions, including Hoffa of the Teamsters, to Reid and Pelosi, that got leaked. In the letter, obtained by the WSJ (and fully printed here: http://blogs.wsj.com/corporate-intelligence/2013/07/12/union-letter-obam...) the union leaders say the following:

"unless you and the Obama Administration enact an equitable fix, the ACA will shatter not only our hard-earned health benefits, but destroy the foundation of the 40 hour work week that is the backbone of the American middle class." and

"the law creates an incentive for employers to keep employees’ work hours below 30 hours a week. Numerous employers have begun to cut workers’ hours to avoid this obligation, and many of them are doing so openly."

This is not a new complaint from the unions, although they all supported ObamaCare before they read it. See here in from May: http://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/300881-labor-unions-break-ranks-o...

Ernest Martinson | 5/20/2013 - 2:33pm

How hypocritical for the Federal Reserve Board to be bemoaning the income and wealth inequities after doing so much to create those inequities. The Fed spurred speculation and the housing bubble with artificial low interest rates. When the bubble inevitably burst, so did the dreams of those supposedly helped by government policy.
The Fed is the lender of last resort to those too big to fail. But it has been ongoing Fed policy to create those too big to fail behind closed doors. Then with the opening of the famed revolving doors , those conferring monetary benefits exchange places with those receiving benefits. Supposedly, this is not for the citizen to comprehend because of complexity. But citizens should be rightfully cynical about these rent seekers. Evil flourishes in the darkness and behind Fed doors. Only a free economy with minimal government manipulation can be transparent.

Jason Ewell | 5/8/2013 - 4:30pm

Before increasing the minimum wage, we should eliminate the shameful practice that allows organizations (most of which claim to be charitable enterprises) to pay subminimum wages to employees with disabilities under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Many of these organizations are tax exempt, have a competitive advantage in bidding on government contracts, and have excellent marketing departments that know how to spin what they are doing into positive PR.

Policies, tax dollars enrich Goodwill execs
http://watchdog.org/83209/policies-tax-dollars-enrich-goodwill-execs/
An End to Legalized Discrimination: A Demand for Justice and a Call for Action
http://nfb.org//images/nfb/publications/bm/bm12/bm1208/bm120808.htm

Christian McNamara | 5/6/2013 - 10:56pm

While accepting the need to do something about inequality, I struggle with the question of how best to address it both from a practical standpoint (will the suggested policies in fact have the effect of reducing inequality) and from the standpoint of justice (do the suggested policies adequately consider the rights of all parties including employers, the wealthy, etc.). Several of the proposals made by the editors set my alarm bells to ringing. Increasing the minimum wage sounds good, but the potential disemployment effects cannot be ignored (might the EITC be a better way to accomplish the same end?). "Collective bargaining" in the public sector has resulted in unsustainable retirement obligations that are increasingly crowding out the social services the editors call for, and I would argue that teachers unions are one of the biggest obstacles to the educational attainment the editors also call for.

I don't have any real answers. I suspect that a focus on education is a good place to start. Some of the other specific proposals make me very nervous.

john andrechak | 7/27/2013 - 9:58am

you could argue that teacher unions are obstacles to educational reform, but there isn't actual documentation of that point. You can argue that collective bargaining caused unsustainable obligations, but again no documentation support that stand. The average public pension in the US is $19,000 per year verses "I heard on Rush about some guy's cousin who lives next store to someone who has a brother-in-law whose son's wife's uncle heard of a city worker making $100,000 a year!' Antidotes-at best-verse sound documentation.

No real answers? For sure. How about "real" facts.

Timothy Saenz | 7/23/2013 - 4:50pm

Sorry I'm so late getting in on this.

I just had to comment on this hugely and grossly generalized statement about teachers' unions. What proof is there that teachers' unions have hindered educational attainment? Do you think the educational plans of ignorant legislators have worked, where our kids are tested - grindingly - for three to four weeks out of the year? Less time is spent on educating our kids and more time spent on an endless stream of "standardized" tests that the kids just decide to Christmas tree.

Collective bargaining is a good thing. It guarantees a voice in the educational process, which includes the fiscal. Retirement obligations are unsustainable not just in and of themselves, but because of other considerations. I live in a state where teachers have been stripped of all rights, and I have watched my wife's paltry salary and benefits recede each year. They recede because the average taxpayer is hurting. The average taxpayer is hurting because "global business" has as its agenda the degradation of the American workforce for the sake of greater profits. Businesses no longer bear civic-minded patriotism. They crave nothing more than profits, and to increase profits, they seek to ever spend less on labor, and if that means harming the American worker, that's fine with them, as long as they luxuriate in profit and recreation.

These corporations give jobs to workers in communist China and eschew their liberty-loving fellow free citizens. They invade our privacy and sway our minds and hearts with endless, intrusive advertising. The maw of their covetousness knows no end.

How dare you blame teachers' unions!

You best keep in mind the words of the gospels and of the Letter of James, wherein the rich are rightly excoriated for their overlording and self-satisfaction at the expense of the common man.

"Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts."

All those workers who got corporations to where they are today are tossed aside like so much chaff. Disgraceful!

Greed is the problem, and the wealthy were having at it long before teachers' unions.

John O'Neil | 5/7/2013 - 1:14pm

Christian,

I share your struggle.

When the least among us suffer while the wealthiest among us prosper, it is understandable to focus on this inequality. It is unfair, unjust and immoral. It suggests that our society has the capacity to create enough prosperity to ensure that few, if any, should suffer. Yet for whatever reason, a meaningful portion do. While some of the back and forth in this debate focuses on who is to blame or what intentions motivate a particular argument, I would hope our focus can remain on the "greater good" and how we work towards this. Our mandate should be to foster the dignity, well being and health of all, with a special mandate for the least among us. In my view, it should also define “greater good” on a global basis.

What is the most enlightened and effective plan to advance the greater good? Is the answer focusing on income inequality – looking for means to distribute wealth from those in surplus to those in need? Is the answer focusing on creating as much prosperity as possible in the belief that this will be a more effective and lasting way to foster the dignity, health and well being of all including those in need? The social justice dialogue for years has focused almost exclusively on the former and made little room for discussion of the latter. On the surface, it does seem to be a more immediate remedy. If it were demonstrably more effective in both the near and long term, then we should all agree it is the correct strategy, even if it meant putting up with the ideological diatribes of those who seem less interested in which approach works and more interested in attacking the evils of the other.

Smarter people than me, including commenters in this thread and others outside of it, cannot seem to agree which approach works better. While it may not satisfy those who believe there is a single objective truth or principle that should prevail here, I believe the answer is a mix of approaches and significant compromise. As I noted in my earlier post, remedies which may have worked 50 years ago can be counter-productive today. Remedies which are necessary in an emerging economy may be excessive in a developed economy.

In the end, I return to where our focus rests. It should be axiomatic that if we could expand prosperity to the point where even the least of us did not suffer, we should all want that. However, I suspect that even in such a utopian scenario where we no longer had any poor, if income inequality persisted, it would continue to create problems and cause many to demand more. That is why I do not believe addressing income inequality should be the goal – addressing the greater good and welfare of the least of us should be the goal. Addressing income inequality may be part of the solution - in the short term there is no avoiding it. But it will always be a moving target.

On the other hand by focusing on expanding opportunities for the poor to share in the abundant life we are creating, both the “abundance” and the “creation” we keep the most urgent need upfront. Education and entrepreneurship remain our best hopes for expanding opportunities and creating prosperity, both locally and globally. Advocates of social justice should be as forceful in demanding progress on those issues as they are in income inequality.

Eva Weber | 5/7/2013 - 9:20am

Christian McNamara

It is a fact that people receiving minimum wages are not able to pay for the bare basic of food, clothing, or shelter, neither for individuals , and certainly not for entire families. It is unexcussible, that parents should work 2 and three jobs to meet living expenses, when they raise children, but never are present to them, in orde to r raise inough cash to pay the bills.

Shame on all the twisted and false arguments in support of the greed of the few! These do not hold any water, no matter how intellectual they come accross and dispite the sophisticated semantics used.

Christian McNamara | 5/7/2013 - 11:24am

I don't disagree that people receiving the current minimum wage cannot meet their basic living expenses. I also don't disagree that it's a problem that people can work full-time (and more) and yet still be unable to take care of themselves and their families. The question is how do we solve that problem, and I'm not sure that raising the minimum wage is the answer. There's nothing twisted or false in noting that increasing the minimum wage to the levels you and the editors seem to suggest would almost certainly result in significant job destruction as employers respond by doing things like making greater use of automation or simply closing up shop. So while an individual working full-time and not able to fully support himself is not well off, I don't think we've made him better off by turning him into an unemployed individual not able to support himself at all.

john andrechak | 7/27/2013 - 10:10am

You are not sure raising the minimum wage is the answer? Ask the families trying to live on it. Maybe they have the answer.

Joseph J Dunn | 5/6/2013 - 4:03pm

Professor Killoran,
Thanks for the note on "Five Dollar Day." The book presents much of value, especially on the "human resources" aspects of the plan and the Sociological Department that accompanied it. To fully understand the Five Dollar Day, however, one must understand the broader business case or business rationale for it. That is not sufficiently covered in the book. Perhaps it is definitive for some purposes, but I had to dig deeper to develop the complete picture.

More importantly, I now appreciate the depth of your conviction, acquired in years of studying and teaching history, that "Almost to a man they (the business tycoons of the late 19th/early 20th century) denied workers the right to join unions and they embraced the 'Gospel of Wealth'," and that there were "very few" exceptions.

That is sad. First, this sweeping general indictment is inaccurate. It accuses, without foundation, many whose stories I was able to find, including some who pioneered employment practices and benefits applauded in many businesses today. Second, it judges many by a standard that did not exist in their day. Most states did not recognize a right to form unions as bargaining agents until well into the 1900s, and federal law was at best ambiguous until the Clayton Act of 1914 clarified that such organizing was not a criminal violation of the Sherman Act. Catholic teaching became clear with Rerum Novarum in 1891, after most of the "robber barons" were dead, retired, or near the end of their careers. Third, your indictment fails to acknowledge the complexity of human nature and the organizational behavior and interactions of corporations, governments, and non-profits.

Ida Tarbell understood these complexities. She took a careful, comprehensive view of John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil and criticized much. She also devoted an entire chapter to "The Legitimate Greatness of the Standard Oil Company," and separately described Rockefeller's character, listing qualities such as "instinct for opportunities, the courage to seize them...the patience to stick by enterprises until they had justified his faith...cautious in trade yet daring, quick to seize yet ready to wait." She wrote of his quiet charity to individuals and organizations. Somehow, you missed all that in spite of reading Tarbell's work "many times" and assigning it to your students. (You wrote to me, "We must have read a different Ida Tarbell if you find her anything less than critical of JDR.") It is Tarbell's ability to see the good and the bad and appreciate the importance of it all, that set her apart form Henry Demarest Lloyd and so many others who tackled the same subjects. It was Tarbell's ability to sort out the complexity that made her one of the first great investigative reporters. It made her work uniquely valuable to legislators and other officials. None of the students brought to your attention the passages you missed? Interesting.

Admitting the complexity of a subject by acknowledging that it does not fit neatly into the axiom, is the first step in discovery. That ability to deal with complexity, to acknowledge multiple aspects of a question, is vital in social justice work, as historians especially should appreciate. Charles Francis Adams was president of the American Historical Association in 1901 when he wrote, "only when understood historically...can any issue be understood in its manifold relations with a complex situation." Only by admitting the complexity, and seeking full understanding with a mind that is open to knowledge, can we carry out the mandate of the encyclicals to "make sure the laws and institutions, the general character of the commonwealth, shall be such as of themselves to realize public well-being and private prosperity...to benefit every class in the State, and amongst the rest promote to the utmost the interests of the poor...to serve the common good...(to) solicitously provide for the welfare and comfort of the working classes...to act with strict justice...toward each and every class alike." (Rerum Novarum). Surely, this is complex work. But I acknowledge your conviction as you have explained it. Thank you.

Joseph J Dunn | 5/4/2013 - 1:10pm

Mr. Cosgrove,

Enjoy the ride. And yes, Acadia is beautiful. Few are aware that major advances in the training of America's physicians over the past century, the growth of our independent colleges and universities, the establishment of public health departments and public education systems in many states, are also legacies of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Rosenwald, Stanford, Hopkins, Mellon, and so many others. Peace.

Vince Killoran | 5/4/2013 - 1:41pm

Don't you mean the "legacies" of the exploited workers who toiled in their factories and oil fields and who, when they attempted to form unions, had their heads' bashed?

As for Cosgrove's citing of Deidre McCloskey, I know her work well (I was a graduate assistant for then-Donald McCloskey): pure Milton Friedman slush. Friedman famously told an audience that poverty didn't exist in America.

One final note: I love it when economic conservatives take the view that the poor have it better than they did 200 years ago and so nothing really needs to be done. I never read them taking the same view about, say, medical care.

Joseph J Dunn | 5/5/2013 - 7:56am

Mr. Killoran,
Thanks for your comment, which lets me clarify two important points. First, each of the wealthy individuals whose legacies I mentioned were in different industries, as you may already know. Rockefeller's Standard Oil was the subject of quite a few state investigations. Ida Tarbell, an investigative reporter who studied Standard Oil quite closely and wrote "A History of the Standard Oil Company," disliked much about the company but, to your point, praised its treatment and compensation of employees. There was no head-bashing. There was also, by the way, no union. Andrew Carnegie's methods were quite different and the ultimate disaster for his company was the Homestead strike in 1892, which precipitated a gunfight in which several were killed. The other individuals I mentioned have their own stories, none of which involve violence and which included development of many of the employee benefits and practices we admire in corporations today. Disparaging statements and blanket judgments applied on a blanket basis to "big corporations" or "greedy CEOs", etc., unfortunately are frequent in social justice discourse, and distract us from progress. They are as innaccurate and distasteful as "all those Irish..." or "those Italians..." or "those Catholics...", commonly invoked early in the twentieth century.

As to medical care, and access to it, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, and others used their fortunes to bring major progress to the quality and availability of medical care, which was quite primitive before their interventions. I wrote "After One Hundred Years: Corporate Profits, Wealth, and American Society" to get to the bottom of exactly the concerns you raised here, and would urge you to read it. It is carefully footnoted, so you can confirm just about anything in it. I believe we all have similar hopes and concerns for our fellow man, and with knowledge we can move forward together effectively. Peace, and thank you.

Vince Killoran | 5/5/2013 - 2:05pm

Mr. Dunn:

We must have read a different Ida Tarbell if you find her anything less than critical of JDR. Yes, of all the "Robber Barons" he tended to pay higher wages (about 10-20% higher), but was steadfastly against workers' right to organize [see Chernow's TITAN, pp. 230, 572]. JDR Jr. was downright violent in his response to unions.

Your attempt to burnish the record of these employees flies in the face of the historical record. Ford, for example, had his "sociological department" to investigate workers and force his own warped "Americanization" on them both through the carrot ($5 Day) and the stick (lower wages and then firing). Harry Bennett, head of the Ford Service Dept., hired thugs and ex-cons to beat up union organizers. During the Ford Hunger March in '32 Bennett's boys and the Dearborn police killed four protesters.

To be sure, many of these foundations do good work today. But they do it with money first earned through exploitation, violence, and degradation of our environment.

Joseph J Dunn | 5/5/2013 - 3:30pm

Mr. Killoran,
I was pleased to respond to your specific points. You may wish to re-read Ms. Tarbell's work, specifically volume 2, pages 126 and 203. I have read "Titan, " and it is excellent, but I generally use original or contemporaneous sources when they are available. I commented also on Carnegie's labor practices. I did not comment on Ford's at all--I commented on his contributions to medical care, which were important. I would caution that your summary, admittedly brief, of Ford's labor practices with regard to the sociological department and carrot and stick do not fit with the numerous sources I found on those subjects, and the differences are important. I have not burnished anyone's record. My intent is to bring to the discussion of social and economic justice historical information that sheds light on the role that business, profits and wealth have played in American society. You seem to be interested in this type of history, and may be willing to move away from the general-indictment axioms that slow our progress. I'm pleased that you seem to acknowledge that medical care has progressed since 1900 (my book addresses quite a bit on that topic, and you might find it interesting) as your first comment questioned progress in medical care. Understanding our history is important to those in social justice work. Some of the social experiments of the past century have produced brilliant successes, and we ought to fully understand them. Others failed, and simply wasted resources. A few, although well-intended, caused real misery. All of that is in the nature of experiments. But we ought not to repeat the failures that did harm simply because we have forgotten our history. As the Popes have reminded us, knowledge is important to charity. Peace.

Vince Killoran | 5/5/2013 - 7:35pm

I have read Tarbell's work--many times because I assign it in my Progressive Era history course. Rockefeller hated the book and refused to allow her name to be mentioned in his presence. His son, JDR Jr. attempted to clean up his image following the killing of men, women, and children at the Ludlow Massacre. So, please: let's be accurate.

As for Ford, I'm quite familiar with the archival holdings related to his work and life (BTW, Steve Meyer's FIVE DOLLAR DAY is the definitive work on the subject).

Of course, we need to be nuanced--but there is a recent effort to airbrush the business tycoons of the late 19th/early 20th century. That is not good history. Almost to a man they denied workers the right to join unions and they embraced the "Gospel of Wealth." Were there exceptions? Sure--but very few and they weren't Rockefeller, Carnegie, or Ford.

Eva Weber | 5/5/2013 - 5:35pm

Charity without justice is simply destructive and evil. Charity is being perverted without justice. The term charity is used to cover up and distort, such as wolfs in sheeps clothing.

Joseph J Dunn | 5/4/2013 - 11:33am

The admonition of Paul VI in Populorum Progressio is relevant: "...the individual who is animated by true charity labors skillfully to discover the causes of misery, to find the means to combat it, to overcome it resolutely." Caritas in Veritate contains a similar message: "Charity does not exclude knowledge, but rather requires, promotes, and animates it from within."

The editors' prescription for change starts with "restoration of progressivity to tax structures." But the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that "household taxes are more progressive in the U.S. than in most E.U. countries." (OECD 2012, "Income Inequality and Growth: The role of taxes and transfers. OECD Economics Dept. Policy Notes, No. 9, January, 2012.) The U.S. Treasury notes that the Bush tax cuts made the tax code more progressive, since taxes on low-income households were cut more than the taxes on high-income households. The changes taking effect in 2013 and 2014 make the U.S. system even more progressive--perhaps the most progressive among OECD countries. Our tax system has many flaws, but lack of progressivity is not one of them. If the first element of the proposed strategy is so flawed, one begins to wonder if there are other weak points. And if knowledge is clearly not the basis of this proposition on taxes, what is?

The editors call for improvements in educational attainment. Literacy is the entry point for opportunity in any advanced economy. In other nations, especially developing nations, literacy has advanced. But it has actually declined in the U.S. over the past thirty years. The U.S. Department of Education reports that twenty percent of American adults are unable to perform basic tasks involving printed material. Specifically, they have trouble completing a job application, understanding written instructions, reading a basic health bulletin or apartment lease.("Literacy for Everyday Life: Results of the National Assessment of Literacy. NCES 2007-480). A Pew Research Center report, "Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Levels Between Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics," shows the straightforward connection between literacy skills and household incomes. Of adults with Below Basic literacy skills, most lived in households with less than $20,000 income. The poverty threshold in the survey year was $18,810 for a family of four. The data consistently shows that higher literacy skills correlate with higher incomes. Are we to pay for, or pay more for, an education system that leaves twenty percent of our adult population unprepared to engage in any but the most menial employment or to navigate in a complex society? This, and the drop-out rates of our urban schools, should call for urgent change--what business people would call a "green field" strategy--moving expeditiously to build a new system with funds that formerly supported the old, rather than spending time and money trying to fix the existing system.

The editors point to the rich man who was indifferent to Lazarus. The lesson is worth repeating in every age and in every civilization, as today in ours. But by custom in America, for more than one hundred years, the fortunes of the wealthy have returned to society. Consider that the largest fortune ever assembled by one man, that of John D. Rockefeller, was in large measure donated back to society by him and his son and grandchildren. Almost all of the wealth of Andrew Carnegie was donated back to society before his death in 1919. The current charities of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (the wealthiest Americans today) are not a new phenomenon, but the continuation of an American tradition that predates our income tax system. The wealthiest have often been leaders in philanthropy, not hoarders. Today, our strategies for promoting the common good might be more effective if we concede that some, perhaps many, among the much-despised one percent are concerned about the condition of their fellow man, participating in efforts to improve conditions (more than ninety percent give to charity, compared to sixty-eight percent of the general population) and willing to lead or join in any well-conceived plans to solve problems.

When a reporter asked Albert Einstein how he had made some of his great scientific discoveries, he answered, "I challenged an axiom." Let's put aside the axioms, rely on knowledge, and move forward.

J Cosgrove | 5/4/2013 - 12:09pm

Mr. Dunn,

I am about to utilize the legacy of the Rockefellers. Just across from where I live is a set of high hills which are part of the Pocantico Hills estate of John D. Rockefeller. A large portion of it is open to the public for hiking and horse back riding. It is one of the nicest places to walk I have seen in the country and available to anyone and is full of people especially on the weekend enjoying what was once a private estate.

Yesterday I was having a conversation with someone about another Rockefeller legacy, Acadia National Park in Maine. This is also beautiful and left to the public for their use. If anyone gets to Maine, I highly recommend Acadia.

From the top of these hills on the local Rockefeller estate one can look across the valley to another set of hills on which is Rosary Hill, the legacy of Rose Hawthorne who is up for canonization. This is her legacy and one of the great stories in American Catholic history.

Eva Weber | 5/4/2013 - 12:30pm

How and from whom have the Rockefellers ammassed all this wast holdings, now so generously now open-to-the-public-access? May be, they have later acted out of a sense of fairness.

Eva Weber | 5/4/2013 - 12:08pm

We do have all the facts, and the answers to correct the shameful inequality. We have as well the knowledge how to correct it.

But the big money powers want to blurr the issue in order to prevent any correction

john andrechak | 7/27/2013 - 10:22am

Great post Ms. Weber, thank you!

J Cosgrove | 5/4/2013 - 11:37am

To the editors,

Inequality in the world is the lowest it has been in the history of mankind in terms of material goods and medical services. Each year it is getting better as the free market system has produced wonders in most of the world. Here in the United States the poorest of our people live better materially and health wise than all but a few of 100 years ago. The poorest get substantial support in our system in terms of material goods. That does not mean that all are more productive than past generations but that they have access to material things and health care that was not available to past generations. Innovation has produced an incredible number of goods and services that were not even dreamed of a couple generations ago but which are considered basic rights today.

That said, there is a disparity in material goods/services as well as a large difference in culture and moral behavior between the lowest and the highest that didn't exist 60 years ago. This does not mean that the lower quintiles have less than previous generation only that the upper 30-40% has an incredible array of things available to them that was not available in the past. And it will probably get wider but not because of any conscious plan or policy by anyone to make it so. Three relentless trends are driving this inequality. Two are described in Charles Murray's book, Coming Apart which I suggest that every writer for this magazine read so they understand what is driving this disparity in the United States as well as in many other countries in the world. Otherwise one gets a false impression of the underlying forces operating in our society and many other First World countries. This false impression will lead one to recommend things that have no relevance for the real underlying problems. Based on what I have read in America in the last three years not one on going author as well most of the occasional authors seems to understand what is going on.

The first thing that Murray has identified may be a genetic thing. The educated, smart and rich are marrying the educated, smart and rich. They meet in the best colleges and universities or the best jobs and get married and have children that are financially better off and then continue the process over again as the children go to the best universities and meet people like themselves. This phenomenon started in the late 50's and early 60's and is well entrenched today. Of course there are exceptions to this as some drop out of this pattern and others enter it. This is described in detail in Murray's book as he identifies the zip codes where these educated and financially well off live. Ever wonder why Bill and Hillary bought a house in Chapaqua. It is number 5 in the country in this zip code pecking order.

The other phenomenon that is driving inequality is that about 40% of children are born out of wedlock and a large percentage of them grow up in a one parent household, mostly fatherless. This means that there are tremendous financial strains on the raising of these children and a very high likelihood that they will be dysfunctional. Such families often lack basic social and moral habits that contribute to success. Again this is described in Murray's book. This trend started in the late 60's and it has reached the point that 40% of the children today are in this situation. Again there are exceptions of those who escape this type of environment but a high percentage continue on in this life style.

A third force that is operating is that for a few, one's actions can affect a much larger number of transactions than was ever possible before. For example, many small businesses literally sell to every continent. Just 30 years ago nearly every business would have been confined to the US and probably to one local area of the US. So even small businesses are global which makes some of the products and services they make and distribute available to billions of people so the skills of some individuals are having an effect world wide. For some the productivity of their skills has dramatically increased in terms of effect while for others nothing has changed. A house painter or local dry cleaning service is not much more productive than they were 50 years ago but a good web designer may have clients all over the world. A good example, a guy has a good time at the local zoo and emails all his friends with photos. This starts him thinking on how to make this more efficient and a short time later Twitter is born and is now a world wide phenomenon.

There are certainly other forces operating but if one looks for a bogey man that is causing whatever inequality that exists they will most likely end up making things worse. The do gooders often have no clue as to what will help and we end up with policies and programs that have very negative unintended consequences. Some of the efforts from the do gooders who complain about inequality are directly responsible for the policies/programs that led to the entrenching of this inequality in our society. The following statement is incredibly naive

It has taken decades to establish this dangerous disparity in American life; it will take decades to unravel it.

If you do not understand what is causing something how are you to correct it. What get's in the way is the blinders of politics which prevents one from seeing or even wanting to see just what is happening.

Eva Weber | 5/4/2013 - 12:00pm

Cosgrove:

First:

Your following closing openions: "The following statment is incledible naive" and: "If you do not understand what is causing something how are you to correct it. What get's in the way is the blinder of politices which prevents one from seeing or even wanting ot see just what is happenin." These slants of yous are "incredibly" condescending.

Journalists and editors are usually better grounded as those paid for or benefitting from a certain economic power.

You answered to the folowing article quote: 'It has taken decades to establish this dnagerous disparityin American life; it will take decades to unravel it.;

Secondly:

Your quote: "inequality in the world is the lowest is has been in the history of mankind in terms of material goods and medical services."

Where are and by whom are the statistics from. That is not a statement which can be proven to the citizens of this USA. We have slipt way down the line to about 146 in the quality and quantity of healthcare delivered. And as the editors have stated, and statistic prove, The wealth of the upper crust has sky rocketed, while 93 percent of our populations has lost considerably the past decades. And these are the ones who least can afford to regress in material wealth.

J Cosgrove | 5/4/2013 - 1:09pm

Eva,

Thank you for your comments. Information on World Poverty is tracked by
the World Bank and a recent report is here:

http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTPOVCALNET/Resources/Global_Poverty...

I also suggest if anyone is interested in how poverty is getting wiped
out, to read the writings of Deirdre McClosky who has written about the
incredible increase in wealth over the last 200 years and the reasons for
it. There is certainly a long way to go but the progress towards this end has been nothing short of amazing. Her website is

http://www.deirdremccloskey.com

Inequality is an extremely over-hyped concept. It has been a rallying cry of the
left since Marx and is only meant to inflame and not understand. If one
wants to talk about real inequality, just look at the countries that
followed the ideas of Marx. The only moral system of economic
distribution of goods is the free market. If anyone is interested I
suggest either a book or a video course by Jerry Muller of Catholic
University. Here are links for Dr. Muller's works:

http://www.amazon.com/Mind-Market-Capitalism-Western-Thought/dp/0385721668

http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=5665

He has a major article in Foregn Affairs latest issue which discusses
inequality in detail. It is not available for all to read but may be
available through a local library. Every editor and author here at
America should read it. He is extremely critical of both the left and the defenders of capitalism for not recognizing some of the effects of the free market.

Eva Weber | 5/4/2013 - 12:04pm

Correction: We have slipt to 146th in wealth distribution, and to 29th in quality and quantity of healthcare provided

Richard Salvucci | 5/3/2013 - 9:02pm

It is a commonplace in contemporary economic thinking that there is an imbalance between the supply of and demand for skilled labor in the United States. If addressing inequality in any substantive way is your goal, then a coherent answer has to include what to do with an educational system that is simply not meeting the demands that a postindustrial economy has placed upon it. There are no simple solutions--one doubts that "races to the top" or STEM curricula alone will fix things, but condemning the successful in this society is, if nothing more, demagogy.

Inequality is self-defeating. A society that distributes its rewards only to a small group will never generate sufficient demand to maintain long-term growth. That is the lesson one learns from looking at Latin America. It is enlightened self-interest--as opposed to the unenlightened self-interest currently on offer from our right-wing brethern in Washington.

John O'Neil | 5/3/2013 - 3:23pm

It is difficult if not impossible to argue with at least a few of the statements made in this article:
• Fully employed workers not earning enough to lift themselves out of poverty is bad
• Wide disparities in income create unhealthy class tensions
• A nation with the "objective conditions for correcting these harms" should be able to address it.

On the other hand, it not difficult to argue with many of the other statements made, the statistics or studies used to support them or the conclusions you reach.

A central question regarding the "greater good" has to be “For whom?” And a second question ought to be whether focusing on income inequality is the best path toward the greater good.

I know the title of this magazine is "America" - but I do not believe your interest in the greater good is limited to this nation. Is your definition of “greater good” limited to the nurturing of better paying American jobs perhaps through “a viable civic space for collective bargaining?” Is that concern limited to the middle class in this country who are seeing categories of jobs shipped overseas? What of the workers in less developed nations who may be climbing out of poverty via the job that was transferred from America?

The current structure of the global economy facilitates the movement of capital, resources and jobs across the globe at speeds inconceivable just a few years ago. It has redirected high paying manufacturing jobs from the US and Europe to developing nations. In the process, it has hurt the middle class in developed countries which in large part grew up around these jobs while creating the beginnings of a middle class in countries that never had one. It is not clear to me that stopping this flow is possible nor in the best interest of the “greater good.” You cite the OECD’s superior rates on “income equality” and “social transfers” but ignore their unemployment and debt. The high levels of social transfers you praise are unsustainable given their demographics and economic growth rates. They may well eliminate all income disparity at this rate by eliminating income in general.

Instead of artificial attempts to take the global economy back 40 years, why don’t we seek solutions that grow the size of the income pie and make sense for different regions at different stages of their economic growth? In the United States, we need to improve education to graduate a workforce that can be successful in the 21st century economy while retraining workers to find jobs that are still here. Expanding collective bargaining makes sense for the developing economies where workers’ wages are depressed and the industries can/should pay them better. Ironically, in the US, collective bargaining that did a fantastic job of creating a middle class during the 20th century can as easily be an enemy of the common good as a friend (see the rules built into almost every teacher’s union contract in the US which help prevent the very progress we so desparately need.)

I am not a fan of extreme income inequality. When people are poor, starving or suffering, it is tragic and sinful. Those to whom much is given, much is expected. The rich have an obligation to share the gifts they have the fortune to receive – they are the stewards of those gifts, not the owners. But I think the greater good is better served by putting more focus on improving the position of those in need and less on making income inequality the target for action or measure of success. And while it may mean that the days of highly paid auto, tire and steel workers in the US are gone forever, the middle class in China is now over 100 million where it did not exist 12 years ago (Brookings Institute Study). That has to be part of any greater good calculation.

Eva Weber | 5/6/2013 - 5:42pm

John O'Neil

Vince Killoran,

The comments to this editorial get shifted around like a deck of cards. But the contrast of the responses between you two genlemen is representatve of the economic divide in this nation.

Mr. Killoran, you must be aware that the present "airbrushing of the business tycoons of the late 19th and 20th century" is promoted by the present money elite for specific purposes: 1. to justify the present accelerated inequality of weath distribution. 2. to justify the exportation of millions of manufacturing jobs overseas for obscene profit. 3. brainwash the public for the fact that diminishing wages are neccessary for a "free maket system". 5. To justify the wiping out of any government oversight over far and safe business practices, and underfunding of oversight the agencies, and dismantling them. 6. To justify entirely unjust tax laws, which have large, highly profitable corporations paying no taxes or at most 10 percent, and the same for the wealthiest individuals.

Did you see see the "airbrushing" documentary of the Rockefeller's on public television last night, 5-5-2013? There was of course no mention of all the laws that where broken and nobody went to prison for it. Oh what wonderful Christian family men they were, their funding of schools,universities, national parks........The means by which this obscene whealth was acquired was presnented with outright distrortion!!!
No mentioned , however, of the millions who lost their lives prematurely for decades, due to dangerous working conditions, overwork, slavelaber wages, subhuman living conditions, depravations not even animals have to endure. The names of those millions whould be rightly named on the "phylanthropic" foundations.

These wealthy, "benevolent" individuals are THE genuine cafeteria Christians. You shall not steal, you shall not murder.....love your neighbor as yoursef????? do not seem part of the rules to follow, neither of those in the past nor the present WEATH ELITE, who are drowning the media with the present propaganda, whose gospel has nothing to do with the example and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Good luck folks!

Michael Barberi | 7/23/2013 - 9:35pm

Can anyone, in particular the RCC, point to one political philosophy or any economic or social justice program in any country that is a model for a better economic equality for its citizens? When this question is posited, some choose to pick one aspect of one country, then another, in an attempt to locate the answers to our nation's ills. Sweden comes to my mind but how many U.S. citizens are willing to accept every other aspect of Sweden's system of government, its taxation and social welfare system? This does not mean that the U.S. cannot improve upon our system of government, taxation policies, education system, and social programs for those that are in poverty or in need of assistance in any form.

The profound causes of poverty, the lack of adequate means of social upward mobility, the dynamics and causes of dysfunctional families, et al, point to a series of complex issues not easily resolved by higher minimum wages, accessible educational programs and a fairer tax system. Apart from government programs, there is a great need for leadership, both at the political level, social, religious levels and family levels.

The recent outcry for justice after the Trayvon Martin jury decision is one example of how the larger problem was addressed. No political, religious or civil rights leader talked about the overwhelming percentage of black on black homicides in cities across the U.S., or the fact that as much as 70% of black children are born out of wedlock and in poverty, or that blacks, as a group, commit a disproportion of crime in the U.S. No one was saying, "enough of this, don't do it". All we heard from our leaders was that for many Americans a suspicion of black people, while improving, is still with us. Exactly how should this problem be rectified? By changing stand your ground laws? Who among us truly believes this is the answer to racism where in this case, there was no evidence that this was the reason, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a young black teenager was shot and killed? How does this rectify the problems in our poorer minority communities?

I believe that we need better and fairer programs for all, especially as they relate to the problems of the poor and disadvantaged. A call for equality is a first step, but until a solution that can address many of the causes for our growing economic and social inequality problems, we will find ourselves next year arguing over the lack of solutions, and a lack of effective action.

J Cosgrove | 7/24/2013 - 12:28am

Michael,

No one wants to address the real problems. Why, it will not get votes. And some of the problems are so intractable that no program or policy will make a positive difference. You will get few who will admit this especially the editors and writers of this magazine.

Recently in Editorials