Monday, March 28, 2011

Lamenting the loss of a voice

Bob Herbert, a New York Times' columnist, announced in Saturday's paper that he was ending his column after 18 years. He said he'd be working outside of journalism to help the poor and other struggling people. Ordinarily, I'd take little notice of a columnist laying down his pen, but not this time. Herbert's leaving opinion journalism is a huge loss, especially for people who care about the growing distress of the poor and marginalized in America. In Saturday's column, Herbert opines, as he often did, about the growing chasm between the very rich and the very poor. He writes that, "The current maldistribution of wealth is also scandalous. In 2009, the richest 5 percent claimed 63.5 percent of the nation's wealth. The overwhelming majority, the bottom 80 percent, collectively held just 12.8 percent" (New York Times, Saturday, March 27). In the same column, he cites one important way that this shifting of wealth takes place. He writes, "Despite profits of $14.2 billion--$5.1 billion from its operations in the United States--General Electric did not have to pay any U.S. taxes last year." GE managed this feat, according to the Times' report that Herbert quotes, through an "aggressive strategy that mixes lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore." Having been in business, I know corporations do a lot of good. I've seen it. They create products and services that improve and even extend our lives. And companies employ millions of Americans and give billions of dollars to charities. No responsible person would advocate abolishing American companies or expropriating their legitimately earned profits (shareholders expect returns on their investments) or nationalizing them. I'm not advocating such treatment. But Christians and others who care about justice need to be concerned that U.S. tax policy has, within the last decade or more, exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor. We need to be alarmed that deep cuts in spending on social welfare programs and public education have pummeled the poor and other vulnerable members of our society and have put everyone's future at risk. And we need to pay attention to what's happening in North Africa and in the Middle East and right here in America. Everywhere, the poor and even the middle class are demanding justice, mercy, and compassion. Bob Herbert was like one of those Old Testament prophets. They railed against the sins of the powerful in Israel who defied God and trampled upon the poor, the old, the young. And because the powerful ignored the Word of the Lord and failed to repent of their idolatry and injustice, they brought the wrath of God down upon themselves. I hope Herbert will be as successful outside journalism as he was inside it as a passionate, truth-telling advocate for the poor and oppressed. And I hope the people of America , including those who represent us in government, are listening to the voices of the prophets while there is still time to heed their warnings.

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