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.

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