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Phil Everly died this January. Together with his brother Don, the Everly Brothers duo helped shape Rock and Roll music in the late 1950’s, their perfect harmonies and upbeat songs just right for that optimistic age. As I made my way through secondary school, the Everly Brothers set the tone for poetic liaison, youthful endeavor and my high hopes for the positive economic possibilities ahead.
A highly affordable American economy reinforced those possibilities. The costs of goods and services, including a college education, were cheap. In 1963 the family breadwinner might earn a $7,500 annual salary out of which was spent $60 a month to rent a house, 21 cents a gallon for gasoline, and $25 a week for groceries. Tuition costs at a state university were less than $500 a year — and student loans never entered into that equation. Setting out to claim my share of the American dream, I eagerly embraced the idea that consumption would allow me to take a shortcut to status, happiness and security.
But within a few years of graduating from high school, my enthusiasm ebbed. Rising costs of living had begun to outpace the earnings of many middle-income families. A three-bedroom home that cost $18,000 in 1963 soared 330% within 15 years. By the late 1970s, women entered the workplace in increasing numbers, seeking careers and the income they needed to shore up the typical working family’s declining standard of living. Bearing witness to this disconcerting trend, I wondered what formula could be applied that might assure these families their share of the dream?
One formula called “trickle-down economics,” named by the humorist Will Rogers and popularly touted by politicians and financiers, claimed that the benefits accruing from economic expansion must inevitably ‘trickle-down’ to middle and low income families from the increasingly prosperous wealthier classes. But things didn’t quite work that way. As upper income earners steadily accumulated more wealth, investments in industry and commerce which created good jobs were increasingly siphoned off into financial portfolios — the earnings of which, by natural consequence, could not ‘trickle down’.
The economic realities affecting the majority of humans on the planet had, by the dawn of the new millennium, discredited trickle down economics. That theory didn’t work, and not only Americans learned that lesson. Instead, fully 50% of the world’s population struggled to subsist on less than $2.50 a day. More than 27,000 children were dying each day from conditions of poverty. A billion people remained illiterate or undernourished. The prosperous, middle-class-building economies of the last century had transferred the majority of their wealth to a small group of the very rich.
As my baby-boomer generation morphed from the 1960’s predilection for protest into yuppies out for their share of the economic pie, some of them would join that top 20% of wealthy Americans who by 2013 would control 84% of the nation’s wealth. Increasingly invested in financial portfolios at home and abroad, the American nation would begin counting as casualties blue and white collar workers finding themselves downsized, victims of disappearing pension benefits, bankrupted by escalating health care costs, distracted by subtle consumer and financial fees, mired in debt, excluded from education, and denied the disposable income so essential to a strong economy.
Viewing these sad conditions when I returned to America after living abroad for twenty years, I wondered whether 80% of the population had somehow fallen victim in a strange sort of way to a Ponzi scheme, in which titans of finance and politics had colluded to draw off and sequester the wealth of my previously prosperous country. When the Occupy protests began, highlighting the great gap between the one percent of our society that owns so much of our resources and the 99% on the other side of the equation, I couldn’t help thinking of the Baha’i teachings on economic injustice:
A financier with colossal wealth should not exist whilst near him is a poor man in dire necessity. When we see poverty allowed to reach a condition of starvation it is a sure sign that somewhere we shall find tyranny. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 153.
But what troubled me more was what the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith had written in the 1950’s about our culture’s crass materialism:
…which lays excessive and ever-increasing emphasis on material well-being, forgetful of those things of the spirit on which alone a sure and stable foundation can be laid for human society. – Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, p. 124.
We have inherited that same cancerous materialism, denounced by Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, as “a devouring flame,” and “the chief factor in precipitating the dire ordeals and world-shaking crises that must necessarily involve the burning of cities and the spread of terror and consternation in the hearts of men.” – ibid, p. 124.
How can we find the balance between economic justice and the overwhelming materialism in our cultures? What can we do about the extremes of wealth and poverty? How can the enormous wealth of our world be equitably shared? Please follow along as we explore these powerful topics, take a serious look at our material and spiritual resources, and try to understand the balance.