Pope Francis, a saintly man and a good economist

 

The opinion piece by Helen Aguirre Ferré published in the Herald ( The pope got it wrong, Jan. 5) echoes a similar one published recently and written by Carlos Alberto Montaner; both writers express dismay about Pope Francis' pronouncements on the widening gulf between rich and poor in the world.

Ferré takes a quantitative approach, and puts forth a figure of $16 trillion dollars spent by the United States on various anti-poverty programs during the last few decades. Fair enough, but that just happens to be the same amount spent in just five years for bailouts that went mostly to the very Wall Street speculators who brought the economy to its knees with their hedge funds, derivatives, and other highly leveraged investments.

Montaner's analysis is more qualitative. He takes issue with Pope Francis when he proposes that we should share our wealth with the poor and that to fail to do so is to “steal their livelihood.” In Montaner's view, that notion contradicts pronouncements contained in the recent encyclical, Centesimus Anus, in which Pope John Paul II re-emphasized the inalterable right of the individual to private property.

There is no contradiction; Montaner well knows that church philosophers, going back to Thomas Aquinas (seven centuries ago) distinguish between two kinds of justice — each important to the overall welfare of society, or what is called the “common good.” One is commutative justice, and protects not only private property but the exchange of it in an arms-length transaction, whether for goods or for labor.

The other is distributive justice (social justice in modern parlance); and that protects the right of all citizens to a fair share of the goods of this earth.

The two kinds of justice were applied in the proclamation of the basic human rights, as enunciated in the United Nations Charter of 1948 (crafted by a commission headed by Eleanor Roosevelt). They are also enshrined in the most famous encyclical of all, Pacem in Terris, penned by John XXIII. In the encyclical, the kindly Pope restates both the right to private property — even of productive goods, i.e. stocks — and the right of labor to a livable wage and of all citizens to a decent standard of living “commensurate with the living standards” of the society as a whole.

During the 50 years after WW II, the living standards of all Americans improved in unison; America's middle class grew steadily and home ownership, bolstered by both Republicans and Democrats, increased to 70 percent. Then, in a sudden, undemocratic and totally sinister manner, the Federal Reserve, working in concert with Wall Street, took over the part of the economy that deals with the money supply and the setting of interest rates.

In the meantime, poverty has grown to the point that one in six Floridians are receiving food stamps and one in 12 are unemployed. One does not have to be a bleeding heart liberal to reach the conclusion that it is not the poor who have over-reached for a share of the nation's resources, but the rich and powerful.

When Pope Francis chastises the “imbalance” between rich and poor, which he says is “the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation,” he is dead-on in his critique. The Pope is rightly warning the world, and in a special way the United States, that left to itself without proper regulation (laissez-faire), the investment bankers and hedge-bank speculators will aggravate the problem of disparity and hurt the overall economy, by becoming “too big to fail,” when they have simply become “too big, period.”

Interestingly, this is one area in which the extreme left and the extreme right find agreement, as they criticize the way both parties have protected Wall Street, at the expense of Main Street.

It is not just the poor who have suffered from the unfair distribution of taxpayer dollars to help bail out banks, insurance companies and hedge funds (who ironically, created the economic crisis). It is all of us working Americans who have suffered; and also, in a special way, the unemployed and underemployed, among whom I count two brothers and a bunch of nephews and nieces.

When Pope Francis says that the finance sector, with the passive or active help of their friends in government, has stolen from the poor, he is not condemning the hard-working entrepreneur who achieves great wealth and security for his or her family. He is chastising the modern “robber barons” who have accumulated wealth at the expense of the middle class, the working class and the poor, and then, having used our hard-earned money to amass wealth beyond human comprehension, have asked to be rescued from failure.

Turns out Francis is not only a saintly man, but a good economist.

Xavier Suarez is a Miami-Dade County commissioner.

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