Sunday, July 12, 2015

Pope Francis, Capitalism, and Morality

As he travels around Latin America, Pope Francis has been giving speeches that sound to North American ears like calls for a communist revolution. He has frequently called the situation of poor workers "slavery" and corporate profits "the dung of the devil."
He does not simply argue that systemic “greed for money” is a bad thing. He calls it a “subtle dictatorship” that “condemns and enslaves men and women.”
There has always been a strain of this kind of thinking in Catholicism, rising and falling with the times. It is simply hard to reconcile capitalism with either the teachings of Jesus or the communal tradition of the church. Like Francis, many church leaders have come out of monastic movements that consider the abolition of private property a key step on the way to salvation. This week Francis said,
Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: It is a commandment.
I applaud this; the way some Protestant groups have twisted the pursuit of profit into a Christian, moral activity turns my stomach. Yet I wonder if calls for moral reform have any chance of changing how capitalism works. The system revolves so thoroughly around numbers that people's lives hardly enter into it. Even at my level half of my day is spent dealing with numbers -- multipliers, percent utilization, billable hours, dollars above or below budget -- and anyone above me in the system has no idea at all what those numbers represent in terms of people with problems and lives. I can occasionally inject some humanity by (say) looking the other way if one of my employees leaves early to deal with a family problem, but if my numbers got too far out of whack I would lose my job and someone else would be brought in to set them right. If my company did not act that way, they would soon go bankrupt. In a world where numbers rule, how can morality play any more than a minor part?

Francis, it seems, does not really know either:
Yet what remains unclear is whether Francis has a clear vision for a systemic alternative to the status quo that he and others criticize. “All these critiques point toward the incoherence of the simple idea of free market economics, but they don’t prescribe a remedy,” said Mr. Johnson, of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Francis acknowledged as much, conceding on Wednesday that he had no new “recipe” to quickly change the world. Instead, he spoke about a “process of change” undertaken at the grass-roots level.
Which sounds to me like Zucotti Park thinking.

Since numbers rule capitalism, the only interventions that make sense to me are those done at the same level of numerical abstraction: minimum wage laws, for example, and taxation. A few people might join communes, and we could all try to do business with local people we know instead of searching online for the lowest price. But a shift to some other way of organizing our vastly complex world strikes me as chimerical. Besides, the modern system is generating wealth at an incredible rate, and I wouldn't want to dismantle it. So I say let the accountants run their numbers, but subject them to strict regulations, tax the hell out of their profits, and spend the money making life better for everyone. Instead of railing against the modern way, make it work for all of us. The era of 1945 to 1980 shows that this can be done, and suggests how to go about it.

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