Posts Tagged ‘Catholic Church’

Georgetown

In Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s UniversitiesCraig Steven Wilder laid bare the uncomfortable truths about race, slavery, and the American academy. What he showed is that the founding of many of America’s revered colleges and universities―from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to Rutgers, Williams College, and the University of North Carolina―came soaked in the sweat, tears, and sometimes the blood of people of color.

Now, we now that the list also includes Georgetown University.

At Georgetown, slavery and scholarship were inextricably linked. The college relied on Jesuit plantations in Maryland to help finance its operations, university officials say. (Slaves were often donated by prosperous parishioners.) And the 1838 sale — worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars — was organized by two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuit priests.

Some of that money helped to pay off the debts of the struggling college.

“The university itself owes its existence to this history,” said Adam Rothman, a historian at Georgetown and a member of a university working group that is studying ways for the institution to acknowledge and try to make amends for its tangled roots in slavery. . .

What has emerged from their research, and that of other scholars, is a glimpse of an insular world dominated by priests who required their slaves to attend Mass for the sake of their salvation, but also whipped and sold some of them. The records describe runaways, harsh plantation conditions and the anguish voiced by some Jesuits over their participation in a system of forced servitude.

“A microcosm of the whole history of American slavery,” Dr. Rothman said.

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The Wall Street Journal is absolutely right: Pope Francis acknowledges the scientific consensus concerning the human/social origins of climate change and argues there is “an urgent need” for policies designed to cut carbon emissions and switch to renewable sources of energy.

But the pope goes further by weaving his signature theme of economic justice and his vehement criticism of capitalism throughout the encyclical.

What the pope does is build on the central economic themes of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, and then extend them to the issue of the natural environment, especially the causes and consequences of climate change. The result is a radical critique of contemporary capitalism.

There are many aspects of the 183-page Laudato Si’ I simply cannot discuss here.* What I want to do in this post is highlight some of the specifically economic themes of the papal encyclical that was officially released yesterday.

Many news stories have already highlighted the pope’s rejection of carbon emission trading as a solution to the problem of climate change:

The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide. This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require. Rather, it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. (126)

But there is a great deal more in the economics of Laudato Si’.

Throughout the encyclical, the pope highlights the relationship between climate change and the “economy of exclusion,” particularly the way the continued deterioration in the natural (and, he doesn’t overlook, social) environment affects the poorest, most vulnerable people on the planet.** Here are two examples:

Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and eco-systemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. (20)

And

One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality. (23)

Not surprisingly, this leads to his reiteration of the preferential option for the poor:

In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. . .We need only look around us to see that, today, this option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good. (117)

And that’s the other side of the focus on the poor: the idea that the natural environment is part of the common good.

Human ecology is inseparable from the notion of the common good, a central and unifying principle of social ethics. The common good is “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment [sic]” (116).

So, if it is clear that climate change is a pressing issue, especially for the poor and most vulnerable, what stands in the way of effectively dealing with the problem? Here the pope extends his economic analysis to identify the interests and ideas that represent obstacles to both thinking about and finding appropriate solutions to climate change.

The pope, for example, cites those who stand in the way of making real change:

Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. (21)

In the meantime, economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. (41)

He also challenges responses that benefit only a tiny minority:

Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. (23)

In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. . .Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called “safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live. (31-32)

In the end, of course, the pope has to confront the problems of profits, markets, and private property.

This is what he writes about profits:

The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. (81)

Here he is on markets:

Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of na- ture, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor. (139)

And then on private property:

The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. (69)

Finally, it has been noted that the pope doesn’t offer much in the way of concrete proposals to solve the problem of climate change. But he does mention a number of times the positive effects of a particularly noncapitalist form of economic organization: cooperatives.

Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community. (84)

And

In some places, cooperatives are being developed to exploit renewable sources of energy which ensure local self-sufficiency and even the sale of surplus energy. This simple example shows that, while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference. (131)

Throughout the encyclical, the pope could not have stated things more clearly: the “maximization of profits” is destroying the natural environment, the “poor, the weak, and the vulnerable” are most at risk of pollution and climate change, and “halfway measures” simply won’t work.

No wonder the Wall Street Journal is concerned about the pope’s “vehement criticism of capitalism throughout the encyclical.” Many more people might actually come to believe him.

 

*What I found particularly interesting, in addition to the themes I write about here, are the pope’s criticisms of modern (scientistic) epistemology and the hyper-individualist (neoliberal) subject.

**To be clear, the pope is not just referring to the people in rich and poor countries: “There are not just winners and losers among countries, but within poorer countries themselves” (129). And, he might have added, within rich countries.

Cartoon by David Simonds. Angela Merkel's hard line on debt threatens the euro project.

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Pope Francis offered the only possible response to his being accused of being a Marxist. First, that the “Marxist ideology is wrong.” (How could an official of the Catholic Church, much less the Bishop of Rome, assert otherwise?) And then:

“But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”

 

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.

And Priyamvada Gopal gets it:

The use of “Marxist” as a slur – along with kindred terms such as “socialist” and “communist” – is not a uniquely American phenomenon but is most familiar to us from the era of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, established in 1938 and, later, Joseph McCarthy’s committee.

In that context, and during the “red scares” which followed it during the cold war, these were appellations used to identify and punish any criticism of capitalism, however sympathetic or merely reformist. Indeed, any dissent from mainstream dogma was “un-American”.

As we all know, in the United States, any criticism of individual capitalists or capitalism as an economic and social system still is considered to be associated with Marxism or communism, long after the Fall of the Wall.

But I do need to correct Gopal’s rendering of the long tradition of American anticommunism on one point: the first “red scare” wasn’t in 1918 but earlier, in the nineteenth century, in response to the upsurge of union organizing and the related hunger demonstrations and then in reaction to the Paris Commune.

As Patrick C. Jamieson has explained,

News sources, especially in America, were becoming increasingly worried about the rise of what they perceived as a Communist movement in Paris. This ‘red fear’ was based on both fascination and anxiety over the ideology.  Because of the Commune’s close ties with labor unions, the International Working Men’s Association, socialists, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the Commune thus “further reinforced the bourgeois notion of class war,” as Gay Gullickson notes.  “Journalists regularly referred to the ‘Reds’ in Paris and used ‘communist’ as a synonym for ‘communard’….” Some journalists even used all three terms interchangeably.  Both American newspapers and periodicals followed a similar path in criticizing the Commune and exposing it to the rest of the world. One historian notes that, “[t]he chorus of abuse in the American press quickly mounted as the Commune unfolded, and after its destruction it was frequently used to epitomize all the horrors of ‘communist’ philosophy….The Commune [brought] out [people’s] worst anxieties about the family, religion, property, and social order.” The Paris Commune became the great fear of anti-Communist Americans who saw the actions of the working class in Europe as a major threat.

So, yes, the “red menace” attacks on the pope have a long lineage in the United States, which stretch back to the nineteenth century—and have clearly outlasted the Cold War.

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

On my reading, Obama’s speech borrows heavily from the ideas in Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Society and Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality. Both the best and the worst parts.

The best parts have to do with the existence and effects of inequality, such as the following paragraphs:

The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.  And it is not simply a moral claim that I’m making here.  There are practical consequences to rising inequality and reduced mobility.
For one thing, these trends are bad for our economy.  One study finds that growth is more fragile and recessions are more frequent in countries with greater inequality.  And that makes sense.  When families have less to spend, that means businesses have fewer customers, and households rack up greater mortgage and credit card debt; meanwhile, concentrated wealth at the top is less likely to result in the kind of broadly based consumer spending that drives our economy, and together with lax regulation, may contribute to risky speculative bubbles.

And rising inequality and declining mobility are also bad for our families and social cohesion — not just because we tend to trust our institutions less, but studies show we actually tend to trust each other less when there’s greater inequality.  And greater inequality is associated with less mobility between generations.  That means it’s not just temporary; the effects last.  It creates a vicious cycle.  For example, by the time she turns three years old, a child born into a low-income home hears 30 million fewer words than a child from a well-off family, which means by the time she starts school she’s already behind, and that deficit can compound itself over time.

And finally, rising inequality and declining mobility are bad for our democracy.  Ordinary folks can’t write massive campaign checks or hire high-priced lobbyists and lawyers to secure policies that tilt the playing field in their favor at everyone else’s expense.  And so people get the bad taste that the system is rigged, and that increases cynicism and polarization, and it decreases the political participation that is a requisite part of our system of self-government.

And the worst? The liberal myth that economic growth, including bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States, will reverse the longstanding trend of rising inequality.

To begin with, we have to continue to relentlessly push a growth agenda.  It may be true that in today’s economy, growth alone does not guarantee higher wages and incomes.  We’ve seen that.  But what’s also true is we can’t tackle inequality if the economic pie is shrinking or stagnant.  The fact is if you’re a progressive and you want to help the middle class and the working poor, you’ve still got to be concerned about competitiveness and productivity and business confidence that spurs private sector investment.

Is this, once again, the theory of trickledown economics, which the pope argues “has never been confirmed by the facts”?

 

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I haven’t run across a lot of negative reaction to Pope Francis’s scathing critique of capitalism but it’s beginning to trickle down (sorry!)—and from the usual sources.

Almost immediately, Tim Worstall (for Forbes) attempted to teach the pope a lesson about how capitalism is the “third great invention of humans (after agriculture and the scientific method).” And, of course, there’s Stuart Varney (for Fox Business), who criticizes the pope for mixing religion and politics and proclaims capitalism a “liberator.”

Finally, Greg Mankiw accuses the pope’s rhetoric of—of all things—closing off debate:

“trickle-down” is not a theory but a pejorative used by those on the left to describe a viewpoint they oppose.  It is equivalent to those on the right referring to the “soak-the-rich” theories of the left.  It is sad to see the pope using a pejorative, rather than encouraging an open-minded discussion of opposing perspectives.

To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Juliet, “What’s in a name? that which we call a failed theory/By any other name would smell as bad.”

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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:

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Not much confirmation of trickle-down economics there.