God and Class Warfare
The hot phrase in Washington, D.C., this week is "class warfare."
Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and a host of Republican presidential candidates have attacked President Barack Obama as a class warrior because he has suggested that the wealthiest individuals in the country, along with the largest corporations, should pay what he calls their "fair share" of the costs of both deficit reduction and putting Americans back to work.
Well, let's be clear: There really is a class war going on, and the upper class is winning.
As former President Bill Clinton also pointed out this week, 90 percent of income gains in the last decade went to the top 10 percent, and 40 percent of the increased wealth went to the top 1 percent. The middle class has lost ground in the same period. And we can now say that the only growth in this economy seems to be the skyrocketing poverty figures that the Census Bureau released last week. Almost 50 million Americans are now in poverty -- the highest rate in 50 years, including 22 percent of all our children -- in this the richest country in the world.
Let's put it another way: The only people doing well in this economy are the people at the very top, some of whose selfish behavior caused this recession in the first place. Only they have "recovered" from the crisis they helped create. The rest of us are still trying to recover. That's a war being waged by Wall Street against Main Street. And Wall Street is winning that war.
But when anybody talks about fairness or equity or morality in economics, or when anyone even begins to challenge the greatest inequality since the 1920s, they are quickly accused of engaging in "class warfare." So why is it when the top 1 percent of the country controls 42 percent of the nation's financial wealth -- more than 90 percent of the rest of us -- and the ratio of CEO pay to average workers salaries is 400 to 1, it is NOT class warfare? Yet simply calling for a return of the highest-end tax rates to the 1990s levels IS?
Imagine a bomber pilot cruising high above the clouds, utterly destroying a city below him. After much devastation, a kid with a sling shot hurls a stone at the airplane that is leveling his city and community. The stone pings on the fuselage and the pilot becomes indignant. "These people are engaged in warfare," he exclaims. "Who do they think they are? This kind of behavior will divide people and is just irresponsible!"
Wall Street has been devastating Main Street for some time. And when the politicians -- most of them bought by Wall Street -- say nothing, it's called "responsible economics." But when somebody, anybody, complains about people suffering and that the political deck in official Washington has been stacked in favor of Wall Street, the accusation of class warfare quickly emerges. "Just who do these people think they are," they ask. The truth is that the people screaming about class warfare this week aren't really concerned about the warfare. They're just concerned that their class -- or the class that has bought and paid for their political careers -- continues to win the war.
So where is God in all of this? Is God into class warfare? No, of course not. God really does love us all, sinners and saints alike, rich and poor, mansion dwellers and ghetto residents. But the God of the Bible has a special concern for the poor and is openly suspicious of the rich. And if that is not clear in the Bible, nothing is.
You might say when it comes to economics, God has a bias toward the poor. God's prophets say that nations will be judged by how they treat the poor and vulnerable -- not by how much they lower tax rates for the wealthy. Listen to what the prophets Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah say about the rich and the poor, about fairness and justice, about inequality and equity. Is there any doubt that if the biblical prophets were saying such things in the House of Representatives or on Fox News today that they, too, would all be accused of class warfare?
What about Jesus? Mary, the mother of Jesus, spoke clearly about his coming and his meaning in history when she prophesied about his mission in her famous prayer/song known as the Magnificat. She predicts how the child in her womb will reverse the status quo, saying, "He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty." These are not the words of a humble and charitable service provider, but the language of a social revolutionary who would certainly be charged with class warfare today on conservative talk radio.
Jesus fulfilled his mother's prophesy in his own Nazareth Manifesto -- his first words, in Luke 4 -- by saying, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." He clearly should have been more sensitive to the rich who, after all, are job creators, right? How did all the prophets and Jesus miss that essential economic point?
In 2008, the wealthiest 400 Americans on average paid only 18 percent of their income in taxes. But they (and their political representatives) continue to angrily push back against the so-called "Buffett Rule," which would require wealthy people to at least pay taxes at rates closer to what their secretaries and other employees do.
"Class warfare might make for good politics, but it makes for rotten economics," Rep. Paul Ryan said on "Fox News Sunday" earlier this week.
But, according to a new report by the International Monetary Fund, Ryan is just wrong. The IMF report says the widening income gap is bad for economic recovery. Growing income inequality actually hinders economic growth, and reducing economic inequality actually helps spur the economy, the report found.
The IMF study concluded that a 10 percent decrease in inequality actually increased the expected economic growth by 50 percent. "Sustainable economic reform," the authors write, "is possible only when its benefits are widely shared."
So the call for economic fairness -- what Paul Ryan decries as "class warfare" -- may not be "rotten economics" at all but, in fact, rather good economics, as well as good morality.
Maybe God has a point.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.