Where Does Fault Lie?

I had lunch yesterday with one of my colleagues, an evangelical Christian. (Yes, there are real, live believers on the Harvard Law faculty — more than a few.) We agreed that the middle class is in serious economic trouble, which led us to a discussion about fault. He made the point that part of evangelical Christianity is about taking blame when things go wrong. “It’s my own fault” — or, sometimes its close cousin, “It’s your own fault.” As a first step in acknowledging sin and weakness, this makes sense. And when it is coupled with seeking help and making real efforts to change.

But my friend made the point that sometimes the volume is turned up so high on “my/your own fault” that people don’t hear the other half of the equation: as a country, we have made powerful policy choices that make it far more likely that certain things will go wrong.

I remember the bankruptcy debates: Americans are buying too much stuff, not saving, budgeting to the edge of their incomes. No wonder they are in trouble. It’s their own fault!

And the reply: Americans have too little health insurance, too little job security, and they have been set upon by a deregulated credit industry that is robbing many of them blind. No wonder they are in trouble! It’s the fault of a bunch of terrible policy choices!

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I believe in both halves of this debate: the half that says the policies are terrible and the half that says every single person can do something to make their own lives better. I wrote two books recently, The Two-Income Trap about the huge policy decisions we have made that are crippling American families and All Your Worth, a one-on-one personal advice book because in a badly messed up world, people need help to do whatever they can to save themselves.

To talk about a middle class in financial trouble, we need to engage as many people as possible. I seek your advice: Can we have a conversation about policy choices and personal choices? Are they antithetical, or are they parts of a single mosaic?

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