by William K. Black, New Economic Perspectives
A New York Times article entitled “Championing Environment, Francis Takes Aim at Global Capitalism” quotes a conventional Harvard economist, Robert N. Stavins. Stavins is enraged by Pope Francis’ position on the environment because the Pope is “opposed to the world economic order.” The rage, unintentionally, reveals why conventional economics is the most dangerous ideology pretending to be a “science.”
Stavins’ attacks on the Pope quickly became personal and dismissive. This is odd, for Pope Francis’ positions on the environment are the same as Stavins’ most important positions. Stavins’ natural response to the Pope’s views on the environment – had Stavin not been an economist – would have been along the lines of “Pope Francis is right, and we urgently need to make his vision a reality.”
Stavins’ fundamental position is that there is an urgent need for a “radical restructuring” of the markets to prevent them from causing a global catastrophe. That is Pope Francis’ fundamental position. But Stavins ends up mocking and trying to discredit the Pope.
I was struck by the similarity of Stavins response to Pope Francis to the rich man’s response to Jesus. The episode is reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in similar terms. I’ll use Matthew’s version (KJAV), which begins at 19:16 with the verse:
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
The young rich man wants to know which commandments he needs to follow to gain eternal life.
He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
The young, wealthy man is enthused. The Rabbi that he believes has the secret of eternal life has agreed to personally answer his question as to how to obtain it. He passes the requirements the Rabbi lists, indeed, he has met those requirements since he was a child.
But then Jesus lowers the boom in response to the young man’s question on what he “lacks.”
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
We need to “review the bidding” at this juncture. The young man is wealthy. He believes that Jesus knows the secret to obtaining eternal life. His quest was to discover – and comply – with the requirement to achieve eternal life. The Rabbi has told him the secret – and then gone well beyond the young man’s greatest hopes by offering to make him a disciple. The door to eternal life is within the young man’s power to open. All he needs to do is give all that he owns to the poor. The Rabbi goes further and offers to make the young man his disciple. In exchange, the young man will secure “treasure in heaven” – eternal life and a place of particular honor for his sacrifice and his faith in Jesus.
Jesus’ answer – the answer the young man thought he wished to receive more than anything in the world – the secret of eternal life, causes the young man great distress.
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
The young man rejects eternal life because he cannot bear the thought of giving his “great possessions” to “the poor.” Notice that the young man is not evil. He keeps the commandments. He is eager to do a “good thing” to gain eternal life. He has “great possessions” and is eager to trade a generous portion of his wealth as a good deed to achieve eternal life. In essence, he is seeking to purchase an indulgence from Jesus.
But Jesus’ response causes the young, wealthy man to realize that he must make a choice. He must decide which he loves more – eternal life or his great possessions. He is “sorrowful” for Jesus’ response causes him to realize that he loves having his great possessions for his remaining span of life on earth more than eternal life itself.
Jesus offers him not only the means to open the door to eternal life but the honor of joining him as a disciple. The young man is forced by Jesus’ offer to realize that his wealth has so fundamentally changed him that he will voluntarily give up his entry into eternal life. He is not simply “sorrowful” that he will not enter heaven – he is “sorrowful” to realize that heaven is open to him – but he will refuse to enter it because of his greed. His wealth has become a golden trap of his own creation that will damn him. The golden bars of his cell are invisible and he can remove them at any time and enter heaven, but the young man realizes that his greed for his “great possessions” has become so powerful that his self-created jail cell has become inescapable. It is only when Jesus opens the door to heaven that the young man realizes for the first time in his life how completely his great possessions have corrupted and doomed him. He knows he is committing the suicide of his soul – and that he is powerless to change because he has been taught to value his own worth as a person by the extent of his great possessions.
Jesus then makes his famous saying that captures the corrupting effects of great wealth.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
The remainder of the passage is of great importance to Luther’s doctrine of “justification by faith alone” and leads to Jesus’ famous discussion of why “the last shall be first,” (in which his anti-market views are made even more explicit) but the portions I have quoted are adequate to my purpose.
Pope Francis’ positions on the environment and climate are the greatest boon that Stavin has received in decades. The Pope, like Stavins, tells us that climate change is a disaster that requires urgent governmental action to fix. Stavins could receive no more joyous news. Instead of being joyous, however, Stavins is sorrowful. Indeed, unlike the wealthy man who simply leaves after hearing the Rabbi’s views, Stavins rages at and heaps scorn on the prelate, Pope Francis. Stavins’ email to the New York Times about the Pope’s position on climate change contains this double ideological smear.
The approach by the pope, an Argentine who is the first pontiff from the developing world, is similar to that of a “small set of socialist Latin American countries that are opposed to the world economic order, fearful of free markets, and have been utterly dismissive and uncooperative in the international climate negotiations,” Dr. Stavins said.
Stavins’ work explicitly states that the “free markets” he worships are causing “mass extinction” and a range of other disasters. Stavins’ work explicitly states that the same “free markets” are incapable of change – they cause incentives so perverse that they are literally suicidal – and the markets are incapable of reform even when they are committing suicide by laissez faire. That French term is what Stavins uses to describe our current markets. Pope Francis agrees with each of these points.
Pope Francis says, as did Jesus, that this means that we must not worship “free markets,” that we must think first of the poor, and that justice and fairness should be our guides to proper conduct. Stavins, like the wealthy young man, is forced to make a choice. He chooses “great possessions.” Unlike the wealthy young man, however, Stavins is enraged rather than “sorrowful” and Stavins lashes out at the religious leader. He is appalled that an Argentine was made Pope, for Pope Francis holds views “that are opposed to the world economic order [and] fearful of free markets.” Well, yes. A very large portion of the world’s people oppose “the Washington Consensus” and want a very different “world economic order.” Most of the world’s top religious leaders are strong critics of the “world economic order.”
As to being “fearful of free markets,” Stavins’ own work shows that his use of the word “free” in that phrase is not simply meaningless, but false. Stavins explains that the people, animals, and plants that are the imminent victims of “mass extinction” have no ability in the “markets” to protect themselves from mass murder. They are “free” only to become extinct, which makes a mockery of the word “free.”
Similarly, Stavins’ work shows that any sentient species would be “fearful” of markets that Stavins proclaims are literally suicidal and incapable of self-reform. Stavins writes that only urgent government intervention that forces a “radical restructuring” of the markets can save our planet from “mass extinction.” When I read that I believed that he was “fearful of free markets.”
We have all had the experience of seeing the “free markets” blow up the global economy as recently as 2008. We saw there, as well, that only massive government intervention could save the markets from a global meltdown. Broad aspects of the financial markets became dominated by our three epidemics of “accounting control fraud.”
Stavins is appalled that a religious leader could oppose a system based on the pursuit and glorification of “great possessions.” He is appalled that a religious leader is living out the Church’s mission to provide a “preferential option for the poor.” Stavins hates the Church’s mission because it is “socialist” – and therefore so obviously awful that it does not require refutation by Stavins. This cavalier dismissal of religious beliefs held by most humans is revealing coming from a field that proudly boasts the twin lies that it is a “positive” “science.” Theoclassical economists embrace an ideology that is antithetical to nearly every major religion.
Stavins, therefore, refuses to enter the door that Pope Francis has opened. Stavins worships a system based on the desire to accumulate “great possessions” – even though he knows that the markets pose an existential threat to most species on this planet and even though he knows that his dogmas increasingly aid the worst, most fraudulent members of our society to become wealthy through forms of “looting” (Akerlof and Romer 1993) that make other people poorer. The result is that Stavins denounces Pope Francis rather than embracing him as his most valuable ally.
Conclusion: Greed and Markets Kill: Suicide by Laissez Faire
The old truths remain. The worship of “great possessions” wreaks such damage on our humanity that we come to love them more than life itself and act in a suicidal fashion toward our species and as mass destroyers of other species. Jesus’ insight was that this self-corruption is so common, so subtle, and so powerful that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Today, he would probably use “economist” rather than “camel.”
Theoclassical economists are the high priests of this celebration of greed that Stavins admits poses the greatest threat to life on our planet. When Pope Francis posed a choice to Stavins, he chose to maintain his dogmatic belief in a system that he admits is suicidal and incapable of self-reform. The reason that the mythical and mystical “free markets” that Stavins worships are suicidal and incapable of self-reform even when they are producing “mass extinction” is that the markets are a system based on greed and the desire to obtain “great possessions” even if the result is to damn us and life on our planet.
Adam Smith propounded the paradox that greed could lead the butcher and baker (in a village where everyone could judge reputation and quality) to reliably produce goods of high quality at the lowest price. The butcher and baker, therefore, would act (regardless of their actual motivations) as if they cared about their customers. Smith observed that the customer of small village merchant’s products would find the merchant’s self-interest a more reliable assurance of high quality than the merchant’s altruism.
But Stavins makes clear in his writing that this is not how markets function in the context of “external” costs to the environment. In the modern context, the energy markets routinely function in a manner that Stavins rightly depicts as leading to mass murder. Stavins so loves the worship of the quest for “great possessions” that he is eager to try to discredit Pope Francis as a leader in the effort to prevent “mass extinction” (Stavins’ term) – suicide by laissez faire.
(No, I am not now and never was or will be a Catholic.)