Cartoon for February 6, 2020

By Mike Ellerbrock

Ellerbrock is director of the Center for Economic Education at Virginia Tech, vicariate deacon for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, and appointed member of the Virginia Governor’s Advisory Council on Environmental Justice.

“It’s the economy, stupid!” So goes the message to every modern American presidential candidate by advisors, pollsters, and voters. Before assessing what the message suggests about our culture, let’s first examine recent history.

President Bill Clinton survived impeachment amid a nasty sex scandal due primarily to a robust economy. President Donald Trump will also likely survive impeachment for the same reason, despite his nasty sex scandals and daily moral offenses.

Trump frequently touts his superior guidance of the economy, taking full credit for its growth. However, the facts speak otherwise.

Responding to the severe banking crisis of 2007-08, outgoing President Bush, incoming President Obama, and Congress agreed on a substantial stimulus package, including taxpayer bail outs of financial institutions deemed “too large to let fail.” It worked and Obama subsequently made the recipients repay most of their giant subsidies.

Since the recovery began in late 2009 and 2010, our Gross Domestic Product has maintained a steady rate of annual growth. The S+P Stock Market significantly improved in 2009. To date, it has not grown any faster under Trump than it did under Obama in 2013. Trump is riding an economic growth wave initiated by his predecessors.

Dig a little deeper into equity — which citizens are reaping the most benefits from our growing economy? By the GINI index (which measures income inequality) America’s rich are getting richer and poor getting poorer, a widening income gap exacerbated by Trump’s tax and trade policies.

Trump touts historically low rates of unemployment under his leadership. Yet, it is a mixed bag. Some under-employed people accept low-wage jobs, lowering the unemployment rate without personally getting ahead. Others are so discouraged that they quit looking for jobs, thereby opting out of the labor force, which also lowers the unemployment rate.

What does our national fixation on personal financial prosperity suggest about our priorities in life? Honestly, the Trump phenomenon has caused me to reassess my lifelong understanding of the America I thought I knew. I never imagined having a president who pays hookers $130,000-150,000, mocks handicapped children, denigrates wounded veterans and POWs, coddles dictators, ignores generals, bullies everyone, declares himself a genius and the Chosen One, hides his taxes, rejects the media, lies without pause, and gives no evidence of ever having read a book.

Perhaps Trump is more symptom than root cause of division in our beloved nation. He capitalized off a deep social divide. Apparently, his base cares more about jobs, money, guns, property rights, and eliminating abortions (Amen to that one), than other compelling life issues at home and abroad.

“Evangelical” (Gospel Good News) values do not stop at one’s fence line, nor America’s borders. Jesus was not into assault rifles. We say that we are a Christian country, yet slaughter unborn babies, deny science at the acute risk of abolishing life on this planet that God gave us, slam the door in the face of desperate refugees, tolerate racism in our streets and courts, abandon Kurdish allies to ethnic genocide, reduce access to affordable health care, curtail SNAP food programs for the poor, and enact trillion dollar tax cuts for the top one percent, who somehow “deserve” it. FYI – corporate CEO’s don’t create jobs, consumers do.

Almost all religions and countless saints find the meaning of life in altruism — a selfless concern for others. When asked to summarize the Torah and Gospel, both Rabbi Hillel and Jesus said: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is the whole of the law and prophets” (MT 7:12).

Official Catholic teaching absolutely condemns any attack on human dignity, before and after birth. “Whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, selling women and children, disgraceful working conditions, where people are mere tools for profit, all these things and others are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but do more harm to those who practice them than to the injured” (Gaudium et Spes). “An economy of exclusion is morally unacceptable” (Evangelli Gaudium). “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me” (MT 25:40).

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