“Such an economy kills”

Posted: 1 December 2013 in Uncategorized
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The other day, I posted a few paragraphs from the new Roman Catholic Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (which translates as “The Joy of the Gospel”).

I’ve now had a chance to read the entire text (available here), which seems to have gotten some notice around the world (although, best I can tell, there’s still no comment from the likes of Paul Ryan, who would steal bread from the mouths of the poor in the name of saving them from anything but the market).

The document as a whole is a call to a new kind of evangelization on the part of Catholics, both clerical and lay. (On Michael Sean Winters’s interpretation, “The Pope is calling the Church to be a missionary Church, an evangelizing Church, and the privileged path of fidelity to the Gospel is service to the poor.”) The main sections on economics are located in chapter 2 (“Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment”) and chapter 4 (“The Social Dimension of Evangelization”).

The paragraphs I posted before are from chapter 2, in which Francis identifies the nature of the world in which he is making his call for a new missionary church. Permit me to repeat them here:

53. 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. 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 two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” 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”.

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 naïve 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. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

These paragraphs contain a number of remarkable statements. First, as I explained to students in class earlier this week, Francis actually raises opposition to economic inequality and exclusion—to an economy that “kills”—to the level of a commandment. Second, “exclusion” (by an economy that creates “outcasts” and leftovers”) is added to, but does not simply replace, the problems of “oppression” and “exploitation” (of people who presumably join the excluded as the great mass of the “powerless” who are fed on by the “powerful”). Third, he invokes a society of the market spectacle, which both offers us new things to purchase and treats human beings themselves as commodities, “to be used and then discarded.” And, finally, he asserts that “trickle-down” economics, which some people continue to defend, “has never been confirmed by the facts.”*

The following paragraphs expand the critique of current economic arrangements by referring to how money and finance are out of control (in the form of the “idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose” and “financial speculation”), the existence of increasing inequality (“While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few”), the negative effects on the natural environment (“this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule”), and the causes of violence (“until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence,” and “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”).

Taken together, the various points comprise an honest critique of the existing set of economic arrangements and institutions of the sort we never read or hear from mainstream economists and politicians, who either ignore and seek merely to ameliorate some of the effects of the kind of economic devastation we’ve witnessed in recent years. It’s also as clear an analysis of the current context to be found anywhere, which should serve as the background for any pronouncement of where we are and what should be done.

The second major set of statements about the economy occurs in chapter 4, where Francis outlines what the “preferential option for the poor” actually means. Again, let me reproduce some paragraphs from the text:

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, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills. . .

204. 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.

Here, Francis returns to the issue of inequality (“the root of social ills”), the structural causes of poverty (which cannot be resolved simply by “Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs”), and the centrality of the profit motive in creating inequality and exclusion (which means “the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison”).

And what needs to be done? A bit earlier, Francis provides the broad outlines of an alternative approach:

192. Yet we desire even more than this; our dream soars higher. We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a “dignified sustenance” for all people, but also their “general temporal welfare and prosperity”. This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives. A just wage enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.

The challenge, then, is to devise a set of economic institutions that make sure people have access to a basic set of goods and services (including education and access to health care) and employment (based on a “just wage”)—and the work people do, to “express and enhance the dignity of their lives,” needs to be very different from what it is now (inasmuch at it needs to be “free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive”).

In other words, Francis, without providing institutional details, outlines a general approach to work that simply cannot be provided by the current wages system. It creates an opening to imagine a radical reorganization of the economy, at both the microeconomic and macroeconomic levels, in which workers participate in making the fundamental decisions in their workplaces and the economy as a whole is coordinated (might we say planned?) so that existing inequalities and forms of exclusion are eliminated.

In the end, Evangelii Gaudium suggests a fundamental reorientation of the current economic debate: to admit the devastating effects of current economic arrangements on the broad masses of the population and to take up the imperative of restructuring the economy in the interests not of the tiny minority at the top but of those at the bottom who are subjected on a daily basis to processes of exploitation, oppression, and exclusion.

We will know we are in the midst of such a new economic debate when the news of an elderly homeless person who dies of exposure makes at least as much news as when the stock market loses a couple of points.


*The students asked me the other day if, in fact, trickle-down theory had ever been “confirmed by the facts.” I led the usual discussion of different criteria and sets of facts and then showed them this chart:


Not much confirmation of trickle-down economics there.

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  1. […] There is absolutely nothing in the world that prevents the Pope from reversing the Church’s unjustified position on contraception. As we all know, Jesus never said a word against condoms or oral contraceptives. Abortion was of no interest to him either. So the Pope could easily make it easier for all of the women who belong to his Church to “express and enhance the dignity of their lives.” He could but he will  not because for him women are not people. What is even more disturbing is that, for male professors who gush over the Pope’s writings in class, women are not human either. […]

  2. Bruce Norton says:

    Thanks for this very helpful account (and the graph), David!

  3. Tim Nickel says:

    We need to begin to create this alternate set of economic institutions that the pope’s Apostolic Exhortation alludes to. As the situation stands now, home-ownership is getting increasingly difficult, beyond the reach of many, while no one can afford to speak out against the current economic model for fear of losing the job they may have. One suggestion to begin to counter this: a network of co-housing communities that each also house an enlightened place of business to combat the predominant private, for-profit one.

  4. Meijfroidt says:

    It is just a matter of political choices and ideologies . The rules of the game can be changed so that a totally different world would emerge .

  5. […] Pope Francis challenged the theory of trickledown economics. Now, President Obama has announced his intention to focus on the problem of inequality. […]

  6. […] Pope Francis challenged the theory of trickledown economics. Now, President Obama has announced his intention to focus on the problem of inequality. […]

  7. […] That really is the only way to respond to the kinds of outrageous insults right-wing commentators and business pundits have hurled at him after the publication of Evangelii Gaudium. […]

  8. […] Emeritus Robert M. Solow in which, among other things, he supports the view, recently enunciated by Pope Francis, that trickle-down economics “has never been confirmed by the […]

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