If financial news took justice into account, what would it say?
By Rich Heffern
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - "Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor." So said the keynote speaker at the Guilfoil Justice Day held on Feb. 2 at Visitation Church. His topic was "Building a For-Justice Economy."
Rich Heffern/Key photo
W. Scott Klinger tells participants at Guilfoil Justice Day about his work with United for a Fair Economy, a not-for-profit organization based in Boston.
"What would the nightly financial news report if the standard of measuring our economy was not profit but social justice?" W. Scott Klinger asked his audience of over 200.
Klinger is the co-director of the Responsible Wealth Project of United for a Fair Economy, a national not-for-profit organization based in Boston that spotlights growing economic inequality in the United States. He is co-author of several books, including "Titans of the Enron Economy: Ten Habits of Highly Defective Corporations" and "Choosing the High Road: Businesses that Pay a Living Wage and Prosper."
Over the last four years, Klinger has helped Responsible Wealth members file more than 40 shareholder resolutions on subjects ranging from executive pay to more democratic board elections.
Klinger's stated aim in his morning and evening talks was to get people to look differently at our economy.
"We've all listened to the evening news and been told how we're doing economically with the following kind of reports: 'The Dow Jones average rose five points today. The gross domestic product rose 4.6 percent, while unemployment stayed steady at 5 percent,'" he said.
Klinger reminded the audience that a guiding principle of Catholic social teaching is that the fundamental moral measure of the economy is how the poor are faring. "When was the last time you heard any reporting on that?" he asked.
"For example, there are many impoverished parts of the world suffering a severe food crisis right now. Cyclones in Madagascar, drought in parts of Africa, floods in Bangladesh have created shortages that will kill far more people than the tragic and devastating tsunami last December did."
What if there was a Justice News Network right alongside the other news channels? Klinger asked.
"Then perhaps we would hear about the recent innovative contract that the U.S. government granted Catholic Relief Services to distribute AIDS anti-viral drugs in nine countries. Sadly the follow-up story would also report that, as the government faced the pressure of rising deficits induced by large tax cuts and the rising cost of war, that contract was cut by $30 million, forcing CRS to cut services to three nations."
Our Catholic faith is one of inquiry, reflection, and questioning, he said, adding that for the last hundred years the popes and bishops "have offered their reflections to the world, and invited ours, through the body of Catholic social teaching."
Klinger reminded his listeners of other key principles of that social teaching. Besides considering the state of the poor as a barometer of economic well-being, another principle is that "the economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.
"Does this reflect the reality we see at play in our economy today?" Klinger asked.
To illustrate how the poor fare in our economy, Klinger looked at two different periods in U. S. history, using student volunteers to illustrate how various sectors of the U.S. population did during those periods.
"The first period, from the years 1982 to the present, shows a time when the richest 5 percent and the richest 20 percent have by far done the best, with each step down the economic ladder doing a bit worse," he said. "In recent years the poorest have been left behind."
In the other period following World War II, from 1945 to 1976, all groups did similarly well, with the poorest actually raising their income substantially.
Klinger said that the rich have been doing better in recent years because of sharp tax cuts especially for the wealthiest, political resistance to raising the minimum wage, globalization that has kept a lid on manufacturing wages, and the explosion of CEO, athlete and celebrity pay.
He said that in the past seven years there has been no increase in the minimum wage while during the same period Congress has voted six times to increase its own salaries.
Public policies in that earlier period that strengthened the lower classes included government programs aimed at strengthening the middle class like the GI Bill, federal home mortgage programs and the federal government's war on poverty.
Catholic social teaching informs us that the responsibility for a just economy is widely shared, Klinger said. "Businesses have the obligation to provide jobs with good wages and benefits. Consumers have the obligation not just to seek the best price, but also to care about the justice impact of what they are purchasing or investing in."
As a staff member of the Responsible Wealth project which organizes wealthy Americans to speak for economic justice, Klinger said he has helped organize millionaires and even billionaires "to speak in favor of keeping the federal estate tax. Even though this is one they have to pay, they feel it's right to contribute something back for the blessings afforded them by our society."
Instead of voicing the conventional view in society that wealth is entirely due to their own hard work and ingenuity, those whom Klinger works with "acknowledge their own hard work and sacrifice but are also quick to add the support they've gotten from others, and from the gift of grace, luck and often of being in the right place at the right time."
People of faith now live in a world where consumerism and capitalism dominate, Klinger said, and our spiritual lives continue to be seen as largely separate from our lives as workers, consumers and investors.
"The Good News today is not God's love and concern for creation but rather that capitalism has won the Cold War. Participation in world society and in the global economy has been reduced to slogans like 'Shop until you drop' or 'Whoever has the most toys wins' rather than 'I am a member of God's family and as such have a relationship with all other living beings.'"
What's more, Klinger said, there is no ethic of shared sacrifice. "You can see it in the way big corporations operate, when they announce large layoffs of their employees and then weeks later an announcement follows of large pay increases for senior executives.
Klinger told a story from his own work on the Responsible Wealth Project.
"Ten years ago such an announcement was made at a large international pharmaceutical company. At that time it was one of the 10 largest companies in the country, and it had laid off 4,000 - nearly 10 percent of its domestic employees. In the weeks that followed, its executives got a double-digit pay raise, justified in part by the expected profit increases resulting from the layoffs.
"At that time I led an effort to challenge such policies. We filed a shareholder resolution asking that executive pay be frozen for one year after big layoffs. To its credit, the company invited discussion of our concerns. During the meeting, the company's human resources head blurted out: 'You know, it's hard work laying off people. Don't you want us to do it well?' Then he said, 'My God, I never listened to myself say that out loud before! It's what I believe, but it sounds so wrong.'
"The company changed its practices, instituting an innovative stock option plan for every single employee worldwide, including those in poor countries. The human resources guy called me a year later to tell me that the program had been wildly successful, creating wealth for all the company's workers."
Klinger reminded the audience that the roots of capitalism in this country are found in the practices and beliefs of the Puritans of New England. "Those religious refugees from England regarded the possibility of personal accumulation leading to a desire for more still as a threat to the life of the community. Productive activity was seen as sacred, but working solely for personal gain was deemed an anti-social attitude."
Now economics, which comes from the Greek word for "household," has come to be separated from the whole of life and removed from the values that govern other daily relationships. "For the Puritans, plows, shop counters and spinning wheels were all sacred. For those of us who live today, commerce and faith parted ways long ago, and it's those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder who are suffering the worst as a result."
Poverty is a spiritual problem, Klinger concluded. "Allowing poverty to exist is a sin because the poor are robbed of their dignity and full participation in society. They deserve not to be poor."
What then must we do? Klinger asked. "Singer and human rights activist Bono from the rock group U2 once said: 'God is waiting for us to act. In fact, God is on His knees to us, to the churches, waiting for us to turn around this supertanker of indifference. Love thy neighbor is not advice; it's a command.'
"That's our starting point," Klinger said. "A 'for-justice' economy is the call of our faith and the dream of our heart."