I have been reading Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century. It's slow going, but valuable. It's not only about the 21st century, but also about the economic history of the West in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

One thing that caught my attention is the following fact: during the 1970's the ratio of national capital to the national income (both terms which Piketty has defined by this point in the book) was at its lowest point in decades. In other words, the owners of capital controlled a smaller share of the national income than earlier. The 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan in the US instituted policies to "correct" this situation. Those policies have not been reversed yet, and the result is inequality that we now see.

One of the concerns that I have about Piketty is that his economic analysis seems (at least as far as I have read) to be divorced from an ecological history. We know that Reagan made a significant turn in energy policy for the world. An alliance with the Saudi's was made to increase oil production to keep oil prices low, and to prevent more radical oil producers from using it as a political weapon, as they had during Carter's administration. The US government very visibly turned away from a conservation orientation to a policy of increased energy production. The result was an acceleration of energy consumption and waste, intensifying the damage done to the planet, and placing the world's poor in grave danger.

What I have been talking about are policy choices that were global in effect. (I emphasize the words because I think it is important to see these as conscious decisions made by political actors, not so-called "cultural trends". )

Closer to home, here in UULand, we remember these same years as a time of growth and influence for Conservative Christianity. They were perfecting their organizational form (the large non-denominational suburban program-rich mega-church) which also served as the "ground-game" for the Republican party. 1980 also marked the identification of the "Reagan Democrat," the Rust Belt Roman Catholics who were organized into the political coalition supporting these global policy choices, often on the basis of racial resentment and a defense of patriarchy. We felt small and weak.

Unitarian Universalists, I think, saw all of these developments. I think we understood what was happening. But despite the fact that the Caesars were tightening their control over the world's future, we didn't see that as really relevant to our mission and theology. I wonder why...


  1. Interesting column. I think that one thing that's changed is that in the 1980s Republicans tried to present themselves as allies of working class people both economically and culturally, and to gain support among some parts of organized labor. Maybe because the GOP has turned even more to the right since then (as someone pointed out in 2012 Reagan would miserably fail a Tea Party litmus test)or because organized labor is less relevant, I think that the "Reagan Democrat" phenomenon has also declined. Macomb County, Michigan was where the term "Reagan Democrat" originated, and Reagan himself won it by 20-30 points. Since then, Clinton and Gore won there by small margins, and Obama took it by 7 points in 2008. My sense is that Macomb County is still predominantly middle/working class and Catholic, but that the economic changes of the last 20 years have brought many of these voters home.


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