• Quote: “Where the powerful feed upon the powerless.”

    From the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of the Holy Father Francis:

    52. 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 occuring 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.

    No to an Economy of Exclusion

    53. 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.

    And if I may suggest a verse for opening a Thanksgiving dinner, from Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacharyavatara (Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life):

    May I be the doctor and the medicine

    And may I be the nurse

    For all sick beings in the world

    Until everyone is healed.

    @Bill_Gardner

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    • For 100,000 years virtually every human on this planet lived on about a dollar a day — rarely more than $3 a day.

      And then, about 200 years ago, a remarkable thing happened. It’s called capitalism. Although a large part of humanity still has not experienced it, those of us lucky enough to live in the west have something to be truly thankful for this Thanksgiving.

      So on Thursday raise a glass to free minds and free markets and the cultural institutions that make those two things possible.

      • Much as I admire the new Pope, I’m with John on this one. The counterfactual that the Pope fails to consider is a grim one. On the other hand, the enjoyments of capitalism can make it too easy to forget the poor.

        • I don’t see any references to either Capitalism or the counterfactual (by which I assume you mean communism or socialism) in the passages of the Pope’s speech quoted here. That John chooses capitalism, rather than democracy or just “enlightenment” as the cause of modern prosperity (at least in the West) says more about his own predilictions than anything else. Capitilism can just as easily be used for purposes of oppression and subjugation, rather than prosperity and liberation, as any ideology.

          The pope’s message, to me at least, is more a reminder of that oft-forgetten (by capitalists, at least) enlightenment value of equality–something of a taboo amongst our elected officials (yes, even the Democrats) and the priestly caste of “Very Serious” economists that dominate policy debates. I doubt the Pope means “Capitalsm, Bad!” but rather that the economic achievements of capitalist societies does not free them of their moral duty (as Catholics anyway) to give a damn about those the system leaves behind (whether by accident or design).

          Happy Thanksgiving!
          -SB in StL

      • free markets? which ones would those be?

        like the cable industry where your choice is X….or nothing?

        like the banking industry and wall street which can crash the entire worlds economy, and then make a profit off the bailout, which they kept when they paid back the bailout monies?

        or maybe like the income gap between CEOs, who saw their salaries increase by over 400% since the mid70s, while actual workers only saw a salary increase of 35% in the same time period? keep in mind these are the same workers who are being 300% more productive over the same time period, ie, generating 300% more revenue….of which very little went to them that created it.

        maybe you mean like our retail outlets who thrive at this time of year…like walmart….who LOVES welfare and food stamps because it means they get to pass of employee costs to the government, and thus get away with paying a lower wage in order to keep costs down? the same walmart, who cuts worker hours the weeks before holidays so that their holiday pay, as calculated by their rules (instead of time and half, get average of the previous week’s daily pay as bonus), results in paychecks being the same…or lower!!…than their normal checks?

        or maybe the current result of the insurance “free market” ?

        Cynacism aside…you really need to stop confusing “free market” with “capitalism”, the two are the not same. they are not synonyms., and businesses care not a whit for free markets, and in fact would dearly love the most unfree market of all, monopoly. thats one reason for regulations (limited, well constructed regulations). and all too often, the richest amongst us, have profited at the expense of others (re: worker productivety and CEO compensation growth, Walmart and similar subsidized by tax dollars via social programs)

        • and when i say this, note that im not pseaking against capitalism, or free markets. and neither is the Pope.

          He’s simply reminding us that those with the power to do something to help others…have a responsibility to do that thing.

          ie, We shouldnt enrich ourselves at the expense of others.

          ie, “a rising tide should lift all boats, not just mine because i bailed all my water into yours”

    • John,
      Absolutely. And the enormous progress since then means that we have it in our power to include everyone in that wellbeing.

    • If only the poor could be fed on self-righteous grandstanding masqeurading as a set of empirically valid policy analsysis

      It’s a sad irony that those who make a conspicuous display of bemoaning the powerful feeding on the powerless spent most of the past 100 years failing to apply these same elevated principles to both the particular regimes and the set of economic practices that have lead to tens and millions of the powerless being killed off through politically engineered famines, mass-slaughters, and unspeakable repression and suffering in pursuit of utopian redistribution schemes – all while heaping a limitless stream of derision, scorn, and hostility towards the very mechanisms that have done more to actually alleviate the very inequalities that they purport to object to. Nevermind what has actually lead to these disasters – the real problem is that people are too free to sell what they can make, and buy what they want, irrespective of where they happen to be born.

      The expansion of markets and trade in India and China over the course of the past 20 years has lifted more people out of desolating poverty, and mitigated global inequality more rapidly than any policy intervention in human history. Meanwhile the unfortunate souls who persist in regimes that consolidated and centralized political power for the ostensible purpose of mitigating inequality through redistribution continue to suffer in corrupt kleptocracies that persist on the transfusions of foreign aid that make it possible for them to persist in their palaces without promoting the economic potential of their own people.

      My prayer is that well intentioned people will stop imagining that their moral obligations end at praising or designing policy interventions from afar which are intended to alleviate inequality and poverty, and start caring enough to examine whether or not they actually do so.

      • Jayb,
        You and I agree about the importance of empirical validation of policy interventions. This is largely what The Incidental Economist is about, although of course you may disagree with our readings of the data. But policy is also about values. I think we need to get clear about both values and empirics to move forward.

        I’m a little worried that you are mistaking me for some kind of radical. Don’t think Robespierre or Mao Tse-Tung. My heroes and intellectual guides include John Stuart Mill, Simone Weill, Martin Luther King, John Rawls, Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama. And — new on the list to my enormous surprise — His Holiness Pope Francis.

        Thanksgiving is about our vision of wellbeing. That vision is not revolutionary war. Think peace, democracy, individual liberty, and social equality.

    • Should have included passage 54:

      “54. 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. 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.”

      The Holy Father is laying the smack down.

    • The Epistle of James (attributed to James the Just, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem) has too often been ignored, by Protestants especially (because it conflicts with both Paul’s message and Luther’s message that we are justified by faith alone) but also by Catholics. For those not familiar with the Epistle of James, here’s an eye-opener: “Come now, ye rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver are rusted; and their rust shall be for a testimony against you, and shall eat your flesh as fire. Ye have laid up your treasure in the last days. Behold, the hire of the laborers who mowed your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth out: and the cries of them that reaped have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.”

    • Hmmm.

      To repeat, for almost all of human history almost everyone lived at the subsistence level. Even today about one third of all the people in the world live on $2 per day or less.

      This is the natural condition of mankind.

      But per capita income in the US today is almost $50,000. Why is that? It is not because of Christian altruism or charity or good will or anything else I am reading at this site. It is because we found a way to institutionalize selfishness in a way that has been enormously beneficial to all who have access to the system.

      200 years after Adam Smith, it is one of the great mysteries of the world that otherwise intelligent people don’t seem to understand this very basic truth.

      If you want to help poor people, don’t sell all that you own and live for others. Find a way to export the institutions of capitalism to the rest of the world.

      • John,
        Have you read Angus Deaton’s new book, The Great Escape It eloquently makes your point about the historical significance of market institutions and economic growth for human wellbeing. Deaton himself, however, is also committed to democracy and equality. The good life we have in the developed world does not rest only on institutionalized selfishness.

    • I think Jayb’s point is: world poverty is an economic issue, not a moral issue — unless you consider Milton Friedman a moralist.

      And that people who think all we need is correct moral beliefs (or feelings?) and who dismiss hard-headed economics (as passage 54 does) have caused untold misery throughout the world.

      Remember what Adam Smith’s famous book was about: why are some nations rich and others poor?

      Amazingly, here we are 200 years later and some people talk as though Smith never lived and they seem to have same view of the world that was prevalent in medieval times.

      • Hi John,
        Asserting that poverty is not a moral issue is just trolling on your part, but I’ll play along for one last round.

        As you know, Adam Smith was a moral philosopher. You might want to ponder this quote from the Wealth of Nations:

        “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged.”

        • Whether poverty is a moral or economic issue depends on the scale. At a macro scale, which is what I believe is John’s focus, it is clearly economic. At a micro scale, it is clearly moral. In between, it gets messy.

    • @ SB

      By the term “capitalism” I mean classical liberalism — free markets and the cultural institutions that make free markets possible. “Subjugation and oppression” are the opposites of classical liberalism. That is what the classical liberals liberated us from.

      @ Bill Gardner

      Don’t you feel a little strange mixing Angus Deaton and the message out of the Vatican in the same post?

      The former is a reasoned attempt to understand what is going on — using the discipline of economics as the vehicle. The latter is anti-reason, anti-evidence and above all anti the science of economics.

      I find the Vatican’s pronouncements no more helpful than some air head from Hollywood saying “all you need is love.”

      • Hi John,
        If I thought that the Pope’s message was anti-scientific or anti-rational I would not quote it.

        What makes the Pope different from a Hollywood airhead is that he is giving fresh life to 125 years of the Catholic social teaching. CST may be wrong, but it is neither shallow nor irrational. It is anti-capitalist only if you understand capitalism as a kind of amoral caricature of a living institution.

    • I have found these comments very interesting, but a bit too
      “either-or”. I believe capitalism was in nearly full swing in
      Europe and America long before Adam Smith. He just helped us
      understand the rationale for what was happening, and how to enhance
      it. Does that mean it was the final word? It seems that over the
      last 150 years, nations have also been learning how to regulate,
      tax, and subsidize various parts of our economies to facilitate
      growth AND reduce poverty. (Remember Bismark instituted a national
      health insurance requirement about 130 yrs. ago.) Various nations
      at various times have done this very well, and very poorly. I see
      this as a work in progress for humankind, figuring out how to keep
      the goose laying the golden egg, and making sure that all the
      people hugely disadvantaged by disease, family/societal violence,
      low IQ, lack of schools, etc., etc. have a shot at a decent life
      too. I believe that there will be people like the Pope reminding
      us, for a long time to come, that capitalism, by it’s nature,
      strives to be unregulated, and that is morally
      unacceptable.