Jesus & the Minimum Wage

In our last post, we looked forward to what may be the become the pivotal domestic question of the upcoming 2016 election: What do we do to fix income inequality?

In these early months of 2015, there is growing evidence that job growth is finally beginning to be accompanied by wage gains, as well. This raises the question: Is wage growth the savior to remedy income inequality?

Increasing the size of the pie would seem to provide a pivotal solution: everyone now can get a bigger piece. But what happens if the larger pie is distributed even more in the direction of those who already have the largest slices?

An Alternative View

Our view is that growing the pie is an integral part of the answer – but likely does not go all the way to fixing the still widening gap between the haves and have-nots globally – especially in the U.S.A. Is is time to pay attention not only to the overall size of the economic pie – but also to the size of the slice each of us gets? Maybe so.

Two suggestions for consideration:

1. Nurture resurgent economic growth – of the right kind. The right kind of growth is that which puts more after tax dollars back in the hands of every American – with mid-to-lower income workers getting a getting a larger (not smaller) share of the economic pie. And which increases the productive capacity of the U.S. economy to support a better quality of life for rich, poor, and middle class.

2. Increase the minimum wage – by a lot. Based on American productivity gains, a fair share compensation to minimum wage workers would be in the range of $18-$19 per hour – an approximate $11 per hour gain above the current federal minimum.  Make the adjustment in bite-sized increments over the next 11 years – as a $1 increase each year. In the 12th year, make an adjustment for CPI changes that have accrued over the prior 11 years to reach full parity.

A Bit of Background

As a first take, this might seem like a jaw-dropping flight of fancy. But consider the stats.

To get back to where America was in the 1960s (in terms of buying power), the U.S. Department of Labor has estimated that the minimum wage today would need to be about $11 per hour – more than 50 % above the current federal minimum of $7.25.

The Obama Administration has proposed gradually increasing the current federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has estimated that 16.7 million American workers would be directly benefited by the Obama-proposed increase. Nearly 28 million would be directly and indirectly affected as a result of the ripple effect, also benefiting workers currently paid at just above minimum wage.

While a new floor of $11 per hour is certainly justified (much less $10.10) in terms of changed purchasing power, an even higher wage gain is supportable if wages are to fully reflect productivity gains in the U.S. economy since 1968 – the peak year to date for minimum wage purchasing power. In effect, productivity growth since then could support as much as an $11 per hour gain – to about $18.25 per hour.

A Proposal for Conservatives?

There is great debate about whether or to what extent a higher wage minimum might result in fewer jobs for entry-level and unskilled workers. More than doubling the minimum wage would undoubtedly spur greater labor-saving productivity enhancements while also bringing workers sidelined by unemployment, welfare and early retirement back into the labor market.

Replacing U.S. human capital with out-sourced, computer and robotic equivalents already represents a seemingly unstoppable driving market force. Aggressively increasing the wage minimum merely accelerates the time frame for this unavoidable day of reckoning.

As a global community, it is time to address the value of a human touch vis-a-vis an impersonal, robotized future. A new order of low-wage leisure versus productive endeavor. This is the type of values discussion that should productively engage both liberals and conservatives – as well as those in-between.

There also is an upside that those of a more conservative persuasion might embrace. Outcomes like greater buying power from more consumers with disposable income (with greater marginal propensity to consume, as well).  Reduced dependence on public assistance, greater incentive for workforce skills upgrading, for civil conduct, and for bolstering the great American Puritan work ethic.

So, What Would Jesus Say?

The frustrating thing about Jesus is that he does not come across as an economic ideologue. Not a feudalist or socialist.  Nor an advocate for either market or state capitalism. This is a man who values human and kingdom outcomes above philosophical principles. A friend of rich and poor alike – of haves and have-nots.

Second only to his command to love God is the imperative to love your neighbor as yourself. And then there is Jesus’ observation that the laborer is worthy of his (or her) wages.

Global or Kingdom Economics?

Even if proposals for increasing the minimum wage made no economic sense (a proposition with which we do not agree), would there still be a higher and greater calling for proceeding? Does a fair and living wage for all workers make sense even if American or global GDP were to temporarily suffer?

In short, is this a case where the economy of God’s kingdom trumps global economics? Maybe so.

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To check out our full web site, click www.jesustheheresy.com

WWJD: Election 2016 & Income Inequality?

With his State of the Union address, President Obama is aiming to set the stage for what may become the pivotal domestic question of the upcoming 2016 election: What do we do to fix income inequality?

And our slant on this question is that of the master of two millennia past, in short: What would Jesus do?

To answer this we need to address: a) the nature of the U.S. economic disparity today; b) the socioeconomic context of the Galilean and Judean economy of Jesus’ day; and c) Jesus’ views as to the nature of both the problem and the solution.

U.S. Economic Disparity

We begin with a simple premise, followed by a question and then a suggested framework for response.

The premise: U.S. economic inequality – the spread between the haves and the have nots – has increased every decade since the mid-1970s. Most noticeably, wages have declined in terms of consumer purchasing power, with no clear recovery yet in view.

Bottom line, the haves are taking more with the have nots getting even less. Even those formerly considered as middle class are having trouble staying in the game.

The question: Does this matter?

Framing a response: We suggest consideration of a Christian approach – framed by yet another question: WWJD – What would Jesus do?

Framing the answer begins with consideration of what reasonably can be gleaned about the Galilean economy of Jesus day – followed by a brief presentation of Jesus views and then translation to the U.S. socioeconomic landscape of 2015.

The Economy of Jesus’ Day

There is considerable debate about whether the Galilee of Jesus’ day was impoverished, prosperous, or somewhere in-between. Was there a big gap between the wealthy elites (Roman or Jewish) and the workers? Or was there a semblance of what we today would call middle class? The evidence:

  • After being essentially depopulated after the Assyrian conquest in 722 BC, the Galileee was subsequently repopulated largely by transplanted Judeans under the Maccabees starting about the 1st century BC – essentially a forerunner of modern era Israeli kibbutzim.
  • Under Herod Antipas (the provincial ruler through most of Jesus’ life), the economy of the Galilee grew rapidly after years of neglect in the reign of Herod the Great.
  • The economy of the Galilee flourished around such industries as fishing, olive oil and wine production, and also livestock grazing – all involving producers, merchants and traders as the “middle class” of the day.
  • Unlike Judea and Jerusalem, the Galilee also benefited economically by location on major trade routes between the Mediterranean and inland via Damascus.
  • And while the Jewish historian Josephus perhaps exaggerates, the Galilee of Jesus’ day had over 200 villages with a total population reportedly of up to 3 million.
  • Jewish settlers tended to locate in the more isolated agricultural and small village communities; the larger cities (including Galilean capitols at Sepphoris and then Tiberias) had a greater representation of Herodian, Roman and other Gentile presence.

In short, while the experience of the 1st century AD clearly suggests social and cultural stratification, there is also evidence of general economic prosperity, filtering down to include the less than politically well-connected. This view is further reinforced by the interactions of Jesus with all economic strata – from wealthy landowners to entrepreneurial types to laborers and the dispossessed.

Jesus’ Views

We now turn from historical context to more explicit consideration of Jesus views regarding matters of business, money, and economic inequality. Some quick hits:

  • The master clearly understood and empathized with the plight of those of limited or no means – attested perhaps best by his advice to a rich young man that the path to heaven involved sale of all he had, with distribution of the proceeds to the poor.
  • At the same time, Jesus is a realist – acknowledging that there will always be poverty and poor people in this earthly realm.
  • He urges individual responsibility – whether in telling the cripple to pick up his mat and walk, the physician to heal himself, or the note that the “workman is worthy of his meat.”
  • Despite popular rhetoric, he is a friend to rich as well as poor – think Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, unseemly rich tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus, and the coterie of well-to-do women who fund his ministry travels.
  • He is known to counsel fiscal restraint, with advice to “count the cost” before engaging in such endeavors as building a tower or going to war
  • And Jesus believes in paying everyone from the tax collector to the temple to himself evidenced by the statement to: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, give to God the things that are God’s, and give me what’s mine” (with italicized add-on from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas).

Fast Forward to 2015

So, looking at today’s issue of a smaller group of haves controlling more and the have nots (including those who once were middle class) controlling ever fewer resources, we come back to the question: What would Jesus do?

Unfortunately, Jesus is no policy wonk – whether on matters of doctrine or economics. There is no detailed campaign platform or legislative proposal to reference.

Instead, Jesus paints a big picture in bold but broad strokes. If he were here in earthly form again today, I suspect he would understand but critique the positions of both political parties:

  • Republicans would be chastized for ignoring or downplaying the sins of wealthy elites prospering on the backs of everyone else – for portraying reduced incomes as indicative solely of individual failure (essentially social Darwinism).
  • Democrats would be mocked for their ineffectiveness – even for offering cures that may be worse than the disease (including failure to reward individual initiative).

The Bottom Line

For Jesus, the bottom line is not a detailed policy prescription – that’s the job of us humans. Rather its about a set of principles to guide human action. Principles for framing policies that incent:

  • Work and wealth
  • Living wage jobs for those who can work and an effective safety net for those who can’t
  • Fair share requiring all to have skin in the game but with those able to bear more paying more
  • Seamless,efficient and customer-friendly administration

As always, the devil is in the details; God’s interest is in successful outcomes.

Jesus was known to refer to Antipas, the political ruler of his day, as “that fox.” Right now, there is a clear sense of the President and his Republican adversaries in the House and Senate slyly eyeing each other – waiting for their moment to pounce. Rather than slinking about, let’s hope (and pray) for some real business to get done between now and 2016.

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To check out our full web site, click www.jesustheheresy.com

One Step Closer to Jesus’ Economy?

March 27 was supposed to be the day the U.S. government shut down. But surprise! That didn’t happen as the U.S. Congress (with surprising bipartisan support) and President agreed to a stop-gap measure funding federal agencies through the September 30 end of the fiscal year.

The sequester sticks but with more agency discretion in deciding how $85 billion in automatic spending cuts are to be made. Despite earlier claims of painful effects to the American consumer (as in long airport lines), that has not happened (at least not yet).

Wittingly or not, the Ds and Rs in Congress finally caught on to Jesus’ economic guideline #7 to “settle disputes quickly” (see February 24 blog post). The U.S. Congress and President may even be catching on to guideline #2 to “count the cost” (i.e., budget in advance).

Quick settlement is the first but by no means the only step to getting America’s financial house back in order. And there is growing realization of the steep cost of doing nothing.

For Mr. Obama, the too-painful-to-happen sequester is now the law of the land, potentially threatening to undermine his 2nd term agenda. For the fractured Republican opposition, the $85 billion sequester has been like using an axe for surgery that requires a scalpel. America’s national defense is on the sacrificial alter.

There will be many more quick settlements ahead. Implementation of Obamacare must be brought under control to avoid gobbling up all available GDP. Everyone – especially the consumer – needs to have skin in the game.

Social Security needs to be reconfigured for long-term solvency – to avoid bankrupting Gen X adults 20-30 years down the road. Medicare and Medicaid need to be means tested and remove incentives for needless tests, procedures and pass-through billing. With increased longevity, threshold age limits for benefits need to be raised. And we need to get over the idea that it’s ok for a sacrosanct elderly generation to rob their kids blind.

What’s the key test ahead? Well, it comes from Jesus’ economic guideline #4: “Get your fair share, no less and no more.” As Jesus is reported to have said (by the non-canonical but very early Gospel of Thomas): “Give the emperor (i.e., government) what belongs to the emperor, give God (i.e., charity) what belongs to God, and give me (we know what that means) what is mine.”

This is the pivotal balancing act in what lies ahead. Determining what belongs to:

  • The emperor (i.e. federal, state and local governments)
  • God (as acts of unmerited mercy)
  • Me (as the fruits of my labor and incentive to keep on giving rather than taking)

My prediction: America will spend the next generation figuring out how to reconfigure this balance. The future prospects of this grand democratic experiment may well hang on the new social compact realized.

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And, to check out our full web site, click: www.jesustheheresy.com

Jesus’ Economy

Did Jesus of Nazareth have anything to say about money and the economy? Anything relevant to today?

The answers are yes and yes! Seven observations are made by the master – all of which are relevant to issues ranging from the U.S. fiscal cliff to European recovery to Chinese protection of intellectual property. Here they are – seven economic guidelines that still echo true today:

  1. Incentivize work. Incentives are like a double edge sword. As Jesus said when sending out his followers to cure the sick among the towns of the land: “the laborer deserves to be paid.” That’s the positive message – reward those who put forth the effort. If this is the carrot, there is also the stick or disincentive applied to those who don’t perform. Describing his followers as branches of a tree of which he is the trunk or the vine, Jesus warns: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
  2. Budget in advance. Rhetorically, Jesus asks: For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him,saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?
  3. Help those in need, but be realistic about the results. No question about it, Jesus was an advocate for those of lesser means and the outcasts of society, calling out: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
    Here or nearby - overlooking the Sea of Galilee - is where Jesus delivered his time-honored Sermon on the Mount. He blessed the poor (or the poor in spirit) and also counseled quick reconciliation with adversaries.

    Here or nearby – overlooking the Sea of Galilee – is where Jesus delivered his time-honored Sermon on the Mount. He blessed the poor (or the poor in spirit) and also counseled quick reconciliation with adversaries.

    But while we can aspire to do better, the issues of poverty and inequality will never be fully solved. Jesus the realist observes: “The poor will always be with you.” Help those who can not do it on their own and those ready help themselves – with a helping hand. Or as he would say to one seeking healing: “Take up your bed and walk.”

  4. Get your fair share, no less and no more. As Jesus is reported to have said (by the non-canonical but very early Gospel of Thomas): Give the emperor (i.e., government) what belongs to the emperor, give God (i.e., charity) what belongs to God, and give me (we know what that means) what is mine.” The right balance of payment is subject to negotiation (essentially a market transaction). But government would be well advised to follow in the footsteps of the Master who suggested that: “My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
  5. Expect return on investment. While Jesus suggested that wealthy followers sell their possessions and give to the poor, he also counseled prudence. In a well known parable (or story) told by Jesus, a wealthy nobleman rewards two servants who invest on the nobleman’s behalf and generate a profit back to the owner while punishing a third servant who stored his share of investment money in a handkerchief, avoiding loss but showing no return. For Jesus, the moral of the story is very simple and stark: “to everyone who has will be given; and from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”
  6. Live abundantly – and for the moment. With money, Jesus suggested a long-term view. With life, he offered a different perspective, saying: “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” For some, the abundance might be monetary. For most, abundance of life will be found in the realm of relationships with others and with the divine rather than economic success. And he made clear that life is about the here and now:

Don’t worry and ask yourselves, “Will we have anything to eat? Will we have anything to drink? Will we have any clothes to wear?”Only people who don’t know God are always worrying about such things. Your Father in heaven knows that you need all of these. But more than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well.

  1. Settle disputes quickly. Jesus makes this clear in the context of clearing one’s conscience before spiritual worship. He advises to be first reconciled with your adversary with these words: “Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.”

If there is a single them running throughout the kingdom economy of Jesus, it is summed up by what his perhaps his best known saying: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

And so it should be two millennia later, whether struggling fiscal cliff issues in the U.S., continued financial crisis in the European Union, piracy of intellectual capital in China, or even those warring factions in hot spots like Syria and Afghanistan.

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And, to check out our full web site, click: www.jesustheheresy.com