It happened in 1971. That was the tipping point, when power began to shift, when the U.S. began to move away from being the greatest engine of widely-shared wealth and prosperity the world has ever known, to a steadily more divided, economically unequal society of haves and have-nots.
In 1971, a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell – later to become Justice Powell on the Supreme Court, wrote a memorandum to Corporate America insisting that business needed to lobby our government for deregulation and favorable tax policies. They did.
The rest is history. Congresses and presidents of both political parties have acceded to the corporations: curbed unions, reduced tax rates on corporations and wealthy individuals, and changed regulations to favor the rich. Marginal tax rates in the U.S. were 90% in the Republican Eisenhower administration – a time of huge growth. By the early 2000’s, they were down to 36% under President Bush. Inheritance taxes and capital gains taxes have also plunged, favoring the wealthy.
St. Dunstan’s began studying this issue 15 months ago, with small group meetings every couple of weeks. We have learned a lot about the economics and politics of our country. But our main impetus is our commitment to follow Jesus. Jesus railed against the gross brutalization of the poor people in his world. The system was stacked against them. Jesus took his mission statement from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring good news to the poor….” As many have said, to a poor person, the Gospel - the good news - is bread…not rhetoric. Jesus launched the first mass feeding program in recorded history – and 5,000 were fed! Our primary image of heaven is a banquet, where all are at table together, and all have enough.
Many say that economic inequality – even as extreme as we are seeing it today – is simply a function of free-market capitalism, furthered by forces of globalization and new technologies displacing human workers. This is a dodge, an excuse. First of all, there is no “free market” – all markets are governed by laws and regulations – and these are influenced by who has political power and clout. Since 1971, that clout has shifted to business and extremely wealthy Americans.
Secondly, we see that advanced nations in Europe and Japan are much more equal than we are, and their people live longer, healthier lives with fewer socials ills such as obesity, teenage pregnancy, and homicide. The U.S. inequalities are more extreme than for 100 years, more unequal than any other advanced country. If we choose to change the rules of our system to give more power to workers, we could have a more equitable and compassionate economic system.
Our church’s General Convention has taken stands in support of greater equality, and of a $15 minimum living wage to help the poorest Americans. Our diocese has almost 300,000 people living below the national poverty level, and our high housing costs make real poverty even worse. D.C. is the hungriest city in the country, with almost 22% of people receiving food stamps in December 2014. D.C. incomes are more unequal than any state. The Diocese of Washington has a special call, a duty, to rise against this state of affairs and declare it unacceptable in the eyes of God, and shameful in a nation as rich as we are.
I ask you to vote for this resolution as a first step in mobilizing our Diocese for change. Passing this resolution will not fix the problem, but we must begin somewhere – we must begin by putting our own house in order: our own churches, our own employees, and our own participation in an unjust economic system. Do all our church employees make a living wage? Do they have long commutes to work? It’s been 45 years since the tipping point in 1971. Let us make this beginning today.