Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Unemployment and the Economics of Jesus

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” 
Matthew 20:1-16

I’m guessing that the story of the Laborers and the Vineyard is not on anyone’s short list of favorite parables. More than likely, it is among those we most dislike. We can mumble out the familiar ending about the last being first and pretend that we like it because we think that we ought to like it, but the truth is that we don’t like it.

We believe that the folks who worked the longest and the hardest should get the most money. We value hard work and should value hard work.

In general, the Bible values hard work, but Jesus is making a very different counter-cultural point here. Note the conversation with the last group of workers, those still unemployed in the late afternoon:

“And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’”

The landowner asks the obvious question. “Why are you idle?” And by implication, “what’s the matter with you? Don’t you want to work? Are you lazy?” The answer given to the landowner and to us is a complete explanation of the situation: “We aren’t working because no one has hired us.” This is not a moral failing on the part of the unemployed. They aren’t lazy or stupid. They are idle because no one has hired them. It is just that simple. And at the end of the day, they get a day’s wage because that’s what they need to support their families.

In his commentary on this parable, William Barclay says that it sets forth two great truths:
1. Every man has [person] a right to a job
2. Every man [person] has a right to a living wage.

Writing in the middle of the last century, Barclay believed that those “two great truths” would be recognized by most thinking people. I am not sure that is true today.

In the middle of the last century, when William Barclay wrote his commentaries, the pain of a recession was absorbed in three ways: lost profits, lost productivity and lost jobs. Today we still have those three categories of impact, but approximately two-thirds of the losses are absorbed in unemployment.

Half a century ago, some workers were let go, and those who remained typically did less work, resulting in less productivity and lower profits. Today, the workers who remain find themselves doing more work to make up for those who were laid off. And workers have responded by “doing more with less” and increasing productivity. This increased productivity has not resulted in higher wages, but in higher profits.

Economists will tell us that corporations have learned to manage the downturns more efficiently. But at least part of it is because we no longer have a consensus that people have a right to work and a right to a living wage.

Today we have 12 million unemployed people who are actively looking for work. That does not count the people who have given up. Within those numbers is an even more troubling statistic: 4.6 million people have been unemployed for more than 6 months, and even worse, two-thirds of them have been out of work for more than a year.

We are creating a group of long-term unemployed people whose lack of employment renders them unemployable. They are unemployable, not because they lack skills or because they are unwilling. They are unemployable because employers do not want to hire them.

In a recent essay in the New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote about an experiment conducted by William Dickens and Rand Ghavad of Northeastern University. They sent out “résumés describing the qualifications and employment history of 4,800 fictitious workers. Who got called back? The answer was that workers who reported having been unemployed for six months or more got very few callbacks, even when all their other qualifications were better than those of workers who did attract employer interest.” Krugman’s conclusion is that we are creating a permanent class of jobless Americans.

In the economics of Jesus, everyone has a right to a job and a living wage. If we believe that, then we can begin to create a consensus to develop the policies and programs to achieve that end. This is not impossible. It is not the inevitable result of market cycles. It is a choice.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Their Blood Cries Out from the Ground

When they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” 
Genesis 4:8-10 

The images of the Boston Marathon bombing are everywhere. But maybe most of all, they are inside of our heads. I am guessing that everyone reading this can stop and call to mind the images from Monday. The pictures of the explosion. The wounded being taken to hospitals. The man holding tight to another man’s severed artery. And the pictures of those who died.

At Yankee Stadium they played “Sweet Caroline” as a tribute to the people in Boston. On The Daily Show Jon Stewart spoke about the rivalry between New York and Boston, and he said that in times like this we are reminded that it is “a sibling rivalry.” And later this morning, President Obama will lead a healing service for the people of Boston.

A small army of investigators is hard at work, carefully examining video tapes and picture, interviewing witnesses, and piecing together the evidence that will lead them to find the killer. No stone will be left unturned. No expense will be spared.

In the meantime . . . If the hours and days since the marathon have been average days in America, then there have been nearly 100 gun murders since the bombs exploded, and there have been nearly 500 people wounded by guns. And over 150 people have used a gun to commit suicide.

In their books on early Christianity, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg draw a sharp contrast between the Roman Empire and the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God. The Roman Empire, and every empire, is characterized by what they call “the normalcy of violence.” The Kingdom of God presents a radically different alternative based on non-violence and peace through justice.

In the United States we are so accustomed to gun violence that most of the time it seems “normal” to us. We are willing to stand in line at airports and have our clothing and baggage searched in order to prevent the violence of “terrorism.” But we are unwilling to cause even a small inconvenience in order to reduce the routine terrorism of gun violence.

Yesterday, with the images of Boston still playing in our minds, we watched the United States Senate fail to adopt a measure to provide universal background checks for gun sales. In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Gabrielle Giffords wrote:

“Senators say they fear the N.R.A. and the gun lobby. But I think that fear must be nothing compared to the fear the first graders in Sandy Hook Elementary School felt as their lives ended in a hail of bullets. The fear that those children who survived the massacre must feel every time they remember their teachers stacking them into closets and bathrooms, whispering that they loved them, so that love would be the last thing the students heard if the gunman found them.”

And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”

Friday, April 12, 2013

Social Insecurity

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 
Exodus 20:12

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James 1:27

Conventional wisdom says that if we are serious about reducing the deficit, then we will have to do something to curb “entitlements.” And in this context the entitlements under review are Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

The obvious question is why we are so concerned about deficit reduction when the immediate need is for jobs and almost everyone agrees that cutting government spending will slow the recovery (or send us back into recession) and we can see that austerity has failed all over Europe. But we will leave that for another time.

Medicare and Medicaid belong in a separate discussion that focuses on health care costs. But let’s look at Social Security.

First, Social Security is not adding to the deficit. Right now, Social Security has a surplus and that surplus is being used to buy government bonds which are funding the deficit. If we do nothing, Social Security will eventually become a problem. In 2033, if we do nothing, Social Security will have to reduce payments by 25%. That projected shortfall, and the related assumption that Congress will appropriate funds from the Federal Budget to prevent a reduction in benefits, is what drives the idea that Social Security is part of the debt problem.

Correcting the problem is not that difficult. If we eliminated the cap on wages subject to Social Security, the fund would be solvent for the next seventy-five years. In other posts I have written about how the incomes of the richest Americans have grown much faster than everyone else’s. In terms of Social Security, that means that a larger percentage of total wages is not taxed for Social Security. Even if we did not eliminate the cap, we could still reduce the shortfall substantially by adjusting the cap on wages.

Second, we should be thinking about ways to expand Social Security, rather than ways to shrink it. Social Security is our most successful domestic program. It has dramatically reduced poverty among our elderly. Theoretically, Social Security is one leg of a three-legged stool that makes up American retirement accounts. The other legs are employer sponsored pension programs and individual retirement accounts. But the non-governmental legs are much weaker than they once were. Fewer corporations are offering pension plans, and individual accounts have been hard hit by the Great Recession. Fewer than half of households ages 55-64 have any retirement savings. And fewer than half of those that do have savings have more than $120,000.

The majority of retirees have incomes of less than $32,600 per year and receive approximately two-thirds of all their income from Social Security. And the average benefit is just $1,265 per month. Eighty percent of all seniors have incomes below $57,600 per year and receive, on average, half of their incomes from Social Security. Only the top 20% or seniors do not count Social Security as their largest income source, and that’s because most of them are still working.

Expanding Social Security sounds like crazy talk if you believe that the current budget discussions in Washington are sane. But we need to think hard about what sort of living conditions we imagine for future retirees. Most of the talk about “reforming” Social Security really means reducing benefits, either by increasing the retirement age or by decreasing the amount paid out. And that will translate into more seniors living near or below the poverty line.

We need to think seriously about how we can make Social Security into a reasonable replacement for disappearing corporate pensions. That will require increasing the payroll tax on almost everyone, and it’s hard to imagine our current leadership taking that on. But the alternative is a future in which the gaps between rich and poor increase as we age and are much greater in retirement.