Jon Stewart had a a great bit on his show last night. Fast food workers across the nation have been protesting their wages, insisting, accurately enough, that you can’t feed a family on $7.50 an hour. And that McDonald’s and Wendy’s and Burger King and Carls Jr. are profitable enough that they could increase wages if they wanted to. What should happen, of course, is a minimum wage hike, and Jon had a lot of fun pointing out the absurdity in conservatives’ various argumenta ad absurdum. And, as has become de rigueur in such discussions, Jon invoked the most recent exhortation from the Pope, Evangelii Gaudium. The Joy of the Gospel.
The whole thing’s wonderful. Man, this Pope is amazing. And this is a powerful read, the whole exhortation. It’s smart and kind and authoritative and moving. And accurate. And a wonderful challenge to all of us who claim to be Christians.
Let me trace His Holiness’ argument in Chapter Two, section I. He begins by acknowledging the blessings of technology, blessings made possible by free markets.
In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields. We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications. At the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity. This epochal change has been set in motion by the enormous qualitative, quantitative, rapid and cumulative advances occurring in the sciences and in technology, and by their instant application in different areas of nature and of life. We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.
Reading Evangelii Gaudium again this morning, the word that jumped out at me was the last one: power. Wealth is power, technology is power, information is power. The Pope’s analysis is that free markets have led to the creation of new power centers, without checks and balances, and without accountability. Here are the social consequences of this power:
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? Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? 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.
So what might be the proper check and balance on the economic power of corporatization? Government, in theory. But only if we embrace the right theory:
In this context, some 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.
Those comments, about trickle-down economics, are the ones that have been getting most of the media attention. But it’s the next section that grabbed me:
This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.
The Framers of the American Constitution were famously realistic, perhaps even cynical, about power. They recognized the tendency of most people, when they have power, to abuse it. So: a system of checks and balances, decentralizing political power, Congress as a check on the President, the Courts, a check on democracy. And it’s worked pretty well for two hundred and thirty years.
Libertarian economists insist that corporate power, market power, is self-correcting, because of the power of market competition. And we do see that dynamic at times, with the thesis of IBM opposed by the anti-thesis of Microsoft, leading to synthesis: Google. Sometimes, yes, it works. But more often the result is more Hobbesian than Hegelian; nature ‘red in tooth and claw.’ Big companies would rather not compete if they can avoid it. The preferred default mode for corporations isn’t competition; it’s monopoly. And if a check on employee abuse is unionization, ask that guy trying to organize Wal-Mart employees how well that’s going. The healthy competition between labor and management does not usually work out as mutually beneficially as it does in Major League baseball, where it can be built on a superstructure of failed dreams and abused teens washing out at Class A level. McDonald’s will pay $7.50 an hour as long as they can get away with it, and they’d pay $5.00 an hour if they could get away with that. To some extent, they’re prevented from doing so by wage competition; no business can get away with paying a buck an hour less than the company next door. Not unless they can find another cheaper source for labor. Illegally? Sure; some will.
That’s the great insight of Pope Francis. The check and balance on big business is government. Trickle-down is not an economic theory, it’s a governing theory, and one that abdicates a central function of government. Corporations would rather not compete fairly if they can avoid it; they love tilting level playing fields in their favor. Big business is famously amoral. History couldn’t speak more clearly–businessmen absolutely will employ and abuse small children, pay starvation wages and cooperate with their competitors so everyone can, put rat poison in hot dogs and tell tell people they have diseases they don’t have so you can sell them medical equipment they don’t need. That all happens, and will continue to happen.
The Framers didn’t anticipate the power of corporations. They might have; they certainly had experience of it. The Boston Tea Party was a response to a tax that was imposed after lobbying by the biggest multi-national corporation in the 18th century world; the East India Company. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the seminal work of economics, was available to the Framers; its publication was probably the second most important thing to happen in the world in 1776. But their theory of government didn’t include other centers of power than purely political ones.
Let’s acknowledge this fact, though. Baldly stated, income inequality can only be overcome if rich people are forced by government to give money to poor people. That’s how poverty is overcome. In the US, we had a problem; poor old people died too young. Solution: Social Security. Taxing people, so that we could cut poor old people a check. It works great. Are old sick people uninsurable? Medicare: cut ’em a check. Are poor people and their families and children not getting enough to eat? Solution: food stamps. And yes, I think private charity is terrific, and I think giving money to charity is ennobling and a moral imperative. But the baseline for starvation in the US is 80 billion. That’s how much the federal government pays in food stamps. And that’s an amount no private charity can come close to covering. Government is us, and We The People, in this Christian nation, have been charged with feeding the poor.
I applaud Pope Francis’ analysis, and I concur with his solution. It does not repudiate the power of free markets to insist that every power base in any society can and should have checks and balances. Or to insist that the death of a homeless person should be news at least on a par with changes in the stock market. Our Tao must not be the Dow. And we can only serve God by responsibly regulating mammon.