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Who Gets What – Economic Injustice in America – Lay Sermon FOR LABOR DAY BY GUEST SPEAKER AT UU CHURCH OF BERKELEY

The guest speaker for this sermon was the brother of one of the ministers of our church in Berkeley.  He’s been a not for profit leader, legal aid attorney, peace activist and political volunteer for many years.  He’s a native of Nebraska and a grandfather of two.   I have not edited this early draft of his sermon.  Podcast is available at www.uucb.org.

Who Gets What – Economic Injustice in America – Bruce Hamilton, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011

Good Morning!

 

It is a great day to be alive.  Of course, as it always was and always shall be, it is a better day for some than others.  Though Bob Dylan wisely notes that “we all wear the same thorny crown,” it is probably a better day if you are a billionaire than it is if you have lost your job, lost your home and find your children among the 16 million American kids living below the poverty line.  The top 400 individuals in America now have a net worth equal to the bottom 150 million people!  Studies show that people who place tremendous emphasis on material well-being tend to be less happy than people who don’t.  On the other hand those who have no money worries are happier than those not knowing where they will get their next meal or where they will sleep tonight.  Wouldn’t you rather be rich than homeless?

 

Whether or not one considers this to be a great day to be alive is of course based on more than just income.  But with the income gap between the few who are filthy rich and the many that are dirt poor ever widening, wealth or the lack thereof is becoming ever more a factor in the quality of our lives.  America is #1 when it comes to income inequality among the wealthy industrialized countries.  We need to acknowledge that we live in an unequal and polarized society.  All men, I mean all boys and all girls, are created anything but equal.

 

Though the country continues in a long term economic downturn, I would assert that our real crisis is a moral crisis.  Ever since the Europeans first settled this continent and saw the natural abundance there has been a central tension between good and plenty.  This helps explain why the U.S. is at once so religious and so materialist.  To quote David Brooks “Americans are moral materialists, spiritualists working on matter.”  Every few years greed seems to run self-destructively rampant.  The super rich’s sense of entitlement can be so maddening.  A few are born on third base and think they hit a triple.  Many more are born coming up to bat with two strikes already against them.  Remember Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean,” who left $12 million for the care of her dog.  She said to her maid “we don’t pay taxes, only the little people pay taxes.”  Unfortunately it is easy to be drawn to money, as if it were a quality of character.  A study found that in 2006, two thirds more high-school students thought “having lots of money” was “extremely important” than they did in 1976.  Hopefully the recession will force us to rethink what we truly value and how we behave toward those less fortunate than we.  If the recession can end the foolishness and spoiled attitudes of entitlement of selfish and rich people it will have been well worth it.

 

The United States once had an unofficial Gospel of Wealth – a code of restraint that helped the nation cope with its own affluence.  That gospel has clearly eroded and must be redefined.

 

I am winding down a rewarding career in the public/not for profit sector – 45 years of full time work – from my days in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia where I saw people dying for want of so very little to my closing days as Executive Director of HIP Housing where I constantly see the random nature of fate, luck and chance.  So often through no fault of their own, people fall into poverty from the loss of their job, a major health problem or a serious family disruption.

 

I welcomed this opportunity to share my personal knowledge and outrage over the growing harm resulting from the ever growing world wide economic disparity.  But after several weeks and several drafts of these remarks my keyboard was smoking and I was typing profanities that sounded like I had morphed into Lenny Bruce or George Carlin with tourette syndrome.  Why am I so angry?  But maybe a better question is why is there not greater outrage?  Why in this great, rich country do we tolerate such wide disparity in wealth?  Is there a lack of knowledge, a fear of reprisals, a lack of clout, the fact that disparities are hidden or just out and out denial?  There’s an old joke: An Oxford professor meets a former student and asks what he’s been up to.  The student tells him he’s working on a doctoral thesis about the survival of the class system in the United States.  The prof expresses surprise – “I didn’t think there was a class system in the U.S.,” he says.  “Nobody does,” the student replies.  “That’s how it survives.”

 

But if we are resigned or indifferent to this ever widening gap between the rich and the poor is not our own spirituality impaired?  If we accept this disparity are we living our values?

 

In recent decades all our economic gains have gone to those already at the top.  In the late 1930s the richest 1% of the people took home 9% of the nation’s income.  Now the top 1% receive 25% of the income and the top 20% of the people, which no doubt includes many of us, receive 85% of the nation’s annual income.

 

And the gap grows even wider thanks to our tax policies.  When Eisenhower was President the top income tax bracket was over 90%.  During the Reagan years it was cut to 70%, then 50% and then 28%.  Today the top tax bracket which applies to income of any amount over $375,000 is 35%.  But thanks to all the loop holes lobbied for by the wealthy, the top 400 individuals only paid 17% of their income in taxes!

 

Republicans assert that we don’t have an income problem, we have an expenditure problem.  They propose that our unbalanced budgets and deficits be addressed only through cuts in expenditures.   They have been adamant until recently when, without acknowledging the inconsistency they are for raising the payroll tax which has been reduced for the past year while the Bush Tax Cuts for the rich have been in place for 11 years!  The cuts that the Republicans support would in no way impact on the wealthy but would harm our most vulnerable citizens, the young, the old and the disadvantaged.  If we only make cuts in expenditures the result is more unemployment and the disappearance of cost effective programs such as those we offer at HIP Housing in San Mateo County that help people in need to become self reliant taxpayers.  And increasing tax cuts to the super rich has never, never resulted in increased jobs for all the rest of us.  But for teabagers this is a perfect storm – an opportunity to do major harm to government which they consider to be the enemy.

 

And the idea that the average American is overtaxed is a nice piece of populist pandering.  Federal taxes as a percentage of the economy are the lowest since President Truman was in office.  In other words, taxes are now the lowest they have been in President Obama’s lifetime.  Taxes on income, capital gains, dividends, estates and gifts are all at or near historic lows.  Total income tax payments this year to the federal government will be 13% lower than they were in 2008.  This harsh disparity is compounded by the failure to restore the Bush tax cuts which were adopted in 2001 but were to revert to the 2000 levels in 2010.  Continuing those cuts is costing us $42 billion a year.

 

Of course there is waste in government as there is in all human endeavors – governmental, corporate and individual.  Look at Wall Street.  Look at PG&E – their top exec retired for the good of the company and received a $35 million severance.  And did you ever buy anything you didn’t need or ever use?  We could inventory the closets and garages of Berkeley and I’ll bet furnish and clothe a small country!

 

Waste should be reduced but this is no argument against raising revenues along with cutting expenditures.  I join with Barbara’s and my fellow native Nebraskan Warren Buffet in saying “STOP CODDLING THE SUPER-RICH.”  Buffet pays by far the lowest percentage in taxes of all his employees (the income tax is supposed to be progressive, not regressive and he should pay the largest percentage not the lowest of all his employees).  He does advocate substantially raising taxes (income, dividends and capital gains) on the more than 250,000 households making more than $1 million a year and even more for the nearly 10,000 families making more than $10 million per year.

 

There is only one way back to full economic recovery – more widely shared prosperity.  Ours is a consumer economy but if those meant to be consuming have no money with which to consume all the support government can offer on the supply side is of no real benefit.  Would not the rich be better off with a small percentage of a fast growing economy than a large share of a stagnant economy?

 

However, when anyone is so daring as to speak truth to power and propose a tax increase for the rich the response is that they are sowing social unrest, class warfare, and offending American egalitarianism.  If you donate food to the poor you are called a saint.  If you ask why there are so many who have no food you are called a communist.  If you suggest raising taxes on the rich you are accused of wanting to redistribute the wealth.

 

Well guess what – it already was redistributed with a tremendous reverse Robin Hood redistribution to the very few at the top.  Narrowing the income gap after taxes just a little is neither socialism nor incitement to class warfare.  It will not discourage anyone from hard work and it will begin to reduce the deficit where it doesn’t hurt.  One multi-millionaire who is one of the founders of Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength admits that “every time I get a tax cut, I get richer.  I don’t buy one thing that I don’t already have.  I don’t put money back into the economy.  I just get richer.”  The GOP’s refusal to consider any new revenues, including closing loop holes for businesses and other groups that don’t need public subsidies is as recklessly absolutist as the Democrats insistence that entitlement programs are untouchable.  Both sides need to give.  Ending the tax cuts for the rich would be a minimum signal for a divided land, a statement that the two Americas are acquainted with each other, that we all recognize that “we are dependent on each other far more than we know.” It is failing to act that invites real class warfare.

 

I remember during the 2008 Presidential Democratic Primary campaigns that when Hilary Clinton was asked “why are you always so angry?” she shot back saying “there is a lot to be angry about.”  On the other hand I love the exquisite line from the Thin Red Line “it is hard to stay angry when there is so much beauty in the world.”

 

But we need to stay mad yet temper and direct our anger.  We need to stay hopeful and engaged.  We need to see next year’s Presidential election as thankfully we tend to see most as the most important Presidential election ever.

 

We need to fully feel our gratitude and act upon it with generosity.  In the words of Teddy Roosevelt we need to “do what we can with what we have where we are.”

 

We need to recognize in the words of Marianne Williamson that “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us…As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same…”  While we endeavor to personally reach our potential in challenging economic injustice, we can help assure that our nation will, as well.

 

Today I suggest we direct our passion toward the twelve members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction who are assigned to devise a plan that reduces the 10-year deficit by at least $1.5 trillion.  A letter to the committee for your consideration is in the Atrium.  It calls for the 12 to preface their work by signing a pledge similar to our Covenant of Right Relations stating that  “we members of the Committee aim to listen appreciatively, speak with civility and care, express gratitude, honor our differences and work from good intentions.  Further we will endeavor to communicate directly, honestly and compassionately, particularly when we are in conflict.”  Wouldn’t that be something! As to the substance the letter calls for the committee to adopt a “balanced plan” of cuts in expenditures and increases in revenues, including a restoration of the Bush Tax Cuts and to raise rates on top earners by adding additional tax brackets above the current amount of $375,000.  I urge you to sign onto this letter before you depart today.

 

Political candidates argue about material things, which are easy to talk about and understand, but the real subject of the Presidential election and of congressional debates should be spiritual and emotional: who are we and who should we be?  Freedom should not be the ultimate end of politics.  The ultimate focus of political activity is the character of the society.  Justice not freedom should be the ultimate end of politics.

 

David Brooks asserts in The Social Animal – that “a healthy society is a mobile society, one in which everybody has a shot at the good life, in which everybody has reason to strive, in which people rise and fall according to their abilities and effort, not their birth right.  Social mobility opens up horizons because people can see wider opportunities and transformed lives.  Social mobility reduces class conflict because no one is sentenced to spend their days in the caste into which they were born.  Social mobility unleashes creative energies.  It mitigates inequality, because no station need be permanent.”  And 83% in a recent poll support a government role in promoting upward economic mobility.  Revising our tax code to truly share sacrifice is the way to promote such mobility.

 

And Warren Buffet is probably also correct when he states that the way to “get the job done is not to appeal to the conscience of America but to appeal to the greatness of America.”

 

May our efforts help make it so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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