I am a Catholic and it is the very intellectual foundations of the Catholic Church that drew me back to my faith. I grew up admiring Pope John Paul II’s battle against communism—a battle that we now know he played an integral part in.
Pope Francis’s background is very different from his two most recent predecessors. Admittedly, I worried about his views coming out of the more liberal Jesuit order. Now his latest encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, would seem to confirm some of my worst fears, especially as an economist. Samuel Gregg from the Acton Institute does an excellent of job here of pointing out those fears.
Here is the offending passage that has so many of my free-market friends in an uproar:
[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us. (n. 54)
However, to me the answer to this is in the section just prior. In fact, paragraph 54 starts with the phrase “In this context,” which many seem to have ignored.
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers’.
My reading of this conforms to a significant problem I have had with some free market, libertarian leaning economists which is that any monetary generating activity is of equal value to society. For instance, if I spend $1,000 on an abortion or $1,000 on a life-saving procedure, are the two activities really of the same value—one activity ends life while the other saves life?
Yet, according to our economic bean-counters, the two procedures go into our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and America’s income goes up. If we suddenly decided to abort every baby in America, GDP would zoom, but within a few years it would become painfully obvious that a 100 percent abortion rate is also bad economics—which I recently pointed out in my blog “Demographic Winter Comes to America.”
And, abortions feed economic inequality since abortions are most prevalent among poor women with an abortion rate of 53 per 1,000 women representing 40 percent of all abortions. At the same time, well-heeled doctors and the health system pocket the abortion money, including government funded Medicaid dollars. Just look at Dr. Gosnell and how he enriched himself while inflicting physical and spiritual pain.
From abortions we move into chemical contraception, ie, the “pill,” which is an abortificant—meaning they cause abortions since it does not prevent the fertilization of an egg only the attachment to the mother. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 10.54 million women in 2010 used the pill. If you assume $100 per month per woman, that is $12.6 billion added to GDP every year. This does not include more expensive chemical contraception such as intrauterine devices or implants.
Another example is gambling. Living in Northern New England, I am surrounded by states that have legalized gambling. Gambling may be most representative of Pope Francis’s “human beings as consumer goods” where the industry is built on massive amounts of deception and exists solely to remove the money from your wallet as quickly as possible.
Studies have shown that casinos and other gambling venues are an economic blackhole for the communities that they are located in. The revenue generated from, mostly local, customers is wisked away never to return. Yet, economic theory says that this economic activity is just as valuable as any other—until it’s not.
Then there is the massive Hollywood-Entertainment complex whose shows and movies anymore are a cesspool of promiscuity, dysfunctional families, homosexuality, crude language, etc. that glorifies sin over virtue. It’s no surprise from the way mainstream American families are portrayed that traditional marriage has eroded and cohabitation has surged. And from the Pope’s perspective, this form of demonic communication is brought to you courtesy of America’s free market.
Speaking of the breakdown in traditional marriage, proponents of same-sex marriage talk about the economic benefits that would accrue to a state that allowed for it. According to an article in the Huffington Post titled “Gay Marriage And The Economy: Same-Sex Unions Will Boost Economy By $166 Million, Study Finds”:
The Williams Institute at UCLA Law reported Monday that wedding spending by same-sex couples in the three newest states to approve gay marriage may generate more than $166 million over the next three years. The Institute estimates that same-sex couples in Maine will collectively spend $15.5 million, Maryland couples will spend $62.6 million and Washingtonians will spend $88.5 million on weddings.
Finally, one last example is the growing movement toward drug legalization. Just down the road Portland, Maine became the latest city to legalize marijuana. Surely, moving illicit drug sales into the open will be a boost to GDP. And, so will all of the growth in the drug rehab business, bankruptcy and divorce courts, and counseling services.
Abortion, contraception, gambling, same-sex marriage, and drug legalization are all examples of a free market at work that will not bring “greater justice and inclusiveness in the world” from an economic or, more importantly, spiritual standpoint. Yet, when Pope Francis looks at an economic powerhouse like the United States, he must wonder how much of our income and wealth, or more technically measured by GDP, is predicated on this “economy of exclusion and inequality.”
On the flip side, GDP undervalues activities that often have a high spiritual component. For instance, in large part because of my faith, I stay at home and homeschool my four children. According to Salary.com, the work of a stay-at-home mother is worth at least $113,599. When accounting for in GDP, am I not at least worth the pay of a casino dealer?
Overall, why wouldn’t Pope Francis be a bit unimpressed by America’s economic prowess and the workings of the free market in promoting sin and under-promoting virtue? A free market needs boundaries in order to operate efficiently, such as some government regulation. A free market also needs boundaries to operate spiritually and, in my opinion, that is the Christian faith.
Overall, I can’t help but think that Pope Francis really isn’t criticizing America’s free market so much as he is criticizing America’s waning Christian faith. I think economists have forgotten that the Catholic Church is, first and foremost, in the business of saving souls. If we want the Pope to take the free market seriously it is up to all of us to show that economic growth helps, not hinders, salvation.