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Capitalism, Government, and Religion

Last Thursday the Public Religion Research Institute, in cooperation with the the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, published a report titled Do Americans Believe Capitalism & Government Are Working?  Religious Left, Religious Right & the Future of the Economic Debate.  

The survey on which the report was based, a very professionally designed phone poll conducted last month, has already been discussed below in a July 18 post by Paul Moses.  Having been invited to be part of a panel at  the Washington event introducing the report, I worked my way through it in considerable detail and am adding my own observations.

Here are some of the basic findings about the economy, inequality, capitalism, and government aid and competence:  

Whether one looks at Americans by ethnicity or race, by educational level, by party affiliation, or by generation, there is unusual agreement that the lack of jobs is the nation's number one economic problem.  There is also a general pessimism about the economic future.  Almost two-thirds of the population believe that the government should be doing more to decrease the gap between rich and the poor, and should provide a safety net to take care of people who can't care for themselves.   Less than 6 of 10 Americans think capitalsim is working well while more than 4 in 10 think that it isn't.  More than half think that unequal chances in life is a big problem.     

But more than two thirds also say that the federal government is "broken," either partially (40%) or "completely" (26%).

There's a lot more about personal responsibility, greed, the importance of family stability, the minimum wage (73% favor increasing it to $10 per hour), and health care.  It's all analyzed by age group, party loyalty (Democrat, Republican, Independent), ethnicity and race, gender, income, and religion (white evangelical Christians, mainline Christians, Black Protestants, white Catholics, Hispanic Catholics, other Catholics, other Christians, non-Christians, and the nonreligious or religiously unaffiliated.

A lot of the more detailed results are not surprising.  White evangelicals and Republicans and more affluent people are less apt to see economic problems or favor government remedies.  Blacks, Hispanics, nonChristians, and the nonreligious are more apt to.  White Catholics and mainline Christians fall in between.  

But some findings are quite unexpected.  When asked which came nearest to their own views, 44% of Americans said that capitalism and the free market system were "at odds with Christian values" compared to 41% who said that capitalism and the free market system were "consistent" with Christian values.  I was doubly surprised that only 39% of white evangelicals chose "consistent" as nearest their views and 50% chose "at odds."  It was also interesting that Hispanic Catholics were more likely than white Catholics to say "consistent" (49% to 45%) and less likely to say "at odds" (39% to 43%), although I'm not quite sure of the statistical significance.  

One observation about all this that I made at Brookings was that a lot of these findings are two-edged.  (E.J. Dionne and William Galston also made the point.)  Thus large percentages of Americans see economic problems and favor government action to remedy them.  But an equally large percentage doubts the competence of the federal government. Also more Americans saw the growth of the government as stemming from unjustifiable rather than justifiable reasons.  Here's another example:  Well over a majority of Americans (56%) thought that the government should guarantee health insurance for everyone "even if it means raising taxes,"  Yet the population is evenly split between those for and those against repealing Obamacare (42% in each camp).  

To me this pointed to the importance of the way issues are posed and explained to the public. "It is clearly the case that different ways of framing economic and social justice questions provide each side with opportunities to move opinion," Dionne and Galston stated. 

Besides the findings on the economy, government, and values, the report also offered an analysis of "religious progressives."  Several years ago, the Public Religion Research Institute did a study for Brookings on the Tea Party movement and the religious right.  This examination of the religious left was a kind of bookend.  In Washington I had a lot say about this part of the report, and I'll post on it separately.   





Commenting Guidelines

Why would higher hourly wages need to be higher?  (I'm assuming that the economy is othrwise in good shape.)

All y'all, Let's go back to Mark's original hypothetical. Working 2.5 days a week at $12 an hour yields $240 before taxes. So, $400 for rent, which is reasonable for my area, and $100 for food for a family of three -- which I am told is possible if you go heavy on pasta and eschew fresh fruits and vegetables and all deserts and snacke (as good serfs would do) -- how much is left over for clothing, transportation, insurance, utilities and co-pays at the doctors'?

Ah, you say, but Mark assumes all prices are cut in half. Rent? How is that affected by productivity? Actually, when rents start coming down, they stop building rental properties, as good capitalists would.  And can farmers double the number of kernels on an ear of corn? Like most economics hypotheticals, this one stops making sense at the classroom door.

I am assuming most workers will take an 8 hour pay cut. I suppose higher paid workers can handle it, but lower paid workers can't.

And I agree with what Bernard said.  The problems of Detroit should be a problem we all share, I think.  Rather than forcing the people of Detroit to cut pensions and sell off their Art Museum, the rest of us should be figuring out a way to help Detroit and share the burden. I don't know how we do that, though.  

We do it in the US through politics and bankruptcy courts.  A bankruptcy court will provide relief to the City by not requiring it to fulfill all of its debt obligations - essentially, the court will force the City's creditors (of whom its municipal retirees are one class, but by no means the only class) to share in the pain.  Politically, the City of Detroit, Wayne County, the State of Michigan and the United States are the political entities that would be stakeholders in Detroit's success, and those entities will pursue whatever remedies are politically feasible.  The risk in all this is that, in the last few decades at least, democratic political entities in the US have lacked the courage and foresight to impose burdens on voters.  I expect that the capacity for sympathy for Detroit's woes among relatively wealthy Detroit suburbanites has a limit, and that limit will be reached in pretty short order.  

(In the late '60's and early '70's, as a child, I lived for a few years in the suburbs of Detroit.  Almost all of my neighbors at that time were white former Detroit residents who had fled the city in the wake of race riots and block-busting.  The children I played with, and their children, are now living in Detroit's suburbs.  Those family memories and histories of Detroit, I'd think, are somewhat mixed and complex.  Here is Ron Fournier on this history.)

FWIW, my view is that selling the assets of the art museum would be quite foolish.  It's pretty clear that, to fulfill its pension obligations, Detroit needs to somehow transform itself into a viable city - an attractive place for tax-paying, employed people to live.  The art museum strikes me as the kind of thing that Detroit should keep around if it wants people to think of it as a good place to live.

It seems to me you've resolved the contradiction I described by ignoring one side of it. Those businesses that grow and expand by becoming more efficient ("selling more with same or even fewer people") need someone to sell their products to. As it becomes possible to replace more and more kinds of human labor with automation, there will be (a) huge gains in "productivity growth" but also (b) a lower demand for labor. More people will be unemployed or underemployed. Without some kind of wealth redistribution, fewer people will be able to afford the consumer products these growing companies need to sell.

I didn't ignore the seeming contradiction, I addressed it: businesses that experience better productivity are the ones who expand production, which is precisely how new jobs get created.

Here is the thing: we know that workers get laid off because of automation, as well as for a whole bunch of other reasons.  This is not a new thing.  Cycles of layoffs have followed economic cycles my entire life, and were happening long before I was born.  Yet somehow, employment recovers.  Employment was so high in the late 1990s that the unemployment rate fell below the line that, when I was in college, was conventionally thought to represent a full-employment rate.  Unemployement is even dropping, anemically, now.  

How can this be?  Despite automated production and increasing productivity, how is it that laid off workers manage to become employed again?  Well, from the worker's point of view, it happens with some pain and suffering.  A worker who, for many years, thought of himself as "Detroit automobile assembly worker" needs to re-imagine himself as something else: as "Marysville automobile assembly worker", or "Detroit truck driver" (perhaps delivering Marysville-assembled autos to Detroit-area showrooms), or "North Dakota petroleum fracker" (producing the raw material that becomes affordable gasoline for Marysville-assembled autos), or "Long Beach dockworker" (unloading auto parts manufactured overseas for final assembly in Marysville), or something else.  It can be disruptive and painful.  As a society, we've developed some ways to ameliorate the pain and disruption: unemployment insurance, jobs training programs, and so on.  Eventually, most people who are laid off find another job.  And that's because a free market economy generates jobs for people.


Something a little savage about characterizing pensioners as creditors and then paying them 20 cents on the dollar. Again, I think. maybe all of us should share the pain of those pensioners and assure they have a decent standard of living in their later years. 

Something a little savage about characterizing pensioners as creditors and then paying them 20 cents on the dollar. 


Right.  The bankruptcy laws provide an order of precedence to determine which of the many claimants on the bankrupt entities' insufficient assets get first dibs, second dibs, and on through the line.  Where pensioners fall in that order of claimants, I am not certain, but they may not be first.

Also, there is this to consider: those pensioners - unionized city workers, now retired - presumably used every political and legal tool at their disposal, over many years, to extract the promise of retirement income that, in retrospect, was unaffordable.  If the bankruptcy courts don't step in to impose some order, the retirement income might be preserved at the expense of other classes of claimants who believe they also are morally entitled to be paid what they are owed.  It is the court's job to assess these competing claims and come up with a fair distribution.  For example: we've all heard that the average response time by Detroit's police to a 911 call is 58 minutes.  Clearly, Detroit's police department is underfunded, in part because of pension obligations (as well as all the other financial obligations that drain away money that could go into hiring more cops on the street).  Is the claim by pensioners superior to the claim by citizens (most of whom are poor) to police protection?  I think it would take some thought to sort all this out.


Jim P.,re your Whigish reading of our society's way of dealing with unemployment, etc.

Today's NY Times has a report about the GOP's economic agenda for the remainder of Pres. Obama's term. It is one that aims to cut back on the social safety net that you refer to as the way our society ameliorates the pain and disruption of unemployment. Have you noticed what the North Carolina legislature has done to the safety net? Unless a steady stream of reports about the direction the GOP wants to take the country are mistaken, the needy will receive less help from the government. In this case the "government is US." Listen to the arguments about immigration, about food stamps, about investing in education or infrastructure. 

Frankly, I have no reason to be confident that good jobs for more people is the goal of American corporations. What they seem to be doing is resorting to temporary contractors who will have no jub security, no company-provided health benefits, no say in working conditions. Anecdotal evidence shows this to be the case in the jobs in fracking and in the practices of companies like AT&T.

I can't deny that I lack expertise in many of these matters. But, as a citizen who attempts to pay attention, I see no good reason to buy into your rosy view of the wonders of the business practices that are presently in place here. As a Christian, I believe I have a duty to do whatever I can to strengthen the safety net, even if it requires some "economic inefficiencies" to do so.

The Democratic party, both nationally and locally, is by no means the party of and for the needy. But so faar as I can see, the GOP is actively out to make the lot of the needy even worse than it presently is.

Bernard - I don't really disagree with anything in your comment.  The GOP won't start showing a preferential option for the poor in its policies unless and until it's politically punished.  I'm not particularly trying to advance GOP policies in the comments on this thread.  (FWIW, I'm not a Republican.)  I'm just making the point that a free market economy is the least bad option we know of, and I'm concerned about collective amnesia regarding the alternatives, as illustrated by the survey under consideration here.


I really haven't thought the whole thing through, and I'm not competent to do so in the first place.  It's all too complex for non-economist dummies like me.  But I am willing to listen to new ideas.

It seems to me that history has shown that capitalism, like government, has evolved, and the current world-wide recession has proven that in its present form it is incapable of performing well -- there simply aren't enough jobs to maintain a healthy economy.  

We need the courage to face the fact that the system must be revised drastically, taking into account the criticisms of the system from both sides including 1) the complaint of the liberals that the very rich are the new robber barons who now own the national legislature, an 2) the complaint of the conservatives that an economy with massive numbers of people continuously on welfare is incapable of working long-term.

Something has to give, and I'm hopeful that an change in the work-week hours could make  afundamental change for the good.  No, it wouldn't solve all the problems, but I suspect that it is a part of an ideal economy.

What I'd like to know is why economists no longer seem to think in terms of ideal economies.  Basic intellectual scafolding has long proven useful in the real world -- just look at the practical benefits from the physicists searching for simpler and simpler models.

(FLASH:  Baby Cambridge is going to be named George Alexander Louis.  Louis????  Louis????  What are they doing?  Trying to make up with the French after all these centuries?  How the world can surprise us.  And a good thing that :-) 

Thanks, Jim P. Sorry that I misread you.

I hope that some updated version of the European Social Democratic  or non-Marxist Socialist economic model might prevail. But I have to admit that the prospects for such an approach are dim at best.

Bernard, no worries.  And while I don't know exactly what "Whigish" means, I know Abraham Lincoln was a Whig at one time, so I hope it is an honorable state of life :-)

As to comments that unionized city workers "extracted" promises of funded retirment, this is too favorable an impression of the power of unions.  I've been involved, to an admittedly limited extent, in union negotiations.  If the market is as efficient and powerful as many like to think it is, municipalities and corporations have had many an occassion to call unions' bluffs.  The fact of the matter is the responsible government entities (city councils, state boards, what have you) have in the past seen wage gains and funded retirement plans as simply a decent thing to do for the people who perform the work we need done.  Recent demonization (read; Scott Walker here in Wisconsin) has created a false dialogue akin to comments above, that we "can't afford it".  Yet we can afford government giveaways to already wealthy corporations under the guise of "job creation". 

Well, many a public pension fund has been well funded, and well managed.  But, governors and legislatures in lean times see that pot of money sitting there, waiting to be paid to retirees, as a patch for holes in budgets, with a promise to "pay it back".  Thankfully Wisconsin's supreme court has had the foresight to tell former governor T Thompson and current gov Walker "leave it alone."  If a pension fund is unfunded, I'd blame those responsible for managing it, not those who work a life expecting to be paid what they were promised. 

Jeff --

It seems to me that any recasting of the fundamentals, if it is to be understood by voters like me, must be in simple enought terms and the expression of the basic elements and forces in an economic model.  Sort of a theory of the ideal village.  (Yes, yes, complications arise when village become large, but the underlying forces will remain the same.)  

So how about your thinking up a nice model of the ideal economic village -- sort of like what Adam Smith tried to do.  (It would be much to complex for me.)  What would tne necessary elements be?  What would its goals be? What would the necessary and simplest laws be?  What "laws" would the *nature of the system itself * impose? (E.g., how free would the competition be?)  


 If a pension fund is unfunded, I'd blame those responsible for managing it, not those who work a life expecting to be paid what they were promised. 

Shayne LaBudda -  I agree with you that elected officials have failed in their responsibility to public worker pension funding.  But the public sector union leadership surely has been politically complicit (and also has failed in their responsibility to their members), as it actively supported, over many years, the political success of those failed leaders.

It is very difficult to blame an individual worker for the failings of her union.  I agree that many individual unionized retirees are victims.   But inasmuch as the union movement is about collective action, there has to be some responsibility that flows to the union members who elected those leaders. 

Please note: this is not an argument that "Detroit public workers are getting what they deserve."  But I don't think it's accurate to position public sector workers as completely innocent bystanders, either.  The public sector workers had a hand, an important hand, in bringing about the confluence of circumstances that has landed Detroit where it is now.  If union retirees have to take a haircut, as they probably will, as a result of the failure of the City of Detroit, it will become a question of how much of a clip job is fair.

Public sector unions, among the other things they are, are political special interest groups.  Such groups are subject to the risks of politics.  Politicians filleth the trough, and politicians emptieth it.  That is the nature of politics.


Too late have workers heeded old Omar's words, as rendered into English by Fitzgerald:

Ah, take the cash and let the credit go,...

Rent? How is that affected by productivity?


In my example, productivity doubles everywhere, so prices halve.   The landlord now needs only half the rent he did before to still purchase the same goods.   If he doesn't halve the rent he charges, tenants will go elsewhere, because in a free market, other landlords will.

One might claim, however implausibly, that there will always be countries whose people are so poor that they will be willing to do what a robot can do for less than it costs the robot to do it, but then the preservation of capitalism depends on some pockets of poverty not becoming too much more prosperous. And why should anyone cheer that?

Matthew - I just want to call your attention to this article, which touches on this dynamic in the context of economic ills besetting China.  My view is that cheap and reliable labor will always attract capital, and so long as a supply of such cheap labor exists, capital will try to figure out a way to leverage it.  Unfortunately, there are still a staggering amount of extremely poor people in the world, so this dynamic isn't likely to end anytime soon.  

Even if we succeed in lifting all the poor in the world to a level such that their basic needs are met, there will still be labor price arbitrage opportunities that capital will try to leverage.


Mark, you can't have been following the real estate market for rentals, both housing and office, in the past 20-30 years. It is one of the few "free" markets in our late capitalism that actually is affected by supply and demand. If the price of everything else in the world goes up or down by 50 percent, the price of rentals will still be affected by supply and demand. And the way to keep profits up is to keep the supply a little behind the price of demand (something the landlords can't always do, which is why the market is still free). Even when your Prius costs half as much, the rent for your office is going to depened mostly on who else wants it.


What  I'm wondering most about is how one could use the results of this survey to accomplish something good.  How can we build ecumenical movements with people of different faiths and different politics? An in our more narrow universe of American Catholicism, how can we bring togther Catholics whosee priority might be the return of the Latin Mass with Catholics who think their parish should join an Alinsky-style coalition?

Irene, Odd you should mention Saul Alinsky, who has been dead for 41 years. I thought his memory was being kept alive by the Foxheads who think he was a co-conspirator with Premier Josef Stalin rather than Cardinal Albert Meyer. But our parish is afffiliated with a community organization in the Alinsky line although a quieter, gentler version. Our organization got its initial funding from the Moscow-influenced socialists of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and still gets money from their diabolical Catholic  Campaign for Human Development.

So I probably hear a few more social justice homilies than most Catholics, but when we get one, the preacher is told by many people that he is wrong. One of our parochial vicars was co-president of our community organization while he was here, and he was regularly told he was wrong. The flock isn't notably traditionalist. I can count maybe five or six who would drive more than six blocks to get to a Latin Mass, and we have 3,000 at the Sunday Masses during the season. About 300 of them will show up when our organization has an action. But most of our people never heard of Rerum Novarum or Populorum Progressio and don't believe it if you tell them what  they said. They say they never heard such a thing in Catholic schools.

Hey Tom- we have a number of Catholic parishes in the Bronx that are affiliated with Alinsky and Alinsky-lite coalitions.  I guess I'm trying to think through why things need to be either/or. Last Easter, I went to the Pax Christi Way of the Cross, more recently I've been going to a novena to St Anthony (some of the other people there seem to be part of something called the Pious League of St Anthony.)  These are two very different types of devotions, but each very cool in its own way.  I think if we coud be more embracing of relious diversity among Catholics, it might be good for us.  

3,000 is fabulous mass attendance and 300 at an action ain't too shabby either.

Irene and all, just want to call attention to this Time Magazine article on how Stockton, CA's bankruptcy may provide clues as to how Detroit's will pan out.


No need to be modest Ann. I've seen many of your posts and know that you are very intelligent. I didn't say that I necessarily disagreed with you. I am not an economist either; I am merely trying to understand the state of affairs. I tend to see both unemployment and the vast rise in equality as the two major problems we currently face. I have no economic model, but I think an increase in the minimum wage is by far one of the best things that can happen right now. As contributor Matthew Boudway mentioned, there is far too much wealth concentrated at the top. And, as you mentioned earlier, they aren't spending it. A shift in income from the top to bottom could increase demand because people at the bottom will definitely spend their money. My thoughts have been that an increase in the minimum wage could help shift some income to the bottom, increase demand, and decrease inequality. The increase in demand could boost the economy in other sectors.

Thinking up a nice economic model of a village? I may have to do that! As I said, I am no economist. Most of my background was in philosophy and history, and I am currently enrolled in the MA program in Global Development and Social Justice at St. John's University, New York. It is an interdisciplinary program, and I will have to take some economics. My Economics of Development course begins this fall. I doubt we will have to create our own village models, but who knows. Lol.

Dr. Charles Clark teaches the economics portion of the GDSJ program. He has written a few articles for Commonweal in the past, but it's been more than a few months since his last. US Catholic just recently interviewed him and published a few artcles from the interview. Maybe you'd enjoy some of them.

Interesting how this new "reply" feature doesn't really reply. It just posts a new comment. That comment doesn't appear directly under the comment you are replying to.

Thinking up a nice economic model..... was directed at Ann Olivier

Mark Proska

productivity doubles everywhere, so prices halve.

Tom Blackburn is right. In your argument for mechanized production, you only decrease costs associated with the production of mechanically produced goods. In doing so, you can also increase the supply of those goods. You couldn't possibly believe that it will affect the supply or demand in the real estate market. As a matter of fact, the world is already experiencing the rise of the conditions of which you speak. It is why so many ridicule the American poor. They have cell phones, flat screen TV's, they have microwaves, etc. Truly poor people wouldn't have these things, correct? The cell phone could have been free with a low cost contract, or free as a used donation. The TV is the most expensive item on the list, but a 32" TV (new or used)doesn't even cost half the price of a month's rent, or a month's payment of decent health insurance in some areas. That is because real estate and health care are hardly affected by the rise of mechanized production.

Can anybody recommend for me a nice simple little book about what money is and how it works in a capitalist economy?  I mean about banking and the finantial markers, the influence of government taxing and spending, and whatever else is basic? One without a lot of numbers and formulas. There are dozens of Dummies books about econ, but none specifically about money.

Sorry Ann. I could really benefit from something like that myself.


Among other things, the concept of money is premised upon faith, trust, risk and dependence.   Just further proof that the free market is from God.

Mark --

I'd say that money is actually *constituted* by the trust we put in those bits of paper or data in databases or whatever.  Our agreement to be part of a monetary system (unless the money has intrinsic value as does gold, etc.) is itself something like a contract, and as such it is a *spiritual* reality.  

But doesn't that pose some theological problems?  Jesus told us to beware of possessing a lot of money.  Hmm.  We can hardly possess too much Bach (his music is mainly a spiritual reality) or make too many  good choices (more spirit), but we can have too much money.  Spirit as dangerous .  .  .  Just as too much power over others is dangerous .  .  .  And, as has often been noted, money is a kind of power.