Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Seeking Social Justice: Social Darwinism vs. Occupy Wall Street, Part 2

The pro-wealth, anti-working class rhetoric I’ve heard in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement is startling, at times sounding like lines from a Dicken’s villain or an 1880s letter to the editor bemoaning hobos. From facebook chats to local coffee shop conversations, from Fox News pundits to “Let it Out” comments in the Indianapolis Star, I’m told the poor are lazy and that the rich are “job creators” whose wealth is inevitable. I hear that any tax increase on the wealthy will kill jobs, and any efforts to limit the power of wealth or the widening gap between rich and poor in this country amount to socialist redistributions of wealth.

You have to want to believe that kind of meanness to hang onto it in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, not to mention the opposing moral codes most of us were raised to believe in.

For instance, there has been a redistribution of wealth going on in America, but it’s not going in the direction most people think.

In 1980, at the dawn of the Reagan revolution, the average America CEO earned approximately 42 times as much as the average worker in their company. Today the average CEO earns about 325 times as much as much as his company’s average pay check.

Complain about that staggering pay inequity and the, “You’re a socialist who wants to redistribute wealth,” attack won’t be far behind. It’s a funny claim when you consider that most CEOs don’t own what they manage, they’re hired by their corporation just like the average worker. It’s actually the CEOs and their boards of directors who are redirecting the company’s wealth and hording it. Massive executive pay has become a cultural peculiarity in corporate American, at dramatic odds with pay levels at successful corporations in other industrialized nations.

You won’t hear much talk about this on the political right. Instead they’re busy attacking “overpaid” union workers – you know, the ones making 1/135th what the CEO is earning.

That “excuse the rich/blame the rest” mentality help’s explain growing income disparity in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009 the income gap between rich and poor Americans grew to its greatest level since household income was tracked, nearly double what it was in 1968, giving America the greatest income disparity of any industrialized western nation.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported last year that the disparity between the after-tax income of low and middle class Americans and the wealthiest 1% of the population is the greatest in 80 years. The CBPP attributed this largely to the Bush tax cuts. The wealthiest 10% of Americans got 53% of the total financial benefit of the tax cuts. It’s interesting to note that while Bush and then Republican majorities in the House and Senate were passing these tax cuts in 2001, they were opposing an increase in the minimum wage.

A political mass-email I received recently argued yet again that this income disparity exists because typical Americans are lazy. Hardly.

According to the Center For American Progress, nearly 89% of working American men and 66.5% of women work more than 40 hours a week. And though the Japanese are perceived as very hard workers, the International Labor Organization finds that Americans work 137 hours more a year than the Japanese. The productivity of American workers has increased 400% since 1950. What’s more, American workers take less vacation time than workers in any other western, industrialized nation.

So why do Occupy Wall Street haters continue to argue that people who want more pay equity are lazy bums who want everything handed to them?

In the past year we’ve been inspired by foreign street protesters who built encampments in cities across the world, from Egypt to Libya. But when Occupy protesters used the same tactics to protest for social justice in America, they were labeled lazy troublemakers. I saw a facebook post that pictured a group of American soldiers holding up a sign that reads, “Quit your bitching and get back to work.”

Really? In a nation with an actual (not official) unemployment rate above 10%, you’re gonna call unemployed people lazy? Really?

How about a little “peace on earth, good will toward men?”

And it gets even uglier. Recently on facebook I saw a post showing an image of a group of Occupy protesters set beside an image of flag draped coffins. A caption read, “Some want all. Some gave all. See the difference?” This is the cruelest cheap shot I’ve seen in politics in a long time. It didn’t just claim that people fighting for social justice want handouts for doing nothing, it suggested that fighting for it was some sort of insult to our fallen soldiers. And yet, approving comments accumulated for that hateful message.

I sat in the IRT last Sunday night with my family watching a marvelous stage version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” As Scrooge went on his rants about the lazy poor who have too many children (lines written in 1843), as we watched the struggles of the hard-working, but poverty-stricken Cratchit family, who needed but couldn’t get health care for Tiny Tim, I got to wondering who’s side Occupy Wall Street haters would be on. What Scrooge was mouthing was only a slightly meaner version of what I hear regularly in political discourse about wealth and poverty in present-day America.

The Occupy Wall Street movement isn’t about socialism. It’s about social justice. Which is ironic, because I so often hear conservatives talk about the “good ol’ days.” But America of 40, 50 or 60 years ago was a time when the wealthy made less and paid far higher taxes, and when common workers made more and union membership was far more common. I guess some people are a little forgetful about what the good ol’ days were really like.

The data make it pretty clear, on economic terms, the good ol’ days America is now evolving toward isn’t like the ‘40s, ‘50s, or ‘60s, but more like Victorian-era America, when the poor made up the largest share of the population, the middle class was relatively small, and the wealthy controlled a staggering percentage of the national wealth and used it to utterly control the political system.

Social justice is something most of us believe in. And we didn’t learn it from an ACLU pamphlet or a socialist manifesto. We learned it on Sunday mornings in church as children.

What record we have of the life of Jesus reveals a man who spent most of his days preaching in favor of social justice – love your neighbor, help those who have less than you. So why is it such a threatening message when it’s voiced in the political arena?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Worshiping Wealth: Social Darwinism vs. Occupy Wall Street, Part 1

When conservative pundits quickly labeled Occupy Wall Street protesters as lazy, class-warfare, socialists, few seemed to realize they were revealing their own class-conscious bias, casting their own stones in America’s escalating season of class warfare.

Perhaps the quickest way to draw the ire of modern-day conservatives is to question the legitimacy of unlimited wealth. It’s a reminder that blind faith in the purity of wealth has far deeper roots in America than does socialist leanings.

In Victorian-era America, beliefs eventually labeled Social Darwinism were commonly accepted notions. Promoted by English philosopher Herbert Spencer and sociologist William Graham Sumner, it applied Darwin-like theories about the biological evolution of man to economic success.

In the thinking of Spencer and Sumner, Bill Gates is at the top of the food chain – he’s a superior human being, and you . . . well, if you’re a working stiff, your knuckles might as well drag the ground. To Social Darwinists of the 1880s & ‘90s, this was not only true, but also a good thing. The rich would pave the way for mankind.

You hear this echoed today in the rhetoric on the right who label the rich as, “job creators.” Kinda funny when you consider how many top earners have gotten massive year-end bonuses for cutting jobs at their companies, not creating them.

It’s surprising how many middle and low-wage earners subscribe to the lavish, “job creators,” linguistic spin, too, but it’s nothing new. This worship of the wealthy also wormed its way into the hearts of envious and hopeful 19th Century Americans who eked out lives of drudgery.

Funny, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Nearly 150 years ago, Spencer and Sumner urged trickle-down economic policies with few regulations on commerce and wealth. Let the rich get richer and it will eventually help the poor. And they opposed aid to the poor. Why intervene against the laws of nature? The rich were rich and the poor were poor as a result of natural selection.

Before that century’s end, Social Darwinism took on an ironic twist that no socialist critic could have concocted. It became justified on a religious basis by the very forces who railed against Darwin’s original theories. Not only were the rich a product of natural selection, but also that selection was sanctioned by God. Poverty was punishment for sin.

In his famous speech titled “Acres of Diamonds,” given thousands of times in big cities and small dusty towns across the country in the1880s and 1890s, the Reverend Russell Conwell argued to adoring audiences, “ . . . the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong, . . .”

In this era Mark Twain dubbed “The Gilded Age,” industrialists smugly clutched this concept to their chests as justification for the profits they ground out of the lives of poor immigrants. And many immigrants themselves accepted that thinking. Ashamed of their circumstances they hoped, “maybe I’m pure enough to become wealthy, too.”

There’s nothing wrong with upward mobility – it’s everyone’s dream and the rational path to a more comfortable life, but to think it would put you straight with God converts the American Dream into an 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt earn a fortune.”

This Victorian faith in wealth-without-limits played out in an era of corporate monopolies and trusts that at times virtually enslaved workers and cheated small business people as a matter of intended function. These abuses of power were so egregious they led to anti-trust and child labor legislation, and eventually the rise of labor unions. But the Social Darwinists of the era decried such developments as unnecessary intrusion into free enterprise.

Interestingly, this justification of boundless wealth for a chosen few at the expense of the majority, though defended as free enterprise, ended up having far more to do with notions of monarchy. The monopolies and trusts, best exemplified by the railroads, Standard Oil, and U.S. Steel resulted in a kind of semi-free-enterprise feudalism, with corporate leaders living like economic lords, dukes and kings, ruling from positions of staggering wealth, perverting the political system and national commerce for their private benefit.

Most modern Americans cringe at these theories and the brutal economy it created, but sympathy survives. Look up Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds” on and see it heralded in reader reviews as a long forgotten, inspirational text.

On the surface, Social Darwinism has been relegated to the past with other harsh beliefs our ancestors once held dear, but in the same way a great grandmother’s eyes or smile are passed down through generations and inherited by a great grand child, we see glimpses of Social Darwinism today in our attitudes about the rich and poor.

Unquestioning faith in wealth is alive and well in America and influences our current political debates about taxes, balancing budgets, regulating Wall Street, the assault on teacher, police, and firefighter labor unions, and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In the late 1800s Social Darwinism was a jagged stone in the soul of America. That stone has tumbled down the riverbed of a century, its rough edges rounded, it’s nasty pallor polished smooth. But it’s still the same stone.

Next post I’ll take a more modern look at these pro-wealth impulses.

Update on Positron Post:

During an October post criticizing Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear's plan to offer the Fisher's-based corporation, Positron millions of dollars in hand-outs to relocate in Noblesville, I detailed Positron's long history of legal troubles. In late November the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission accused Positron's CEO of defrauding investors. To read details printed in the IBJ, follow this link: