1.22.18 Study Group
News yesterday: Chaos.
News the day before: Chaos.
News last week, last month: Chaos.
News today: Chaos.
News tomorrow? Chaos.
At best, democracy is always messy, as it should be, because no one is singularly in charge, but, rather, a whole lot of people, agencies, and entities.
But, and you knew a “but” was coming, these days strike me as odd, in the ferocity of their chaos … “no one is in charge” with a vengeance, and the party in power seems helpless to craft reasonable policies, either domestic or foreign, appointing people with marginal experience and often lousy track records.
Yet, I give myself away … for me, the role of government is vital to the wellbeing of the nation … it’s always, for me, the third leg of our strength: corporations, unions, and government, working together to bring balance and direction, paying attention to the past, yet knowing that the past is a done deal; what lies open to us is the future, yet right now, no one seems to be paying attention, while 45 deconstructs our government, unravels long-standing policies and throws foreign policy into chaos, playing to a rather small, but vociferous, and often violently religious, base.
I’m reading a remarkable book on FDR, A Political Life, by Robert Dallek … once again, I’m struck by FDR’s determination to use government to lift up the needy with emergency assistance, and job creation … while regulating big business and banks, in contrast to Hoover, who was a good and decent man, and stymied and saddened by the Depression, but held prisoner, or so it seems to me, by his Republican philosophy.
As FDR went to work, it didn’t take long for his detractors to start calling him a Communist, a Fascist, and a dictator, telling America through their newspapers (the wealthy owned nearly all of America’s leading newspapers) that FDR was going to ruin America’s democracy, destroy our economy and become a dictator like Mussolini (whom many of the rich secretly admired for his take-charge attitude, an admiration that would, but a few years later, include Hitler for his anti-communist stance - and both admired for their pro-business attitude).
William Shirer, in his autobiography, writes:
The General Strike in Britain that spring  had shown the malaise in British society. Its failure had brought out the determination of the upper classes to keep the lower classes down on depressed wages, which were near the starvation level. Obviously, class war in Britain was far from over and the upper classes were winning [p.280, vol. 1].
Writing of France in the same time period, Shire notes:
I had begun to suspect that in France the possessing classes were even more greedy and venal than in Britain and at home. All through the crisis of the franc they had sent their capital abroad and thus further weakened the country’s precarious position. Appeals to their patriotism were in vain. The tax system was shocking, soaking the poor and sparing the rich [p.281].
They feared that democracy in France, however badly it was served by Parliament, might continue to threaten their money bags. They began to look over the Alps at Italy to see if perhaps the rights of Big Business and Big Finance might not be better protected by a system of government the had destroyed democracy [p.282].
I doubt if any of us gathered around this table can comprehend the madness of wealth, the fears associated with losing even a dime of it. Or as Eric Trump said of his father, He’s not racist; there’s only one color he sees, and it’s green.
Then or now and throughout our history, there are those who look askance at democracy as a threat to their moneybags. And I think we’re deluding ourselves to ever hope that the possessors might think or behave differently. It is the disease of money that shapes their world view, and as long as the disease persists, so will their attitudes of greed and fear.
Such attitudes gave us, of course, the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression.
As Hoover helplessly stood by as the country slid into the Great Depression, one of his associates said, “Sooner or later the economy will straighten itself out” (good Republican thinking).
To which an associate of FDR replied, “People don’t eat sooner or later, but today.”
For many years now, beginning with Reagan, the mantra has been: Government is the problem, a theme which has resonated convincingly with many voters who unwittingly miss the point of just how helpful big government has been for them. Since Reagan, we’ve seen much of our government deconstructed (something Bill Clinton also abetted); the civil service greatly reduced, life-time employees devoted to their agencies replaced by political appointees, most of whom come from the very industries these agencies were created to regulate.
In a recent sermon, I offered the following:
Can we be hopeful today?
Can we we face the harsh winds of life and be brave?
Can we speak truth to power, because we believe in the truth, the truth of Christ, the truth that really sets people free?
Can we look at the homeless on our streets and demand that the organs of government get their act together and do a better job for the needy and the downcast?
Can we look at our schools and demand that as a nation we stand by our children, we fund our schools, we keep them in repair, and see to it that our children are safe and secure?
Can we look at the elderly in our land and celebrate what Social Security has meant to millions of Americans, hard working Americans, decent and good Americans who need Social Security to avoid the abyss of poverty?
Can we celebrate the goodness of Medicare … for millions of Americans who need decent health care…
Can we truly be patriots, and care for one another …
Can we be Christian enough to know that we owe a debt of love to one another … and that God desires good government … God is the god of kings and queens and prime ministers and parliaments, and Senators and Legislators and Presidents, too … and all who hold the reigns of power will be held accountable before the LORD of heaven and earth, not for how much money they saved, but for how much money they spent, to make life better for children, for women and young mothers, for all who have needs, for all who are in want … God will not ask our leaders about walls built to keep people out, but bridges built to welcome the world! Not about war, but about peace. Not about exclusion, but welcome. Not about punishment, but forgiveness … and how we all cared for God’s good earth.
Both conservatives and socialists live in a world of ideals … focused on economic principles, with the former believing the market to be the ultimate arbiter of social wellbeing … and the latter believing that government regulation is the solution to social ills.
Seems to me the strength of America has best been achieved when elements of both are combined into what might be called a thoughtful capitalism, or, as in Norway, democratic socialism … a reliance on the market, yet, also a realistic understanding that markets, left to themselves, ultimately result in the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, resulting in a growing economic and social disparity and the expansion of poverty, and only with careful and consistent regulation, can markets truly deliver the goods on social wellbeing.
Given this, I’ve long believed that America’s Middle Class is an artificial construct - thanks in large part to FDR, and subsequent administrations that understood America’s market system is fundamentally sound when sufficiently regulated to insure that those who have much won’t have too much, and those who have little, won’t have too little (2 Corinthians 8.15).
Jesus makes it abundantly clear that wealth is a problem, not a blessing, and those of wealth are likely to miss the meaning and purpose of life (the Kingdom of God).
No doubt, elements in the Old Testament, and subsequent Christian tradition, celebrate wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, God’s approval, and poverty as a sign of moral failure and personal sloth and even God’s punishment.
Sadly, this paradigm has taken root with a vengeance in American evangelicalism. But the New Testament, and the words of Jesus, give us a very different message, essentially ignored by many contemporary Christians and much of America, with our long-standing Horatio Alger stories, our love of wealth, our admiration for the wealthy and their power, our fascination with their life styles, and our continuing belief that the wealthy really have our own best interests at heart.
As a nation, we’ve not yet decided who we are, nor have we decided how to be a nation of 330 million, as we often imagine ourselves still a frontier nation, with all of our silly notions of guns, wilderness, wagon trains and toughness, flavored by White Supremacy (well established in our European ancestors), the legacy of Southern slavery, and States’ Rights, creating a maelstrom of American Exceptionalism, an illegitimate idea that can be defended only by bombast and the threat of violence, just to prove how righteous we are.
Into this mix, toss DACA and immigration issues (a long-standing struggle in America), and we have the perfect storm for bigotry, racial and religious violence, and the strange “election” of a man unfit for the Oval Office.
We have a real mess on our hands, and much of it is because we cannot decide who we are - John Wayne or Martin Luther King, Jr..
Hoover and FDR represented two radically different notions of government. While times change, and situations differ, the fundamental struggle remains between a Laissez-faire form of government that let’s the market (and those who profit most from it) have its way and a pro-active government willing to take on big business and banks and to provide welfare for the needy.
As for the needy, we will always have them, for a variety of reasons - DNA, drugs, hideous poverty, illness, the luck of the draw - and a nation unduly fussy about “putting them to work and getting them off of welfare” will ultimately become cruel in its social policies, as we have seen with many of our congressional leaders who endlessly fixate on those who are “abusing the system,” playing upon the sentiments of white voters on the bottom of the social ladder, who at least feel slightly better about themselves when they can still look down on others.
Yet, I contend, those who most abuse the system are the wealthy of this nation, the possessors, who have been able to buy our political system and manipulate it to funnel even more wealth into their pockets, wealth that creates very few jobs, because it’s funneled into exotic financial devices, likely overseas, hedged about with unintelligible language and an army of accountants and attorneys, making even more money for the possessors, but producing little of material value to society and changing nothing for the better.
Often, the conservatives talk about running the government like a family and its budget … while I fundamentally disagree with that notion, I might add this: many a family has a needy child, and because of physical or mental limitations, that child will remain needy to the end of her days. Does that family turn a cold shoulder to the child, reprimanding it for not working, not standing on her own two feet, making a living for herself? Not at all. But, rather, the family knows that it will have to provide support, nurture, and safety for the long term. If there’s an example from family life that has some bearing on the nature of our economy and those who remain needy, this works for me.
Prior to FDR’s election in 1932, he looked at the nation and said:
The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it and try another. But above all try something.
Nothing works a 100 percent … but some things work better than others, and it’s clear to me that FDR’s efforts, and those of other administrations who believed in the role of government to effect positive social change while regulating the engines of commerce have more than proved their worth.
- What parts of this paper caught your attention? … and why?
- How free should our markets be?
- Government as problem? What was Reagan, do you suppose, seeking to accomplish with this?
- Evangelicalism seems to have lost its way … more in service to the wealthy than to Christ. ???
- Where do Roman Catholic teachings fit into this?
- Any thoughts about Social Security and Medicare?