A Statement of Conscience

Income Inequality, part 3
“The unease we feel about the loss of social values and the way we are drawn into the pursuit of material gain is often experienced as if it were a purely private ambivalence which cuts us off from others....As voters, we have lost sight of any collective belief that society could be different. Instead of a better society, the only thing almost everyone strives for is to better their own position – as individuals – within the existing society.” (Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level 4)
What we saw manifesting in the elections of 2016 November was years of decline in voter interest in thinking about the common good for all our sakes, and years of corresponding increase in interest in sticking it to “those other people.” What we saw in the elections of 2017 November and December (in Virginia, New Jersey, Alabama) was the stuck side sticking back. Was there any real concern for the common good for all our sakes?

I’m inclined to see voters were sticking back on behalf of a greater good for more people, but that’s not quite the same thing as the common good. The tide that turned in the more recent elections – and remember, we have no idea if it will last, or how far it extends into states that didn’t have elections – wasn’t a tide that seemed very interested in attending to the pains and frustrations of Trump voters. I see it as motivated by greater and more widely-shared goods, but not really by a sense of the common good. It feels like in this climate there can be no such thing.

We’ve become a place where people like me find the most inspiring and energizing banner to march under bears one word: resistance. And I am down with that. The current regime is authoritarian, kleptocratic, utterly-truth-disregarding and reality-uninterested – hence, willfully ignorant -- impulsively vindictive, and ideologically incoherent except for the coherence of its embrace of white supremacy and patriarchal privilege. Resistance to that regime really is, I believe, our most pressing priority. But how did we get here?

Thirty-seven years ago I was a brand-new father. My first child had just been born. If you’d asked me about resistance as a political ideal, I’d have thought in terms of resistance to special interests on behalf of a common good for all. Today it’s hard to picture common good, so it isn’t in the picture.

A complex web of interrelated factors has brought us to this pass, and growing income inequality is a key node within that web. It fosters the sense of divide. If we’re going to get back to a sense of common good – where political differences are differences of strategy for promoting general welfare rather than the drawing of enemy lines to delineate who must be defeated – then it will be necessary to reduce income inequality.

It’s necessary. Would it be sufficient? Given what would have to happen in order for that inequality to return to 1979 levels, and all the side effects of such a mass effort for equality, then probably, yes, the panoply of conditions that it would take to bring the top quintile/bottom quintile ratio to below five, probably would, all together, also be sufficient for regenerating a robust sense of common good. (And this time, my dream would be, the prevailing sense of “common” would not harbor tacit white supremacist assumptions and exclusions.)

Our denomination collectively decided in 2014 to take up income inequality as study/action issue. After three years of study/action, Unitarian Universalists last summer produced a Statement of Conscience, "Escalating Economic Inequity." The full statement is about 2200 words – please take a copy and give it a look: HERE.

Let’s think about this. Just as the delegates at general assembly adopted a statement, let’s have a CUUC statement of conscience about this. We could, as a congregation, adopt the statement as is. Or we could amend it.

There are parts of this statement that we will need to debate. I love this statement – it’s bold and inspiring. But I love being a part of a community where other brains different from mine can add to mine. As I imagine the diversity in this room right now – the wonderful diversity – I imagine some things some of us wouldn’t immediately exactly jump to sign on to. There’s an allusion to “capitalism” as a key factor in economic inequality.“Automation” is implicated as one of the forces driving income inequality, but maybe some us see automation as creating as many jobs as it displaces. Let’s plunge in and study up on that. Let’s really do this “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” thing, and do it together, and let our disagreements come out and make us stronger. Similarly, there’s a call for advocacy for revising bankruptcy laws. We would want to examine what sort of revisions might actually be helpful, and consider harms of such revision. The statement says that a moral economic system would include “a guaranteed minimum income for everyone,” and also “an open immigration system.” Those are ideas this congregation might have some fruitful debate about.

And then there are the comparative silences. The statement’s first sentence is: “Challenging extreme inequity locally and globally is a moral imperative.” But then very little is said about the global part. Perhaps we’d want our statement to acknowledge that the wealth gap between nations, not just the wealth gap within our nation, is a significant problem. Or else not name challenging global inequity as a moral imperative.

So stay tuned. Your social justice coordinating committee is looking to plan events for discussion. Perhaps we can present some formal debates on certain of the provisions. Let’s really engage this issue! Let's see where we go together – our vision widened and our strength multiplied.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Income Inequality"
See also
Part 1: Modern Life Made Tougher
Part 2: Feeling We're In This Together

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