Economy for the People

During a press conference on his recent plane ride from Paraguay to Rome, Pope Francis admitted he has “a great allergy to economic things.” This is perhaps a surprising statement from a leader who has not hesitated to describe the dangers of unbridled capitalism and called inequality “the root of social evil.” And although some have taken this statement as proof that Francis is out of his league in economic discussions, his outsider status may in fact allow him to approach economic questions in new ways and to breathe new life into the global dialogue. His timely urging of human-centric solutions to current fiscal crises proves his contributions to the conversation are worthy of reflection and engagement.

Francis appropriately places the economy in the context of both the market and morality—but he is not the first to do so. Adam Smith, best known as the father of modern economics, was also a moral philosopher and, in addition to The Wealth of Nations, published The Theory of Moral Sentiments. For Smith, the “self interest” that guided a laissez-faire system was not rooted in greed or avarice but was informed by basic human values of empathy and morality. Today, too often, that connection is lost.

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In his recent address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia, Pope Francis spoke not of the “invisible hand” but of the “invisible thread” that connects the many forms of exclusion in our world, a “system [that] has imposed the mentality of profit at any price.” It is a system that is “intolerable,” Francis said. And while capitalism has many benefits, even its most fervent advocates admit that it, like all economic systems, is imperfect. The vast numbers of people in poverty within capitalist societies prove this. Yet too often, any critique of capitalism is read as a condemnation.

As Francis stated, “Let us begin by acknowledging that change is needed.” His urging is a welcome opportunity for dialogue and discussion, and a chance to move beyond ideology. Creative solutions are required, as are true humility and a willingness to listen. Francis said that he plans to read criticisms of his economic theory before he visits the United States, and he welcomed the suggestion by one reporter that he speak more often about the struggles of the middle class.

This struggle has become especially evident in the context of the Greek economic crisis. As Christians and as people of good will, we are called to be aware not just of policies but of the people they affect. Yet as Greek citizens line up at banks and the Greek middle class shrinks, some European leaders have held hardline stances against the possibility of debt forgiveness. Such actions encourage a world in which the expected returns of the banks are given more weight than the expectations of the individuals actually living in the midst of economic chaos. As European nations debate a solution, they would do well to consider Francis’ statement that “the first task is to put the economy at the service of peoples.”

The European Union can succeed only if the member countries are united not simply by a currency but by a willingness to make sacrifices for the common good. “It would be too simple to say that the fault is only on one side,” Francis said of the Greek crisis. Any true solution must begin with humility on all sides. German leaders, who have urged the strongest austerity measures for Greece, must remember that their own economy benefited greatly from substantial debt forgiveness after World War II. And, following Francis’ example of humble leadership, Greek leaders should be willing to admit their own mistakes in the lead-up to the crisis. “No government can act independently of a common responsibility,” Francis said. “If we truly desire positive change, we have to humbly accept our interdependence.”

Current economic conversations should urge the global community to ask: How does a nation build up an economy that builds up its people? Francis, while promising more attention to the middle class, has nonetheless insisted on attention to those who are at the margins, whether struggling individuals or nations, who cannot and should not be forgotten. His journey to South America was a testament to this belief, as evidenced by his visits to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay—three of the region’s poorest nations—and to the marginalized people within these nations: prisoners, indigenous peoples and those who live in slums.

He also pointed to the example of Latin American countries that have “pooled forces in order to ensure respect for the sovereignty of their own countries and the entire region,” which the European Union would do well to note. Western nations should recognize the valuable lessons that might be gained from greater dialogue with the global South. The reality of our “global interdependence calls for global answers to local problems,” Francis said. Together, let us work toward a world in which not only the wealth of nations but the people of all nations may grow and thrive.

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norman ravitch
2 years 7 months ago
It is good to realize that Adam Smith and other proponents of a freer, non-mercantilistic economy, were not selfish individualists but men with moral values who wanted to better humanity through greater oppportunity and freedom. Many Catholics have taken over the centuries narrow minded views on capitalism because all they know is that it is hard for a rich man to get into the kingdom of Heaven. This is hardly enough. Stupid Catholic views on capitalism resulted in the early twentieth century in a search for a third way between socialism and capitalism and lo and behold many of them found Fascism! Pope Francis has done us a favor by making us look at capitalism to see how it can be made more human oriented. The New Deal was heavily influenced by good, not stupid, Catholic Social Thought and it was the best remedy for excessive capitalism: countervailing power of labor and government to save capitalism from itself. I wish we would realize that Catholicism does have something to offer our economic practices and values. The Pope has at least tried to influence such a realization. Unfortunately he is attacked by people who think somehow the Gospels justify Ayn Rand! She was after all a materialist and an atheist; she once told William F. Buckley, Jr. that he was too intelligent to believe in God! Well faith cannot be proven of course but Ayn Rand can certainly be disproven.
William Atkinson
2 years 7 months ago
In talking with Jr. High, High School, college students they are all amazed when I ask them how America grew so big, defended itself, and became a world power with out a Income Tax: The youth then in an amazing outlook asked? America didn't have a income tax for it's first 150 years?. How did it work? How did the government do it's job? Getting back to basic economy without a income tax is a wonderment in private/government financing. Maybe we should go back before 1912 and see how it worked for our forefathers!
Patricia Johnston
2 years 7 months ago
Look in the history books William. You'll find that in the days before an income tax there were tariffs on manufactured goods, excise taxes on imported goods, taxes on land, poll taxes and even--for a short time--taxes on windows! In the US,both before and after the introduction of income tax, the rich have tended to become richer and the poor remain poor or get poorer. America became a world power because of many technological breakthroughs, abundant resources and an increasing workforce (natural increase and immigration).
norman ravitch
2 years 6 months ago
The rise of the rich is inevitable. So is sin.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 7 months ago
"Economy for the People"...well said!
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 7 months ago
As I read Pope Francis's messages, he is not looking for a debate about capitalism vs socialism vs Marxism, etc. He is urging a conversion of hearts, a new prioritization wherein profits are not the sole priority, as he sees them now to be. I suspect that, in our usual human way, we will progress along a bumpy, winding road developing new mixes of economic sub-systems we already know, including all of the above and others, such as "communing" that Nathan Schneider reminds us of nearby. Any new collection of systems that lets us to more quickly help the last billion people rise out of extreme poverty, provide truly equal opportunities for advancement and development, and appropriately support those who really do need assistance, would be welcome--whatever it looks like. The dialogue, and the progress, might advance more quickly if we put aside our axioms and the cliches that inevitably creep into our conversations. They appear so easily that we do not notice as we utter them. But others who share our goals but differ as to methods do hear them, and perhaps assign more weight or different meaning than the speaker intended. Here, the Editors point to Greece, "Yet as Greek citizens line up at banks and the Greek middle class shrinks, some European leaders have held hardline stances against the possibility of debt forgiveness. Such actions encourage a world in which the expected returns of the banks are given more weight than the expectations of the individuals actually living in the midst of economic chaos." Easy to infer that banks and their profits are involved in the recent Greek crisis. But that is not the case. After the last (several years ago) Greek crisis, it was clear that banks could not again put their depositors' money at risk on new loans, even at high interest rates. So European governments created a special rescue organization to refinance Greek debt. If Greece defaults now, or if the European rescue entity or European sovereign countries forgive all or some Greek debt, the pain shifts from Greek people to other European people, including many non-Germans. The financial loss, and the pain, simply shifts. It does not evaporate. Importantly, no banker bank profit is involved except for some Greek banks that patriotically own Greek government bonds. Some insight: http://www.wsj.com/articles/germany-has-a-lot-to-lose-in-a-greek-euro-exit-1436205505 The Editors conclude, "Together, let us work toward a world in which not only the wealth of nations but the people of all nations may grow and thrive." Amen.
Charles Erlinger
2 years 7 months ago
One of the things that would be part of the foundation of the theoretical support for "an economy that builds up its people" would be a more realistically comprehensive philosophy of the human person. Once one is intellectually entrapped by the material assumptions, both explicit and implicit, in much economic theory and in many economic models, especially as concerns incentives for various kinds of behaviors, there is no way to break out into the logical consideration of the moral, not to mention the theological, virtues. Consequently, the whole idea of the common good has to be tacked onto the reasoning either by appealing to religion or to some kind of sentimental notion of compassion, unrelated to the innate yearnings of the whole human person. While recognizing that ultimately an appeal to religion would have to be made in order to perfect a process of "building up a people," there is no reason to have to force-fit that appeal into what could be an orderly logical movement were the underlying philosophy of the human person realistic in recognizing the non-material elements influencing human incentives.
Tom Maher
2 years 6 months ago
Hopefully the Pope will study, as he said he would, the worldwide criticism he received for his repeated very negative public criticisms of capitalism during his trip to three South America countries in early July, 2015. The Pope's statements demonstrates his knowledge of current, worldwide economics is seriously flawed and limited. It would be very ill advised and extremely antagonistic and divisive for the Pope to come to the United States in September with the same anti-capitalist messages he delivered to the Marxist President and audiences of Bolivia. As a intellectual matter the Pope's anti-capitalist views are not tenable. The Pope and his advisers urgently needs a wider perspective in any economic statements made by the Pope to demonstrate a more realistic and less idiosyncratic understanding of current worldwide economics. Especially the Pope needs to avoid antagonistic Marxist class warfare references. Marxist principles and rationales are not widely accepted economic standards in North America in the 21st century. The Pope needs a more realistic economic basis to criticize capitalism other than failed and disproven Marxist socialist solutions.
Carlos Giron
2 years 4 months ago
Amen "18Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” ... and don't forget to teach and rebuke the nations about socio-economic theories (which, in case you missed it, are allowed to exist under My authority), the ills of capitalism, and if there is any spare time or anyone is still awake, mention the thing about worshiping only Me and, oh yeah, Loving thy neighbor ...

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