A Vision of Economic Justice

Sitting and reading the most recent papal encyclical that I am aware of, Caritas in Veritate, I was suddenly flooded with thoughts about “Christian perspectives” on economic issues that have crossed my mind in recent months.  Let me see if I can put some of them together as a coherent personal statement on the matter.

bcarsonI recently read that Dr. Ben Carson has thrown his hat into the ring in terms of Republican presidential politics for the next round three years from now. I really wish I could support him. He is one of the world’s best brain surgeons, literally, and one of the children whose lives he may have saved with this skill is my half-sister. He is a gentle, likeable, funny, immanently confident black man who rose up from a significantly disadvantaged background to be the very best in his chosen field without becoming a total jerk in the process. He also makes no secret of the fact that his Christian faith is a source of personal strength for him, keeping his perspective on life grounded in something beyond his own genius and ambition; which I consider to be a major plus for anyone I’d support as a world leader. But alas, in the prayer breakfast where he set out to launch this political career he began by promoting the idea of a flat tax as opposed to progressive taxation. That says he’s become more concerned with the economic interests of his fellow surgeons than those of single mothers like the one who raised him. In some ways it’s not surprising that he’s more interested in where he has arrived at than where he comes from in that regard, but it still shows a lack of understanding of social justice of the sort I consider necessary for a political leader to grasp before they will get my support.

Nicolas Wolterstorff has pointed out that there are effectively three perspectives that we can take towards poor people in general politically, philosophically and theologically, all of which can have some legitimacy under certain circumstances: First we can consider them to be inherently lazy, not making a strong enough effort to achieve the level of success that so many self-made millionaires have as inventors, entrepreneurs, sports heroes and scientists. If they don’t have what they want and need it’s largely their own fault, and we should give them a swift kick in the seat of the pants to get them moving.

Secondly, we might consider poor people to be just tragically unfortunate, in the same way as someone born blind, or someone going through some of the sorts of disasters that the biblical character Job experienced. Some forms of misfortune just can’t be morally accounted for, and attempts to do so tend to make asses out of those offering the explanations. A case in point is when evangelist/politician Pat Robertson tried to explain the natural disasters that have hit Haiti in recent years as the result of their use of Voodoo religious practices in the process of their struggle for independence from France. If you need an explanation of what is wrong with that, look here; I’m not going to try to explain it beyond confirming that Robertson did indeed make an ass of himself. The proper response in such cases of misfortune should range from relatively helpless empathy to significant efforts at charitable assistance. This, however, is based on the assumption that we don’t actually owe the misfortunate persons anything; we only do so out of the goodness of our hearts, and we can refuse such aid to them if they are not doing as we expect them to.

A third perspective towards the poor, however, is that of many of the early church fathers and the teachings of the gospels: of those to whom much is given, much is justifiably expected, including helping the poor as a matter of duty. As Basil of Caesarea is quoted as saying, “When someone steals a person’s clothes, we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to those who need it; the shoes rotting in your closet to the one who has no shoes. The money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.” 

John Rawls is labeled as one of the most major bad guys of the last generation among those of America’s “Religious Right” these days, mostly because he claimed that political argument should not be based on religious premises, but rather on ideas that any reasonable person could be expected to appreciate, regardless of his or her religious or ideological perspective. This anti-religious political perspective, however, is somewhat a separate matter from Rawls’ economic ideals, which in fact have more than a little bit to do with his training for Christian priesthood before he went through a bit of a crisis of faith as a soldier in World War 2. The conclusions Rawls comes to in his post-Christian perspective is undeniably a bit radical by most other standards than those of the early church fathers: Rawls preaches that the only human inequalities which should be allowed are those which cause society to function better to the extent that even the poorest of the poor are better off as a result. In other words if someone is going to remain significantly richer than others, in order for that person to be allowed to keep those advantages over others he must show how allowing him to be rich is not only good for him, but good for the poor as well.

So for instance Dr. Carson is considerably richer than I will ever be, but allowing him to be so provides a dependable means of paying off the expenses that medical geniuses like him inevitably incur in the process of developing their skill for the good of all, and it provides an incentive for other bright young kids, even those in the ghettos, to work on following in his footsteps. So from Rawls’ perspective it is perfectly justifiable for the surgeon to have significantly more income than, say, the garbage collector, or the philosophy teacher even.  But ideally this advantage should go no further than what is necessary to enable future Dr. Carsons to achieve the sort of greatness we all benefit from. If it is enough to secure these benefits for the rest of society for him to earn fifty times as much as the cleaning lady, there is no justification for him to earn hundreds of times more than the cleaning lady; the difference should only go as far as is necessary to secure the benefits for all that the inequality enables.

popeinsider_640That may sound more than a bit leftist to many who, from a “Christian” perspective consider the ghost of Communism to be a serious threat to watch out for, but in fact the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI was in many regards more explicitly leftist still in his personal economic theory. To lift a few quotes from his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth):

“The world’s wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase. In rich countries, new sectors of society are succumbing to poverty and new forms of poverty are emerging. In poorer areas some groups enjoy a sort of “superdevelopment” of a wasteful and consumerist kind which farms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation. ‘The scandal of glaring inequalities’ continues” (part 21).

“These processes [outsourcing and cheap labor competition] have led to a downsizing of social security systems […] with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State. […] The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine […] for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honored today even more than in the past” (part 25).

“The dignity of the individual and the demands of Justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner…

“Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution in order to increase the country’s international competitiveness hinder the achievement of lasting development” (part 32).

“Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution” (part 36).

“Economic life […]needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift” (part 37).

“Moreover, the so-called outsourcing of production can weaken the company’s sense of responsibility towards the stakeholders –– namely the workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and broader society […] Paul VI [in the 1967 encyclical, Populorum Proggressio, “The progress of peoples”] invited people to give serious attention to the damage that can be caused to one’s home country by the transfer abroad of capital purely for personal advantage. […] [T]he requirements of justice must be safeguarded, with due consideration for the way in which the capital was generated and the harm to individuals that will result if it is not used where it was produced” (part 40).

“The integrated economy of the present day does not make the role of States redundant, but rather it commits governments to greater collaboration with one another. […] In terms of the resolution of the current crisis, the State’s role seems destined to grow, as it regains many of its competences” (part 41).

“The international community has an urgent duty to find institutional means of regulating the exploitation of non-renewable resources, involving poor countries in the process, in order to plan together for the future” (part 49).

“In the search for solutions to the current economic crisis, development aid for poor countries must be considered a valid means of creating wealth for all” (part 60).

“Both the regulation of the financial sector […] and experimentation with new forms of finance, designed to support development projects, are positive experiences that should be further explored and encouraged” (part 65).

“…there is urgent need of a true world political authority […which] would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure for all, regard for justice and respect for rights. Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties” (part 67).

“Only if we are aware of our calling as individuals and as a community[…] will we be able to […] muster new energy in the service of a truly integral humanism” (part 78).

So in case you missed it, the retiring pope’s political and economic ideal involves a one world socialist government of sorts, capable of controlling all existing states and with the power to socialize the industrial utilization of all non-renewable natural resources, with the ultimate goal of implementing significant programs of wealth redistribution! This isn’t some conspiracy theory I’ve dreamed up to scare American conservatives; this is a basic summary of the pope’s own words, quoted above. Now in between stating portions of this utopian vision within this encyclical Benedict comes out with statements against abortion and in favor of church involvement in politics that American conservatives have been quoting from it as part of their political campaigns. In the broader context though what he was saying about abortion is that it is a reflection of the evil within parts of society that are not properly submitted to Church doctrine, which in turn prevents his vision of a just international socialist government from being realized in our age. I doubt that many of my social and fiscal conservative Catholic friends have caught the drift of this message.

Now we have a new pope, who so far seems to be signaling a much stronger emphasis on the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church. He is the first pope to have taken the name Francis, for the saint who is known for remaining close to the earth and identifying with the poor. In Argentina he made some of the strongest statements against income disparity of any Catholic bishop since the fifth century. And he may have yet more to prove in that area: In rejecting Latin American Liberation Theology as the authentic voice of the church speaking for the poor, he still has to show that the “mainstream” Catholic Church can take up their cause without taking an explicitly Marxist line in the process. So rather than de-emphasizing these international socialist elements of his predecessor’s teaching, there seems to be every likelihood that Francis I will emphasize them all the more.

There is one quasi-Marxist idea that this encyclical hints at that I fully support however: the link between wealth and labor. Rather than going through historical background and comparison with Benedict’s position on this one though, let me just state what I believe on the subject. Wealth is standardly measured these days in terms of standardized currencies –– money –– which in turn is a purely symbolic implement, deriving its value from what people are willing to give you or do for you in exchange for a given quantity of it. The things that they might give you for some of your money in turn derive most of their value from the effort and skill that went into obtaining the necessary materials and producing the “things” in question. So wealth has less to do with “stuff,” and more to do with the amount of human ingenuity and labor available. The more skilled people you have in the world, the greater the available wealth. Finding enough of the basic “stuff” to work with to produce wealth requires a certain amount of specialized skill these days, but that places no set limit on how much total wealth we can have in the world. As long as we can maintain stable economic interaction between members of a growing pool of skilled producers, we can have a continued growth in wealth.

Rather than scarcity of resources then, the biggest threats to the continued expansion of wealth in the world –– as defined above –– are lack of education and radical inequality between the people involved in economic interaction. Thus I come down strongly in favor of increased investment in public education, based on building investigative and human interactive skills, and putting some functional regulations in place which limit the process of economic polarization within local, national and global economies.

I have my own radical proposal in this regard; not as radical as the pope’s, but radical none the less. I have heard the famous professor of psychology, Howard Gardner, make a similar suggestion to what I have in mind, but I wouldn’t blame my radical ideas on him. If anyone deserves blame it would have to be the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. When they first built this hippie company they had a rule that the top executive could earn no more than seven times as much as the company’s lowest paid employee. Of course they have long since sold out on that one, but the principle still has some merit to it: we need to set some sort of limit in terms of just how much disparity we are willing to accept in our societies and in the world.

Obviously some disparity will remain necessary, as Rawls even has pointed out. In the name of freedom we may even want to allow a bit more disparity that Rawls’ rule would give us, but once we get to the point where some people are getting literally millions of times more than those who work for them, we’re talking about people not even recognizing each other as part of the same species any more. Somewhere in there we have to draw a line as to how much disparity we are morally ready to accept; somewhere greater than the original Ben & Jerry’s factor of seven and somewhat less than the current problem a factor of millions.

As a reasonable starting point for negotiations on such matters then I’d toss out a figure of a factor of a thousand. I don’t think economic motivation requires that anyone would be earning more than a thousand times as much as they are paying others whose skills and labor they are purchasing. If there’s someone out there who can’t be satisfied with a thousand times as much as other human beings have to subsist on, that person is probably too emotionally dysfunctional to play a positive role in human society to begin with. So I’d start with a progressive system of taxation that has a maximum bracket of 50% on the super-rich, up to a maximum of 2000 times the national minimum wage. That would effectively allow the most rich to be taking in 1000 times as much as the working poor.  From that point a 100% national income tax on all income exceeding the 2000 times minimum wage would kick in, so of course no one would be motivated to try to earn more than that. And of course every time the minimum wage would go up, the income ceiling for the ultra-rich would go up as well. If further motivation and means of competition between billionaires is necessary at that point, this can be provided in terms of added contractual benefits, such as armies of personal assistants, access to luxury corporate facilities or contractually required corporate donations on behalf of the valued individual to the charities of his or her choice.

So for instance let’s say that the basic salary of a full-time minimum wage burger flipper some day comes to $20,000 per year, and there is a basketball star whose presence on any given team is capable of boosting that team’s corporate income by over $80 million per year. That’s not entirely unrealistic.  Under the sort of law I’d propose no team could offer that player more than half as much as he would be worth to them, so how would they set about bidding for his services in the market?  Dozens of ways: offering him personal limousine and private jet services, putting members of his family and peer group on staff, sponsoring various young artists of the player’s choosing, building and operating a sports hall in his name in his old home town, building a health clinic in his honor in some needy part of the developing world… The same “perks” could be offered to others who bring in more than such an anti-disparity cap would allow in personal income: bankers, brokers, rock stars, inventors, designers… Rather than trying to further out-do each other in ostentation, they would be pressured to try and out-do each other in philanthropy and in solidarity with broader sections of humanity.

Expanding this rule to apply to all those who would do business within the country would be another step. Companies outsourcing to countries where workers are paid less than a thousandth of the top executives’ pay would be subject to heavy enough fines to keep this practice from being profitable. Heavy tariffs could be levied against any imported product produced by workers making less than a thousandth of what the corporate executives involved in the transaction are making, thus providing a strong incentives to raise miners’ and factory workers’ wages in developing countries. International inspections to improve compliance with such rules would also have the added benefit of drastically reducing problems of covert slavery and child labor abuses in poorer parts of the world. Not only would this go a long ways toward reducing human suffering in such places, it would enable far more young people to get an education and thus increase their capacity and opportunities to contribute to wealth creation that benefits all of us in the long-term.

All of this would be part of a process of recognizing that we really are all part of the same human race, that we are in many real senses part of each other, and that radical predatory selfishness is never a good idea, especially in the long term.

I’m not utopian enough to believe that any globally important politicians will read this essay and pick up the ball and run with it any time soon. I’d be surprised if any representatives of those with vested interests in the status quo would even pay enough attention to this essay to bother attacking my ideas. I toss them out for what they’re worth, with hopes that maybe someday they might play some marginal role in making the world a better place. Here’s hoping together with any of you who share such ideals.


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Filed under Economics, Empathy, Ethics, Religion

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