November 2006

Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

by Bob Mayhew

You cannot be middle-class if you earn the minimum wage in America today says Thom Hartman, author of Screwed: The Undeclared War Against The Middle-Class.

The American dream and the American reality have collided. In America we have always said that if you hard and play by the rules you can take care of yourself and your family. But the minimum wage is just $5.15 per hour. With a 40-hour work week, that comes to a gross income of $9,888 per year. Nobody can support a family, own a home, buy health insurance, or retire decently on $9,888 per year!

What’s more, 30 million Americans, one in four U.S. workers, make less than $9 per hour, or just $17, 280 a year. That’s not a living wage either.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s statistics for 2004 show the official poverty rate at 12.7 percent of the population, which puts the number of people officially living in poverty in the United States at 37 million. For a family of four, the poverty threshold was listed as $19,307. If the head of that family of four were a single mother working full-time for the government-mandated minimum wages she couldn’t even rise above the government’s own definition of poverty.

Becoming middle-class in America today is like scaling a cliff. Most middle-class Americans are clinging to the edge with their fingernails, trying not to fall. In the 1950’s, middle-class families could live comfortably if just one parent worked. Today more than 60 percent of mothers with children under six are in the work force. Not only do both parents work but often at least one of those parents works two or more jobs.

Conservatives argue that we have to choose between having high wages and having low prices. They are wrong.

Take the case of Wal-Mart. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), Wal-Mart could pay each employee a dollar more per four if the company increased its prices by a half-penny per dollar. For example, a $2 pair of socks would then cost $2.01. This minimal increase would add up to $1800 annually for each employee.

I wouldn’t mind paying more for a pair of socks if it meant that my fellow Americans would bee able to pay for good health care. That would save me money because right now Wal-Mart’s uninsured employees run up hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills at emergency treatment centers when their problems often could have been solved more cheaply and with better results had they been caught earlier at a doctor’s office.

Here’s what all the talk about wages really comes down to: Would you rather pay 10% more at Wal-Mart and get 30 percent more in your paycheck, or would you rather have lower prices and an even lower paycheck? That’s the real choice: We are either spiraling up into a strong middle-class, or we’re spiraling down toward serfdom.

Looking at the arc of U.S. history, we discover we’ve been on a downward spiral ever since Ronald Reagan declared war on working people in 1981. Companies cut prices and then cut wages so they can still turn a hefty profit. Folks whose wages have been cut can’t afford to shop at midrange stores like Macy’s, so they have to go to low-wage discount stores like Wal-Mart. That drives more midrange stores out of business and increases pressure on discount stores to set their prices even lower. To compensate for lower prices, they lower wages so they can still turn a hefty profit. On and on it goes until the people working those jobs are no longer middle-class and have to work two or three jobs to survive.

Our choice is not between low prices at Wal-Mart and high prices at Wal-Mart. Its between low prices at Wal-Mart with lousy paychecks and no protection for labor, and the prices Wal-Mart had when Sam Walton ran the company and nearly everything was made in the United States and people had good union jobs and decent paychecks.

Today America is regressing; middle-class income has stopped growing. The net worth of those who earn less than $15,000 per year (which includes everybody from the working poor) to the highest end of the most well-off of the middle-class is down by 0.6 percent. The problem is not the economy. Corporations are making more money than ever. The real income of people whose net worth exceeds $100 million is doubling.

What’s happening is simple: The rich are getting richer and the entire spectrum of the middle-class is disappearing.

We can easily trace this decline to Reagan’s first public declaration of war on the middle-class when he went after the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981. He broke the back of the air-traffic controllers’ union and began the practice of using the Department of Labor traditionally the ally of workers against organized labor and working people.

Workplaces are not democracies “n the United States they’re run more like kingdoms. Employers have the power to hire and fire, to raise or lower wages, to change working conditions and job responsibilities, and to change hours and times and places. Workers have only the power to work or to not work (known as a strike.) The strike is a tool that can effectively be used only by organized labor is the only means by which workers can address the extreme imbalance of power in the workplace. And because organized labor is a democracy leadership is elected and strike decisions and contracts are voted on. Unions bring more democracy to America. We spend about half of our waking lives at work; at least we can have some democracy in the workplace, and a democracy means a strong middle-class.

The conservatives have almost succeeded in throttling American democracy by screwing over the middle-class. To fight back we must recognize and reclaim the government programs that create a middle-class:

  • Return to the American people our ownership of the military, the prison system, and the ballot box.
  • Fight for free and public education that encourages critical thinking, historical knowledge, and a love of learning in each child. Combat the No Child Left Behind Act and the belief that education is a commodity that can be tested.
  • Fight for a national single-payer health-care system based on Medicare.
  • Fight for Social Security and do not let it be privatized or co-opted
  • Fight for progressive taxation: reinstate a rate of 35 percent on corporations and a rate of 70 percent on the wealthiest 5% of Americans and use the money to pay back the Social Security system and to fund an economic investment program.
  • Fight for a living wage and for the right of labor to organize.
  • Fight for a national energy program that puts people and the planet, not Big Oil first.

When America has a strong middle-class, democracy will follow. The opposite is also true. To fight back, we must also make use of the ballot box. We can achieve the economic programs that make the middle-class possible by using the power of our democracy to vote for those politicians who support the middle-class. We’ve been conned for long enough. It is time to take back America.

–Bob Mayhew

Religion vs. Religious

Former BYU philosophy adjunct instructor Jeffrey Nielsen spoke to an overflowing crowd at October’s general meeting. Not rehired because of his famous and infamous op ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune [6/4/06] supporting legalizing marriage for homosexual couples, Nielsen chronicled how he reached that point.

Considered to be the first humanist of the western tradition, Protagoras wrote (485 B.C.E.), “Man is the measure of all things…” Humanity being the ultimate context, individuals or groups should not sacrifice human rights for abstract beliefs, organizational interests, or institutional religion. Rather, the measure should be whether something improves the concrete circumstances of the human condition, increases our natural affections, or expands our sense of moral community.

Protagoras the foundation for Nielsen’s moral sensibilities, two basic principles emerged as the beacon for his life choices. 1] He is morally obliged to improve the well-being of other people by seeking their best interest and alleviating their suffering. 2] Every human being, regardless of his/her place or position, possesses an equal privilege to speak, and every human being shares an equal and reciprocal obligation to listen.


In seeking to improve the well-being of others, Nielsen said that we could follow a dialogical and non-hierarchical way of understanding and defining ethics and moral reasoning. Illustrating this is neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty’s thoughts on religion, the two primary aspects being 1] religious experience and 2] religious dogma or institutionalized religion. Often in tension are these two concepts.

To Nielsen, religious experience evokes the prophetic role of speaking truth to power, the primal experience of God as moral imperative. Upsetting the status quo, religious experience is protestant and on the side of the poor and dispossessed, fighting for social justice, calling an individual’s ego into question, and calling us to care for others as much as we care for ourselves.

Religious dogma or institutionalized religion, on the other hand, often becomes the very power structure that oppresses people, demanding absolute obedience, blind conformity, and unquestioning acquiescence: “do what your leaders tell you, and even if they are wrong, you’ll be blessed for it.” In this context, the preservation of the institution and of the power and privilege of the religious leaders becomes more important than the welfare of the ordinary members. Here religion becomes, in Peter Berger’s words, the sacred canopy of the status quo.

As can be seen, these two concepts may simultaneously be both an oppressor and a liberator: the opiate of the masses [Marx] and the prophetic voice that inspires people to e.g. sacrifice themselves to improve life for a complete stranger.

“Religious experience” [the golden rule and unconditional love] can be also viewed in a non-theistic, non-sectarian, and natural way.


Democracy is another powerful force that helps form our moral foundation. In the enlightenment age, it was realized that government could not both preserve individual freedoms and endorse any particular religious authority. John Locke provided persuasive arguments for the separation of church and state, which to Nielsen, was most significant in that religious faith should not be coerced or mandated, but must be freely chosen. Even if government was allowed to mandate religion, how could they sponsor the “right” religious authority? Government could just as easily mandate the wrong religious tradition.

Besides, institutional religion is inherently exclusive in nature and absolutist in claims, which can potentially lead to tyranny in unchecked religious influence. Nielsen added that institutional religion is by nature hierarchical, which would confute his second moral principle.

In the history of the American republic, religious experience [the prophetic role of God as moral imperative] has persuaded us to become more inclusive in guaranteeing individual rights and respect for individual dignity. At the same time, religious institutions have become more exclusive and more defiant of individual equal rights and respect for individual dignity of certain classes of people–the crossroads that Nielsen found himself in May this year regarding the LDS Church’s opposition against marriage for homosexual couples.

Gay Rights in the LDS Church:

A constitutional amendment to deny marriage equality, or in other words, to restrict individual rights solely for religious reasons strikes at the heart of the key safeguard protecting our democracy from falling into unchecked tyranny. Considering the two moral principles that guide his life, Nielsen could not but defend equal marriage rights for homosexual couples.

In light of the LDS Church’s stance, Nielsen said that the well-being of gay men and women and their families are harmed, both in and outside of the church, by labeling same-sex attraction as perverse and unnatural, and condemning that which is not fully understood. In fact, Nielsen believes that science is beginning to show that same-sex attraction is biological and hence, as natural as heterosexual attraction. Same-sex attraction may be caused by environmental conditions in the mother’s womb before birth, triggering the DNA that gives the fetus a homosexual orientation. If this is the case, neither the mother nor the child has a choice in the matter–it is a completely natural, biological condition.

Said Nielsen, “Truly God would be unjust if He wee the creator of a biological process that produced such uncommon but perfectly natural results, and then condemned the innocent person to a life of guilt, while denying him or her the ordinary privileges and fulfillment of the deep longing in all of us for family and a committed, loving relationship.”

Even if the scientific evidence does hot establish this beyond reasonable doubt, Nielsen said that virtuous moderation and loving kindness should move us to exercise caution before making constitutionally binding discrimination against a whole class of people based only on fear and superstition. In Nielsen’s opinion, there are few reasonable arguments, like claiming gay marriage has not been historically recognized the same argument against civil rights for ethnic minorities and equal rights for women. Or how could gay marriage, the union of two committed and loving people, destroy his own traditional marriage?

Other Rights in the Church:

Equally passionate was Nielsen about other human rights denied in the church and out, like the harmful belief that people of color reflects pre-mortal levels of spiritual worthiness. More specifically, Nielsen would like the LDS Church to state clearly what their position is on the past denial of the priesthood to blacks. After all, Joseph Smith himself ordained at least one black man, Elijah Abel, to the priesthood. Then when Brigham Young took over the presidency, blacks were denied the priesthood. Could this reflect a certain cultural racism of the times and not divine will? Isn’t it time for the church to be honest?

Harmed also are women and children of polygamous sects. According to Nielsen, until the church acknowledges that modern polygamy is a direct result of the polygamous teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, there will be continued denial of accountability to polygamous families. Also, because many polygamists believe that the church will reinstate polygamy and receive them back into the fold the church has a responsibility to clearly state the nature of polygamy, past and present–and if polygamy becomes legal, would the church reinstate it.

People are harmed when they have a right to know the actual history of the church versus official history. Said Nielsen, “Church leaders have implied that to doubt or question is to jeopardize your family, and so those who find such inaccuracies in church publications are faced with alienation of love and affection in their families if they dare talk about it. This dilemma of choosing between the truth as they perceive it, or the love and affection of their families is the fault of the church’s failure to be more open and transparent, and it is harming real families.”

Other human rights that Nielsen believes the church denies are:

  • The exclusion of mothers and fathers from their children’s temple weddings when the parents are inactive or are non-members. Already done in countries without temples, civil and temple weddings could occur on the same day. “Not one more mother should have to wait outside the temple while her child is married because she didn’t pay the LDS Church enough money to gain entrance,” said Nielsen.
  • There is no doctrinal reason to keep real membership numbers and church-wide activity a secret; the church needs to be completely open and accountable.
  • There is no doctrinal reason to keep secret church finances from members.

The only rationale, in Nielsen’s opinion, for keeping secret both membership numbers and finances is to protect the position and privilege of the church hierarchy.

  • Worthiness interviews between local church leaders and teenage members should only occur in the presence of their parents or guardian, which would benefit church leaders, parents, and youth.
  • There should be gender equality between men and women in the church. The Relief Society needs to return to complete control by the women of the church with direct access to the president rather than be under the direction of a seventy, which is how it was with Joseph Smith to the 1970s.

In addressing these inequities, Nielsen emphasized that questioning them is not meant to challenge LDS Church leadership or doctrine, but rather to examine the injustices and to consider a moral reform.

Last but not least, Nielsen expressed desire for complete freedom to examine, question, and dialogue with church leaders and church members so that when he sustains leaders into official office, he could do so genuinely. Said Nielsen, “I do not believe that sustaining leaders requires either silent acquiescence or unquestioning conformity, but it does require active engagement with one another and with out church leaders, regardless of our place or position within church leadership hierarchies. Every person possesses the privilege to speak and the obligation to listen.”

–Sarah Smith

President’s Message

Books, books, books, I buy far too many books and magazines. But I can’t help it. I suspect that many of you, at times, find yourselves in the same boat. Recently I purchased several at places as diverse as a yard sale, Barnes and Noble, and Costco.

Three of them are on current best seller lists. This is encouraging because they are books I would hope become widely read. They include the most recent book by Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which you might suspect are both decidedly critical of religion. The third is Bob Woodward’s State of Denial. I have finished Letter, and have include a review of it on page x. The other two I have only started by thumbing through them a bit, but they give me reasons to read on. Although I think I will need to take Bob Woodward’s State of Denial a small piece at a time. A large chunk of George W. Bush and his administration is likely to make me ill.

The yard sale netted me two books that have a weird juxtaposition. I picked up John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, which I have never read. The second one is titled, The End Times Are Here Now, by Charles Halff. I picked it up because I have been looking for a source of reference as to what these religious “End Timers” believe, with citations of biblical chapter and verse. But these two books do make a strange contrast when side-by-side. On one hand JFK gives us a readable and enlightening narrative about individuals in history that stood courageously for principles they believed in. Then on the other hand we have a book that is filled with the doom and gloom of the biblical end times. Well, that’s enough about books.

Until our membership meeting in February, I will continue to remind the membership of Humanists of Utah that we have room on our board of directors for a couple of new faces. Please give it some thought.

Finally, I would urge you to be sure and vote. I think that humanists probably vote at a higher percent than the general population, and I’m confident that we understand how important it is to do so.

–Robert Lane
President, HoU

Letter To A Christian Nation

~Book Review~

Sam Harris’ new book is small in size and an easy read. His style is interesting in that he writes much of it as a response to what religious Christians assert. He often starts a section with the two words “you believe,” then after stating what they believe, he sets forth good arguments why many of these beliefs are not backed by any evidence, are illogical, sometimes disgusting, and often harmful to humanity.

This book contains more than just criticism of religion; it also has many cogent and useful passages like the following quotes.

  • “The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honesty. It is time we acknowledge a basic feature of human discourse: when considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t. Religion is the one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.”
  • “We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.”

Harris makes the point that we should be civil in or discourse and that religion brings much comfort to its adherents. But he also asserts that we should not be intimidated by criticism from fundamentalists or allow them to kill ethical discussions with claims of faith. I found this book a refreshing reply to many of the claims of fundamental Christians.

–Bob Lane

Viginity or Death

This article is courtesy of the Capital District Humanist Society monthly publication. Dr. Ana Lita, is director of the IHEU-Appignani Center for Bioethics, an affiliate of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Merck and GlaxoSmithKline have developed a vaccine for the human papilloma virus (HPV), the primary cause of cervical cancer, which afflicts 10,000 American women a year. Yesterday I had the privilege of discussing this vaccine at a conference of the United Nations’ Division for the Advancement of Women.

This new vaccine is a cause of great controversy among Christian groups because it can be administered to teenagers before they become sexually active. Christian groups believe vaccination will provide teenagers and young adults with a false sense of security that will lead them to engage in sexual activity before marriage.

I recall when the right to abortion was opposed primarily because it was believe it would lead to more premarital sex; only secondarily were the rights of the fetus questioned. The HPV vaccination controversy demonstrates that no matter what the issue–sexually transmitted diseases or abortion–the religious right always concludes that the only solution is the maintenance of female virginity.

The belief that the vaccine will lead to “immorality” implies that having sex before marriage is worse than getting cancer. This inconsistency is analogous to the pro-life refusal to help prevent abortion–which it claims is its primary aim–by refusing to advocate the use of birth control. Opposition to the HPV vaccine and abortion has little to do with protecting human life; its primary aim is to ensure that women remain with the bonds of marriage.

–Ana Lita, Ph.D

Harvard Chaplaincy

Member Recommended Websites

This Month’s featured site is the Harvard Chaplaincy at Harvard University. The site is dedicated to building, educating, and nurturing a diverse community of humanists, agnostics, atheists, and the non-religious at Harvard and beyond.

Harvard Chaplaincy