Economics dominate American headlines. Discussions focusing on national debt, wealth disparity, minimum wage, budget deficits, and personal debt are reoccurring themes in newspapers, the blogosphere, and news stations. Indeed, it appears that our concern as it relates to the topics of education, healthcare, or social welfare is primarily financial, not humanitarian. In fact, neoliberal attempts to defund public programs are almost always posed as financial stewardship that “the American people want.”
Moreover some authors propose that economic matters have moved beyond the headlines into the very fabric of the American psyche and identity. For example, in his work, What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel argues that the United States has transformed into a market society, not simply a market economy, by positing that economic thinking has pervaded aspects of American life that maybe should transcend incentivized, market, or economic theories. I would suggest that Sandel is correct in his assessment and this has shaped us to think about our neighbors (our fellow citizens – those within our cities, states, and nation) and many of our actions through an immoral lens.
Let me provide one example of how this expresses itself in our society. When we speak of those in poverty, we view them as primarily financially deficient, and then we correlate this with moral and educational deficiencies. In essence, we paint people as value-less or less in their worth. You hear this in political commentary when politicians, pundits, and concerned citizens say things like: “those people that don’t have jobs; those people are a burden on the system; those people don’t pay taxes; or those people spend all their money on drugs and alcohol.” These nameless people are just that – people who are not worth our naming or consideration because they have been deemed of no value. When we apply this market society lens to our community members, it is easy to create boundaries of whom we associate with and who becomes excluded.
Thus the social market lens positions financial importance over and against moral/religious thought processes. In the book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber’s questions:
What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? What changes when the one turns into the other? And how do we speak about them when our language has been so shaped by the market?
While economic considerations have taken the front seat in driving our priorities, income inequality continues to increase as an alarming number of people are falling below the poverty line and into abject poverty (See this recent article at The Huffington Post by Maxwell Strachen). Income inequality is becoming such a present reality that another article at The Huffington Post describes nine steps that can be taken by the average citizen. These steps include voting, getting married, and spending money wisely. I would add another step to this list – mobilizing your faith tradition to engage the issue of income inequality and a market society mentality. Brookings recently released a report detailing how religious progressives can engage the issues of income inequality (and possibly save their declining numbers). But my questions is: why is this a progressive religious issue? Why isn’t this an all-encompassing religious/moral issue?
Back to David Graeber’s research previously mentioned. In his research, Graeber suggests that one of the primary functions of faith traditions in their nascent stages of development was as “moral financial managers” (my phrasing, not his). Thus, the notion is that one reason that religion was initiated was as a mediator of economic situations by attaching transcendental beliefs to daily conversations. How? I believe that faith traditions frame conversations in a way that requires us to first humanize the issue (i.e. financial concerns are considered after the social welfare of people) and by providing less sanitized rhetoric (i.e. income inequality can be framed as neoliberal violence).
The Hebrew prophets provide a clear indication of religious voices advocating for fair treatment of those less fortunate. Amos decries the practices of the wealthy of his time:
Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate (5:11-12).
Jeremiah condemned unfair living wages:
“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages, who says, ‘I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms,’ who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar and painting it with vermilion. Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the Lord. But you have eyes and heart only for your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence” (22:13-17).
And Isaiah denounces unfair policies that subjugate people into systems of oppression:
Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! (10:1-2)
I would say that economic issues are religious and moral issues first. There are those faith and secular groups who are standing against neoliberal violence, but they need others to stand/mobilize alongside them in their fight, to create new moral and religious arguments to inspire, and provide a proper lens for each of us to consider the current economic issues.