When it comes to the economy, it's a mistake to value individuals over the community, a speaker told an ecumenical audience Nov. 29.
"The story of our time is that the common good has been getting hammered for 30 years," the Rev. Gary Dorrien said during the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon Collins Lecture. Title of the talk was "God's Economy."
Rev. Dorrien, an Episcopalian priest, is professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary and professor of religion at Columbia University.
He criticized those who hew only to free market ideology.
"In their vision of this country, there is no common good," said the author of 14 books. "There is only the sum of individual goods."
That does not stand up to the biblical test, Rev. Dorrien said.
The roots of his message lie in the social gospel movement of the late 19th century, which rose in defense of workers during abuses of the Gilded Age. "The social gospel expounded a vision of economic democracy that is as relevant and necessary today as it was a century ago," he said.
Since the 1980s in the U.S., businesses have been deregulated, unions have been pressured and wages have flattened. As a result, money has been concentrated at the top; the upper 10 percent of the nation holds 70 percent of the wealth while the bottom half holds 2 percent. That poses a danger to the democratic venture, Rev. Dorrien said.
He called for reductions in military spending and a "massive investment in economic democracy," including a clean energy industry that will create family-wage jobs.
The lecture was preceded by a workshop. Experts and others heavily criticized bank policy, tax rules and unregulated trade.
"We are suffering from a crisis generated by capitalism," said Martin Hart-Landsberg, an economist at Lewis & Clark College. Returning to utter trust in free markets won't, Hart-Landsberg argued.
"If companies respond to recessions by moving production overseas or squeezing labor unions, purchasing power suffers," he said. "Then the next cycle will be weaker."
Starting in the late 1970s, businesses got more productivity from workers, but wages and compensation did not rise. The jobs created now tend to be low-paying.
"This is not a well-functioning economy except for one area: profitability," Hart-Landsberg concluded.
Tom Kelly, president of Neil Kelly Co., disputed the notion that higher taxes would prevent business owners from hiring to meet demand. "If my phone rings, am I not going to answer it because my taxes are higher?" Kelly asked the group.
During question-and-answer time, John Kingery of St. Juan Diego Parish was critical of companies like Intel, which he says wants good workers but does not support Oregon's education system adequately.
With high levels of unemployment and underemployment in the U.S., and a growing divide between those on the upper and lower economic margins, faith communities are wondering how to respond.
Christians are always trying to figure out how to live gospel goodness in everyday life, said David Leslie, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. Now, Leslie added, people of faith can't avoid the issue of economic distress.
"This work has to be relational," said Rev. Kate Lore of First Unitarian Church, which hosted the workshop and lecture. "But we also have to look to systems that create the problems."