Friday, January 18, 2013

Sermon: "The Race to the Bottom" (Delivered 1-13-13)

The reading comes from this website.

To our great shame, among industrialized nations, America now has:
§  The highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
§  The greatest inequality of incomes;
§  The lowest government spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product on social programs for the disadvantaged;
§  The lowest number of days for paid holiday, annual leaves, and maternity leaves;
§  The lowest score on the UN’s index of “material well-being of children”;
§  The worst score on the UN’s gender inequality index;
§  The lowest social mobility;
§  The highest public and private expenditure on health care as a portion of Gross Domestic Product, yet accompanied by the highest:
§  Infant mortality rate
§  Prevalence of mental health problems
§  Obesity rate
§  Portion of people going without health care due to cost
§  Low birth weight children per capita (except for Japan)
§  Consumption of anti-depressants per capita
§  The shortest life expectancy at birth (except for Denmark and Portugal);
§  The highest carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption per capita;
§  […]
§  The highest military spending as a portion of Gross Domestic Product;
§  The largest international arms sales;
§  […]
§  The lowest scores for student performance in math (except for Portugal and Italy) (and far down from the top in both science and reading);
§  The highest high school drop out rate (except for Spain);

This is exceptionalism we don’t need. Thankfully, America is also Number 1 or near the top in a number of positive indicators, including in the United Nations’ overall Human Development Index. But we are also far down the rankings, though not (yet) at the bottom, on others also not listed here. For example, the U.S. ranks only 13th on The Economist’s Democracy Index, right below the Czech Republic.

Many observers find these results troubling for what they portend for U.S. competitiveness in the world economy and our national influence abroad—our so-called “soft power.” But the results are even more telling for what they say about our care for each other and for future generations of Americans and, even more, for what they say about our political leaders.

These deplorable consequences did not just happen as the result of economic and technological forces over which we have no control. They are the results of conscious political decisions made over several decades by both Democrats and Republicans who have had priorities other than strengthening the well-being of American society and our environment. Many countries, notably in Europe, took a different path, one that was open to us also. America may have invented the middle class, but while others improved on our grand idea, we let it slip away.

It’s not too late to begin climbing out of the basement on these issues, but sweeping them under the rug in celebration of American exceptionalism won’t allow that. And since we’re Number 1 in both low taxes and military spending, it is clear where we can find the money we need to invest in our future.

A year and a half ago, along with several leaders in our church, I attended a meeting of the Board of Education of the Shawnee Mission School District.  This was the meeting where they voted to sell us this building.  We were the happiest people in the room that evening.  Immediately before the sale of the school on the agenda, the Board received public comment about crowding in Kindergarten classrooms.  A parade of moms came to the microphone to testify that their children’s Kindergarten classes had too many children, that instruction was being compromised, and to ask the Board of Education to enforce class size standards.  A member of our congregation who was sitting next to me, and who had sent her own children to Kindergarten in this district a decade earlier, turned to me and whispered, “Even if they get the Board of Education to follow the standards, that’s not really a victory.  That’s still too many children for one Kindergarten classroom.”

At the micro level, we see things like Kindergarten class sizes creeping upwards.  At the macro level, we know that Kansas is a state that has cut and cut and cut the services it provides to its citizens year after year, and then turned around and passed tax cuts, creating projected deficits that threaten even more additional cuts.

This is the reality that I’m going to talk about this morning, a state of affairs that I think can be aptly called the “race to the bottom.”  What I’m going to talk about this morning is a political and economic and social reality, for sure.  But, I’m also going to speak this morning about how it is a spiritual affliction and a sickness of the soul.  It damages our society, our well-being.  And, when we accept it we damage our own humanity and morality.

Over the past several weeks I have spoken with members of this congregation who work in the fields of public education, public health, and for various social service providers supported by public funding.  I haven’t spoken with everyone who works in these fields, but I trust that if you work in one of these fields, your experiences will be in line with what I am about to describe.  As I spoke with our members who work in fields that have suffered cuts, the first thing that stands out to me is how dedicated and devoted they are.  They really believe in what they do.  They are passionate about the education of children.  They are committed to serving the mentally ill.  They care deeply.  They are helpers by nature.  And the first round of cuts comes and they all think, “Whatever we do, we can’t cut services.”  So they trim from administration.  They disinvest in their infrastructure.  The workplace is allowed to become dirty and rundown.  More cuts come and the workers begin to make personal sacrifices to sustain levels of service.  Stress is felt throughout the organization.  The workplace becomes a place of overwork, anxiety, fear, resentment, cynicism, and despair.  Another round of cuts comes and services are reduced.  Services are prioritized resulting in competitiveness and the loss of a holistic and collaborative vision for service.

A member in our congregation spoke to me about working at a mental health center that serves a particularly vulnerable population within our metro area.  When he started there, the center offered a rich variety of programs, comprehensive services, and it initiated creative programs to meet the mental health needs of the community.  Moreover, it was able to offer a sliding scale of fees so that no one was turned away, including those completely unable to pay.  After several rounds of cuts from Topeka, the services offered by the health center were decimated.  Half of the counselors were laid off, including the member of our church.  Community programs were abolished and the focus shifted from comprehensive care to triage for mental health crises.

Earlier this week Governor Brownback stood in front of this mental health center whose funding he had slashed and announced that $10 million would be reallocated for mental health crisis care, however, apparently those funds would come at the expense of other mental health services funded by the state.  Depending on the source you consult, mental health services in Kansas have been cut by between $15 and $19 million over the past three years.  One member of our congregation characterized the Governor’s announcement this way, “It’s like the playground bully stealing your bat, ball, glove, homeplate, and cap, and giving you back your cap and expecting to be thanked for his generosity.”

In the race to the bottom, Kansas made larger cuts to its mental health budget than 45 other states over between 2009 and 2011.  We’re 46th!  And, even though it is challenging and subjective to try to rank states by the quality of their public schools, one recent report ranked Kansas 39th in the nation.

There are all sorts of words we might use to characterize the race to the bottom.  Heartless is one word I’d use.  Unchristian is another.  I would be tempted to add foolish, although to rise to the level of fool one has to have good intentions.  But, if we charitably assume good intentions, then foolishness is the proper diagnosis.  Untreated mental illness will take its toll on society.  The court system, jails, and emergency rooms are all much more expensive than preventative mental health care, not to mention far less effective and far less humane.  It deserves to be mentioned that an earlier budget cut forced the mental health care center to cut the innovative outreach program it took into local schools to promote early intervention in the area of mental health.  An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.

Author Marilynne Robinson, writing about investing in education, makes this very same point.  “Those in earlier generations,” she writes, “who intended the benefits of education for me did not intend them any less for my great-grandchildren.  But the new ideology seems to assume that the public as such cannot legitimately own anything or obligate the living to anything – for example, to providing the same access to education we have enjoyed.  Education is associated with prosperity, so there is every reason to assume our shortfall [in educating them] can be monetized in reduced prosperity for our children or grandchildren…  If we educate them well, we give them the means to create a future that we cannot anticipate.  If we cheat them, they will have the relatively meager future we have prepared for them.”  As the bumper sticker puts it, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

On Friday, a panel of three judges ruled that the Kansas legislature is underfunding public education in violation of the state’s constitution and ordered the legislature to increase base student aid by around $600 dollars per student.  The state legislature will appeal the court’s ruling, and, if unsuccessful, may seek other means – up to and including changing the constitution – to avoid having to pay.  We may draw a direct line between the political standoff over school funding and the mothers testifying at the Board of Education meeting about crowding in Kindergarten classrooms.

Walt Whitman, writing after the civil war, said, “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world could not beat her down.  But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me.  [They] own no law but their own will [and so grow] more and more combative [and] less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood.”

Whitman continued, “The true gravitation-hold of liberalism in the United States will be a more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general comfort, a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth…  A great and varied nationality… were firmest held and knit by the principle of safety and endurance of the aggregate of its middling property owners.”

Just as there has been a race to the bottom in the public sector, a systematic disinvestment in those services that benefit the common good and help to provide “safety,” “endurance,” and “general comfort,” so too has there been a race to the bottom in the private sector.  Take for example states that have passed “right to work” legislation, a type of law that weakens the power of unions.  These laws were originally passed in the south in the hopes of attracting factories from the north.  Move your business here and you can make greater profits by paying your workers less.  The effect of such laws has been lower wages, fewer benefits, and less health care.  Now such laws exist in 24 states.  As more states pass such laws, any relative advantage these laws confer to the business owners will be diluted and we’ll wait to see who will be the next to lower the bar.  Such is the race to the bottom.

Chris Hedges, in his most recent book, describes what the bottom looks like in the race to the bottom.  In one chapter he takes us to Immokalee, Florida, where workers from Central America and the Caribbean pick produce.  The workers are Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Haitians.  Human rights abuses, including slavery and sex trafficking flourish in this deregulated environment.  Hedges describes the tomato and cucumber pickers as “model workers in the corporate state…  [They have] no job protection or security, no benefits, no medical coverage, no overtime, no ability to organize, no Social Security, no food stamps, no legal protection, and when their employers do not need them, they are left without an income, a place to live, or something to eat.”

Hedges interviews a human rights advocate in Immokalee who works to combat slavery.  “Forced labor doesn’t happen in isolation,” says the human rights activist, “It doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  It is part of a continuum, the end of a whole range of labor violations…  Florida in the past two hundred or three hundred years, there’s never been a time without slavery, or a form of forced labor…  Agriculture has always had it.  And what’s interesting is that other industries are actually now more prone to it, industries that didn’t used to have it.  This shows you that when an industry devolves from being an industry with a fulltime work force with benefits and overtime, pensions, or whatever, to a sub-poverty minimum wage workforce you start seeing more cases of forced labor.  We are starting to see labor trafficking in the garment industry and in hotels and construction.  It devolves.”

Chris Hedges, always provocative, argues that we are all harmed by the race to the bottom.  He writes, “The suffering of the other… is universal…  The indifference we showed to the plight of the underclass, in Biblical terms our ‘neighbor,’ haunts us.  We failed them, and in doing so we failed ourselves.”  Hedges means this in a very literal, very actual way.  Chris Hedges’ message here is that if you care about your benefits, your health care, the education of your children, you better care about the working conditions of field workers and coal miners.  You had better care about those who are served by and work for mental health care centers and public schools.

When we accept the race to the bottom, we’re harmed in terms of the quality of our lives, if not in the present then certainly in the future.  And, we’re harmed morally and spiritually.  Frederick Douglas once said, “Find out what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice which will be imposed upon them.  The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Our souls are injured when we accept injustice as the way of the world.  Our souls are injured when we accept cynicism and call it reality.  Our souls are injured when we lose hope for a world better than the one we know or when we lose the courage and the will to demand it.

There is, of course, an alternative.  It is an alternative that is easy to see, but challenging to make happen.  The alternative is to say that the race to the bottom is unacceptable, to demand better and be willing to pay for it.  This is the race to the top.  It requires the courage to insist that we pay for education and social services and achieve a better society through worker protections.  It is a race worth running because the destination is a worthy goal.