29 November 2011

We Are the 1%!

The attention of the United States has gone from Tea Partiers to Occupiers. The angst of an increasingly impoverished lower class has been directed into protests nationwide, but they will ultimately never resolve the ills that are eating away at American society.

While the Tea Party movement is laden with nationalism, the Occupy movement has a more subtle introversion. Who are the 1%? You are! Well, if you're the average American then you are. Median household income in the United States is roughly $48,000/year, which happens to be the exact mark that divides the top 1% from the bottom 99% of world incomes. In other words, half of Americans are in the top 1%. See this calculator.

But those protesters aren't making median income. Let's say they're making minimum wage. In my state that would still leave them in the top 12% of worldwide income earners. It should be Vietnamese factory workers holding protests against the concentration of wealth.

The fight between labour and capital seems to be eternal, but Baha'is need not just sit around complaining about how ineffective protests are (see above for example). `Abdu'l-Baha traveled to Europe and America during the rise of communism. His talks offer extensive guidance on the issues of labour, and the current protests present a great opportunity to share the Baha'i teachings on extremes of wealth and poverty and the relationship between labour and capital. 

On several occasions, in response to discussing the protests, I have been able to mention the practice of Huququ'llah. Put simply, Baha'is who have wealth are obliged to calculate privately what their basic needs are, and pay a 19% tax on the excess. In the future, when Baha'i funds are well established, they will have two broad categories: one for administration, and another for philanthropic purposes. Therefore, the law of Huququ'llah is a progressive tax that takes from the rich and gives to the poor.

The other Baha'i teaching that is perhaps most relevant to the current protest is chapter 78 from Some Answered Questions, regarding labour strikes. Here `Abdu'l-Baha mentions that while excessive private fortunes are undesirable, "absolute equality is just as impossible," and would "end in disorderliness, in chaos". He says that "difficulties will arise when unjustified equality is imposed." While appealing to the idea of reducing extremes, there is no support for absolute equality. There will always be differences of income, and there is a role to play for capital investors; only that "laws and regulations" should be established to prevent massive accumulation of wealth at the expense of the masses.

What kinds of laws and regulations? `Abdu'l-Baha mentions a few practical steps. First, 20-25% of the profits of a company should be returned to the workers, in addition to their wages (or "in some other way" they should share advantages). Second, each worker should be guaranteed support when they become "feeble and cease working, get old and helpless, or leave behind children under age", either by paying them sufficient wages, or by guaranteeing some form of social security.

But there are two sides of this coin. `Abdu'l-Baha also insists that once fair labour laws and regulations are in place, workers should not "make excessive claims and revolt, nor demand beyond their rights; they should no longer go out on strike; they should be obedient and submissive and not ask for exorbitant wages." In the case that either the workers or the management transgress, the government should step in and enforce the established laws and regulations. This interference, according to `Abdu'l-Baha, is "legal" because the relationship between labour and capital is not like "ordinary affairs between private persons, which do not concern the public, and with which the government should not occupy itself." 

In `Abdu'l-Baha's response to labour disputes, one can see the answers to a number of current issues that are vexing the United States. As a result of government policies, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. The Occupiers are expressing anger at a legitimate problem, but they can hardly assess the ailment, let alone prescribe a remedy. Their claim of injustice is narrowly focused on the United States, and ignores the poor masses of the world's population. Within several protests (e.g. Portland) their ideals of redistribution of wealth brought chaos to the movement itself, as the "poorer" protesters demanded handouts from the better off in their ranks. 

The energy of the current protests will surely be dissipated. As a Baha'i, I believe the attention provides yet another opportunity to share God's current message to a population yearning for spirituality and just institutions.


  1. I agree with the sentiment. When thinking about economic disparity it is all to easy to ignore the rest of the world. The truth of the matter is that we need a global system instituted that can address humanity's needs.

    While I agree with the sentiment however, I don't think that it is possible to casually apply income across regional economic boundaries. I understand that you are making a point and using the same language as the current national dialogue is an important part of that process but I just don't think that it is applicable.

    Drastically different cost of living and cultural norms make assessing wealth disparity an extremely complex issue, and while there is no doubt that most of us in the United States are living quite well, there is also quite a bit of poverty here. Someone living off of SSI, welfare, or part time minimum wage work may very well fall into the highest income quintile globally but experience many of the struggles that poor worldwide have: food insecurity, inadequate housing, poor access to medical care, poor access to social systems, etc. Part of addressing the issue is coming up with a way to express the issue without unnecessarily glossing over the complexities. I think that is where our national dialogue is stuck right now, with both sides oversimplifying the issues and not recognizing the many possible factors involved.

    I just couldn't help bringing up semantics. As I said, I agree with the message of the post, but feel like sometimes seeing the big picture can be more complex than just zooming out.


  2. I see a lot in this year's Ridvan letter from the Universal House of Justice about what each of us can do, individually, to practice and promote spiritual solutions to economic problems.

    "The light of the Revelation is destined to illumine every sphere of endeavour; in each, the relationships that sustain society are to be recast; in each, the world seeks examples of how human beings should be to one another. We offer for your consideration, given its conspicuous part in generating the ferment in which so many people have recently been embroiled, the economic life of humanity, where injustice is tolerated with indifference and disproportionate gain is regarded as the emblem of success. So deeply entrenched are such pernicious attitudes that it is hard to imagine how any one individual can alone alter the prevailing standards by which the relationships in this domain are governed. Nevertheless, there are certainly practices a Baha'i would eschew, such as dishonesty in one's transactions or the economic exploitation of others. Faithful adherence to the divine admonitions demands there be no contradiction between one's economic conduct and one's beliefs as a Baha'i. By applying in one's life those principles of the Faith that relate to fairness and equity, a single soul can uphold a standard far above the low threshold by which the world measures itself. Humanity is weary for want of a pattern of life to which to aspire; we look to you to foster communities whose ways will give hope to the world."
    - The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2012

    I also see the plans for national and local Dawning Places of the Mention of God as part of the spiritual solutions to economic problems. One of the principles of the Dawning Places is putting devotional practices at the heart of our economic life. Each of the dependencies responds to some aspect of what is wrong with our economic life today, and devotional practices are at the heart of all of it.

    For years the Baha'i community, its members and its institutions have been learning to practice the principles of the Dawning Place, and now some communities have advanced far enough to make good use of the corresponding physical structures.

    Another part of the spiritual solutions to economic problems is the Right of God, which directly and explicitly addresses extremes of wealth and poverty. That law has been practiced by the Baha'is of Iran since 1878, and by Baha'is all over the world since 1992.

    Another part of the spiritual solutions to economic problems is neighbors learning to work together to improve the community life in a neighborhood, for everyone in the neighborhood. That also addresses what's wrong with our economic life today. What makes economic oppression possible is people not caring what happens to some other people, and even wishing harm on some other people. The whole life of the Baha'i community currently revolves around practicing a kind of community life, in the right spirit, at a neighborhood level, that people will carry with them to higher levels, and which will play a big part in ending economic injustice.

    Each of the core activities--devotional meetings, study circles, children's classes, junior youth programs--and every other part of the current framework for action, corresponds to some part of the institution of the Dawning Place, and the Dawning Place is a big part of the spiritual solution to economic problems. It puts prayerful service at the center of economic activity.

  3. Work as worship is another part of the spiritual solution to economic problems.

    "It is enjoined upon every one of you to engage in some form of occupation, such as crafts, trades and the like. We have graciously exalted your engagement in such work to the rank of worship unto God, the True One. Ponder ye in your hearts the grace and the blessings of God and render thanks unto Him at eventide and at dawn. Waste not your time in idleness and sloth. Occupy yourselves with that which profiteth yourselves and others. Thus hath it been decreed in this Tablet from whose horizon the day-star of wisdom and utterance shineth resplendent."

    (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 26)

    "In the Bahá'í Cause arts, sciences and all crafts are (counted as) worship. The man who makes a piece of notepaper to the best of his ability, conscientiously, concentrating all his forces on perfecting it, is giving praise to God. Briefly, all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer. A physician ministering to the sick, gently, tenderly, free from prejudice and believing in the solidarity of the human race, he is giving praise."

    (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 176)

    If more people practiced their occupation in that spirit, the economic abuse we see in the world today would be impossible. Practicing our occupation in a spirit of service is a well-known principle among Baha'is, and many have been practicing it in their occupations, and in initiatives to develop better ways of managing businesses.

    Again, that is what the Dawning Place is all about, and practicing the spiritual principles of the Dawning Place, not only among members, but with all people who are interested, is at the heart of Baha'i community life all over the world today.

    "The Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, described by 'Abdu'l- Baha as 'one of the most vital institutions of the world', weds two essential, inseparable aspects of Baha'i life: worship and service. The union of these two is also reflected in the coherence that exists among the community-building features of the Plan, particularly the burgeoning of a devotional spirit that finds expression in gatherings for prayer and an educational process that builds capacity for service to humanity."

    Learning to work prayerfully, in the spirit of service, spiritual community building at the grass roots--that's exactly, precisely what is needed to transform the economic life of the world, to eliminate the injustice and oppression. That is what Baha'i community development has been all about for a decade or more. Now it has advanced far enough in some places to support and sustain the corresponding physical structures, and use them in the right spirit.