The Pope's Economic Plan

April 11th, 2014
in Op Ed

by Scott Baker,

Recently, Pope Francis released an 84-page document, known as an apostolic exhortation, called an Official Platform for his papacy by Reuters. Frankly, most of it is arcane religious doctrine and prescriptions to this atheist, but the pope's economic plan ought to be of interest to everyone.

Follow up:

This pope lives simply, in a guest house, and has been known to wash the feet of ordinary people, despite having access to vast wealth, like all popes. Further, like his namesake, Saint Francis, he seems to sincerely wish to do something to combat poverty. However, most of the MSM articles are crafting his message in purely moral terms. From the Reuters article:

In (the document), Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the "idolatry of money" and beseeching politicians to guarantee all citizens "dignified work, education and healthcare".

Did the pope just call for universal healthcare? Where was he when Obamacare ruled out the Public Option?   On safer ground, the Reuters article continues:

(The pope) also called on rich people to share their wealth. "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills," Francis wrote in the document issued on Tuesday.

"How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?"

This is safe territory for most media. "Just give a little more...share what you've made with those less fortunate," is safe because how much is enough? How much is too little? One could debate redistribution forever without addressing the reason for maldistribution in the first place.

Senator Bernie Sanders digs a bit further, recognizing the pope's "past passionate criticism of the global financial system, which has plunged more of the world into poverty while benefiting the wealthy few."

From Reuters:

In (the exhortation), economic inequality features as one of the issues Francis is most concerned about, and the 76-year-old pontiff calls for an overhaul of the financial system and warns that unequal distribution of wealth inevitably leads to violence.

"As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems," he wrote.

The pope is clearly not a believer in deregulated markets! What would (catholic) Ronald Reagan have thought?

But, there is more to the Pope's plan than just exhortations to - somehow - lessen the wealth gap. Although for some reason, none of the articles I found directly linked to the actual apostolic exhortation, I was able to find it here.

In chapter 2, section I, the pope writes of "SOME CHALLENGES OF TODAY'S WORLD," saying:

"52. In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields. We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people's welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications. At the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity. This epochal change has been set in motion by the enormous qualitative, quantitative, rapid and cumulative advances occurring in the sciences and in technology, and by their instant application in different areas of nature and of life. We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power."

So far, this is pretty standard stuff, maybe equivalent to a "papal rant." But Francis goes on to more stridently argue "No to an economy of exclusion," arguing that there should be a new commandment "'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills."

Better yet, from the point of view of an atheist like me who looks for rational solutions to defined problems, he is impatient with certain popular, but failed, economic theorems.

"54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting."

Did the Pope just repudiate the trickle-down free market? It sure seems that way. This is sure to not sit well with the typical elite V.I.P.s that normally fill a Pope's daily itinerary!

Furthermore, he is saying that merely trusting in the goodness of others is naive and unworkable as an economic plan. There are specific remedies to be applied, not just spiritual awakening. This is quite refreshing coming from a spiritual leader!

He goes on to say "No to the new idolatry of money," though one can be forgiven for thinking it's all very well for one of the - potentially - wealthiest men in the world to say stop worshiping money, or that "Money must serve, not rule!" But what we want to know what is he proposing to do about it, beyond preaching "A financial reform open to such ethical considerations?"

Well, he squarely says that violence comes from inequality and social injustice, "at its root," not just from a failure of character (or faith).   And the pope has his cross hairs aimed at the hyper-security state too:

No to the inequality which spawns violence

59. Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society -- whether local, national or global - is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear. If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death. It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future."

So, the pope is saying that lack of opportunity and gross inequality creates violent reaction, not jealousy.

I wish he had said something about the lack of faith in one's fellow man. Evil does not just happen; it is driven by fear and distrust. This is a lack of faith in the inherent goodness of people. And it is inherent too. Only a small minority of people, including the oligarchs, disrupts or pathologizes the conditions for the rest of us. The small number of oligarchs taking the wealth through rent-seeking and monopolization is comparable to the number of hard core terrorists, but only one group gets the attention it deserves, or perhaps too much attention, given how the 1% elite create conditions for terrorism to breed.

The pope seems to be calling for an end, or at least curtailment, of the "war on terror" and says it is ultimately futile:

Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. This serves only to offer false hopes to those clamouring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts.

The pope goes on to criticize today's consumerism - this, at a time when economists are stuck in the mode of growth at all costs to achieve happiness, instead of asking what it is that makes us happy to begin with, beyond just having more "stuff."

As Francis reminds us:

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a "disposable" culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society's underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised - they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the "exploited" but the outcast, the "leftovers"."

This is pretty radical stuff, even the talk of revolutionaries. This is also new, as the pope says. He is telling us that we have actually discarded a whole class of human beings, not merely exploited them. Is he calling for an uprising, even a peaceful one?

60. Today's economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric.

Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. This serves only to offer false hopes to those clamouring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts. Some simply content themselves with blaming the poor and the poorer countries themselves for their troubles; indulging in unwarranted generalizations, they claim that the solution is an "education" that would tranquilize them, making them tame and harmless. All this becomes even more exasperating for the marginalized in the light of the widespread and deeply rooted corruption found in many countries - in their governments, businesses and institutions - whatever the political ideology of their leaders.

The quotes around "education" are his. He is obviously skeptical of today's schooling, and its usefulness later on.

Unfortunately, the pope does not quite follow through with a true understanding of how the Haves take from the Have-Nots, if not by force, than as economic hitmen, making loans with impossible payment requirements, and then seizing collateral, even whole countries. He once again pleads for redistribution:

With due respect for the autonomy and culture of every nation, we must never forget that the planet belongs to all mankind and is meant for all mankind; the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity.

...instead of for just compensation for the use of resources. Africa, for example, is resource rich, yet its people are among the poorest. Clearly, they are not being compensated for their natural wealth. It is not that their resources are not worth more, without some of them, our modern electronic age could not exist. But those who ought to pay, would rather take the resources by guile or by force. To pay more is not charity, it is justice. For example, a tax on the use/abuse of resources, including location in dense urban areas, would encourage sustainable development while collecting enough money to feed and house all the poor. For that matter, it would force empty warehoused buildings into becoming homes for the poor, or at the very least, make it possible for government to provide a small stipend to make that happen. Right now, most government housing programs are notoriously more expensive than they ought to be, and the dangerous shelter system is no moral solution.

Francis does recognize that:

202. The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, [173] no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.

Again, he is rejecting a "market" solution.

We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.

Francis defines an economy thusly:

206. Economy, as the very word indicates, should be the art of achieving a fitting management of our common home, which is the world as a whole. Each meaningful economic decision made in one part of the world has repercussions everywhere else; consequently, no government can act without regard for shared responsibility. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find local solutions for enormous global problems which overwhelm local politics with difficulties to resolve. If we really want to achieve a healthy world economy, what is needed at this juncture of history is a more efficient way of interacting which, with due regard for the sovereignty of each nation, ensures the economic well-being of all countries, not just of a few.

As Francis says:

"No to a financial system which rules rather than serves."

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