dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

dotCommonweal Blog

Prophecy and Prose

Pope Francis’ recent speech in Bolivia has rekindled the debate over Pope Francis’ views on economics and inequality.  Francis’ defenders have argued that the pope is merely offering a robust presentation of Catholic social teaching.  His more fevered critics see him as a herald of a resurgent Marxism.

The frustrating thing about this debate is that it usually operates at a level of abstraction, as if the choices facing policymakers really did boil down to a choice between capitalism and, well, something else.  To a great extent, this reflects the penchant of American conservatives branding even modest efforts to redress economic inequality as “socialism.”

As fond as I am of Francis, however, I think the pope also bears some responsibility for this.  Phrases like an “economy that kills” and “an economy of exclusion” remind me of John Paul II’s “culture of death” and Benedict XVI’s “culture of relativism.”  In none of these cases do I find the phrases adequately descriptive of the phenomenon in question or analytically helpful in developing remedies.

Read more

Capitalists to Pope Francis: What about us?

Pope Francis's in-flight press conferences--freewheeling, unscripted, even unredacted (at least for the moment)--have produced quite a bit of news. Who could forget "Who am I to judge?" Or the time the pope said that a friend who talks smack about his mom "is going to get a punch in the nose"? Reporters know that asking Francis the right question in just the right way might elicit a headline-worthy response. No surprise, then, that on the flight back to Rome following the pope's visit to South America, where he took globalization to the woodshed, a couple of enterprising reporters wanted to talk economics. Roll tape.

Noting how often Francis had spoken of the poor over the past several days, one German journalist wanted to know why the pope didn't say more about "the middle class, that is, the working people, the people who pay taxes, normal people, like the Greeks." All right, he didn't actually mention the Greeks. He did, however, want to know the pope's message for those non-abnormal, responsible payers of taxes.

Instead of asking the reporter whether he realized that Bolivia--where he delivered his stinging rebuke to purveyors of globalization--is the poorest country in South America, that 60 percent of its 8 million residents live below the poverty line, a quarter of them in extreme poverty, Francis responded graciously: "Thank you very much, that is a nice correction. You are right, that is a mistake on my part. I have to think about that." The Catholic News Agency made it sound like Francis had never considered this before: "You're right, I'll have to come up with something!" But Francis didn't quite say that, and he wasn't done answering the question.

Read more

Pope Francis delivers 'little encyclical' in Bolivia.

Pope Francis's address to the World Meeting of the Popular Movements in Bolivia on Thursday was described as a "little encyclical" by the editor of L'Osservatore Romano. Given its breadth and rhetorical power, that seems about right. Initial reports emphasized the pope's apology for the church's "many grave sins...committed against the native peoples of America," and of course that would receive some attention, given that it plays into the idea of the Catholic Church as unyielding. But the remark came late in the speech, following a withering critique of a globalized economy that operates on the "mentality of profit at any price" without concern for "social exclusion or the destruction of nature."

Do we realize, Francis asked, "that something is wrong in a world where there are so many farmworkers without land, so many families without a home, so many laborers without rights, so many persons whose dignity is not respected?" He referred to these "three Ls"--land, lodging and labor--as "sacred rights." And, lest anyone wonder whether the Argentine pope was laboring under a benighted idea of capitalism, Francis made it clear that he was not just talking about the economies of Bolivia and its neighbors. No, "I am speaking about problems common to all Latin Americans and, more generally, to humanity as a whole." This system is "intolerable," he continued, echoing his encyclical on the environment, Laudato si': "Farmworkers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable… The earth itself--our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say--also finds it intolerable."

Time is short, the pope declared. The planet and its people are suffering; we need change now. "Behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea--one of the first theologians of the church--called 'the dung of the devil.' An unfettered pursuit of money rules. This is the 'dung of the devil.'" Pace David Brooks, Francis failed to mention the free market's wonderful ability to "harness self-interest" and put it to good, that is to say profitable, use. No, he has witnessed the system's failures firsthand, in the slums of Buenos Aires, in his travels as the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, "I have sensed an expectation, a longing, a yearning for change, in people throughout the world."

Read more

If I could vote in Greece/ Update: Greeks say NO!

The referendum called for by the Greek Government allows citizens to vote Yea (for more austerity and remaining in the Eurozone) or Nay (default and perhaps depart the Eurozone). It is a momentous decision for the Greeks, the EU, and in various forms for the rest of us. Story here.

Paul Krugman in Friday's column seems to support a "No" vote to show the creditors that they should push no further and it was time to cut their losses. But the creditors won't be the only, or perhaps primary losers, in this war of nerves.

How would you vote?

UPDATE: Reuters: "Greeks defy Europe with 'NO'"   What next?

Whose Legacy?

The word "legacy" appears frequently in stories about the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). And almost without exception it refers to President Obama's legacy.

The defeat last week in the House of a piece of the agreement has been taken as a major defeat for the president, and what's more, at the hands of his fellow Democrats. No doubt, the whole thing will circle around again, and those now on record against the agreement can then vote, yes.

But why would it be singled out as Obama's legacy. We could say that the legacy of NAFTA lives on in the lives of those who lost or never found good jobs over the last two decades, and not in the life of Bill Clinton who signed it. Presumably the major legacy of TPP will be more disruption in job formation, both here and in the "trans-Pacific." Labor and environmental regulations are weak and the ability of a few to make lots of money is strong. Why would any president want that for his legacy?

New issue, new stories

Featured right now on the website, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., as well as our June 12 issue, just posted today.

In writing on the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, E.J. discusses "The Two Santa Claus Theory" put forth by supply-siders in the 1970s and says that Sanders may be tapping into something:

The senator from Vermont has little chance of defeating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. But he is reminding his party of something it often forgets: Government was once popular because it provided tangible benefits to large numbers of Americans...

Read all of "The New St. Nick" here.

And, among the highlights from our new issue is Robert Gascoigne writing on the affinities between Christians and the "secularists" who "share with Christians many of the key ethical values that can motivate and energize democratic political life."

[The] significant commonality of ethical and political ideals between secular humanism and the contemporary Catholic Church has a complex and turbulent historical background. The litany of suffering of members of the church at the hands of revolutionary political movements is a long and terrible one. Yet the relationship between the Catholic Church and movements for democratic change and social justice has happily, and surprisingly to many, developed into a shared commitment to defending human rights.

Read all of "Shared Commitments" here.

And, Rand Richards Cooper pens a Last Word on the troubling ubiquity of smartphones and the baffling "universal desire to be connected everywhere and all the time":

[T]hat’s America these days: people everywhere with their heads bent, fingertips flicking at their screens. Couples in restaurants, silently flicking. A schoolbus full of teenagers, heads bent as if in prayer.... But what happens when what we’re farming out is consciousness itself—the ability to be ourselves, with ourselves, amid the glories of creation?

Read all of "Flick, Flick" here, and see the full table of contents for the June 12 issue here.

The Enduring George Weigel Problem

George Weigel seems quite immune to irony. In a recent column, be opines on what he sees as “The Catholic Church’s German Problem”. Yet in the run-up to the pope’s encyclical on the environment, perhaps a more appropriate headline would be “The Catholic Church’s North American Problem”. As we all know, the sound and fury surrounding a document that has not yet been published is simply unprecedented. And it is equally clear that this sound and fury is coming overwhelming from the United States—from its noisy cabal of libertarians, free market fundamentalists, oil and gas industry vested interests, and climate science denialists.

Full disclosure: I was involved in last month’s symposium at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development”. As I noted before, this symposium brought together some of the world’s top climate scientists, development practitioners, and religious leaders, and it was opened by Ban Ki-Moon. It also had the dubious distinction of being gate-crashed by the worst emblem of this “American problem”—the Heartland Institute, which uses quack science to mock the idea of climate change while upholding the virtues of the unlimited extraction of fossil fuels. More than one person noted in private that this is indeed an American issue, and it is being driven by American financial interests.

And who provides cheap intellectual cover for these radicals and dangerous extremists? None other than George Weigel.  In the aftermath of our symposium, he noted that it “assiduously excluded those skeptical of the U.N.’s global-warming orthodoxies” – as if the subject of anthropogenic global warming was actually subject to debate outside the hermetically-sealed chamber occupied by this cabal.

Circling back to his attack on the German Church, the lesson Weigel draws is that of “a cautionary tale about the effects of surrendering to the spirit of the age.” Yet I would contend that few American Catholics in the modern era have surrendered more to the spirit of the age—the age of Reagan and the resurgence of free-market liberalism and aggressive militarism—than George Weigel.

Read more

Those Who Want Housing, and Those Who Need It

In London it’s become the fashion of wealthy homebuyers to supplement already sizable residences with cavernous subterranean lairs. In Manhattan it’s to move into a sky-high aerie, priced in the tens of millions, from which it’s possible to look down on the Empire State Building. In the Bay Area it’s to snap up anything inside the city limits of San Francisco, the near entirety of which has become a bedroom community for Silicon Valley’s most monied.

Wealth has always shaped cities, but its current role in the transformation of urban centers around the world seems unprecedented, probably because there’s so much more of it, concentrated in ever-fewer hands, moving ever more fluidly and mysteriously through lightly regulated and technologically enhanced channels. Oligarch, plutocrat, or ordinary multimillionaire, the highest-net-worth property-seekers want to be in cities, or if nothing else be able to park their money in one (real estate being a good place to hide it). It may be a cliche to talk about the divide between rich and poor in places like London, New York, and San Francisco, but some cliches bear restating, especially when the divide seems increasingly inconceivable in its breadth -- the very function of a system engineered to practically ensure its further expansion. “Darwinian upscale urbanism,” as Martin Filler termed it in the New York Review of Books in April, referring specifically to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s vision for the city he ran -- a place where the wealth of wealthy property owners was to trickle down to residents but instead, a researcher found, had “deleterious effects... on small business, the middle class, and taxpayers.”

It may not be easy to dig an enormous basement or live in a condo eighteen-hundred feet above street-level, but it would be even harder if there were not banks, developers, lawyers, real-estate firms, contractors, and politicians dedicated to making it possible.

Read more

Abusing immigrants, something for everyone

We had a go around last week about nail salons (and I have been chided for treating it as another NYTimes hand-wringer). Okay. Sorry to scandalize the sensitive!

I pointed out in a comment on that post that our Immigration Law Imbroglio has a lot to do with the nail scandal as well as many other ongoing industrial/commercial abuses, such as restaurants, gas stations, street repairs, etc. Thanks to Republicans our laws have not been updated; thanks to Obama the laws, such as we have, are not being enforced; thanks to the economy of low-wage jobs, ever more immigrants will come by hook or crook and be abused, many of them by their own countrymen/women and by our failure to enforce the laws that should protect them as well as our very own low-wage workers.

Jim Dwyer (no hand-wringer) has a short piece not only about workers beings abused everywhere in NYC, but about the general failure of city and state to enforce the laws that should be protecting these workers, legal or not.

New issue is live

We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:

Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:

The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.

Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy. 

Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?

Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religionsand Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe. 

See the full table of contents here.

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the website.

First is Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he tracks the angry reactions of traditionalist-leaning Catholics to certain words from an archbishop (one of Francis’s most trusted theologians) interviewed by an Italian newspaper. He also examines the continuing threats of schism from these Catholics "should Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops allow for changes in church teaching on marriage" and gives an interesting look into how Opus Dei has taken advantage of the saint-making process, which was streamlined by St. John Paul II in 1983.

Read the whole thing here.

Next, the editors weigh in on the European Union’s welcome, if belated, announcement to take an active role saving refugees and expediting asylum requests for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war, poverty, and religious and ethnic persecution in Africa:

…certainly the nations that are blessed with relative economic strength—and whose military and political missteps have helped bring about the crisis in [Africa]—owe it to the afflicted to stop the loss of lives at sea.

Could the Obama administration’s response to the migration crisis in Central America be a useful model for European nations dealing with their own migration crisis?

Read the whole editorial here.

New issue, new stories

On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:

Jo McGowan examines the effects violence against children has on society at large—effects so drastic it is being treated as an "any other epidemic," “says forensic psychologist Karen McCluckey:

Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.

Jerry Ryan reflects on his struggle to discover "what the person of Jesus means" to him, spiritually and theologically:

Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”

Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.

Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.

Also featured on the site now, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes about a senator's sensible stance on faith and secularism. Read the whole thing here.

More new stories on the website

E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a deeper look into social problems in Baltimore--how globalization of the economy, technological change, and deindustrialization have taken manufacturing jobs out of the city without ever replacing them. Dionne interviews Thomas J. Vicino, author of Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore, who explains:

“This is a double-whammy for poor black people left in the city....They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”

This cycle hurt working-class whites as well, Vicino added, “but whites were in a better position to move elsewhere, whereas black mobility was limited by housing discrimination.”

Reading all of "The Roots of Baltimore's Anguish" is worth your time.

Also, in “Does the Earth Have Rights?,” Robin Darling Young writes on the anticipation (and political polarization) surrounding Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on the environment. Both Climate skeptic Catholics and non-Catholics with assumptions about the church's views on science will be surprised to learn just how traditionally Catholic progressive scholarship is. In Young's view this raises serious questions:

 How [are we] to balance individual moral responsibility, described in the moral teachings of the church, against a general Catholic or human responsibility as developed in more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching?

More broadly and just as important:

What could it mean for nature itself to have rights—rights that are being flagrantly violated by human beings? And what could it mean for Catholic theology  if a pope says this?

Read the whole thing (and get thinking) here.

Deciding not to have children

How to read a collection of essays on the “childless by choice” called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed? You could take the title as an accurate indicator of what’s inside, your assumption reinforced by the book’s subtitle: “Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.” It’s bad enough getting unsolicited, aggrieved explanations for a life-defining decision without getting them from a bunch of people who provide their unsolicited thoughts for a living.

Of course, that’s the anticipatory response editor Meghan Daum meant to provoke in selecting those words for the cover in the first place. I can’t speak for every mother and father, but there comes a point in the slog of child-rearing when a parent looks enviously (murderously?) on those who’ve opted out of procreation and issues – silently, or not so – just that verdict. Most of the contributors here report having been condemned in similar fashion, the opprobrium overt and subtle, coming from family, friends, and strangers, from quarters low, high, and in between. Pope Francis himself, in declaring early this year that “life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies,” said explicitly that choosing not to have children is “selfish,” which in spite of the slightly more nuanced context of his larger remarks won’t endear him to those who feel they have good reasons for not participating in the “valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated planet.”

That line comes courtesy of Geoff Dyer, one of three men represented in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. I dispense with him early because he, along with contributor Tim Kreider, has the relative luxury, I think, of deploying humor in his effort to explain (Kreider: “Whenever someone asks me whether I’d like to hold the baby, I always say ‘No thanks.’ I have been advised this is an impolitic response”). This has the effect of distancing its user from the matter at hand: As men, even men who’ve thought about it carefully, they can afford to joke about it, and they seem to know it. The more sober assessments come from those representing the other half of humanity, whom the question concerns in a significantly more encompassing way.

Read more

Estate tax unpopular not just with rich

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on repealing the federal estate tax, and while more Republicans favor this repeal than Democrats, I can’t be equally sure the rich favor it more than the poor. The reason is a conversation I had as a reporter in the mid-1990s with the late George McGovern, who lost the presidency so soundly in 1972.

I was interviewing McGovern about his book chronicling his daughter’s tragic death, not about taxes. But when I mentioned that I had cast my first presidential vote for him, we talked a while about national debates that never go away.

Although “income inequality” wasn’t a term then in use, the issue has always been with us. One way to lessen income inequality is the estate tax, designed to ensure that vast fortunes don’t stay wholly within certain families, thereby building up the wealth gap for generations to come.

McGovern specifically brought the estate tax up, not me. During his presidential campaign he had advocated raising the tax, he said, and one of his biggest surprises was the vigorous resistance he encountered among the poor and middle class, people who would likely never have to pay it.

Whether they had money or not, McGovern said, they thought someday they might. And if that day ever came, they wanted their heirs to hold onto every bit of it.

Read more

More than just the Ryan budget redux?

Republicans in the House and Senate this week released their respective budget plans, and though they differ in the details they’re similar in their aims – namely, to use the deficit and the debt as justification for tax cuts for high earners and corporations and significant spending cuts in social programs. Leave aside the question of whether the deficit and the debt require such attention (plenty think they don’t, including the Obama administration); what House and Senate Republicans have proposed are essentially reboots of the Paul Ryan (2012 and 2014) franchises.

Which if you liked, then this you might love. Medicare becomes a voucher (i.e., “partially privatized”) program. Medicaid becomes a block-grant program. SNAP (food stamps) becomes a block-grant program. Dodd-Frank restrictions on Wall Street get watered down. And – wait for it – the Affordable Care Act is, finally, once and for all, repealed.

Much of this of course is dressed up in language making it sound sensible, maybe even noble: block-grants give states flexibility and improve efficiency; repeal of Obamacare equates to “patient-centered reform.” Few details are offered, though plenty of figures are tossed about – many of which can only be met with suspicion if not outright incredulity.Though the proposal calls for the repeal of Obamacare, it still counts as going toward the coffers the $2 trillion the law’s tax increases provide. Though the House and Senate plans assume deficit reductions of $147 billion to $164 billion from economic growth stemming from proposed cuts in taxes and spending, these numbers have been generated through the technical sleight of hand known as dynamic scoring. There’s also something in the House proposal being referred to as the “magic asterisk” – a provision for saving $1.1 trillion over ten years “by reducing outlays for mandatory spending other than on health care and Social Security.” No one’s quite sure where those cuts would come from, but they’d have to come from somewhere to meet the goal of $5.5 trillion in overall savings.

Early reviews on the Republican budget proposals: “If the budget resolution released on Tuesday by House Republicans is a road map to a “Stronger America,” as its title proclaims, it’s hard to imagine what the path to a diminished America would look like”; “[This is a] slumlord's budget, an evictor's budget, an auctioneer's budget of a kind that emptied towns all over the Great Plains. It assumes the existence of a propertied class and a servile class, both of them eternal and immutable”; “[I]t lays out a virtual war on the poor and middle class” and as such is “a bracing statement of Republican ideology.”

For his part, the president is disappointed that neither Republican proposal calls for investment in education, infrastructure, or research, and that neither is a “budget that reflects the future.” How much of that the Democratic minority can negotiate for remains to be seen, as does its overall ability to challenge Republican plans that according to Charles P. Pierce “solidify further the burgeoning oligarchy that is devouring the republic.”

Rich and Poor: Not a Moral Vocabulary?

Fellow dotcommonwealer Anthony Annett takes David Brooks to task for singling out the moral failures of the poor, while overlooking the “beam in the eye” of the rich. Annett rightly notes:

During the postwar era in the United States, there was a fair amount of solidarity between capital and labor. Unions were strong and respected, and the fruits of higher productivity were broadly shared. Top income tax rates were high, and it was considered unseemly for top executive compensation to soar to stratospheric levels. … But the social norms underpinned this model shifted dramatically during the libertarian revival of the late 1970s and early 1980s, heralded by the rise of Reagan. Now, it became acceptable to put self-interest above social solidarity. Top tax rates were cut, unions were attacked, and the financial sector was unleashed. It became acceptable to push wages to rock bottom simply to maximize shareholder returns and top executive compensation. It became acceptable to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of ethical standards to make a quick buck. It became acceptable to spend billions in lobbying for your own short term interest, while demonizing the poor, and fighting for your extra tax cut to come from their extra benefit. And it became acceptable to insist on the God-given right to perpetual pollution, planet be damned.

Annett is right that both structurally and culturally, we've shifted from a stance of solidarity to a stance of selfishness. Given that Brooks’s column offers some horrifying anecdotes of the destructive culture of poverty, it is only fair that Annett summon up the horrifying images of the filthy rich. I don’t deny the truth in either of these descriptions, but what bothers me about these kinds of dueling descriptions of our economic situation is the extent to which they have a tendency to fall into and trade on stereotypes. Again, there's truth here, but it is so easy for these generalizations to go too far, become too sweeping, and then impair constructive progress. In the first chapter of my book on luxury, I note that the tendency to lock discussions of economic ethics into structural debates controlled by “the market-state binary” means that

the debates also tend to leave things out and arrive at an impasse. They often neglect significant differences in behavior within the categories “rich” and “poor.” To put it bluntly, they trade on stereotypes of both groups, whether positive or negative, and resort to an anecdotal story or two to reinforce their preferred stereotype. The rich are either rapaciously greedy or noble “job creators”; the poor are either struggling victims in need of compassion or lazy, dependent freeloaders in need of personal discipline and a sense of responsibility. But surely neither group is in fact homogenous! “The rich” and “the poor” are misleading abstractions. Such stories often “explain” complex economic problems by scapegoating this or that subgroup – “Wall Street” or “welfare queens,” “government regulators” or “insurance company executives.” Sadly, this passes for reasoned, public debate.

So, Brooks and Annett both have valid points. There really are characteristic, if stereotyped, vices that afflict both rich and poor in our society. Both in fact tend toward the “libertarian default,” though in different ways. But a prudent discussion would get past the stereotypes and find ways to recover moral language that should be shared by all. I think luxury is a key part of that, a language of reasonably, self-controlled spending that recognizes the responsibility of using excess wealth for the common good. Wealth is there to be shared. There are rich and poor who in fact practice such sharing; there are also rich and poor who are consumed by consumption. The primary moral vocabulary is not “rich” and “poor”; it should be solidarity and frugality.

But a moral vocabulary “shared by all” is important, too. All this stereotyping and scapegoating does serve an important political function, which is a further consequence of the market-state binary: by focusing on groups of great wealth or severe poverty, the discussion tends to exempt “the middle class". If we can blame the Wall Streeters or the dysfunctional poor neighborhoods, then maybe our own lifestyles can get off the hook. But consider a different possibility: maybe the need for norms of solidarity, generosity, and frugality might be most powerful if practiced and expressed by the middle class, and particularly what I call the “39%” – that is, the upper two income quintiles below the 1%. The 39% control a lot of wealth, a lot of votes, and a lot of organizations. Solidarity and frugality could go a long way if that’s what the 39% sought. And of course, some do. Perhaps they are the really important cultural catalysts.

Virtue among the rich and poor

In a recent column, David Brooks wades into the debate on the huge gaps in income and opportunity that have arisen in the United States. He focuses on the plight of the poor, and his argument is essentially that the problem is not so much money and policies as norms and virtues.

In other words, he blames the poor for their own plight, and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig immediately pounces. She argues, quite persuasively, that the moral values of the poor do not differ from the moral values of the rich, and that what keeps the poor down is daily grind of poverty and its soul-destroying burden. On this point, Paul Krugman is in complete agreement—he had noted for a while that social dysfunction can be traced to collapse in decent jobs rather than a collapse in virtue.

But I think that Brooks nonetheless makes a good observation. The cause of much of our social and economic malaise is indeed a breakdown in social norms, the habituation of some wholly unvirtuous behavior. He’s right that we need to look at this through the lens of virtue ethics, especially when he asks core questions like: are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good?

The only problem is, Brooks singles out the poor, when the real culprits are the rich. The real breakdown in social norms over the past few decades has come from the top.

Read more

Drawing a bath for organized labor.

On Monday, Governor Scott Walker made Wisconsin the twenty-fifth state to enact “right to work” legislation. The law is not a jobs program. Neither is it a workers' bill of rights. It permits private-sector workers to opt out of paying fees to unions that negotiate their wages. In other words, it allows such employees to be freeloaders. Federal law already lets employees refuse to join a union, but in states without right-to-work laws employees must pay “fair share” fees to the union that secured their contract. For decades, right-to-work laws have been signed by governors across the South and West. But only recently have Republicans been able to pass them in the labor-strong states of the upper Midwest; Michigan and Indiana adopted right-to-work in 2012, and the new GOP governor of Illinois ran on it. President Barack Obama decried the Wisconsin law as “anti-worker.” The day after Walker signed the bill, the AFL-CIO, along with two other unions, filed a lawsuit challenging the statute—a pro-forma protest. Union leaders know that similar lawsuits in other states have always failed.

Given the Republican dominance of the Wisconsin legislature, the bill’s passage was a fait accompli. But the state senate and assembly held hearings anyway, during which a parade of critics—who vastly outnumbered supporters—voiced their concerns about right-to-work. Union members condemned the measure as an attack on labor. A bankruptcy attorney winkingly begged the legislature to pass the bill because it would be good for his business. And in written testimony the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) delivered a stirring defense of labor unions, affirming over a century of church teaching promoting their expansion. Or at least that’s what one might expect Catholic bishops to say about anti-union legislation. Instead, Wisconsin’s bishops offered what amounted to an extended shrug.

Quoting from its 2015 public-policy position paper, the WCC insisted that “the economy must serve people, not the other way around.” It continued: “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers, owners, and others must be respected.” Those are the kinds of noises one expects to hear from bishops of a church whose popes have promoted labor unions for over a century. “There are not a few associations of this nature,” Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum novarum (1891), and still “it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient.” Leo’s wish has not been granted. In Wisconsin, for example, the percentage of employees who belong to unions has dropped from 14.2 percent in 2010, before Walker became governor, to 11.7 percent last year. Yet, reading the WCC’s testimony, it’s not easy to tell whether the bishops think that’s a bad thing.

Read more

American climate exceptionalism

In most parts of the world, the idea of anthropogenic global warming is settled science. And why wouldn’t it be? One study shows that 97 percent of climate researchers actively publishing in the field support the idea. Another finds that 97 percent of peer-reviewed literature in the field supports the consensus view.

This seems pretty overwhelming. And in most places, it is. Most people accept the evidence as incontrovertible. But not so in the US, where the media portrays a stark scientific divide and huge numbers of people disdainfully reject the notion of anthropogenic global warming. This is also true of Catholics, including the wealthy types whose money has the ability to open church doors.

But why? 

[This article is part of a reading list on Catholicism and the environment.]

Read more