The words of my title are from The President, the Pope and the People, today's New York Times column by Charles M. Blow. It was written in response to Obama's speech yesterday, a speech in which, as Blow notes, " a populist president invoked a populist pope" with Obama citing the words of Francis I's recent Apostolic Exhortation.
Blow offers quotes from the speech, and statistics galore.
I will not quote those, because you can and should read the entire column.
Blow does explain why the problems of income inequality and lack of economic mobility are not greater issues among our people - and perhaps also not among those most often shaping our public discourse:
We remain ensconced in our enclaves of sameness: subdivisions planned by price point and urban oases of affluence set amid vast deserts of urban poverty.And yet there is supposed to be an American Dream available to all, is there not?
We are not likely to recognize the ravages of inequity because of our isolation from one another, but they are there.
Please keep reading.
The heart of Blow's writing is not his ability to quote nor to cite statistics, as important as those may be. Rather, it is his ability to succinctly summarize the issue AFTER citing statistics and the words of others.
Thus a few paragraphs from the end we read
Arguments against addressing income inequality often focus on the possibility of undermining incentives for those at the top. But what happens if and when inequality begins to undermine incentives for those in the middle and at the bottom? Honest work should pay an honest wage. That idea is part of the American social contract and one in danger of disintegrating.The penultimate sentence of that paragraph is key: Honest work should pay an honest wage. And yet the value of the minimum wage compared to the cost of living is in an ever-decreasing position of compensation. To me it has always been obscene that Congress can increase its own pay, even subject to the restrictions of the 27th Amendment, and yet leave the minimum wage untouched. If the cost of living requires increased compensation for those making our laws - who are already paid at a level that puts them well into the top 5% of earners - then surely those at the economic margin should be equally entitled to be made more economically whole.
Even that would not be an honest wage.
And the problem is far more serious when increases in productivity result in lower real compensation for the vast majority of Americans when those at the top gain an ever-increasing share of the income. Absent our addressing this increasing inequality, the ability of the American people to continue to fund the economy by their spending disappears, which makes little economic sense. And it is not honest compensation either for those doing the work that creates the wealth nor for those receiving an obscene percentage of the wealth thereby created.
The next paragraph reads as follows:
We must ensure that our society rewards innovation, ideas and initiative while also ensuring equal access to opportunity and more equitable pay for workers. The American identity depends on it.Blow is not against rewarding true innovation, nor was the Pope, nor was his predecessor Leo XIII in that pontiff's famous encyclical Rerum Novarum issued during the last Gilded Age.
I might note that too much of the wealth being accumulated is not because of true innovation but because of the ability to manipulate wages and the tax system and regulation so weak that it does not prevent predatory practices nor require appropriate standards to protect safety and the commons of air, water and environment.
My title comes from the next - and final - paragraph of the column, which consists of but a single sentenceL
This is not an us-versus-them argument, but an all-of-us one.Over the long-term our nation cannot thrive economically if we do not address the economic needs of the poor and of the middle class.
One reason for the importance of honestly teaching history and related subjects like government is so that Americans understand the context for economic policy - that we built a middle class by government policies including regulation of business and finance, education for the vast majority at government expense, subsidization of purchasing homes, tax rates much higher than any paid now. Consider that last, and remember that those tax rates were the results of a Republican President named Eisenhower who began with a Republican House and Senate, and it was understood that they were necessary to avoid passing on the burden of debt from both the interventions of the New Deal and the necessary military conflict of World War II and what followed, including Korea.
Remember that one reason we have not seen so many seniors in poverty is because of Social Security and Medicare, although the economic security of our senior citizens is increasingly in jeopardy as defined benefit pensions disappear, whether by companies abandoning them in favor of IRAs and 401ks or looting them by claiming they are overfunded or being able to abandon the contractual obligation through bankruptcy - the last two of which are now face by local and state government employees around the country.
We used to understand that this nation was in many ways like a chain whose weakest link threatened the entire chain; it was a woven fabric that if part of it unraveled it threatened the integrity of us all.
The Pope has addressed the moral issues of economics. The President who quoted him attempted to remind us that for a long time it was an American commitment to economic justice.
Those who benefit from our currently skewed policies are more than willing to pit those beneath them on the economic pyramid against one another in order to maintain their advantage. In the past it was to use the benefits of white skin as a distraction to focus against justice for people of color. Now sometimes it is the distortion of constitutional protections of religion.
These are manipulated as distractions from the real economic interests of the vast majority of us.
There is a simpler, and what should be more American, approach.
And that is to consider the economic needs of ALL.
The wealth exists to do so, if those at the top do not succeed in dividing us along class lines.
Or as Blow puts it in that final sentence:
This is not an us-versus-them argument, but an all-of-us one.