Earl Lecturers sound the call for economic justice

January 31, 2011

At this year’s Earl Lectures at Pacific school of Religion (PSR), three prominent speakers, Robert Reich, Hamza Yusuf, and Kim Bobo sounded a strong prophetic note about the moral imperative for economic reform in the United States and around the world.The title of the 110th Earl Lectures, an annual three-day event that took place January 25-27, was “Our Daily Bread: Faith, Work, and the Economy.”

One hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt delivered the Earl Lectures in 1911, PSR continued its tradition of giving national leaders in religion and public life a platform to call the country to live up to its highest ideals. On the first day of the 2011 Earl Lectures, UC Berkeley professor of public policy and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich delivered a lecture titled “The Real Meaning of Economic Justice” to an overflow audience.

“We think about moral responsibility as what we can do to help people individually,” Reich said,
“but there is another realm of responsibility that goes way beyond what we can do individually, and that has to do with the structure of our society, of our politics.”

Reich lamented that after the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression, corporations and banks are making enormous profits again, while the “economy where most people live is still mired in recession.”

Reich made the point that although Wall Street’s speculation and excessive consumer borrowing contributed to the Great Recession, they weren’t the fundamental cause. Reich asserted that the accumulation of wealth at the top of the economic class structure has squeezed the middle class to the point that average workers can no longer afford to buy the products of the economy without going deeply into debt.

He cited two critical statistics:

  • The average male worker is making less in real dollars than he was 30 years ago, even though the economy is twice as large. (Reich compared male workers, since female workers were still being fully integrated into the economy 30 years ago.)
  • Thirty years ago, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans was taking home 9 percent of the country’s income. By 2007, just before the Great Recession, the wealthiest 1 percent were taking in 23.5 percent of national income. The last time the United States experienced this kind of income disparity was 1928, just before the Great Depression.

From these statistics, Reich concluded, “The big lesson from the 1930s is that when you have so much income concentrated at the top that most of your middle class or working class doesn’t have the income to buy what the economy produces, you have to fundamentally reorganize the economy… People at the top don’t spend like people in the middle class, because if you’re rich you already have everything you want.”

Reich’s prescription was to recalibrate the economy to make the tax system more progressive, lowering taxes on the working and middle classes, and raising rates on top earners. He stated that this was the only way to spread the benefits of the economy more widely and stimulate sustained growth. “I’m not a class warrior, I’m a class worrier,” Reich said.

Reich made it clear, however, that the key to change was not talk, but action. “I’ve spent half of my adult life in Washington, and nothing good happens in Washington unless people across the country are mobilized, energized, organized to make it happen.”

On the second day of the Lectures, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, called “the most influential Islamic scholar in the West” by a Georgetown University study, delivered a lecture titled, "Lenders, Leopards, and Lions: The Violence of Avarice--Muslim Musings from Dante’s Six, Seventh, and Eighth Circles of Hell.”

Yusuf discussed the extremes of the economy in moral terms, including greed, usury, fraud, and economic violence, through his interpretation of parts of Dante’s Inferno. From there, he spun out a series of wide-ranging references, from interpretations of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic scriptural tradition, to Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, to the wisdom of “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disneyland and the Wizard of Oz.

According to Yusuf and his reading of Dante, “Greed is not an act; it’s a state of being. Greed is the symptom. These are states of being where people are unhealthy. This idea that you can’t legislate authority is wrong. You have to regulate people, like bankers, from bad behavior.”

Comparing the current financial practices of many bankers and financiers to the “panderers and seducers” in Dante’s eighth circle of hell, Yusuf observed, “The gangsters used to go in and rob the banks, now they just get on the board.” Referencing the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, he said, “If corporations are persons, why don’t we have a three-strikes rule for corporations?”

Reflecting on why he chose Dante as the topic of a lecture on the economy he said, “The real true sources of revelation are the prophets and the poets. In the end, Dante’s vision is every man’s and every woman’s journey back to God, the unity of will and desire.”

Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, delivered her lecture, “Ready for Service: Economic Justice in 2011,” on the third day of the event. Bobo gave highly practical suggestions for action and change, based on a reading of Luke 12:35: “Be dressed and ready for service and keep your lamps burning.”

Bobo stressed that there is never a “right” moment to act for justice, the moment to act is always “now.” Calling the economic justice movement the “civil rights movement of our generation,” she said, “If you don’t act, you’ll miss the moment.”

She encouraged seminary students to take action with the GTU chapter of Seminarians for Worker Justice. She admonished religious leaders and professors to use their social standing to speak up for low-wage workers, and to investigate and expose unfair labor situations. She suggested seminaries and universities might help during times of high unemployment—offering spaces for job clubs, English as a Second Language teaching, and computer training. She also encouraged pastors to cultivate relationships with ethical business leaders to stand up for the rights of workers to unionize, and to speak out against wage theft.

In short, Bobo encouraged people to act, regardless of perceptions of ability or inability to change situations on their own.

“Use what God has given you, don’t focus on what you lack,” Bobo said. “You limit God and you limit the spirit if you underestimate what you can do as an individual. God chooses and uses ordinary people like you and me. Sometimes work that seems ordinary, God makes extraordinary.”

Each January, PSR hosts the annual Earl Lectures and Leadership Conference, a three-day event that addresses critical theological, pastoral, and social issues of the day. The lectures were established in 1901 to bring prominent religious leaders to Berkeley's university community, and have featured such international figures as Theodore Roosevelt, Elie Wiesel, Howard Thurman, Maya Angelou, Paul Tillich, and Alice Walker.

See the Flickr slideshow of the Earl Lectures. Audio recordings of the 2011 Earl Lectures on CD and MP3 are available for purchase, or listen online for free in PSR Ideas