At 80, Francis remains one of the world’s most popular and dynamic leaders, the most visible spokesperson for a vision of the future unrivaled by any political party or organization. I’m surveying the priorities of the Catholic vision in light of a post-election season that has left me both dispirited and perplexed about our prospects as a people. The topic this time: Economic Justice.
|Pope Francis Meeting With Workers|
The Trump campaign clearly exploited the discontent of many working class voters (especially white voters) who feel left behind by the globalizing and automation of our economy.
The economic dislocations brought by globalization, deindustrialization, and automation have been a long time coming. The challenge was already a topic of my economics studies in the late 1960s. Early on, it also touched my own family.
My father worked at General Electric from 39 years, and by the early 1970s he was president of his local engineering union. America’s jet engine was invented at the River Works plant in Lynn Massachusetts, which since World War II had been producing aircraft engines 24 hours a day.
But as the Vietnam War wound down in the 1970s, defense contracts shrunk and GE began laying off workers—including many members of my father’s union. As citizen, my father wanted the war to end, but as union president, he was concerned about the welfare of his fellow workers.
Years later, my younger brother also worked at the River Works but was eventually laid off, caught by the continuing general decline of GE’s manufacturing business. At one point, thanks largely to GE’s presence, the New England region as a whole had employed 33,675 jet engine workers--27.8 percent of total US aircraft engine employment. By the mid-1980s, the River Works employment stood at 13,000. But the 1990s brought a drastic downturn, and by 2016 the plant employed a mere 2,850.
Ironically, in 2016, GE decided to move its world headquarters to Boston’s Fort Point Channel, where it will continue to expand its operations in the “internet of things.” Decades after Ronald Reagan promoted GE’s Manufacturing prowess in television ads (“We Bring Good Things To Life!”), GE’s future lies, not on the assembly line, but in the cloud.
GE’s journey echoes the general US trend away from manufacturing—a trend that has left middle-class incomes falling for 40 years and opened a massive wealth inequality gap.
Now Trump promises to restore jobs and reduce inequality in four ways: (1) penalizing U.S. companies who attempt to outsource jobs, (2) penalizing foreign imports with new tariffs, (3) investing “trillions” on America’s badly degraded infrastructure, and (4) reducing taxes across the board to stimulate job-producing growth,
The first action (1) may protect some jobs, though I believe (along with many economists) that most such jobs are gone forever. Tariffs and protectionist policies (2) risk trade wars wall as international tensions in an era when all economics--markets, corporations, and government policies--have become increasingly international. For example, the European Union, for all its flaws, made free trade the cornerstone of its vision to bring peace to Europe after generations of war by encouraging nations to become packers rather than rivals. And for more than 60 years it has worked. I doubt the U.S. can simply return to a more isolated posture.
Step (3) might happen two ways. We might use tax money to create public jobs as we did during the New Deal, when FDR crated public works projects that put people to work in massive numbers. Or, we might see tax money going to corporations and wait for them to create jobs. Trump proposes the latter, which is the point of step (4)--reducing taxes across the board, for rich and poor, to produce jobs.
This presumes the working of “trickle down economics”: money at the top builds business, so the economy grows, and the wealth produced trickles down to those at the bottom. But Catholic Social Teaching, and Pope Francis in particular, reject outright this theory as a fraud.
The Catholic View
As Francis wrote in his very first major document, the 2013 apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel”:
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.
Notice the term “sacralized,” which means “treated as something sacred.” Francis is saying we will fail to build economic justice if we turn the “prevailing economic system” (capitalist market economics) into something sacred—that is, into an idol. Francis even cites the classic Biblical image for idolatry:
The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.
In a 2015 speech in Bogota, Colombia, Francis returned to the “idol” image:
Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.
Same people might claim that Francis is merely voicing a personal opinion, which Catholics can take or leave--or worse, he is spouting Marxist theories! But in an interview with an Italian newspaper, he rightly insisted that he speaks as the voice of Catholic Social Doctrine:
There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the ‘trickle-down theories’ which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.
In his 2015 encyclical on climate change, “Laudato Si,” Francis returned to the same theme, saying free markets cannot work magic:
Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth…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.
Some have tried to blunt the force of this critique, but even conservative Catholic commentators have conceded that Francis is setting a standard for all Catholics. Patrick Brennan made this clear while reviewing The Joy of the Gospel for National Review, the journal founded by the famous Catholic conservative William F. Buckley:
The pope’s discussion…is about how Catholics should respond to the overwhelming changes that have come to the world “in our time,” which have made many richer and more secure, but left many impoverished and suffering. Those…changes, as free marketeers would surely agree, are not the product of command-and-control economics, but of free markets. The pope is arguing that freer markets haven’t so far brought us a properly just, caring society, and “in our time,” society has in many ways grown coarser, crueler, and more violent — so Catholics cannot advocate free markets per se. Some proponents of free markets may take issue with that sentiment; most would not.
So here is where we stand: Our new president is proposing to “fix” our economy, produce jobs, reduce inequality, and repair our infrastructure--all by reducing taxes across the board, thus freeing the corporate sector to spend more in a way that will benefit all. Unless he proposes something else to accompany this policy, he is clearly counting on the free market to solve all our problems without major government efforts (aside from tax reform and reduction).
There is no escaping the obvious conclusion: Trump believes the very “magical view” of free markets that Pope Francis (and Catholic Social Doctrine with him) rejects. In my view, the outcome is predictable: as long as we continue to idolize free markets and reject public action to redistribute income, the economic division in our culture will continue to fester and grow. A better future requires us to recognize that inequality can only be solved by redistributing wealth, not by adding to wealth at all levels. And only those who idolize free markets believe that they alone can do that.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017