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by Call To Action on 12/27/17

Let's consider an imaginary company in America, a publicly-traded corporation with 1000 employees who have just announced annual profits of 100 million dollars.

Their accountants say that they owe 10% in government taxes, so the question arises about where the remaining 90 millions go. There are three groups with legitimate claims on the company profits: management, shareholders and regular workers.

Forty years ago the average CEO's salary in America was twenty times more than one of the company's line workers; today the ratio has climbed to an astonishing two hundred and seventy. If we take the average worker's salary as $50,000, that gives the CEO annual compensation in multiple millions.

That is how the cake is divided. The corporate executives and the shareholders are represented at the table when the profits are divvied up and they take good care of their interests, but the workers have no voice in the decision-making. The result is that, despite big increases in corporate profits, ordinary workers' salaries have barely matched the inflation rate since the 1970's. Surely a classical example of a rigged system where the majority of those who contributed to the company's success have no say in the distribution of the profits.

In the same 50-year period union membership has declined dramatically. Now only 6.4% of private sector workers carry a union card; the figure was about five times that in the 1970's. The union contracts negotiated at that time ensured steady improvements in the lives of workers and their families. In addition there was a strong ripple effect on the wages and conditions of non-union workers as employers felt that they had to remain competitive in their salary structure.

The dramatic growth in income inequality in the United States is closely related to the decline in union membership.

Even today union workers earn up to 30% more than similar employees in companies that do not have an organized voice. And  trade union members nearly always have better healthcare, vacation and pension benefits.

Public sector workers, especially in the tri-state area, are highly unionized and their wages, pensions and working conditions reflect a powerful voice at the negotiating table. As a retired teacher, I am grateful that I am represented by a strong union, the United Federation of Teachers.

It is hard to see how the lot of most private-sector blue-collar workers will improve without a strong voice at the corporate table. This will entail an unlikely spurt of growth in trade union membership or legislation in Washington that would mandate this change.

Unfortunately, Republicans would strongly oppose any legislative proposal in the direction of worker representation on company boards. Their recent taxation policies clearly favor corporations and the rich. They promise that higher company profits will somehow dribble down and result in salary increases for workers - a very dubious proposition that doesn't meet the common sense test.

Democrats usually get the support and financial backing of the big unions and their economic and taxation policies are much more likely to favor the middle class. President Obama did raise taxes on the affluent to help fund the Affordable Care Act, and Hillary Clinton promised that, if elected, she would propose a bill that would encourage some profit-sharing by companies - surely a step in the right direction. Still, overall, Democrats lack conviction in this regard and show no plans to address these issues.

Of all the Christian denominations, the Catholic Church has been most associated with supporting workers' rights. From Pope Leo the X111's revolutionary encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 to John XX111's Mater et Magistra 70 years later to many statements by the present pope, Rome has been clearly in the workers' corner, favoring their demands, including the right to organize and to negotiate a living wage. Mater et Magistra goes further, asserting that workers should be co-owners and thus sharing in the profits of the enterprise where they work.

Unfortunately, very little is heard from the pulpits on the glaring injustices suffered by ordinary workers. Why are there no outraged church voices raised against the immorality of stagnant employee wages and reduced worker healthcare benefits when companies are making record profits and CEO's are raking in millions? Instead we have top leaders with names like Ryan and Brady disgracefully leading the charge for improving the lot of the already well-heeled.

The millions of workers who in frustration voted for Trump last year must surely realize by now that this administration in Washington does not respond to their needs. They should rally around an assertive trade union leader - like a Cesar Chavez or a Mike Quill - to realize the power of  worker solidarity. A tall order for sure, but otherwise the remuneration of top management compared to the pay of ordinary workers will widen even further.

Is The Pope Catholic? by Gerry O'Shea

by Call To Action on 12/06/17

Asking Is the pope Catholic is widely understood as a rhetorical question indicating that the only answer has to be "yes." How could anyone cast doubt on the pope's religious affiliation?

Amazingly, a small but powerful minority of Catholic theologians and church leaders are doing just that, and they raise real doubts about his commitment to what they consider core Catholic beliefs.

 A minority of these dissidents believe that the church has already veered into schism while others assert that Francis' statements on some important moral issues have caused serious confusion and bewilderment among the faithful.

How does one explain this extraordinary situation?

 In 2014 and 2015 the Synod of Bishops met at Francis' invitation to consider how best the church could minister to the modern family in all its permutations, including divorced people in new relationships and members in same sex partnerships.

Two approaches were evident in this all-male assembly. One group argued that only an exclusive marriage union of man and woman is morally permissible. Divorce is completely out except where the divorced partner has received a church annulment. They argue that it has always been church teaching that someone in a second marital relationship - while the first spouse is still alive -  is committing adultery which rules that person out from receiving communion.

The second group, following more liberal thinking, doesn't dispute the church history of teaching against allowing the remarriage of divorced church members, but they stress that a pastoral approach to people in new marital relationships should not exclude them from participating in the most revered Catholic sacrament, the Eucharist.

These theologians point to the example of Christ who scorned many of the pharisaic laws of his time in favor of a perspective characterized by mercy and forgiveness. Pope Francis supports this approach.

Cardinal Muller who was Francis' doctrinal leader in the Vatican made no bones about his opposition to his boss: "No power in heaven or on earth, neither an angel or the pope, has the power to change church doctrine." This confrontational statement implied that the pope was acting beyond his authority when he opened the door to divorced church members receiving communion in his statement, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) published following the bishops' synod deliberations.

Four other cardinals, including the American Cardinal Burke, wrote a formal letter, called a "dubia" or doubt document, in the fall of 2016 disputing parts of Amoris Laetitia. They argued that it is an article of faith that church doctrine can never change, and they were clear that the ban on adulterers - their language - receiving communion could never be lifted.

Many conservative theologians supported the cardinals' dubia and urged Francis to meet with the dissidents to assure them that he fully supported traditional doctrine. Talk about papal heresy was only mentioned by a few clerics and theologians on the far right but there is no denying that many church conservatives are openly dissatisfied with Pope Francis.

There are other issues that seriously divide the Catholic Church. Francis' predecessor, Benedict, spoke of homosexual relationships as profoundly disordered and against the laws of nature. Francis would never use such negative and demeaning language. His attitude to gays is best summed up as "live and let live and don't play God."

He has met with transgender people and many gay partners in his office in the Vatican, at all times proclaiming that, especially in matters of sexual ethics, only God judges and even as pope he is not asking for a share in this responsibility! He appointed Blase Cupich as Archbishop of Chicago even though Cupich openly supports welcoming homosexual couples to the altar rails for communion.

Francis travelled to Sweden to celebrate with Lutheran leaders the contributions of Martin Luther to religious progress. He pronounced that Luther was "a witness to the gospel" and the Vatican issued a stamp honoring him. Traditionalists were aghast at this behavior. They have consigned Luther to the hottest corner of hell and recall the history of hatred and wars that they say his heretical revolt against Rome started 500 years ago.

They accuse Francis of relativism, an excessive openness to changing with the times. In the world of Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics what was morally wrong a thousand years ago continues to be wrong for all time and in all cultures. This is basic teaching for nearly all traditionalists. There is no place in this thinking for what is derided as situation ethics which allows for variations in what is right and wrong, depending on place, time and circumstances.

These divisions are very evident in the American church. The United States conference of bishops at their recent meeting in Baltimore agreed that following on Amoris Laetitia they will publish a document next year on meeting the complex needs of families in the United States. It seems that many of those attending want to use Humanae Vitae, the discredited 50-year old encyclical of Paul V1 which condemned the use of condoms and contraceptive pills by Catholics, as somehow a template for their 2019 letter.

This does not augur well for a pastoral letter on the changing demands of family life. It is also depressing for progressive Catholics that the bishops elected a conservative Kansas archbishop to oversee the Pro-Life Activities Committee over Cardinal Blase Cupich who mirrors Francis' pastoral approach.

Pope Francis is the most respected public figure in the world. His people in what he calls the field hospital of life are behind his agenda to move the church forward from a mostly static and immovable institution to a dynamic positive force for all people in the 21st century. He surely deserves our prayers and goodwill.


The Trickle Down Theory - The Kansas Experiment by Gerry O'Shea

by Call To Action on 10/31/17

The President has a new tax plan which, predictably, he is promoting as providing "the largest tax cuts in U.S. history." The truth is that, if his proposals are enacted, the only people who will be cheering will be the top 1%.

The non-partisan Tax Policy Center estimates that by 2027 Trump's proposals would result in a tax increase for a quarter of middle class families. The same tax experts say that 80% of the gains will go to the top 1% of Americans.

There would be a cut in the highest individual rates, a reduction in corporate taxes and an end to the estate tax, which Republicans call the death tax, but which only applies to the relatively few affluent estates worth more than five and a half million.

How do Republicans led by President Trump plan to balance the books? How do they avoid ballooning the deficit which they claim repeatedly is anathema to them? Their main argument is that big tax cuts will lead to significant increases in employment numbers and workers' wages, which, in turn, will result in larger tax revenue and thus cover most of the increase in the deficit.

Part of their plan involves repatriation of overseas company profits, variously estimated at from three to five trillion, at a new very low tax rate, and the belief that this money will trickle down to ordinary workers to the tune of an estimated $4000 per family. Anyone who believes that this bit of chicanery will end up in increases in workers' paychecks should look at that bridge that is for sale in Brooklyn.

Every major Republican since Ronald Reagan has given full and seemingly unquestioned allegiance and credibility to the Trickle Down Theory of Economics.  In a nutshell, this states that if  a government gives big tax breaks to the wealthy, the new money accrued by the rich will somehow be passed on to the middle class and the poor.

A hundred years ago this thinking had a more imaginative name: the Horse and Sparrow Theory, based on its claim that if you feed a horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows to peck on. In the last general election in New Zealand, Damien O'Connor, a leader of the Labor Party there,  memorably described the theory as "the rich peeing on the poor!"

Most economists reject the assertion that the way to help the people at the bottom is to enrich the plutocrats at the top. In fact, a few highly-regarded studies show clearly that when low and  middle class workers get extra tax benefits in their paychecks it results in a real increase in their living standard and more broadly in improved economic activity in the wider community.

The state of Kansas provides an excellent and up-to-date example of the effectiveness of the Trickle Down Theory, which is also often spoken of as supply-side economics. Sam Brownback rode the Tea Party wave to the governor's office in Topeka in 2010, and he was re-elected in 2014. He promised to make Kansas "a red-state model" for Trickle Down economics, and indeed he reduced tax rates and the number of  brackets and created special accounting privileges for businesses.

But the "miracle" never happened. Instead state education spending dropped by 15%, severely impacting the poorest districts. Pot-holed highways reminded voters how services had deteriorated, and instead of the promised burst of growth, the Kansas economy grew by just 0.2% last year compared to 1.6% nationally.

The Brownback budgeting experiment resulted in revenues dwindling to the extent that the state legislators of both parties passed a budget that increased revenue by 1.2 billion dollars over two years and  then overrode the Governor's veto of this legislation.

The lesson is that this trickle-down template does not work as promised. Huge tax cuts do not magically result in economic growth and more revenue. Common sense strongly suggests that when government wants to give back some money to taxpayers, the results are much more likely to be positive for the community if the money is distributed among those who will spend it rather than giving it to people who are more likely to hoard it. Kansas experimented with Trickle Down and it was a disaster for that state.

The Trump budget proposals would massively re-distribute wealth upwards while trimming social programs - like food stamps - that provide some help for the poor. Where is the outrage about  these misguided and cruel policies from evangelical Christians and Catholics, who strongly supported the Trump candidacy, and claim to be guided by the moral standards in the  Old and New Testaments?

Giving more money to those who don't need it while reducing the meager entitlements of the poor is surely the very antithesis of Christian social teaching. Considering this budget in conjunction with various Republican proposals that would end healthcare coverage for millions of struggling middle-income families, which they have now under President Obama's Affordable Care Act, should surely elicit outrage among church leaders. These are quintessentially moral issues that should be heard about from our pulpits.

Pope Francis is very clear about the cruel deception of Trickle-Down Economics: "The promise was that when the glass is full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor, but what happens is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger. Nothing  EVER comes out for the poor."

 Sam Brownback, a devout Catholic, is still preaching the Trickle Down gospel, despite the evidence of its dismal failure in his own state.

A Moral Perspective on the Budget by Gerry O'Shea

by Call To Action on 09/18/17

The budget that any government proposes reveals clearly the priorities that it has decided to pursue in the coming year or sometimes over a longer period.  Budget discussions are due to start in Washington soon after the fall session begins next month.

Unlike the recent Healthcare fiasco where the President rounded on the Republican congressional leaders for their failure to pass a bill while he himself had no alternative proposal, he has spoken clearly about a detailed  White House plan that represents his values in the upcoming budget negotiations.

First he wants a massive $800 billion cut in mandatory spending over the next ten years. Nearly all of these cuts come in programs that help the poor, including  Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP - which used to be known as the food stamp program) and Supplemental Security Income(SSI) which is designed to help the elderly and the disabled.

Consider who these cuts will impact most. Medicaid mostly helps the poor, but dollars from this program are used by States for a variety of programs. For instance, 70% of the people in nursing homes have all or part of the expensive cost of their care paid for from Medicaid funds. SNAP mostly benefits families with one wage-earner; the proposed cutbacks in this program end food stamp entitlement with the seventh offspring. It is hard to believe that such an egregious regulation, discriminating against big families, is being proposed by the party that constantly trumpets its pro-life commitment.

Another important dimension of this Trump proposal is his plan to increase the military budget by $43 billion. At the same time the President wants to make severe cuts to assistance for overseas development  programs for poor countries. He also plans to reduce the diplomatic service, which operates out of the State Department, by more than 20%. All of this while the United Nations is warning about impending famines in countries in the Horn of Africa.

The President is also clear about the changes he wants in the tax code. His promise that all taxpayers will see a reduction in their annual tax liability is deceptive because it suggests equal treatment of everyone reporting to the IRS. In fact, millionaires and multi-millionaires will pay far less while the benefits to the average taxpayer will be miniscule.

The conservative rationale for this approach centers on the belief that when the rich get richer there are trickle-down benefits for the poor. This piece of convenient rationalization by the 1% who own over 90% of the wealth in America, was dealt with very trenchantly by Pope Francis when he said: "The promise was when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor, but what really happens is when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger. Nothing ever comes out for the poor."

Mentioning the Pope highlights the fact that a budget is a highly moral document. There is a clear and unambiguous biblical mandate found repeatedly in both Testaments to protect poor and marginalized people. Cutting meager food stamp payments while giving more benefits to those who already have plenty is, at face biblical value, a moral monstrosity.

I read recently of a group of Christians from all denominations who are engaged in weekly prayer and fasting to protest the upcoming budget. In a public statement these admirable Christians wrote: "The biblical prophets remind us that how we treat the most marginal and vulnerable among us is the test of a nation's moral righteousness. We have deep moral concerns about the way that this budget will impact those we are called to protect."

Conservative groups in Congress and in the White House meet regularly for prayer breakfasts where they listen to preachers remind them of their ethical obligations. What story do they tell each other about the plight of poor people? Do they have some profound rationale, some deep moral perspective, that could justify slashing  food stamp allowances  by 25% or programs for the disabled by 20%?




Inequality in America by Gerry O'Shea

by Call To Action on 09/14/17

In a recent interview, former president Jimmy Carter said that the greatest challenge facing the United States is income inequality. He explained that the standard of living of many workers has deteriorated since the 1980's. Blue collar families have fallen away behind at a time of substantial economic growth in the country.

Real wages have dropped for workers without a four-year college degree. Today more than half of American jobs pay under $37,000 a year and a quarter pay less than $23,000. The top 1% own 90% of the wealth. America is gradually becoming a plutocracy where millionaires and billionaires thrive while workers struggle to pay their bills every month, recalling Oliver Goldsmith's admonition 250 years ago: "Ill fares the land to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates and men decay."

In a recent survey of people in forty developed countries, one of the questions asked how much more the top executive in a company should earn in comparison with the ordinary workers in that company. Those who described themselves as liberal said that the CEO should be paid four times more while conservatives suggested five times as more appropriate. So, if the regular worker collected $80,000 the person at the top, according to these conservatives would have to get by on $400,000. Not bad!

The truth is that just sixty years ago the comparative multiple in the United States was around twenty - today it registers just over 270. Yes, if we say that the average guy working for a big company today earns $50,000 annually, then you can write the CEO down for 135 million every year.

How do we explain such a dramatic change in a short period of time? I suggest there are two main reasons for this huge disparity.

First, the guys at the top make the decisions about how the pie is divided. Consider this: from 1948 to 1973 productivity, the growth in the size of the pie, was 96.7% with compensation for workers growing by 91.3%. However, the figures from 1973 until 2016 show a very different trend with productivity up 74.4% while hourly compensation jumped a mere 9.2%.

Without some checks and balances, top management easily rationalizes their own importance and value to the company - a basic psychological insight tells us that most human beings have no problem justifying high salaries and benefits for themselves.

The second reason for the growth of the disproportionate difference between the salary structure of top management and ordinary workers relates to the decline in the power of trade unions, who in the past provided some heft for workers' demands. In 1973 26% of American workers outside of the public service belonged to unions; by 2015 those numbers were down to a mere 11%.

It is important to realize that the power of trade unions for enhancing wages and benefits is not limited to their own members. Increased salaries for union members has a ripple effect with employers throughout the economy feeling that they must consider what organized workers are paid. Today with the number of employees carrying a union card only in single digits, there is very little impact of union wage settlements in the wider economy.

Even with all these changes union workers in the United States last year earned an average weekly salary of $1004 with comparable non-union employees averaging $802. Healthcare and retirement benefits also tend to be better for organized workers.

The challenge for progressive leaders who believe that workers' wages must increase substantially must be to persuade employees in every industry that collective bargaining is their only way forward. The vicious anti-union propaganda coming from those who are benefiting greatly from the present arrangements makes this a tall order.

In last November's presidential election, Mr. Trump played on the grievances of these mostly-blue-collar workers telling them that the system was rigged against them. He promised to change all of that by re-negotiating trade deals especially with Chinese and Mexicans, by getting rid of those pesky Washington regulations on businesses and reducing the number of immigrants who allegedly take American workers' jobs.

The Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, stressed the importance of economic models that help middle class workers and, in an important new and potentially radical proposal, she promised to promote tax policies which favor companies that share their profits with employees.

It is hard to see how President Trump's approach of huge tax breaks for the rich and effectively removing the health insurance policies of millions of low-paid workers would do other than copper fasten the "rigged" system.

There is an important moral dimension to the gross inequality that now pervades the American economic system. Pope Francis warned in his encyclical Laudato Si that "inequality is the root of all social ills." In a speech in the Vatican he targeted the serious disparity between the earnings of the rich elite and most workers as "an invisible tyranny which unilaterally imposes its own laws and rules."

Unfortunately, our pulpits ignore these important social and economic messages from the Pontiff about the immorality of this extreme level of economic unfairness.

Talking about a moral perspective on this crucial matter of the grossly unequal distribution of the wealth of our society, I revert to Jimmy Carter's warning about the paramount need for our leaders to address these issues. A few weeks ago, the former president, age 93, was removed to hospital because of hypothermia while helping to build a home for a needy family with Habitat for Humanity volunteers. Surely, grounded moral leadership of the highest order.

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