A Moral Challenge to Economists

By Rev. Dr. William Barber, President, North Carolina NAACP and Pastor, Greenleaf Christian Church. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking’s website

Extract from the keynote speech by the Rev. Dr. William Barber III at the Institute for New Economic Thinking conference on race and economics in Detroit on November 11

Fifty years ago, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proposed that America launch a broad-based, gigantic Bill of Rights for the disadvantaged and a Marshall Plan for the poor and the hurting. He said if we were willing to rebuild Europe after World War II, then America should be willing to rebuild Appalachia where poor whites were; the inner cities of Detroit and Chicago; and the Deltas of Mississippi and Alabama.

“While Negroes form the vast majority of America’s disadvantaged there are millions of poor whites who would also benefit from this kind of bill,” he wrote, referring to a massive bottom-up stimulus.

“The moral justification for the special measures for the negro is rooted in the robberies of the institution of slavery”, Dr. King wrote, but hastened to add, “many poor whites, however, were the derivatives of the victims of slavery. As long as labor was cheapened by involuntary servitude of the black man, the freedom of white labor, especially in the South was little more than a myth.” He called for a Federal program of public works that would retain jobs for all so that “none, white or black, will have cause to feel threatened”. Dr. King understood that saving communities should be first over saving corporations, that we should not treat corporations like people and people like things. He understood that if you ignore the poor, eventually there will be an implosion. What we’re really beginning to experience, as University of Maryland political economist Gar Alperowitz wrote, “is a process of slow decay, punctuated by a recurring economic  crisis, one in which reforms achieve sporadic gains. But the long term trends of growing  inequality, economic dislocation, failing democratic accountability, deepening poverty, ecological degradation, greater invasions of liberty and growing imprisonment especially of minorities, continues to slowly and quietly challenge the belief in the capacities and moral  integrity of the overall system and its governing elite.”

It is important to recognize the wisdom of Otto Scharmer, who wrote, “There is a blind spot in American economic theory. It’s called consciousness. Our refusal to have an economic theory that looks and sees that we are all integrated and we all really need each other.” The question we face, is how can the nation’s wealth ultimately be shifted institutionally to benefit the vast majority of people? Because we cannot live in isolation. For years we were taught that what was good for Wall Street was good for your street and our street, but that no longer holds true.  As Dr. King warned 50 years ago, when you ignore the poor, the whole system will collapse. The first thing we must recognize, is that economic justice is a moral issue. And economics can’t be separated from moral questions. It was never intended that way.

As far back as the Torah, Deuteronomy says caring for the stranger and being just to the poor must be the hallmark of a nation. The Psalmist said relieving the poor and the oppressed is a moral value we need in the public square. Every prophet of the Old Testament: Jeremiah, Malachi, Ezekiel always began their criticism of Israel, their criticism of the nation, with a critique of systems of poverty. Jeremiah says taking care of children and the vulnerable and the innocent must be the call of leaders and their society, and in fact, Jeremiah 22 says go to the palace and tell the king, “Do not hurt the poor and the widows; otherwise, this palace will become rubble.”

Isaiah 10 says this: “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights, and make women their prey.” Isaiah 58 says “Secure the rights of the poor”; in fact, in Isaiah 58, we’re supposed to call for the “loosing of the bands of wickedness”. Do you know what “loose the bands of wickedness” means? In Hebrew, it means pay people what they deserve. Pay a living wage, because if you don’t, it’s not merely considered conservative ideology. In the Bible, if you do not pay people a living wage, it is called wickedness. Ezekiel says to refuse dishonest gain, and refuse to be — or to give status to — economic predators. In fact, in Ezekiel 22, Ezekiel says whenever the preachers and the politicians stand on the side of greed and hurt toward the least of these in the poor, whenever the morality preachers and the policy people come together to engage in bad policy that hurts the poor, Ezekiel describes them as acting like rabies-infested wolves.

And Jesus — you know, that brown-skinned, Palestinian Jew that I follow, who never charged the leper or sick person a co-pay, always gave free healthcare, and who was eventually killed by the state? In his first sermon, he said “The spirit of the Lord is upon me for he hath anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

And the word poor in Greek is patokos. There are three other words for poor: One has to do with somebody being lazy; the other one has to be with somebody suddenly becoming poor because they are suddenly sick. But the word patokos means people who have been made poor by economic systems of exploitation, by stratification that existed in the Roman Empire, where the 1 percent demanded that all the rules operate in their favor, while the 99 percent suffered. And it was those people that Jesus said were at the center of the attention of God, and better be the center of the attention of your community and your nation if you plan that nation to survive the judgment of God.

Watch Reverend Barber’s speech on “A Moral Challenge to Economists”

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  1. BecauseTradition

    Who knew the OT was concerned with social justice? And that societies who did not practice it were punished by God?

    Meanwhile, we have a government subsidized usury cartel that systematically loots the poor* for the sake of the banks themselves and for sake of the rich, the most so-called creditworthy.

    Woe is US if we won’t repent – sooner or later (God is long suffering and slow to wrath).

    *Because the poor, the least so-called creditworthy, are nevertheless forced to lend (a depositor is legally a creditor) to private depository institutions to lower the borrowing costs of the rich, the most so-called creditworthy or else be limited to unsafe, inconvenient physical currency (bills and coins).

  2. Gaylord

    The oligarchs have little interest in social justice at any level; they are maintaining their dominance through far-reaching, draconian political and security measures both internationally and domestically to ensure the preservation of the status quo. Similar disregard of and disdain for the interdependent ecosystem will bring about human extinction during this century. The love of money, material wealth, and power have blinded and corrupted men to the point of self destruction.

    1. Synoia

      We need to use the word Aristocrats to referr to The Oligarchs, and to the remainder of the populace as “us pesants.”

      And then the phrase “Pesant revolt.”

  3. Jim Haygood

    ‘As far back as the Torah, Deuteronomy says caring for the stranger and being just to the poor must be the hallmark of a nation.’

    ‘And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee.’ — Deuteronomy 15:12

    That’s why this incoherent dogs breakfast of old sayings can’t be relied upon. They were fine with slavery, as long as all the nit-picky bylaws were followed. Old-time religion worked pretty good back in plantation days to keep the slaves content with their lot.

    1. diptherio

      So you take a fundamentalist, all-or-nothing approach to scriptural interpretation, then? I see. That’s not my approach, or that of most serious students of traditional wisdom-systems, but each to their own, I suppose.

      I don’t have to agree with everything that Pat Buchanan says to admit that once in a while he has a point. I might even quote the guy if I were talking to a conservative or someone else who might place some credence in an idea simply because a famous conservative has said it. I wouldn’t quote him, of course, if I was trying to make the same point to a liberal.

      My point being, you are obviously not the target audience for this argument. You don’t place value on the teachings of the Bible, and in fact are probably more prone to discount an idea if it bears that imprimatur. However, there are people that do place more value on ideas if they can be anchored in that particular book — those are the people whom this man is speaking to.

      We don’t need to preach to ourselves. We don’t need to “convert” the already converted. We need to reach out to, and join forces with, a lot of people who don’t share our secular worldviews. If we desire poverty alleviation policies, therefore, we need to make arguments that will be convincing to people who are not us…people who place a great deal of trust in the Bible, for instance. Those are the people who this is really for. And if you have any of those people in your life, it wouldn’t hurt any to put your scientific materialism to the side for a bit and study up on these arguments. You’ll have a much better chance of getting your point across if you frame it in their language. That’s been my experience, anyway.

      1. H. Alexander Ivey


        Hear, hear! I quite agree with your argument. The goal here is to come together and fight for bigger groups and ideas than just ourselves.

        And your argument about the Bible is spot on, IMHO. I too, used to discount any and all references made to it, for the same reason as Mr. Haygood, but after undergoing the humbling experience of teaching Sunday school classes to barely awake 10 – 12 year olds, I realize that there is a lot of real moral argument in the Bible (er duh!). It really is quite funny to hear philosophers argue over points of what is right or wrong and totally ignore the discussion in the the first books on the subject – the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran. Regardless of your source of the right or wrong action – God, or man, these books grapple with the results of right or wrong actions. There is plenty to consider there.

    2. EyeRound

      And isn’t the 7th year the Jubilee? You can’t hold the people in bondage forever, right?

      Check out what Michael Hudson has to say about the economic and social necessity of the ancient practice of debt Jubilee and why it’s more than in order today.

      Thank you, Yves, for posting this.

    3. BecauseTradition

      They were fine with slavery, as long as all the nit-picky bylaws were followed.

      First you conflate indentured servitude for 6 years with permanent slavery, which was also allowed but only of non-Hebrews. But what of permanent slaves who converted? Or at least their children? It would seem the children, at least, would be born free.

      You also neglect that indentured servants were to be well-treated and well-provisioned at the time of their release. Permanent (non-Hebrews) slaves had less protection, it’s true, but kindness toward aliens in general was elsewhere commanded.

      Also, don’t assume the Bible is not loaded with snares to filter out those prone to hasty judgement and other character flaws such as love of money over love of God. However, if you will persist in reading and heeding it, you’ll eventually understand it sufficiently.

  4. Code Name D

    The problem with the “moral argument” is that it never compelling to those who are “moraly challaned.” Things are not helpped when those who promote it, do not have a solid academic understanding over what we call “morlity.”

    The main problem is that morality is not a sientific question, thus most liberals and progresives find it imposible to use logic and evidence to construct a coherent agrument, let alone one that is compelling to the moraly chalanged.

    Quoting the Bible dosn’t help much eather as the Bible can just as easly be used to justify atrocities.

    Morality is based in large part on empethy. But this is hard when you live in a bubble or even think poor people diserve their poverty.

      1. Synoia

        Quire is a measure of the number of pages of paper in a stack, as is ream. The word you seek is Choir.

  5. diptherio

    Thanks for posting this.

    I once tried, unsuccessfully, to explain to an econ professor of mine that insisting that economics be purely “positive” (focused on what is) rather than “normative” (focused on what should be) is itself a normative stance — it makes a claim about what economics “should” be: devoid of ethical considerations.

    Economists, by and large, would like to think they can avoid ethical quandaries simply by stating that they are doing so. Unfortunately for them (and for us) that is not how ethics works.

  6. Susan the other

    Economics as economics is totally meaningless. But economics as morality sounds so church lady. Too conveniently pious. But here’s the problem – under a constitution that allows freedom for all it is a contradiction that freedom equates with money and the constitution does not provide a remedy for this loophole. The constitution should just cut the crap and do a new amendment, creating equity for all because without it the constitution itself is meaningless. When we deal in terms of morality it’s our choice; something is a thing we can do or not, as we choose – because we’re so wonderfully “free”, so that’s definitely a toothless and boring manifesto. Like Obama said, ‘What they did (the banks) was immoral but it wasn’t illegal’. So too bad America. Unless we make inequality illegal. As in criminal.

  7. Scott

    I share citizenship with Rev. Barber in the territory of North Carolina. “Food Insecurity” was reported to be at 23 % in the Triangle economic zone by the Triad Business Journal a couple of years ago.
    If “Food Insecurity” is not a definition of poverty, I do not know what is.
    If you are aware of a territory with abundant blessings geographically, greater than North Carolina, I’d like to know where such a paradise is.
    What that means is that desperation is created in North Carolina on purpose. It is no accident.
    More and more as was before NC stands for “Not Conscious”, an intellectual and cultural desert. It is a flyover that people don’t even fly over.
    We didn’t even know about the only American historical event of a governmental “coup” when afterwards those that by force changed the government named all the schools after themselves.
    On the campus of the premier state university the tallest statue is to the “loyal” Confederate States of America soldier who gave his life in the service of the masters, plantation owners, slavers, who as traitors sought to spread slavery West.
    Were it not for the Federal Government Jim Crow would still be the law of the land.
    Were it not for Freedom of Speech, & freedom of the press, those who sat in at Woolworths would have simply been beaten to death and charged with murder after the fact, as were many in North Carolina history.
    I never really felt secure driving around in rural NC without a gun in the vehicle, and I’m a radical humanist!
    You cannot find a more despicable, mean, ignorant population that skews all the good of the land towards the petty than exists in the heart of unsocialized self-centered governance.
    Living here with my wonderful wife, I am okay for today, but my doctor says I would be made less fearful if I lived in Wash. DC.
    Try that on.
    The reality of NC is adherence not to even modern economist that had evidence & facts, but William Petty, that economist of the 17th century that said work was dirty and to make men do it they must be kept desperate.
    It is so bad, men have to claim the word of “God” to get any traction in the public sphere, ethics not being evident.

  8. JEHR

    It seems to me that the bible has a lot to offer any reader. It was written by many, many men so that it has a myriad of ideas to share with everyone. I believe the bible can be interpreted in many ways: metaphorically, mythologically, spiritually, and even sometimes literally. I think Northrup Frye has it right.

  9. juliania

    There were ethics embedded in the foundation of this country. Paradoxically, when ‘e pluribus unum’ got replaced by ‘In God we Trust’ (who’s the ‘we’? It cannot be the oligarchy, because, as the Reverend has pointed out, God has no truck with them) folk as some here present in the comments quite rightly began not trusting the god of the oligarchs. And we all agree, don’t we? Don’t trust THAT god!

    That god isn’t the Old Testament God, is all that the Reverend is saying – and no, you can’t pick and choose texts and get a ‘correct’ oligarchical version. Sorry, but it ain’t there, Old or New Testaments. There’s no oligarchical prophet, and Jesus, whose teachings and actions are central to the New, most definitely was not. Plenty of oligarchical people inhabit Scripture, for sure, earthly kingdoms being what they are.

    But as I said first up, there were ethics embedded in the founding of this country, its Declaration, its Constitution. And ‘e pluribus unum’ wasn’t just for states but for people; it means you don’t have to believe in ANY god, Mammon or Biblical. You do have to succor the poor among you because that’s what ‘We the People’ means. That’s what ‘United’ means. And ethics further persuaded to the abolition of slavery; ethics persuaded to the enfranchisement of women – all in order to form a more perfect union. Ongoing enterprise.

    It was just a beginning. The wobbly first steps of a child called democracy. And now people want to swat that child because oh dear, those steps were so wobbly! The oligarchs are just fine with that because that ‘pluribus’ thing was never their goal; divided they conquer.

  10. djrichard

    Insanity begins with “I”. Economics teaches us how to think from the “I” position, so that each of us “I”s can figure out our respective strategies for winning. And the media is there to bring reinforce the mind-set by show-casing the “I”s that win.

  11. Sound of the Suburbs

    “But the long term trends of growing inequality”

    Let’s look at it from the old world where we have a bit more history.

    Looking at 5,000 years of human civilisation the Classical Economists of the 18th Century believed the poor would never rise out of a bare subsistence existence. This was the way it always had been and always would be.

    Nearly every social system since the dawn of civilization has been set up to support a Leisure Class at the top who are maintained in luxury and leisure through the economically productive, hard work of the middle and lower classes.

    The lower class does the manual work; the middle class does the administrative and managerial work and the upper class lives a life of luxury and leisure.

    We still have a leisure class in the UK today, we call them the Aristocracy who are supported by the hard work of the lower and middle class through their land, capital and investments.

    When things were more obvious and there was little Government intervention to cloud the issue, Adam Smith observed:

    “The Labour and time of the poor is in civilised countries sacrificed to the maintaining of the rich in ease and luxury. The Landlord is maintained in idleness and luxury by the labour of his tenants. The moneyed man is supported by his extractions from the industrious merchant and the needy who are obliged to support him in ease by a return for the use of his money. But every savage has the full fruits of his own labours; there are no landlords, no usurers and no tax gatherers.”

    Adam Smith saw landlords, usurers (bankers) and Government taxes as equally parasitic, all raising the cost of doing business.

    He sees the lazy people at the top living off “unearned” income from their land and capital.

    He sees the trickle up of Capitalism:
    1) Those with excess capital collect rent and interest.
    2) Those with insufficient capital pay rent and interest.

    Assuming capitalism trickles down to lower taxes on the wealthy is bound to cause a massive rise in inequality as capitalism flows upwards.

    A good inheritance and/or trust fund should ensure a life of luxury and leisure today, riding on the back of other people’s hard work.

    Capitalism takes from the bottom and gives to the top like nearly every other social system that has been around in the last 5,000 years.

    The only way those at the bottom moved out of a bare subsistence existence was through organised labour movements in the 19th Century and early 20th century, capitalism itself gives nothing.

    Keynes came up with a more redistributive capitalism that ushered in the lowest levels of inequality in history in the developed world and produced a golden age in the 1950s and 1960s. He recognised the inherent trickle up of capitalism and compensated for it.

    Keynesian capitalism did go wrong in the 1970s and was replaced with an older more primitive capitalism and inequality soared again. The only thing that keeps it running is debt and global consumers are starting to max. out, leading to “secular stagnation” aka “the new normal”. Raw capitalism doesn’t support a consumer society.

  12. Sound of the Suburbs

    Economics is a pseudo-science that today does little more than backup the vested interests of the wealthy.

    If economists say it’s true, it must be.

    Think again.

    Malthus came up with an economics that worked for the vested interests of the land owning class.
    Ricardo came up with an economics that worked for the vested interests of the financial class.
    Marx came up with an economics that worked for the ideology he was trying to put forward.

    It’s complex, quite fuzzy and can be easily biased to suit vested interests.

    Early on it became very apparent to the wealthy and powerful that economics needed to be biased in the right direction for their interests.

    As Classical Economics reached its zenith in the 19th Century it had come to some unfortunate conclusions powerful, vested interests didn’t like so they backed a new, neoclassical economics that missed out the undesirable conclusions from Classical Economics like the differentiation of “earned” and “unearned” income. It also conflated “land” and “capital” which had previously been distinct.

    This grew into the core of neoclassical economics which is basically a way of hiding earlier discoveries and looking after certain vested interests. It’s arguments look strange and convoluted because they are, they are there to hide something.

    Most of the UK now dreams of giving up work and living off the “unearned” income from a BTL portfolio, extracting the “earned” income of generation rent.

    The UK dream is to be like the idle rich, rentier, living off “unearned” income and doing nothing productive.

    This distinction between “earned” and “unearned” income has been buried ever since, but what was hidden is later revealed by who this economics favours.

    Now if we want small Government and for business leaders to be left to their own devices, what other conclusions do we need?
    Capitalism naturally reaches stable equilibriums.

    There is no evidence for this and the first recorded bubble was the Tulip Mania of 1600s Holland, there have been plenty of others since.

    We want the conclusion capitalism reaches stable equilibriums as it serves our purpose and the real world must be ignored.

    It’s all back again for the dot.com boom and 2008, you can’t just come to false conclusions to suit vested interests.

    Neoclassical economics is an economics whose conclusions were put forward by vested interests and then stitched together into an academic framework.

    It serves a purpose and it is not to describe how the economy functions.

    The effort to conceal the work of “Henry George” can be found in a book “The Corruption of Economics”, neoclassical economists did their job and hardly anyone knows his name today.

  13. Sound of the Suburbs

    Keynes came up with a whole set of unpalatable conclusions so they buried them and went back to the old assumptions before he existed.

    Neo-liberalism, and its underlying neoclassical economics, rely on debt to paper over the cracks, when debt. maxes out it stops working.

    A system that re-cycles the surplus can carry on working indefinitely.

    With Thatcher and Reagan we bought in a new type of capitalism and changed most of the fundamental assumptions.

    Francis Fukuyama in 1992 said it was “the end of history” and Capitalism had been the only successful economic system to stand the test of time.

    But we had just changed the fundamental assumptions about capitalism.

    1) 40 years ago, most economists and almost everyone else believed the economy was demand driven and the system naturally trickled up.
    2) Now most economists and almost everyone else believes the economy is supply driven and the
    system naturally trickles down.

    These assumptions are the total opposite of each other.

    When we believed the economy was demand driven and trickled up, we used strong progressive taxation to compensate for the inherent trickle up of capitalism.

    Inequality reached its lowest levels in recorded history in the developed world; there were no demand side problems.

    Now we believe the economy is supply driven and trickles down, we lowered taxes on the wealthy and inequality soared; the demand side problems grow worse as the sticking plaster solution of debt. maxes out for individual consumers.

    When we believed the economy was demand driven and trickled up, we thought fiscal stimulus was the answer to get the economy going again as it created jobs and wages to be spent into the economy and trickle up. We are just getting back to this way of thinking.

    Now we believe the economy is supply driven and trickles down, we thought monetary stimulus was the answer to get the economy going again as the money given to the banks would trickle down to everyone else. After eight years we are just starting to realise this didn’t work and are heading back to fiscal stimulus based on assumption one.

    Keynes said that monetary policy wouldn’t work in a severe recession and would lead to a “liquidity trap”, this is the Central Banker’s “savings glut”.

    1) 40 years ago, most economists and almost everyone else believed income was just as important as profit. Income looked after the demand side of the equation and profit the supply side.
    2) Now most economists and almost everyone else believes maximising profit is the only thing that matters.

    The IMF, Larry Summers and others are commenting on the chronic lack of demand in the system, it looks as though assumption one was right all along. We had been relying on the sticking plaster solution of debt to keep assumption two working but this maxes out.

    This is the source of “secular stagnation” aka “the new normal”.

    1) 40 years ago, most economists and almost everyone else believed Capitalism tends to polarise and you need to recycle the surplus
    2) Now most economists and almost everyone else believes capitalism naturally reaches stable equilibriums

    Wealth is polarising at an alarming rate and demand is suffering.

    2016 – “Richest 62 people as wealthy as half of world’s population”

    Keynesian capitalism used strong progressive taxation to compensate for the inherent trickle up of capitalism.

    The sticking plaster solution of debt maxes out, recycling the surplus can keep the whole thing going forever.

    When Keynes was involved in putting together the new international order after the Second World War, mechanisms to recycle the surplus were put in place in the Bretton-Woods agreement.

    When the Euro was designed we assumed the Euro area would naturally reach a stable equilibrium and there are no mechanisms to recycle the surplus.

    The Euro-zone is polarising and the poorest nation, Greece, has collapsed under its debts and the other Club-Med nations are heading that way.

    The sticking plaster solution of debt maxes out, recycling the surplus can keep the whole thing going forever.

    Neo-liberalism was rolled out across the world, only debt has kept it running and the world is now maxed. out on debt.

    The problems with the Euro, the global debt levels, “secular stagnation” and “the new normal” all stem from today’s economics.

    It’s failed, because it’s fundamentally wrong.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      Neoclassical economics is more like a religion and its high priests (neoclassical economists) ensures the masses dutifully serve their masters.

      Even after Keynes’s revelations the core of neoclassical economics was preserved and Keynes’s work was placed in a separate area, macroeconomics.

      The “New Deal” used pure Keynes the post World War Two version was adapted to fit around its neoclassical core.

      When the time came and hybrid-Keynesian thinking got into difficulty, they were ready to jettison it and get back to the pure religion of the neoclassical core.

      The masses serve the wealthy just like it’s always been. The more modern era needed a little bit more hocus-pocus, e.g. the wealth creators, trickledown. They are your benefactors and you must worship them.

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