Sunday, January 15, 2012


In 1960 Martin Luther King, describing his own spiritual and intellectual journey, wrote: "The gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial." (Pilgrimage to Non-Violence)

My intent in this blog has been to wrestle with the realities of faithful living in the widest sense possible: what does it mean to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God? What does it mean to do the things Jesus did, to live as his friend, to abide in him in this culture where I find myself? What does it mean to care about the people God has put in my life, but also to care about the systems that hold them captive? What are the fragments of beauty and light and joy I can point to as signposts of the kingdom of grace I see off in the distance?

The Story of Citizens United v FEC
Some weeks I find this a pleasant task. Some weeks it’s more of a brain puzzle. This week I’ve been unhappily mulling over the upcoming anniversary of the Supreme Court decision affirming “corporate personhood” and the idea that free speech implies unlimited corporate expenditure in elections. I never studied economics, am not really interested in the flow of money, would rather spend the morning birdwatching, or taking a young friend or two to the nearest library. But if our current economic system strangles and cripples people struggling toward freedom, am I responsible to care? If good people believe - as many I know do - that democracy is dead, or dying, do I need to understand what it is they're saying? 

I have a foreboding sense that we are at a crossroads. I fear that unless more of us, people who love the earth, who long for justice, who believe in compassion, unless more of us take the time to understand our current economic and political conditions, we will make the wrong turn and find there’s no way back. Some I know say we've already made that turn. I"m hoping they're wrong.

Last October I began attending a local Occupy group. Occupy Phoenixville has never had an encampment, rally or demonstration. We haven’t even made any homemade signs. Our first move was to promote Occupy the Polls – with a website offering voter information and encouragement to engage. Since then we’ve done some work about billboards, helping Phoenixville oppose a corporation trying to force large digital billboards on a community that doesn't want them. And now we’re working with Films for Action to use documentaries to promote conversation about issues like corporate personhood. Our first film. The Corporation, will be screened this Saturday, January 21, the anniversary of the Citizens United decision.

As I said, I’m not an economist. And while I studied and taught American lit for years, I confess, I never read Ayn Rand. Is capitalism moral? Evil? Neither? Are free markets the answer to all our troubles, or the cause? Are corporations our friends, benevolent job-creators, the source of our prosperity, or are they evil empires, intent on ruling the world, oblivious to the pain they leave in their wake?

We tend to talk in absolutes: all capitalism is good, or all corporations are bad. The truth is obviously somewhere in between. I fear that unless we spend some time sorting out the good from the bad, the helpful from the harmful, we’ll be more and more overrun by the freight train currently in place: runaway corporatism, an economic system run by a handful of multinational corporations who hide their profits in offshore banks, shift jobs from place to place in search of the lowest wage, and control the political arena with huge invisible contributions, slick attack ads, revolving door lobbyists, and regulatory agendas promoted far from public scrutiny.

Well yes, I do have some opinions. I’ve been doing some reading, and what I read alarms me.

Here’s a sampling: 
Thomas Jefferson:  "Yes, we did produce a near perfect Republic. But will they keep it... I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."  "The end of democracy, and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of the lending institutions and moneyed incorporations."
 Andrew Jackson: "Unless you become more watchful in your States and check this spirit of monopoly and thirst for exclusive privileges, you will in the end find that the most important powers of Government have been given or bartered away, and the control of your dearest interests have been passed into the hands of these corporations."

Abraham Lincoln: "I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless."
 Franklin D. Roosevelt: "The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism - ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. "
 Justice Louis D. Brandeis: "We can have a democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both." 
From Citizens United v. FEC
In the 1990s, management guru Peter Drucker worried that "The largest 100 corporations hold 25 percent of the worldwide productive assets, which in turn control 75 percent of international trade and 98 percent of all foreign direct investment. The multinational corporation...puts the economic decision beyond the effective reach of the political process and its decision-makers, national governments." 

Consider: of the largest 100 economies in 2010, more than half were corporations, not countries. One quarter of those corporations are invested heavily in fossil fuel, with a total income that would put the fossil fuel industry somewhere in the top 10 nations.

The Citizens United decision opened the door to increased money from fossil fuel industries in our political process. An industry publication asks “Is the Oil and Gas Industry Trying to Buy a Keystone XL Decision from Congress?” The answer is an obvious yes.   

Equally obvious is the way the shale gas industry has taken control of the energy equation here in Pennsylvania. After giving millions to the governor-elect and others in the last election, shale gas influence has overseen the deregulation of the industry while ensuring steep cuts to effective promotion of sustainable energy sources.

Broke: The Story of Stuff Project
According to a recent report by the International Energy Agency, in 2009, “Fossil-fuel consumers worldwide received about six times more government subsidies than were given to the renewable-energy industry. State spending to cut retail prices of gasoline, coal and natural gas rose 36 percent to $409 billion as global energy costs increased. . .  Aid for biofuels, wind power and solar energy, rose 10 percent to $66 billion. While fossil fuels meet about 80 percent of world energy demand, its subsidies are creating market distortions that encourage wasteful consumption." 

Sustainable energy, care of creation, fair wages, healthy food . . . the more I read, the more connected I realize these are. And somewhere at the heart of them all is the issue of values, value, and economic policy: are corporations people? Is unrestrained capitalism the best way to get where we say we want to go?

from Citizens United v. FEC
This will be a big conversation in the year ahead, and an important one. The world we pass on to our children, and their children, will depend in large part on how many of us choose to engage, and how.

To continue the conversation, you might want to watch the two short videos (linked through the Citizens United and Broke graphics) that explain some of the issues at stake. Yes, both videos are oversimplifications, but any discussion short of a several volume work will simplify these complex, often-confusing questions.

Come join us for our screening of The Corporation (followed by some roundtable conversations). Or watch it free online.

A more sustained, long-term discussion about economics, public policy, and sustainable alternatives is  taking place at The New Economics Institute. Change is possible, but only if we pay attention and become informed voters and consumers, demonstrating our love by attentive concern to the challenging issues of justice and power. 

I'd love to hear what you think on this. Your comments and questions, as always, are welcome.