DETROIT - "Sometimes when all you have is hope, that's when new things can break out." So said Jim Wallis, founding editor-in-chief of Sojourners Magazine, a Christian social justice publication, on why he was driven to convince his publisher, Simon and Schuster, that Detroit, not New York, was the best place to kick off the tour for his latest book "Rediscovering Values, A Moral Compass for the New Economy."
Wallis wants his tour to begin a nationwide discussion about a recovery the country and Detroit desperately need but his call for change does not stop at Wall Street. He also wants the tour to begin a probing look at what kind of nation and people we want to be. Underneath the economic crisis is a value crisis - "We won't get to the economic recovery without first having a moral recovery," he declared.
As an example, he said, "A green economy will require rewiring the economic grid but it will also require rewiring us - we cannot go back to business as usual." A "greed is good" and "I want it now" mentality is a danger to the planet and all life. "The market says there is never enough; there is enough if we share it," he said. He pointed out that the bonuses paid to CEOs last year would have saved the homes of two million families.
He talks of an economic system gone awry. Thirty years ago the average CEO made 30 times the average worker. That figure has now mushroomed to 615 times. When the gaps become too big, the system falls apart: the two biggest peaks of disparity in our history took place the year before the Great Depression and the year before the current "great recession."
He likens the growing poor in our country to the canary in the mine: "When the poor choke, the air is toxic for all of us." "We're in this together" is a value that has been too long ignored, he said.
While celebrating the victory of President Obama, he decried the power of money over politics and says D.C. is wired to block change. He recalled when Obama proclaimed, "I can't succeed in changing unless there is a wind of a movement at my back." Wallis said he wrote back that same day to say, "There also needs to be a wind of change in front of you, clearing the path and pulling you along when necessary."
Wallis noted that a political movement elected Barack Obama but the social movement to make significant change has yet to occur and until it does, major change won't happen.
Redistribution is a good word but right now "the ‘R word' is a word you can't say out loud in D.C.," he said.
The nationwide discussion Wallis calls for began with the panel of Detroit's religious leaders who shared his stage. The Rev Ed Rowe of Central United Methodist Church said people are without light and heat. "Volunteer sharing is not going to happen voluntarily," Rowe said. "I want it illegal to not serve the community"
The Rev. Bill Wylie Kellerman said the city is not just a poster child for disaster as Time Magazine recently put it. He pointed to the growing activity and involvement of the community in beginning new economic practices such as urban agriculture, and the many people joining together to seek relief by resisting foreclosures, immigration raids and utility shutoffs.
"Why is it that where we live, determines if we live," asked Detroit NAACP Executive Director Heater Wheeler. He said it would be easier for him to get a $400,000 housing loan than a $40,000 small business loan.
Another long-standing complaint of Detroiters he cited is redlining by insurance companies. A drunk driver from the suburbs pays less in car insurance than a driver with a good record in Detroit, said Wheeler.
The Rev. Wendell Anthony, whose church hosted the event, called attention to a November ballot initiative which will mandate a statewide reduction in insurance. "Everybody pays too much," he said. "The insurance companies will battle as they did on health care."
Anthony said companies and banks cannot be relied on. Instead, he said, we can't solve the crisis without government mandating full employment. As an example he cited the need for a Humphrey-Hawkins type full employment bill.
But he probed further, asking Wallis if he wasn't really talking about a redistribution of wealth and about a "socialist thrust."Anthony asked if it was possible to redistribute under the capitalist system, a system "built on greed and get what you can."
"I don't know," replied Wallis, but "these questions need to move into the mainstream of society."
As an example Wallis said a growing number of adult Sunday school classes are focusing on economics.
That bit of news was probably a surprise to many but it's the type of discussion he hopes his book will help generate throughout the land. Judging from the reaction of the hundreds who attended, his Detroit stop was an unqualified success.