On Fact-Free Flamboyance: George Will vs. Pope Francis

George Will really needs to look in a mirror. In a screed worthy of Fox News, he denigrates Pope Francis for proposing policy prescriptions that would “devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak”. Yet while Will accuses the pope of being “fact free”, Will is the one who gets his facts wrong. Will is the one who seems completely out of touch with recent trends in the global economy.

For a piece centered on Pope Francis’s policy prescriptions, Will really doesn’t discuss them. So let me help him out. If we want to lay out the broad economic prescriptions associated with Pope Francis, we might point to: a fairer distribution of the earth’s resources and the fruits of human labor, the inclusion of everyone in development, the prioritization of employment, investment in sustainability and ceasing to harm the planet, and a financial sector that serves rather than rules the real economy.

It might surprise Will to learn that these prescriptions are not exactly controversial, and actually improve human welfare and the resilience of the global economy. They do good, not harm—especially for the poor and the excluded. In each of these cases, the moral choice is also the economically viable choice. Let’s explore this.

The economy of exclusion

Starting with inequality: in a recent and thorough analysis, the IMF found that the best way to achieve both a stronger economy and a fairer society is by lifting the “small boats”. Pope Francis is entirely correct to say that “trickle down” policies don’t work—when the rich get richer, economic growth actually falls. What works instead is “trickle up”. One reason is the dynamic factor—the poor and the middle classes, not the rich, drive demand and economic vibrancy. Another reason is that trust and social capital—vital lubricants of a healthy economy and flourishing society—become frayed in more unequal countries.

We also have strong recent evidence that a large financial sector is bad for the economy—both because it makes the system more unstable and prone to crises, and because it diverts talent from truly productive activity to what is tantamount to gambling. So Pope Francis is right about this too.

Overall, then, it makes good economic sense to support polices like increasing the bargaining power of labor; redistributing income through the tax system; strengthening oversight of the financial sector; and making sure that the poor have access to decent healthcare, education, nutrition, finance, and energy. Call it “Pope Francis” economics if you like, but don’t say it doesn’t work or causes harm. Or course, George Will doesn’t engage with any of this.

The environment and climate change

The other issue of deep concern to Pope Francis is, of course, the environment. Here, the pope is on even more solid ground. It’s not just wishy-washy economists, but the overwhelming majority of hard scientists who back him up.

The most outrageous part of George Will’s essay is his claim that we need continued reliance on fossil fuels to help the poor. In this, he is looking only at the past, and stubbornly refuses to turn around and face the future. It’s true that the astronomical expansion of the global economy since the industrial revolution was powered by high-carbon forms of energy. But we know clearly that past experience cannot guide the future, since these fossil fuels are now sabotaging the very potential they promise.

The facts are stark: if we continue on the “business-as-usual path”, global temperatures will rise by 4-6 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by end-century. This may not seem like much, but it would be catastrophic. Human civilization as we know it might cease to exist. The earth would survive—it has seen far worse in its 4.5 billion years—but we might not. And we know the poor will be on the front lines of this cruel new world, suffering from severe droughts, floods, crop failures, severe weather events, diseases—as well as from the inevitable conflict and displacement of populations. We can already see the warning signs today, if we bother to heed them. George Will would rather turn a blind eye.

For all his faith in technology, human ingenuity, and “spontaneous creativity”, Will seems blithely unaware that we now have the means to move to a zero-carbon future. Renewable energy is now competitive with fossil fuels, and it is now technically feasible to meet the world’s energy needs—including those of the poor—with clean sources. What holds us back is narrow vested interests, and their willfully ignorant fellow travelers like George Will.

Interconnections and globalization

Will also appears totally oblivious to another crucial insight of Pope Francis—that everything is connected. The pope’s trenchant criticism of the global economy must be seen through the lens of a globalization driven by technology and financialization. In this globalized world, a purely localized perspective—such as treating the economies of the US and Argentina as purely isolated entities—is quite simply out-of-date and untenable.

When Francis says makes strong claims like “that economy kills, that economy excludes, that economy destroys mother earth”, he is thinking explicitly about “that” globalized economy, and the fact that its technical and financial reach vastly exceed its moral reach. He is probably thinking about financial crises in Argentina and elsewhere, driven as much by the greed of rich world lenders and the insatiable appetite of financial investors as mistakes in the crisis country itself—and where policy options are severely constricted by creditor demands. He is probably thinking about some financial investors who actually make money from the pain of others, most reprehensively when vulture funds use compliant courts to make massive profits on the backs of poor and suffering countries.

He is probably also thinking about how multinationals ravage places like the Amazon or the Niger delta, behaving in a way they would never behave at home, simply because they can get away with it. Or how they goad countries to race to the bottom in terms of pay and work conditions—often backed up by the full political force of their home countries (think about how the US tried to stop Haiti from raising its miserable minimum wage at the behest of American multinationals). The pope is surely thinking about the “ecological debt” owed by rich countries to poor countries, given extensive pollution and environmental disruption of these regions (the effects of climate change being a clear example—the bottom three billion people in the world account for a mere 6 percent of carbon emissions, but yet bear the full brunt of the fallout).

George Will pays no heed to these interconnections. He mocks the perceived “Peronist” tendencies of the Argentinian economy, in contrast with the US economy, which he seems to view as almost immaculately conceived. He mocks the pope’s heartfelt call for “global regulatory norms” to stop powerful countries and companies exploiting and polluting poorer regions. He ends his essay with a defiant declaration that Americans must choose between Pope Francis and “their nation’s premises”. This is American exceptionalism at its crudest, a callous and anti-Christian dismissal of calls to global solidarity.

Given this blindness, it is not surprising that Will never mentions the largest and most powerful instance of “crony capitalism” in the world—the continued power and sway of the US financial sector, even after its behavior caused the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. He fails to see any problem with the evil wrought by the influence of money in US politics—so much so that studies now say that the US is a functioning oligarchy rather than a democracy. And of course, these powerful and influential vested interests also underwrite the very climate change denialism in which Will has dabbled—with horrendous global implications as the American right is now fighting tooth-and-nail to stop a global agreement on climate change.  

Interconnections and planetary boundaries

There’s another dimension to interconnections that is vitally important. When Pope Francis discusses the environment, his leitmotif is again the idea that “everything is connected”—the earth’s human and natural ecosystems. The analysis in Laudato Si’ is not only scientifically accurate, but it actually borrows from a recent trend in earth sciences—the concept of planetary boundaries, associated with leading scientists like Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Center. The idea is that just as we are living in a globalized economy, we are now living in the globalized phase of environmental change—whereby human activity is disrupting the earth’s core cycles of biology, chemistry, and geology. As a general principle, the earth’s systems and cycles change slowly, given inbuilt strength and resilience. But this new cutting-edge science tells us that we can no longer rule out large abrupt changes.

This will happen when we transgress the vital planetary boundaries, and it could have unpredictable and potentially catastrophic implications for human well-being. These boundaries certainly encompass climate change, but are broader in scope—they include ocean acidification, freshwater depletion, rapid deforestation, changes to the phosphorous and nitrogen cycles, ozone depletion, large-scale pollution, and a rapid loss of biodiversity in the context of ruptured ecosystems. The challenge, the scientists tell us, is to remain with the safe operating space of a resilient and stable planet. That means paying attention to how everything affects everything else.

In a sense, Laudato Si’ provides a theological basis for this very new science of planetary boundaries. The core notion of integral ecology stresses that we are all intimately connected to each other, and to the earth and its systems. Pope Francis talks about climate change, but he also talks about pollution, water scarcity, and the tragic loss of biodiversity. He provides a moral case for a holistic approach to human development, which needs to be respectful of the earth and all creatures. He warns about the misuse of technology geared toward mastery, possession, and domination. His understanding of the environmental challenges is leagues beyond that of George Will.

The ideology of individualism

Having identified the problem, Pope Francis’s diagnosis is also spot-on—the mentality of profit at any price, the technocratic paradigm that sacrifices morality for efficiency. Instead of an ethic of global solidarity, we have instead the bondage of individualism, an ethic of collective selfishness that runs roughshod over the poor, the excluded, and the earth itself. This insatiable desire for wealth and accumulation, for instant gratification, gives rise to a “throwaway” culture in which what is not immediately useful is simply discarded or trampled underfoot. Overall, as Pope Francis puts it so well, our globalized economy is in reality a “globalization of indifference”.

This has its roots in an individualistic ideology and Pope Francis has little time for ideology. One of his favorite phrases is “reality is more important than ideas”. Just recently in Cuba, he denounced the bankruptcy of ideology, noting that “we do not serve ideas, we serve people”. This is the way to understand how the pope views markets. He knows that the market alone cannot solve problems like social inclusion and environmental sustainability. He is less opposed to market itself than the ideology of the market—what he calls a “magical conception” of the market or a “deified” market. And it seems that George Will is a sworn brother in this ideological cult.

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The bottom line is that rather being “fact-free” and divorced from reality, the analysis of Pope Francis is consistent not only with the emerging economic consensus, but also with the frontier science of planetary boundaries, barely more than a decade old. This is one reason why Laudato Si’ is so prescient.

And it is the reason why 193 nations are poised to formally endorse the new Sustainable Development Goals at the UN later this week, in a session to be opened by Pope Francis. The nations of the world are not pivoting toward sustainable development simply to make themselves feel good; they are doing so because they know it is the only path to human flourishing in the 21st century.  Of course, George Will mocks the whole notion of sustainable development as “faddish”.  He clearly doesn’t understand it, or the science behind it. He doesn’t want to. Because that would pierce the armor of his time-hardened ideology.

In the final analysis, George Will is the one who is “fact-free”, or at least “fact-oblivious”. He’s stuck in the past, clinging desperately to an outdated ideology, a relic from a different time, with no relevance whatsoever to our current socio-environmental crisis.

He reminds me of a stubborn old tweed-jacket-clad communist who is still talking about the great insights of Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxembourg to anybody willing to listen. The only difference is that the people willing to listen to Will include some very wealthy vested interests, eager to grasp onto some flimsy intellectual defense of the status quo. On the subject of communists, though, it’s interesting that Raul Castro is proving more receptive to the pope’s message than George Will. I guess Will is even more of an ideologue than the dictator who rules Cuba.

Anthony Annett is a climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Center for Sustainable Development - Earth Institute at Columbia University and in this position is affiliated with Religions for Peace.

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Educational Video on Laudato si'

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