• What the Pope Almost Said

    September 28, 2015

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    Posted in: Economy, Minimum Wage




    In my last book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent two characters are talking, Earl, the main guy, and his friend, Preacher Casey.

    What Casey said is pretty close to a lot of the things the Pope tried to say while he was in the U.S. last week, so I thought it might be worth reading here while the American media focuses ever-so-briefly on the plight of our poor, and the economy that made them that way.



    We understood that getting along meant you could only be so selfish, that only watching out for yourself just would not work in a place where we had to live together. Sermon on the Mount said all that Casey told me, but we did it on our own in a practical way. I guess you can make a life outta not getting along if you only read one book, hating on certain people because one page of the Bible says to, while ignoring the rest of what it says, which is pretty goddamn clear about love.

    Casey was still laughing on the bus when I remembered telling him that.

    Casey and me ended up talking a lot as we became friends. Casey read a lot of books. He seemed to understand things that had happened around me and my life in a way that made it clear that Reeve was not an island like we thought it was. In fact, what had happened to us here had happened to a lot of places. A “hollowing out,” Casey said, in a kind of sermon of his own:

    “Earl, money isn’t spread around like it used to be. After the war, until about the time you were in junior high school, incomes rose at the same level for everyone. But then things changed—you saw it, your mom and dad for sure. The top one percent of Americans watched their income grow dozens of times more than the rest of us, until that same small group of people held forty percent of all the
    wealth in the U.S.”

    “Look at Detroit,” Casey went on, “my old hometown. The U.S. emerged from the Second World War with Heaven’s only functioning army, with more than half of the industrial capacity in the world and as banker and creditor to allies and enemies. That was the highest hill our country climbed, and Detroit sat at the summit. Detroit was looking into a future where the rising prosperity was going to fuel a demand for cars unlike any consumer demand in human history. There was so much money and growth and potential that everyone ate well.

    “When it rains like that, people can’t help but get wet. My own father started as a toolmaker’s apprentice right after high school and ended up making $35 an hour, with a pension, health care, employee discounts on the cars he helped build and a union picnic every Fourth of July.”

    “Detroit rode that all up until about 1973, when everything went over the hill, not just in Detroit, but most everywhere — wages fell, benefits fell, production fell, population fell, home values fell. You can buy a house in Detroit for $6,000 today. Greatest generation and all, no, they were the greatest exception. It all happened quickly, in only the course of a few decades, two or three generations. My dad got out okay, but my older brother didn’t. He told me he felt thrown away, that he never thought this was so fragile. I hate to say it so crudely — God forgive me — but America lost its balls.”

    “C’mon Casey,” I said, “that’s what business does, even I know that. It’s their job to make as much money as they can for them, not for us. A dog can’t help being a dog, so you don’t kick at him for peeing on a tree, right?”

    “Earl, I’m not talking about anything radical here. I’m talking about a little bit of a balance. Those fights between your mom and dad over money you told me about, they were real. They were talking to each other about what was happening in America, all around them, without even knowing it. A very few people were choosing for them. Business became all appetite.

    Now we are reaching for a zero-sum point where wealthy people believe that to gain anything requires them to take it from someone else. Wal-Mart already makes billions, but it fights even tiny increases to the minimum wage. If McDonald’s doubled its employees’ salaries to $14.50 an hour, a Big Mac would cost only 68 cents more.

    “Actually, even all this talk about minimum wage is missing a big point: more Americans work for sub-minimum than for minimum wage. People who might get tips only have to be paid $2.13 an hour in some places. And that $2.13 has not changed by law in twenty-two years due to lobbying by the restaurant business. Owners are doing okay, as restaurant prices have gone up in the last twenty-two years. Just like in Roman times, the lion’s share beats the Christians’ share any day.”

    “This is where my religious and political views meet up, Earl. Most wealthy folks say they’re religious people, but when the churches are rich and the regular people poor, you gotta wonder who is serving who. Most of those wealthy ignore one of the highest ideals from the Sermon — caring. Those words aren’t just some more poetry of hopefulness that passes for Christianity. He said quite clearly, ‘they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, they should be satisfied.’ But it ain’t just about handing over a few crumbs, saying it’s better than no bread at all.

    “Getting into Heaven isn’t about earning merit badges, here’s one for those canned goods you didn’t want anyway at Christmas or another for tossing change into a cup. It’s about how you live a life in total, what you do 99 percent of the time, what you make of the world you live in. It isn’t religion that’s wrong, same as it isn’t business that’s wrong. It’s greed and selfishness that’s wrong, no matter what channel you’re watching.”

    I always thought the Bible was like the dictionary, all the words was inside and you could scramble them around to mean anything you like, but Casey made sense.

    “Look Earl, even though the original Owner was barefooted, what happens upstairs in my church is that as soon as some expensive shoes hit that floor it seems like the place loses its purpose. Me, I preached for the Lord a long time, but some days I think God’s the laziest man on earth. What I want is to be able to look out over my congregation and say to them forget most of what I’ve said but go out and be kind to each other, help each other and walk humbly when you have something others still need. When they hear someone cry in America because they’re hungry, I want that to be louder in their ears than any sermon.”

    “So okay, Preacher, when’s it going to get better? When are we going to be able to live like our grandparents did?”

    “Earl, nostalgia isn’t history. This is a story about change, and it’s important for you to know how that happened. Here we are forty years on still talking about recovery like it was as real as an election year promise. Prosperity is not something that will follow if we simply wait long enough. Like my friend says, cut through all the lies and there it is, right in front of you: America used to be a developing nation, in the best sense of that word.

    “Almost in spite of themselves, the robber barons built prosperity through jobs. We had to get past the horrors of enslaving other human beings, past making children work in factories, past killing men in mines and machines. There were dark times, criminal times, but people had a sense of ‘we’ll get past this.’ Then we crossed a line. Manufacturing in America became expensive. Businesses sought lower costs and higher profits. String
    that out as far as it goes and it means paying workers as close to zero—or zero if you somehow could like with slavery — and pulling in as much profit — as close to one hundred percent — as you somehow could. The question seemed to have become, ‘How many miles can you drive on a gallon of our blood?’

    “We watched a reversal of two hundred years. American workers never earned as much again as they did in 1973. It was soon after that someone laid off a steelworker who became Patient Zero of the new economy.”

    “The numbers are too consistent, the lines too straight. This was no accident, no invisible hand. Earl, we changed from a place that made things —radiators, cash registers, gaskets, ball bearings, TVs — into a place that just makes deals. Making things creates jobs, and jobs create prosperity. Making deals just creates wealth for the dealers. It’s math. The money that went up had to come from somewhere. That was right out of your father’s pocket.

    “The deal makers don’t care because they don’t live here, hell, they don’t live anywhere. We live here.”




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  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...

      1

      It looks as if the top dog at VW just pee’ed on an electric fence not knowing the current would travel back to his pecker and may be fatal.
      We in the 99% are just whipped after decades of expatiation and seem to not have the will to challenge the 1%. I don’t hold out much hope the church will help us in holding the 1% accountable for their excesses. The church seems instead content to offer philosophical and theological succor with the promise that things will be better for us in the afterlife.
      ,

      09/28/15 3:44 PM | Comment Link

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