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Pope Francis "without the Politics"?

I just finished another Sirico essay, "Pope Francis without the Politics," printed first in the Detroit News, and now reprinted over at the Acton blog (http://www.acton.org/pub/commentary/2014/01/08/pope-francis-without-poli...). I understand the imperative behind pieces like this, but one grows tired of the constant, clearly procrustean attempt to fit Pope Francis’ critical vision into the libertarian/free-market box. Why? Here are some proximate causes:

1. There’s no economics without politics. Any turn in the direction of economics (free-market/neoliberal or otherwise) is fundamentally a continuation of political discussion. Attempting to “depoliticize” any discussion can itself be a political move of the highest order.

2. Sirico’s first question “What excludes the poor from the process of prosperity?” misses the point entirely. As Benedict was fond of saying, it’s quite possible and perhaps even common to be materially prosperous but spiritually empty and unhappy. Indeed, critics on the right and left both have diagnosed this as part of the modern condition. What is more, the “process of prosperity” that Sirico lauds is part of this condition. For everyone, a certain amount of material abundance is necessary; what matters for the poor especially is dignity. Is Sirico suggesting that market value (and not religion) confers dignity?

3. Sirico’s second question refers to the poor as “potential shapers of their own destiny.” This is fine. The problem is that market processes are profoundly indifferent to this question of self-determination; for rich and poor alike, the market strips individuals and communities of autonomy just as often as it grants it. And besides, to return to my point above, the issue of self-determination is fundamentally political rather than economic. The truly and fully self-sufficient individual is nothing more than a Randian fiction, which means that issues of “destiny” in secular space, here and now, are collective. They can only be addressed as a question of community. The fullest and fairest expression of community is in democracy, which means one simple thing: letting the poor think and speak and act for themselves.

Sirico’s so-called solution to the poor – for individuals and nations alike – is the fantasy of making them more like the rich. I think it’s safe to say that this has nothing to do with Pope Francis’ message.

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Great post, Robert.  Your reflections on Sirico's facile acceptance of the contemporary meaning of "prosperity" are apt.  It reminds me of John Ruskin, who distinguished between wealth and what he called illth.  It's also good to remind us that "the self-sufficient individual" is a phantom, and that "the market" is not a democracy.  

As for your point about there being no economics without politics, doesn't it suggest that we should revive the notion of political economy?  Then we'd have to put the common good front and center, rather than hope that the "free market" will take care of it as a kind of afterthought.

Sirico is and has been an opportunist for the last 40 or so years.  If anyone looks into his background you can spot it quite easily.

If next year it works in his favor to be a socialist, he will.

Sirico asks,  “What would a society look like that no longer considers the poor as objects of paternalistic aid but rather as potential shapers of their own destiny?”

Well, we have some hints.  There is an international movement to give mini-grants to very poor people to start their own businesses.  It has largely been highly successful, especially in India where tiny grants are given to women to start their own businesses.  What does this prove?  That you can't start a business without some capital, which is exactly what the poor don't have and can't get from banks.  By the way,  Ann Dunham, mother of Barack Obama, was a pioneer in the movement.

"Anthropologist Michael Dove described the dissertation [Ann Dunham's] as "a classic, in-depth, on-the-ground anthropological study of a 1,200-year-old industry".[53] According to Dove, Dunham's dissertation challenged popular perceptions regarding economically and politically marginalized groups, and countered the notions that the roots of poverty lie with the poor themselves and that cultural differences are responsible for the gap between less-developed countries and the industrialized West.[53] According to Dove, Dunham:

[53]

found that the villagers she studied in Central Java had many of the same economic needs, beliefs and aspirations as the most capitalist of Westerners. Village craftsmen were "keenly interested in profits", she wrote, and entrepreneurship was "in plentiful supply in rural Indonesia", having been "part of the traditional culture" there for a millennium.

Based on these observations, Dr. Soetoro [Ann Dunham, Mrs. Soetoro at that time] concluded that underdevelopment in these communities resulted from a scarcity of capital, the allocation of which was a matter of politics, not culture. Antipoverty programs that ignored this reality had the potential, perversely, of exacerbating inequality because they would only reinforce the power of elites. As she wrote in her dissertation, "many government programs inadvertently foster stratification by channeling resources through village officials", who then used the money to strengthen their own status further."

(From the Wikipedia article on "Ann Dunham".)

As Ann pointed out, giving poor people monetary aid is making them shapers of their own destiny.

There are ways of making our social spending programs better, and there are some libertarian policy proposals that would improve the lives of the poor. However, the core of their plan is take away a lot of things the poor are depending on right now and hope that it will make the economy grow so fast that the poor will be better off at some point in the future (assuming the rich and the powerful don't use their disproportionately growing wealth to find new ways to steal from the poor).

I read just today that the sad state of the Republican Party is forcing some of the party members to re-consideer their policies.  I don't like to admit it, but it seems that Paul Ryan is starting to come around to simply supplementing the income of  poor families with cash.  (I've read that even Friedman was in favor of a guaranteed income!)  Some say it would also hep with the problem of young fathers who take no responsibility for their children.  With some income they would be willing to stick around.  

At least some Republicans are starting to  see what is so patently, clearly, obviously manifest:  what poor people need is money!  Would such help be (gasp!) handounts?  I say they wouldn't be any more than decent public school educations are handouts for the children of the middle class.  So there.

Robert - you might want to peruse the on-going columns from Michael Sean Winters on NCRonline.  He actually appeared in a debate a few months ago with Sirico and he has analyzed both Sirico's responses/articles and the recent book by Sirico's colleague S. Gregg.

He does an excellent job of refuting the gaps, holes, and straw men in the Acton Institute approach.

http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/review-tea-party-catholic

OR

http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/mornings-minion-tackles-samuel-gregg

Robert - thanks for the link to Fr. Sirico's piece.  For myself, I didn't find anything overly troubling about it, and in fact I don't see it as an attempt to "fit Pope Francis’ critical vision into the libertarian/free-market box".   But there are several things you write in this post that I don't understand.  You write:

There’s no economics without politics. Any turn in the direction of economics (free-market/neoliberal or otherwise) is fundamentally a continuation of political discussion. 

I don't understand this.  It seems self-evident that economics is separate from, and independent of, politics.  To be sure, they interact (in both directions).  But economic activity can and does take place in any and all political systems, among people of any and all political persuasions.  

Furthermore, despite political conflict, there is actually a great deal of consensus between conservatives and liberals on the broad outlines of economic policy.  I take Sirico's point of view (and apparently he believes he is following Francis on this) to be that what we should wish for is a society "where the state and society create social conditions that promote and safeguard their rights and allow them to be builders of their own destiny."  I don't think that (most) Democrats or (most) Republicans would object to that goal.  Naturally, there would be some disagreement as to which policies would foster such conditions and which rights should be safeguarded.

You write, 

“What excludes the poor from the process of prosperity?” misses the point entirely. As Benedict was fond of saying, it’s quite possible and perhaps even common to be materially prosperous but spiritually empty and unhappy."

It is true that many prosperous people are adrift or unhappy, but I don't understand which point is being entirely missed.  To label a person, or a class of persons as being poor, is to make a fundamentally economic statement.  To be sure, "poor" and "poverty" connotate all sorts of other problems, issues and risks that aren't properly economic themselves yet are inextricably linked to poverty.  Part and parcel of addressing that complex of problems and issues is to address the core problem, which is an economic problem.  If we don't understand "preferential option for the poor" as a phrase with economic meaning, I think we're misunderstanding church social teaching.  

You write, "

Sirico’s second question refers to the poor as “potential shapers of their own destiny.” This is fine. The problem is that market processes are profoundly indifferent to this question of self-determination; for rich and poor alike, the market strips individuals and communities of autonomy just as often as it grants it."

I do understand this point, and at least partially agree with it.  But in this instance at least, Sirico doesn't seem to be recommending a laissez-faire marketplace as the cure for what ails the poor; as I noted above, he states his preference for a society  "where the state and society create social conditions that promote and safeguard their rights and allow them to be builders of their own destiny."  That seems to leave ample room for both a government-administered social safety net, and for mediating institutions of many sorts.  To be sure, a conservative would rejoin that government entitlements also are notorious for their ability to "strip individuals and communities of autonomy."  But other social structures from labor unions to parent-teacher associations to churches are laboratories for the development of human dignity and autonomy, and catalysts for members of society to shape their own destinies.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/20/opinion/krugman-the-undeserving-rich.html?hp&rref=opinion

Paul Krugman points out the absurdities of some of the points that "Fr." Sirico is making, albeit not specifically directing his comments at The Good Father.

 

 

Jim P. -- The separation of "economics" from politics -- or from social relationships, in general, for that matter -- is very recent.  In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi, drawing on a lot of historical and anthropological evidence, shows that archaic, ancient, and medieval peoples never thought of production and trade as separate from social relationships.  In fact, the making and exchange of things was subordinate to the maintenance of a certain network of social relationships.  Aristotle, for instance, deals with oikonomia -- the care of the household -- in his Politics, where it's considered inseparable from the question of how to live in the polis.   As Polanyi put it, there's a difference between "a society with a market" and a "market society" -- such as ours -- where social relationships are subordinated to something called "the economy." 

No one before the marginalists, not even Adam Smith, ever heard of "economics" except as either oikonomia, care of the household, or as "political economy," where the wealth of the country was considered very much a matter of the "common good," which is what politics was supposed to be all about.  It's not that pre-modern people didn't know enough to discover some separate realm called "the economy" that would then be studied by "economics."  Rather, as Polanyi demonstrates, "the economy" as some sphere with its own laws is a creature of capitalism.  Once you invent "the economy" with "laws," you can then argue against political "interference." 

 

 

All attempts by Congress to regulate unfair business practices are greeted with yelps of "You're trying to destroy the market !!!!" by the greedy business owners.  This amounts to portraying  the market as a machine which cannot tolerate changing any of its parts -- to change it is to break it, they say.  What has been left out  of this machine model of the maket are the  necessary  human decisions which are part and parcel of the market system.  And as soon as you recognize that dumb or immoral human decisions can deform the whole system there is no choice but to regulate those decisions when necessary to protect the system.

In my experince, whenever you hear an economist start to talk in metaphors, look out, including "the invisible hand" and "trickle down".  In the end ALL metaphors fail except as highly imprecise and sometimes highly misleading teaching aids.

Let's drop the metaphors and point to the facts -- sometimes correciton of the market requires government regulation.  Including jail terms if necessary.. 

Professor McCarraher -- there are many disciplines taught in universities today - anthropology, women's studies, psychology, statistics, a host of medical specialties - that weren't recognized as disciplines or sciences until fairly recently in human history.  

Like other policy tools, economics, when it is understood and its principles are heeded, can be used by rulers and policymakers for the common good - or for other ends.  Janet Yellen presumably will be Chairman of the Federal Reserve because President Obama believes that is best for the common good.  The Federal Reserve deliberately was created to operate (mostly) free of government oversight and interference because its creators didn't think that the intermixture of politics and economics was wise - a view based on painful historical experience and observation.  

 

I have a naïve question: aren't economics at the opposite of a Christian perspective on the world? 

Economics perspective: balance and measure, give and take, costs and benefits, measuring the utility of each option and finding a tradeoff, market equilibria,...

Christian perspective: give without counting, boundless generosity, unconditional love, free offering, live not for ourselves, and, in everything, replace measured advice by an unreasonable embrace of love (Matthew 5 : 21-48)...

 

Gene makes an important and interesting point. Sirico and his fellow travellers are out of sync and step with Catholic social thought. It is not because of their ideas around economics per se, it is because they do not, it seems, see the economy as subsumed under the body politic, or the community, or ordered to the common good. 

The Church's social teaching, it seems to me, is predicated on the assumption that the economy needs to be understood in precisely the classical way that Gene so eloquently stated.

In fact, we should be cautious when we hear such things as the "global economy" and imagine that it is just some sort of free floating entity completely disconnected from any political and organizing body. It just so happens that the political and organizing body of the "global economy" is unelected, non-transparent, relatively unknown, and operates as a kind of parallel state. Those kooky conspiracy folks do have a point. As the saying goes, just because you are paranoid, doesn't mean that there are not really people out to get you!!

aren't economics at the opposite of a Christian perspective on the world? 

Claire - economics, at least when it is wearing its descriptive hat, describes human behavior.  When humans behave according to Christian principles, economists would describe the economic aspects of that Christian behavior, using the tools of economic analysis.  Scrooge, and the gentlemen who urged him to give to their fund for the poor at Christmastime, were operating from opposing principles - the latter Christian, the former unChristian.  But both sets of behavior are amenable to economic analysis.

Had the rich young man heeded Jesus' advice and given all his wealth away, an economist would say that he did so because he found "utility" in doing so.  That he (apparently) instead chose to cling to his wealth is amenable to the same explanation: he did so because he derives greater utility in hoarding his wealth than giving it away.  Naturally, describing such behavior as "utility" doesn't really get to the heart of his motivations, or allow us to assess the moral or religious worth of such choices.  Economics isn't a grand theory of everything; it only describes behavior from an economic point of view, and we need to turn to other fields to get a holistic understanding of what is going on.  Still, to analyze such things in terms of utility and choices does give us some insight into human behavior.

 

 

describing such behavior as "utility" doesn't really get to the heart of his motivations

Here is what St. Basil claimed were his motivations:

Now, you [the rich young man] are obviously very far from having observed one commandment at least, and you falsely swore that you had kept it, namely, that you’ve loved your neighbor as yourself. For see: the Lord’s commandment proves you to be utterly lacking in real love. For if what you’ve claimed were true, that you have kept from your youth the commandment of love, and have given to each person as much as to yourself, how has it come to you, this abundance of money? For it takes wealth to care for the needy: a little paid out for the necessity of each person you take on, and all at once everything gets parceled out, and is spent upon them. Thus, the man who loves his neighbor as himself will have acquired no more than what his neighbor has; whereas you, visibly, have acquired a lot. Where has this come from? Or is it not clear, that it comes from making your private enjoyment more important than helping other people? Therefore, however much you exceed in wealth, so much so do you fall short in love: else long since you’d have taken care to be divorced from your money, if you had loved your neighbor.

http://bekkos.wordpress.com/st-basils-sermon-to-the-rich/

Or is it not clear, that it comes from making your private enjoyment more important than helping other people? 

Here, St. Basil gives us as good an explanation of what economists call utility as any other I've seen.  The entire passage is a discourse on the moral implications of the rich young man's values and choices - that is to say, the moral implications of his utility.  If we really value love of neighbor more than wealth, our choices and behavior will reflect it.  In a sense, it is economics that convicts the rich young man.

 

Sirico and his fellow travellers are out of sync and step with Catholic social thought. It is not because of their ideas around economics per se, it is because they do not, it seems, see the economy as subsumed under the body politic, or the community, or ordered to the common good. 

Much political conflict consists of arguing about which economic arrangements are ordered to the common good.  I don't know very much about Sirico and the Acton Institute, but I'd guess, based on what is written here, that their view is that what would be ordered to the common good is a vigorous marketplace that provides the means for  humans to be responsible for their own prosperity.

 

 

It just so happens that the political and organizing body of the "global economy" is unelected, non-transparent, relatively unknown, and operates as a kind of parallel state.

There is no overall organizing body.  Nobody is fully in charge.  For practical purposes, management of the global economy depends on the goodwill cooperation of the governments and central banks of the nations and international federations of the developed world.  Kinda scary, huh? :-)

 

 

"what would be ordered to the common good is a vigorous marketplace that provides the means for  humans to be responsible for their own prosperity."

Jim, and if you ever find one, please call me, BBC, the New York Times, the Vatican and the Federal Reserve. In that order, if you don't mind.

But you won't find one because of that dad-burned human factor. The factor that allows humans to control markets for their own benefit if they have the clout, and the factor that allows their subjects to sabotage their control if the subjects have the brains and vision to stop regurgitating what their betters try to indoctrinate then with.

But when you get to the human factor, you are, ta-da!, at politics. Pretending that markets do, or ever could, exist without a heavy substratum of politics is pretending you can fly a kite without a kite. You can hypothize about it, but you can't show anyone how you did it, and you can't take a picture of it, and if you hypothize too long, people will start snickering.

"what would be ordered to the common good is a vigorous marketplace that provides the means for  humans to be responsible for their own prosperity."

Jim, and if you ever find one, please call me, BBC, the New York Times, the Vatican and the Federal Reserve. In that order, if you don't mind.

But you won't find one because of that dad-burned human factor. The factor that allows humans to control markets for their own benefit if they have the clout, and the factor that allows their subjects to sabotage their control if the subjects have the brains and vision to stop regurgitating what their betters try to indoctrinate then with.

But when you get to the human factor, you are, ta-da!, at politics. Pretending that markets do, or ever could, exist without a heavy substratum of politics is pretending you can fly a kite without a kite. You can hypothize about it, but you can't show anyone how you did it, and you can't take a picture of it, and if you hypothize too long, people will start snickering.

Discussions like this militate against becoming productive if there are no specifics to point to that show how the poor and the middle class are being trampled upon in this country. The largest failure today in American business is that the profit motive is the sole concern and that only shareholders are important so that their investments are maximized above all. That goes against, for example, a more balanced company like IBM used to be where there was large concern over the welfare of employees. Nowadays the employee is in fear of losing her job if she attempts to push for a more human agenda.

For example, Microsoft and many others ship out jobs to other countries so that they can save money on wages thereby taking the job from American workers many of whom are working three jobs to survive at lower wages.Not only are these workers from other countries depriving locals from emplyment. They are giving everyone migraines to us when calling them for customer service.  Why can't Microsoft, Apple and others make a few billion less so that more people can have jobs. I understand that they need to be competitive. But these companies are so cash rich at  a time when so many are impoverished if they lose their unemployment benefits. 

One of the ways the poor and middle class can be productive and help their cause is not to buy products from such companies who are mafia-like in pursuing profits. Unless those damaged by corporate greed take such action all discussion is quite meaningless. 

Tom - sounds like a challenge for Sirico.  I agree with you that in the marketplace, some people manage to jostle themselves into position next to the scale in order to put their thumb on it, and that in a sense that is poliltical (although not always governmental, not by a long shot).

Bill - I've been thinking to myself (I doubt I came up with the concept myself; I must have read it somewhere) that as an alternative or supplement to the corporate income tax, there be a Cash On Hand tax.  I believe that would induce corporations to invest rather than hoard cash.  As you note, the investment might not be in the US.  For that, I don't have any clever policy ideas.  Our wages are not competitive in a global economy.

 

We are not competitive, Jim, because greed permeates the landscape of American business today. I heard of hotel suites at 3500 dollars a night. Now they are going for $26,000 a night. Many customers come from foreign lands whose people mostly  are immersed in poverty. Helicpter rides from NYC to the Hamptons go for $3500 one way. It is a gilded age. Banks barely wink at billion dollar penalties while they run roughshod over the middle class.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/21/business/28000-a-night-hotels-race-to-...

I just posted on Microsoft's facebook page some criticism in this regard. They seemed to have deleted it already. But the more people post the more they will at least know people are unhappy with their greed. You can reach more of these on facebook than other places. 

https://www.facebook.com/Microsoft

Our wages are getting competitive in a global economy. If an employer can command 40 to 48 hours of an employee's time each week, out of which the employer will use 29 or 30 hours at his -- the employer's -- convenience and avoid paying benefits, said employer has a workforce that stacks up pretty well against the lately unionizing malcontents in China.

As Fr. Sirico might say, our workforce is adjusting to the demands of the market. It is inconvenient to the employee who has to stand by and takes a big risk if he tries to add a second job to his work week. It is  only a small movement now, albeit one the allegedly socialist president of the United States is willing to applaud, but it more clearly the future than anything that would lead to a middle class existence for the majority of Americans.

Another place you can see what is happening is at the airport. The well-off don't go to the concourses anymore. They go to a satellite building, board their hired jet and enjoy the leg room. Since important people are not around to make important complaints, the rest of the herd faces rising prices, shrinking space, vanishing service and dirtier aircraft. Air travel is an example of our bifurcating markets -- service and convenience if you pay for it, take what we shove at you if you don't.

Well, as the libertarian economists say, nobody has to fly. (Unless, of course, he does have to, for one of many reasons including the decline of the railroads.)

" --- as an alternative or supplement to the corporate income tax, there be a Cash On Hand tax. I believe that would induce corporations to invest rather than hoard cash."

Oh, yes, I'm sure that the House and Senate would jump through hoops to make that happen!  Yes, indeedy.

"there are many disciplines taught in universities today - anthropology, women's studies, psychology, statistics, a host of medical specialties - that weren't recognized as disciplines or sciences until fairly recently in human history."

Jim P. -- You're comparing apples and oranges.  I don't think any anthropologist or scholar in women's studies would claim that her discipline taught a set of invariant "laws" that somehow constiuted a self-contained sphere of human life.  Economists claim precisely such a thing; they talk about their "laws" about supply and demand, marginal utility, etc., as the equivalents of laws in statisitics, biology, physics, etc. I'm claiming that "economics" is not a real science because there is no such thing as "the economy" that's constituted apart from social and political relationships.  In fact, what's called "the economy" is nothing but a certain set of social and political relationships whose social and political character is obscured by "economics."  That's why I suggested to Robert Geroux that we should retrieve the tradition of political economy.  

 

Jim Pauwels:  Re: "Utility"

"Utility", as it is used in serious economics [tht is, economics that views itself as science, something with quantitave, predictive power] is not a "thing in itself."  It is a *model* that is, in some circumstances, useful.  We can imagine applying "utility" to a parable from the Gospel, but only at grave risk of anachronism.  Does one suppose that if we were to speak to Jesus or even the Evangelists in these terms (supposing that we coudld find language to express our understanding), they would nod and say, "Ah, yes. Just so.  A good predictor of what the Law requires?"

Mark L.

 "In a sense, it is economics that convicts the rich young man."

Jim P. --

Uh-uh.  If we were *all* meant to take "sell everything and give the money to the poor", then the poor would be even worse off, so Jesus probably didn't mean that literally.  (He often exaggerated to make Himself clear.)  Why must we reject a literal interpretation?  Consider what would happen if *everyone* even *tried* to sell everything -- then nothing would be worth anything because if *everyone* was selling *everything* there would be no buyers left to buy anything.  It simply cannot be done.  The economy were thus wrecked except for some primitive bartering.  There would be hardly anything for anyone.

Should everyone sell just *something*?  That sounds more like what the Lord had in mind.  Sell something and give to the poor. Or, with the same effect, give some or all of your profits to the poor.  The question is:  how much of it?

I suspect that the answer depends on the person.  For instance, someone with great business acumen might help the poor more long-term if he/she invested his/her profits and gave more later, while the rest of us should give now.

I suspect that what the Lord meant was that we should be *willing* to give all to the poor if our neighbors were in need.  But in the meantime, what 'must' we give?  I suspect that, that very question violates the spirit of Jesus' command.  But how to figure out what He wants from us (or should I say just 'me'?), I really don't know.  And I suspect there is no formula for answring. Maybe the old notion of tithing is a start.  I do suspect that the old saying "Give till it hurts" is a start.

I also think that it's unreasonable to think of giving to the poor only in terms of individual donors.  When whole populations are in need only *large numbers* of people can succed in helping the large numbers in need. This means NGOs and governments.  However, when an individual asks anindiviual for help, that, ISTM, must be responded to.  It's wrong, in other words, to ignore those beggars at red lights when we have enough time to grab our wallets and get some money out.  

Again, it all depends. But on what?  Charity is a lot like justice -- the answers are not always clear.  

Gene - economics is a social science.  Defying the law of supply and demand - say, by paying your employees a living wage even when the market-clearing wage is a good deal lower - will not have the same repercussions as defying the law of gravity.  Nevertheless, the health or even existence of the enterprise may be imperilled.  

Uh-uh.  If we were *all* meant to take "sell everything and give the money to the poor", then the poor would be even worse off, so Jesus probably didn't mean that literally.  (He often exaggerated to make Himself clear.)  Why must we reject a literal interpretation?  Consider what would happen if *everyone* even *tried* to sell everything -- then nothing would be worth anything because if *everyone* was selling *everything* there would be no buyers left to buy anything.

Ann, if everyone gave all that they had to the poor it would definitely be time for Jesus to come again. That would never happen. So Jesus did mean that literally. The willingness to do so is the whole point. Based on where our treasure is there lies our heart.  

Does one suppose that if we were to speak to Jesus or even the Evangelists in these terms (supposing that we coudld find language to express our understanding), they would nod and say, "Ah, yes. Just so.  A good predictor of what the Law requires?"

Mark L - no, I don't suppose the term "indifference curve" had been coined back then.  (Although Jesus, as the Son of God, may be a special case...)  But that doesn't mean that one can't  be constructed, with "salvation" on one axis and "wealth" on the other.  (Ann's most recent comment is sort of trending in that direction.)  Unless you believe that people behave more rationally now than they did in Jesus' day, I don't know of any reason that that particular way of thinking through a choice problem is less valid then than now, even if they didn't have fancy-schmancy terminology to frame it. 

Btw, after reading your comment, I Googled "biblical indifference curve".  I  am pleased to report intriguing confirmation of something that I have practically concluded is itself a law: that any cockamamie idea I happen think of (like a tax on Cash on Hand) will already have been thought up by at least one other person.  

http://www.justanswer.com/essays/87ugk-constraints-does-consumer-follows...

 

 

I agree with Bill. Plus, St. Basil is not saying one should give everything away, but only "as much to each person as you give to yourself"... The rest of the homily is also worth reading. The way in which he  rips us out (we're all among the rich) might be a bit like Ustez dealing with Adel: it's strangely enjoyable to read.

 

While renouncing the notion that the market alone is sufficient to meet all human needs, Francis is also prepared to denounce a “welfare mentality” that creates a dependency on the part of the poor and reduces the Church to the role of being just another bureaucratic NGO.

That's Father Sirico. Here is his boss:

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 inequalitty no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills. Evangelii Gaudium, 202) (bold face added)

If the first quote fairly represents the second quote, Robert Geroux is an alarmist. If not, Fr. Sirico is a cheese-parer. Crackers, anyone?

Anne, Well said.

Pope Francis is not speaking out of some philosophical theory or economic model but from a felt sense of witness to the destruction of human lives by grinding poverty he encountered in Latin America. One needs to abandon abstraction and recognize that those whose greed has led to the inequitable distribution of wealth and those who defend the system resulting in such inequity are simply heartless people who lack human empathy that psychologists tell us begins development in the third year of life. Let's be real.

On Monday 20 January 2014, the Guardian published the results of a study by Oxfam. Here are some extracts: I apologize for the large bold print caused by pasting.

Oxfam: 85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world. The wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110tn (£60.88tn), or 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world.

Oxfam also argues that this is no accident either, saying growing inequality has been driven by a "power grab" by wealthy elites, who have co-opted the political process to rig the rules of the economic system in their favour.

The Oxfam report found that over the past few decades, the rich have successfully wielded political influence to skew policies in their favour on issues ranging from financial deregulation, tax havens, anti-competitive business practices to lower tax rates on high incomes and cuts in public services for the majority. Since the late 1970s, tax rates for the richest have fallen in 29 out of 30 countries for which data are available, said the report.
This "capture of opportunities" by the rich at the expense of the poor and middle classes has led to a situation where 70% of the world's population live in countries where inequality has increased since the 1980s and 1% of families own 46% of global wealth - almost £70tn.

 .

 

From Oxfam:

The world's wealthiest people aren't known for travelling by bus, but if they fancied a change of scene then the richest 85 people on the globe – who between them control as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population put together – could squeeze onto a single double-decker.

More from Basil's homily. He does not mince his words against the super-rich!

2. But how do you make use of money? By dressing in expensive clothing? Won’t two yards of tunic suffice you, and the covering of one coat satisfy all your need of clothes? But is it for food’s sake that you have such a demand for wealth? One bread-loaf is enough to fill a belly. Why are you sad, then? What have you been deprived of? The status that comes from wealth? But if you would stop seeking earthly status, you should then find the true, resplendent kind that would conduct you into the kingdom of heaven. But what you love is simply to possess wealth, even if you derive no help from it. [...]

But it isn’t for the sake of clothing or food that riches are a matter of such concern to so many people; but, by a certain wily artifice of the devil, countless pretexts of expenditure are proposed to the rich, so that they strive for superfluous, useless things as though they were necessary, and so that nothing measures up to their conception of what they should spend. For they divide up their wealth with a view to present and future uses; and they assign the one portion to themselves, and the other to their children. Next, they subdivide their expense account for various spending purposes. Hear now what sort of arrangements they make. Let some of our assets be accounted as liquid, others as fixed; and let liquid assets exceed the limits of necessity; let this much be on hand for household extravagance, let that much take care of showy visits to town. Let this tend to whoever goes on exotic voyages, and let that furnish the one who stays at home with an opulent lifestyle which will be envied by all. It amazes me, how they can pile on notions of superfluities. There are countless chariots, some for transporting goods, others for carrying themselves, covered with bronze and silver. A multitude of horses, and such as have pedigrees of well-bred fathers, as among people. And some of these carry the men about town, dissipating them; others are for hunting; others have been trained for the road. Reins, belts, collars, all of silver, all inlaid with gold. Saddles of genuine purple: they primp up the horses like brides. A plethora of asses, distinguished according to color, with men to hold the reins, some running before, some following after. An unlimited number of other servants striving to fulfill every outlandish wish: stewards, treasurers, gardeners, workers skilled in every art hitherto invented, whether for necessary purposes or for enjoyment and luxury. Butchers, bakers, winepourers, huntsmen, sculptors, painters, artisans of every pleasure. Herds of camels, some bearing burdens, others put to graze; herds of horses and of cattle, flocks of sheep, swine; the herdsmen of these; with land sufficient to feed them all, and which continually augments the wealth with additional revenue; baths in town; baths in the country; houses gleaming round with every variety of marble, in one place Phrygian stone, elsewhere tiles from Laconia or Thessaly. And of these houses, some are heated in winter, others are cooled in the summer. A floor decorated with mosaic gems, gold laid out on the roof. And however much of the walls eludes the marble tiling is adorned with choice works of pictorial art.

3. Since, then, the wealth still overflows, it gets buried underground, stashed away in secret places. For (they say), “what’s to come is uncertain, we may face unexpected needs.” Therefore it is equally uncertain whether you will have any use for your buried gold; it is not uncertain, however, what shall be the penalty of inveterate inhumanity. For when you failed, with your thousand notions, wholly to expend your wealth, you then concealed it in the earth. A strange madness, that, when gold lies hidden with other metals, one ransacks the earth; but after it has seen the light of day, it disappears again beneath the ground. From this, I perceive, it happens to you that in burying your money you bury also your heart. “For where your treasure is,” it is said, “there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:21). [...]

5. “But I’m poor!” you say, and I’ll vouch for you. For he is poor who lacks much. And much are you lacking, because of unfulfillable desire. To ten talents you seek to add another ten, and when there are twenty, you seek to add so many more; and always the addition, far from putting the urge to rest, whets the appetite. For just as with alcoholics a fresh bottle of wine becomes an excuse for drinking, so also those who are recently grown rich, and have acquired great possessions, desire more of the same, nursing the sickness with perpetual addition; and in their love they are carried to opposites. For having so much here and now fails to bring them happiness, since what they don’t have they grieve over, thinking they lack it; so that their soul is forever being worn away by cares born of a struggle for superiority and excess. They ought to be happy and contented, being well-off in so much; but they bear it ill and are pained that they still fall short of one or two of the super-rich. When they catch up with this tycoon, immediately they yearn to be made equal to somebody richer; and if they outdo him, the desire is transferred to another. Just as those who climb a ladder lift their foot always one step above and do not stop till they’ve reached the top, in the same way these people do not cease from their drive for power, till, having risen very high, a fall from their sublimity dashes them to the ground. [...] 

But what do you do? Don’t you seek a thousand quarrels, in order to take what belongs to your neighbor? My neighbor’s house, they say, blocks the sunlight; they make too much noise; they hold strange views; or on the grounds of some other chance accusation, you harass them, and kick them out, and drag them into court, and hound them, never ceasing till you have succeeded in turning them into vagabonds. What was it that killed Naboth the Jezreelite (cf. 1 Kgs 21)? Was it not Ahab’s desire for his vineyard? He’s a wicked neighbor in the country, and a wicked neighbor in town, the covetous man. The sea knows its bounds, and night doesn’t overstep its ancient limits; but the covetous man has no respect for time, acknowledges no boundaries, yields not to order and succession, but mimics the force of fire: he catches hold of everything, he feeds on everything. And just as rivers, flowing out a ways from their first beginnings, little by little receive irresistible augmentation, and with violent onrush sweep away whatever stands in their course: so also those who have come into great power, taking from those already oppressed the ability to do more injustice, enslave those remaining together with those already wronged; and the profit of wickedness provides them with additional power.

The wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110tn (£60.88tn), or 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world.  Oxfam also argues that this is no accident either, saying growing inequality has been driven by a "power grab" by wealthy elites, who have co-opted the political process to rig the rules of the economic system in their favour.

George - is this report available online / can you provide a URL? 

 

I agree that economic considerations are and probably ought to be distinguishab le from politial considerations, but I cannot see that they are separable. Political policies that ignore such economic realities as the availability of material resources or human skills arre doomed to be ineffective and likely destructive. On the other hand, to think of economic consideration being actualized apart from any network of legal permissions and prohibitions is without any historical evidence.

Having said that, let me refer to Lance Compa's very favorable review of George Tyler's book "What Went Wrong: How the 1% Hijacked the American Middle Class...and What Other Countries Got Right." I would add that there are no timelessly valid, definitive political or economic arrangements, but some arrangements show themselves over time to be without much redeeming social value. The present state of prevailing arrangements in the U. S. have very little to recommend them and very much to deplore.

Finally, let me add this observation. I can't make much sense of the notion of "maximizing utility." The word 'maximizing' is ordinarily thought to have quantitave implications. Can one define a unit of utility applicable to all the matters involved in ecomonic considerations? I doubt it. But if one can't do so, then how can one talk intelligibly about calculating utilities in any even moderately complex economic activity like a local McDonald's.

It would seem that the long Catholic chaplaincy for the world's corporate 1%ers has finally been eclipsed with the ascendency of Papa Francesco.  This Sirico guy appears to be nothing more than scrambling to put a good face on a sad development - especially for his corporate patrones whose money underwrites his right-wing loving "Acton" foundation.

If Francesco's gospel-inspired economic critique really is allowed to take hold in the minds of the faithful, the plutocratic elites will be without their placating and apologist Catholic hierarchs who have helped them maintain their world view and economic strangelhold on the world's economic system.  [I would say that things started to go all-wrong when Constantine co-opted the apostolic charism of the church in the fourth century - but, that is another discussion ...] 

Francesco being a Jesuit from Argentina, the corporatists shills in the media were probably correct that it was indeed a dark day for them when the conclave choose some one under the influence of those "liberation theologians."

[If media reports yesterday are to be believe just 85 billionaires around the world control as much of the world's wealth as HALF of all the rest of humanity combined - the bottom 3.5 billion people.  I guess Mitt Romney really was telling us the truth that as the tribune of the plutocrats he didn't worry about the 47% of us "takers" - the synergy of Mitt's 47% figures to the 50% estimate is breathtaking.  Mitt must have good sources among his fellow plutocratic elites???]

Francesco is only the carnary in the coal mine.  All of his life experiences have converged to inform his awareness that the world's present economic disparities and inequalities - rooted in the world's dominant unregulated corporate capitalism - between the halves and have-nots is no longer sustainable.

The population explosion alone among chiefly the bottom poorest half of humanity [that 3.5 billion of us] is poised maybe in this century - certainly in the next - to overwhelm any of the planet's capacity to even sustain human life.  We're talking in terms of Dante's Inferno.  

All of us, poor and rich alike will be suck down in that economic vortex.  Nikita Khrushchyov's lament about nuclear war is equally apt here:  "The living will envy the dead."

Catholicism can no longer be delinquent in its responsibilities to shape new social ethics that curbs human ideologies of unbridled consumption by the elite few.  Nor can Catholicism abdicate its responsibility to foster a new human sexual and social ethic that sees moral value - indeed a moral imperative - in reducing the world's population.

It's way past time to give Humane Vitae a good Christian burial.

I can't make much sense of the notion of "maximizing utility." The word 'maximizing' is ordinarily thought to have quantitave implications. Can one define a unit of utility applicable to all the matters involved in ecomonic considerations? I doubt it. But if one can't do so, then how can one talk intelligibly about calculating utilities in any even moderately complex economic activity like a local McDonald's.

Bernard - utility and its maximization are microeconomic concepts, so they are applicable at the level of the individual consumer or (in the case of corporate consumption) the firm.  Perhaps you as a consumer, for whatever reason, prefer Big Macs to Chicken McNuggets.  Your preference may be quite strong or relatively mild.  How would you quantify that preference?  You're aware that you prefer one to the other, but there's not really a unit of measure that directly measures that internal, subjective preference.  To the extent that your preference is reflected in economic behavior (i.e. what you spend your money on at McDonalds), money becomes the proxy measure.

What may be of interest for purposes of this blog are the reasons people may prefer one over the other.  It could simply be that one tastes better, which is interesting to you but boring for the rest of us :-).  It might be for health and dietary reasons, e.g. perhaps McNuggets are higher in sodium content.  It might be for principled reasons, e.g. it may be that McNuggets are made from chickens who were maltreated by the corporate farms that raised the birds.  This last consideration (which I completely made up; I have no idea if McDonald's beef is morally superior to McDonald's chicken) could be an example of applying Christian principles to marketplace behavior.

We got sidetracked into this discussion of utility because someone asked whether economics is opposed to Christianity and Christian behavior.  My view is that economics per se doesn't oppose Christianity; but Christian behavior could have substantial economic repercussions.  In other words, my view (and, Sirico-like, I'll claim Francis as my ally on this :-)), is that, if we wish to bring about Christian behavior in the marketplace, we wouldn't abolish economics (which would be like abolishing psychology - can't be done), but we would take much more seriously our responsibility - our mission - to proclaim the Good News and foster conversion.  People who are thoughtful about being disciples will order their economic behavior accordingly.  They'll pay their employees just wages; they'll curtail their extravagant consumption; they won't patronize merchants who engage in morally objectionable practices; they won't trade with countries that disrespect human rights; and a million and one other things.  And that behavior would have measurable implications - and economists would do the measuring.

 

Dope that i am,, I forgot to mention above where the review of Tyler's book appears. It's in the Jan.6-13, 2014 edition of "America." Sorry.

Jim P., re  your concluding sentence above " And that behaviou would have measurable implications- and economists woould do the measuring." A few remarks or questions:

1. Who determines what aspects of an economic transaction are relevant to the reasonableness of the action in question? Therer is the well known problem of "externalities."

2. Is the outcome of the economist's measuring supposed to determine what one chooses to do? If one does not follow the outcome of the measurement in question is he or she being unreasonable. If not, what's the normative force of talk about economic rationality.  It's long been known that people have found economic advantage by employing slave labor. Presumably economists can measure the relative utility of using slave labor. Suppose their measurements yield the result that using slave labor is more rational than not doing so. What considerations ourght we non-economists use totedermine whether to be economically rational. To assume that this kind ofproblem won't ever show up is imp[lausible. To say that, should it ever turn up, it would be eventually solved by show economically that the justifying calculations were mistaken, is open to the retort "Yes, but in the supposed "long run" a lot of slaves will have already died. This is part of the classic ccase  that moral deonotlogists have made against classical utilitarians. The attempt by utilitarians to coopt moral principles in terms of the economic "utility" of acting according to them strains credulity.

In short, ignoring the analyses and measurements that economists make is a recipe for disaster. Allowing oneself or one's society to be governed by these measurements is a recipe for injustice. It's the place of our political policies and practices to avoid these twin perils, perils that can never be definitively eliminated.

Bernard - I agree that externalities should be taken into consideration (both positive and negative externalities).  Regarding slavery: I would think that an economist would note that if slavery didn't make some economic sense, it wouldn't have become as established as it did in the New World, and wouldn't continue to be practiced today.  (I recall a classmate noting that, to an economist, it would be impossible to find a $20 bill blowing down the street, because an economist would reason that someone would already have picked it up).  The moral repugnance that we feel about utilizing slave labor today (at least you and I would; clearly, not everyone feels that way as slavery is still a reality) could be looked at through economic eyes; e.g. that repugnance is codified in laws prohibiting slavery, and those laws would be viewed as a constraint.

It's interesting, isn't it, that whereas presumably very few business owners would utilize slave labor, many of them don't seem to have many qualms about paying sub-living wages.

 

Jim P. ==

In New Orleans during the slavery era it was possible for some slaves to earn wages on the week end.  That was how some of them (not many) eventually bought their freedom.  Why their owners though it was right not to pay some but right to pay others escapes me.  One must never assume that a man is going to act like a rational animal.

About slavery today -- there really isn't much difference between the way some "employers" treat their illegal servants and slavery.  And we tolerate it.

Jim P. ==

In New Orleans during the slavery era it was possible for some slaves to earn wages on the week end.  That was how some of them (not many) eventually bought their freedom.  Why their owners though it was right not to pay some but right to pay others escapes me.  One must never assume that a man is going to act like a rational animal.

About slavery today -- there really isn't much difference between the way some "employers" treat their illegal servants and slavery.  And we tolerate it.

Jim P. ==

In New Orleans during the slavery era it was possible for some slaves to earn wages on the week end.  That was how some of them (not many) eventually bought their freedom.  Why their owners though it was right not to pay some but right to pay others escapes me.  One must never assume that a man is going to act like a rational animal.

About slavery today -- there really isn't much difference between the way some "employers" treat their illegal servants and slavery.  And we tolerate it.

Sorry about the duplicate posts.  I kept getting a message telling me to prove I was human and try again.  I don't know what to do if it should happen again.

Mr. Pauwels--

Your idea for a Cash On Hand tax is, as you suspected, not new. It was enacted as part of the Revenue Act of 1936, passed in the midst of FDR's campaign for a second term. He wanted corporations to pay out more of their after-tax profits as dividends, so they could be taxed again on the individual shareholder's tax return--also a new provision of the 1936 Act. 

One year later, Life Magazine reported that the "excess profits tax" was widely considered "Devil Tax Number 1" by the public, (at the time very few Americans owned stock) and many Democratic Congressmen were worried about their own prospects in the 1938 election. The pressure was so great that the excess profits provision (your Cash on Hand tax) was repealed. The longer version of this story (and other tax experiments that backfired) is available in "After One Hundred Years: Corporate Profits, Wealth, and American Society."

Interestingly, Robert Reich, who served as President Clinton's Secretary of Labor, recommends dismantling the entire corporate income tax. He presents his case in his book, Supercapitalism.

Peace.

Mr. Jenkins--

I read the Oxfam report that you cite and it is interesting. I recommend also the annual letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation http://www.annualletter.gatesfoundation.org which points to the experience across many decades and countries regarding child mortality, birth rates, and population growth--and a host of other poverty issues. 

Peace.

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