The Public Eye: When Bad Things Happen to Good Americans

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday April 05, 2011 - 03:37:00 PM

In 1981, in response to the death of his son, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the classic When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In recent days there’s been such bad news about jobs and unemployment that Rabbi Kushner should consider writing a sequel: “When Bad Things Happen to Good Americans.” 

23 million US citizens are not fully employed while corporations enjoy record profits. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show US unemployment at 8.9 percent with another 5.4 percent underemployed and .7 percent “discouraged” – not looking for work for various reasons – for a combined rate of 15 percent. Of these unemployed, at least 1.4 million are “99ers,” individuals who have exhausted their unemployment benefits after unsuccessfully seeking work for 99 weeks. Oh vey! 

Most American believe in God, as 83 percent of Americans identify either Christian (78.4 percent) or some other religion (4.7 percent). Rabbi Kushner asks: if there is a loving God, why do bad things happen? Why do we lose our jobs even though we work hard? After considering the usual explanations – God makes mistakes, suffering builds character, and so forth – the Rabbi concludes, “Maybe God does not cause our suffering. Maybe it happens for some reason other than the will of God.” 

No doubt America’s millions of unemployed ask themselves daily why their bad thing happened. Reading their stories one realizes that these were good employees who were terminated because their corporation chose to increase its profitability. 

The US economy is slowly improving but jobs are not being added at a rapid pace. Many economists predict high unemployment is likely to continue. Meanwhile, US Corporations are enjoying record profits

Rabbi Kushner observes, “In the final analysis, the questions of why bad things happen to good people transmutes itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it happened.” What do Americans intend to do about our high unemployment and the 23 million citizens that are suffering? 

Being a religious people, Americans believe the United States is the number one nation on the planet and that God favors us. We don’t expect to have chronic problems like high unemployment – or several million folks who have exhausted their unemployment benefits. When things go terribly wrong, Americans scramble for answers and we often resort to political blames games: it’s the fault of Democrats/Republican/Liberals/Conservatives. Chronic unemployment has become a political “hot potato” tossed back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. 

Rabbi Kushner asks what do we intend to do now that the bad thing – chronic unemployment – has happened? What action will you and I take? 

First we need to acknowledge that there is an ideological split. American agree on the reality of unemployment but not its causes and remedies. Liberals believe corporations care more about profits than they do worker wellbeing and feel the Federal government ought to intercede with a combination of unemployment insurance, reeducation, and job creation programs. Conservatives believe government is the root problem and feel that the market will provide the necessary jobs if only federal taxes and regulations are reduced. 

This ideological split is usually framed as a debate about the merits of “big government” versus “big corporations.” While it’s expressed in political language it’s actually a question of values: do Americans honor the Golden Rule? Do we truly see ourselves as being responsible for our brothers and sisters? Do we care more about compassion than we do about profitability and efficiency? 

When we consider our chronic unemployment as a question of values rather than political jargon, we recognize America is torn between individual values (human rights) and corporate values. And the conflict goes deeper. The US is in the midst of struggle to define the relationship between democracy and capitalism. Conservatives, and most Republicans, believe democracy and capitalism are synonymous; what is good for the market is good for Americans, in general. They believe corporate values trump human rights. Liberals, and many Democrats, do not believe that democracy and capitalism are synonymous; they’re worried that rising economic inequality is a grave social danger. They believe that human rights supersede corporate values. 

Rabbi Kushner writes, “The God I believe in doesn't send us the problem; He gives us the strength to cope with the problem." He concludes his wise book by observing, “Our responding to life's unfairness with sympathy and with righteous indignation, God's compassion and God's anger working through us, may be the surest proof of all of God's reality.” 

Americans need to respond to chronic unemployment with sympathy and righteous indignation. And from this moral stance we need to resist the political tsunami that argues that corporate rights trump those of individuals, that contends that democracy and capitalism are synonymous. In the face of a grave wrong Americans need to find the strength to protect all of our people. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at