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Vail Daily column: What helps us get ahead?

Jack Van Ens

What do we need in order to succeed?

Republicans and Democrats agree that workers will climb the ladder of success if they have equal opportunities to advance. The GOP/Dems split sharpens over how much government assistance these climbers should get without making them dependent on Uncle Sam.

Picture the deep divide between the GOP and Democrats as a 100-meter dash. Republicans place workers on starting blocks with each sprinter similarly advantaged. Those who get ahead work hard, take calculated risks that pay off and create opportunities to advance.

Democrats believe equal opportunity with government help must come at the end of the sprint, not merely the beginning. Many sprinters capitalize on assets acquired from familial bloodlines, premier education or getting their first job debt-free. They break the tape ahead of sprinters who lack such advantages. Government’s intervention at the race’s finish line levels the playing field, say Democrats. The result: More citizens succeed.

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, says the GOP espouses “meritocratic fairness.” They are confident that merits provided by hard work and diligent effort move citizens up the ladder of success.

Democrats, according to Brooks, promote “distributive fairness.” Some climbers trip on broken rungs. Government’s helping hand distributes loans, food stamps and occupational training at the end of the sprint. Then these climbers are able to compete with favored achievers who benefit from strong families, sound education and a job market titled toward their skills.

No surprise, then, that Donald Trump prior to Christmas played to a raucous, adoring crowd in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. In this Republican stronghold, he dissed Hillary Clinton, using Yiddish slang with nasty sexual overtones. Grand Rapidians cheered when Trump used a salty insult to emphasize how badly Clinton lost in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Growing up in Grand Rapids, my earliest political recollection is of the 1952 presidential race that Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won. My dad idolized his war-time hero. He hung Ike’s portrait in our home. Most Dutch citizens in Grand Rapids chanted, “I like Ike!” The GOP’s Gerald R. Ford served as our 5th District congressmen. I attended Christian schools from kindergarten through a decade of post-college graduate education. As my schooling progressed, I started doubting that the GOP formula of equal opportunity at the starting line benefited a cross-section of society.

This Republican mantra taught me to ply my talents, extend effort beyond what a paycheck rewards and search for God’s direction in the labors we pursue. Believe in free-enterprise. Have confidence in a market-driven economy. Be wary of government that puts the poor on the dole.

Making hard work the common denominator for success at the beginning of life’s race raised bothersome questions. Did laborers have a voice in their workplace? If so, then didn’t labor unions fill a niche in protecting workers’ rights from predatory owners?

In education, why did top-flight schools function like educational fiefdoms for students from high-income white families? Didn’t the American Dream envision quality education for every child regardless of their family’s meager income? Isn’t the government capable of competing with Amazon’s fiscal efficiency and fund public schools appealing to all sectors of our society?

What about the judicial system? Why do white-collar criminals get slaps on the wrist from judges, doing community service instead of jail time?

What about health care in the U.S.? It’s the best in the world for those who can afford it. But health care for the poor consists of expensive emergency care in hospitals.

How did Jesus relate to the poor? He spent more time with them than with affluent leaders in ancient Palestine. Jesus spun stories carrying punchlines undercutting the GOP’s creed about God rewarding diligent workers. Christ told of a master who threw a party. The guest list didn’t include wealthy and powerful owners who scratched each other’s economic backs. Instead, the master invited street people. Jesus equated such generosity with compassion toward him.

Christ advanced a topsy-turvy ethic: Economic spoils shouldn’t go to the hardest workers because “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”

There’s truth in the GOP’s contention that hard work is necessary at the start of the race for economic success. But the GOP doesn’t divulge the entire story. Democrats aren’t disguised socialists when they say government plays a vital role, giving the poor chances to finish strong.

Jesus wasn’t either a capitalist or Marxist. His ethic thrived on giving people equal opportunity and dignity when unfair politics denigrated them.

The Wall Street Journal’s commentator William A. Galston writes, “Conservatives are right to say that if families were stronger, government would be less necessary. But when families are weak and lack resources, either government steps in or children don’t have a fair chance to succeed. That is the debate we should be having.”

Include this debate in your New Year’s resolutions.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries.


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