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Economy Transfers Wealth – From the Bottom Up

The new capitalist economic system established in the1980s and advocated by the Reagan administration is known as “neoliberalism” – “neo” because it is a new global movement since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and “liberalism” because it harkens back to the classical liberal economic paradigms advanced by Adam Smith’s so-called “free markets.”

However, those representing the 99 percent are discovering that this neoliberal capitalism essentially is transferring wealth from the bottom of society to the top, creating a growing income disparity between the rich and the poor who, by the way, are disproportionately of color.

This transfer of wealth becomes evident when we examine CEO wages in relationship to their employees.

In 1975 corporate leaders made 44 times as much as the average factory worker. During the early 1980s, CEOs such as Goizueta of Coca-Cola and Eisner of Disney convinced stockholders to link their compensation to company stock prices.

By 1985, CEO salaries rose to 70 times the average worker.

A 2001 report published by the Institute for Policy Studies revealed that corporate leaders were making 531 times as much as the average factory worker. That is a 571 percent increase (before adjusting for inflation) since the 1990s alone.

Worker pay, meanwhile, grew 37 percent – barely keeping up with 32 percent inflation.

CEO salaries also outpaced the stock market and corporate profits. From 1985 through 2001, the average worker saw his or her pay increase by 63 percent while the S&P 500 index rose by 443 percent.

Over the same period of time, CEOs enjoyed a pay increase of 866 percent.

The greatest danger of neoliberalism is the threat it poses to our democracy. When wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, political inequality is sure to follow.

And yet, the myth of the American Dream – attainable by anyone -persists.

During the July 2009 Senate hearings for Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court, Democrats consistently heralded her as an example of the American Dream fulfilled: In spite of growing up in the barrio, she simply lifted herself up by her bootstraps.

In reality, this Latina is the exception to the rule – not the norm. The vast majority of Hispanics in this country who share a similar economic background to Sotomayor will, more than likely, live a life of menial labor, economic hardship and lack of opportunities.

Nevertheless, by placing Sotomayor on a pedestal to serve as the paragon for all Hispanics living under economically oppressive conditions, the illusion of the American Dream – that anyone “can make it if they work hard enough” – is maintained.

And, of course, when the vast majority are unable to grasp that illusion, proponents of the American Dream myth lay the blame on so-called “lazy” Hispanics for not working hard enough.

Never discussed is how disenfranchisement of Latinas and Latinos is necessary to enrich the dominant culture.

Economic disenfranchisement remains outside most ethical discourses because Euro-American-based ethics either ignore or provide justification for the prevailing structures of oppression.

How, then, do the 99 percent ethically respond to the political and social structures designed to maintain their economic marginalization, especially when the prevailing Euro-American ethical perspective leans toward maintaining the status quo?

Justice may be central to the Gospel, but it must remain subordinate to social order, apparently.

If it is true that Christian ethics are the ethics of the dominant 1 percent, whose supreme goal is to maintain the present social order, then for those claiming faithfulness to the Bible and calling for justice, social disorder – as we are beginning to witness on Wall Street – is required.

Ironically, when the 1 percent has its power threatened, disrupting the status quo becomes patriotic.

To kill, arrest, detain, kidnap, torture, assassinate, spread propaganda or engage in military conflict against whomever is labeled an enemy of democracy and “our way of life” is heralded as our fight for freedom which, of course, is never free.

The means by which the 1 percent maintains economic and political power is always understood as being ethically rooted in the highest manifestations of human virtues and values.

Words like justice, patriotism, equality, law and order become meaningless terms used by the 1 percent bent on remaining dominant.

But when the 99 percent employ similar means by which to wrestle power away from the 1 percent, they are labeled angry, hostile, unethical, immoral and un-Christian.

The problem with euro-centric ethics is its emphasis on social order. Who wouldn’t cherish communal harmony?

Unfortunately for the ever-increasing poor, wrestling with underemployment and unemployment, dilapidated schools, poverty, inadequate housing and a lack of adequate health care prevents harmony from taking root in their communities.

What is required is a radical economic change, specifically in how the earth’s resources are distributed.

Of course, the 1 percent who benefit from the present arrangement may willingly participate in charity, but they remain unwilling to move toward any type of justice that questions or threatens their power, possessions or privilege.

It’s always easier to write a $50 check to feed the hungry; it’s a different matter and far more difficult to ask how their protected privilege causes poverty within the United States and throughout the world.

Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.