Past and Present, The Church Speaks on Economic Matters and New Challenges

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Presbyterian Policy Positions on Specific Subjects
The chief dimensions of the economic crisis identified for the current (2010-2012) study are the damage to employment prospects, family life, the conditions of the already impoverished or marginalized, and groundwork for future sustainability. Government protections are being weakened steadily as the social contract is renegotiated in a way that enhances inequality and degrades citizen-government capacity to address problems. The military-security sector, the only privileged area in the federal budget, is not subject to rational or moral analysis in terms of threat levels and deficit impacts but seems rather an arena of response to collective anxiety about the deteriorating international position of the United States. The clear danger is that the economic crisis, persisting particularly in unemployment and hamstrung government, will become simply a steeper downward step in irreversible economic decline.

The church’s role of prophetic critique and annunciation is to help connect Christian values to both better policy choices and a better vision overall. The clearest summary of the church’s social-ethical position, the Social Creed for the 21st Century, tries to provide both a coherent set of policy directions and a biblically-inspired vision. The chief Christian model of sharing burdens and blessings stands in direct contrast to the dream of “competitiveness” by which even constructive governmental initiatives are being promoted. “Team USA,” using the present economic playbook, will continue to call players on the field to massive sacrifice for those in the skyboxes, while pricing out a majority and locking out those who protest. To advocate a different playbook may require the study team to provide an account of the causes of the crisis that identifies policy mistakes still being made or advocated and solutions, such as massive bank bailouts, that have not provided enough of their intended benefit for homeowners or job-generating investment. The centralization of economic power in the “too big to fail” banks and the un-taxable transnational corporate sector, and the limitation of public purpose to military engagement, also suggests that the church’s vision of non-violent, democratic power and shared prosperity has been eclipsed.

The General Assembly’s most thorough critiques of the U.S. economic system can be found in the  1976 study, “Economic Justice within Environmental Limits,” and the PCUS an UPC studies of 1984 and 1985, “Christian Faith and Economic Justice” and “Toward a Just, Caring, Dynamic Political Economy.” Yet there is a substantial critique as well in the church’s environmental and development policies—it is time, perhaps, to consider the persistent and even deliberate un-development of the United States.

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The repeatedly reaffirmed values of participation, equity, sufficiency and sustainability point clearly toward a system with more economic democracy and what might be called “eco-industrial policy.” The need for “economic conversion,” repeated again in the Social Creed, begins with shifting resources out of the military sector but speaks to a larger need for economic transformation. The economic crisis can thus be a wake up call as well as the logical (and partly deliberate) result of bad policies. Like broader economic decline, it is the result of choices by some and the disempowerment or passivity of others.

Employment, Underemployment, and Unemployment
“God’s Work in Our Hands” (1996) provides a very helpful summary of prior affirmations made by the General Assembly on matters related to vocation and employment, including the calls for full employment, living wage, the right to bargain collectively, and the role of government as employer of last resort. With approximately one sixth of would-be workers unemployed, underemployed, or discouraged (according to the Bureau of Labor as of May 2011), the imperative to put people to work is a major concern. The report also developed a solid set of principles to guide employment decisions, including those in the church, which should be a “model employer.” The Assembly supports workers’ rights in general; the definition of these rights, and economic rights more broadly (in relation to a right to healthcare, or example), may stand in need of re-statement in light of the current efforts to eliminate public employee bargaining rights and unilaterally abridge pensions, etc.

Support for elements of economic democracy also relates to the rights and kinds of participation, whether in corporate management or through accountability of public regulators. The Social Creed reaffirms full employment at “family-sustaining living wage,” and “the rights of workers to organize and to share in workplace decisions and productivity growth.” But its more challenging claim is its first affirmation: “full civil, political, and economic rights for women and men of all races.”

The question of banking and credit reforms, the financial infrastructure, measures to prevent future “bubbles,” misplaced fear of inflation driving Fed policy… all point to the great need for planning that is not entirely in private hands. The idea of a “public option” in health care seems transferable to the role of public banks for each state, as well as public authorities, that would control costs and provide an alternative to the monopoly of conventional lenders. Cooperatives, credit unions, and ESOPs are still worth endorsing even though regulation will continue to be the primary method of corporate accountability. The Church can make a distinct contribution to this debate which has been ceded to Tea Party “populists.”


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