As Pope, obviously Pope Francis is a man who wields significant power. What I didn’t realize until I started reading Pope Francis’ writing is the sheer scope and power of his work.
There is a reason that Rush Limbaugh went after Pope Francis. Interestingly enough, it’s the same reason Pope Francis was able to brush aside Rush Limbaugh’s arguments as if he were a gnat (ok, a bloated gnat to be sure).
In the interest of self-improvement, here’s my diary on how Pope Francis does what he does and what makes it so damn powerful.
At the heart of the conservative view of the economy is a belief. It’s not an economic belief. It’s a moral belief. It’s a view of how things should and shouldn't work.
The belief is in pure individualism and is often expressed when you hear anyone talk about “free markets”.
George Lakoff explains that in a strict father family, the father is the Decider. He is the head of the family and his authority must not be challenged. He provides for his family and disciplines them, with force if necessary, in order to shape them into proper moral beings.
So how does this relate to markets?
Conservatives believe in a moral view of the world where the market itself is seen as “the Decider”:
Your conservative friends likely accept and argue this belief without even thinking about it as a belief. It looks something like this:
• “Let the markets decide!”
• Capitalism = Freedom
• Any interference with markets is bad
Basically, all authority should be invested in ‘markets’ and government should remain hands off.
You know the argument. You’ve likely argued with your conservative friends (or others) in some way shape or form about this. If you have, you’ve likely seen them become very heated as somehow one way or another they see you as trying to limit this perceived freedom.
According to Lakoff:
The market is seen as both natural (since it is assumed that people naturally seek their self-interest) and moral (if everyone seeks their own profit, the profit of all will be maximized by the invisible hand). As the ultimate moral authority, there should be no power higher than the market that might go against market values.Conservatives see the market as the ultimate moral authority.
Think about this for a second. At the heart of conservative philosophy lies the belief that if everyone is selfish, somehow, and they can’t tell you quite how, a world will emerge which will benefit everyone. You’ve also heard this phrased as “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
This belief in individualism alone and fundamentalist capitalism explains why conservatives feel that neither science nor government (nor anything else for that matter) should have any authority over the market.
A brief prelude before talking about the guy you really care about
Most people understand this conservative moral framework so I’m likely not telling you anything you don’t know.
However, in discussions, we often forget or drift away from our own moral positions into other types of arguments.
Some of the mistakes I've made/seen:
• Focusing on the ‘truth’
• Telling conservatives that their arguments are wrong/dumb/stupid
• Discussing policy
• Falling into Democratic and Republican arguments
• Accepting conservative moral framing
• Not explaining my moral frame (or not arguing for a better moral frame)
• Leading with solutions before we've made a strong enough case for change
I'm sure there's others, but these were top of mind. Where we want to be is making more powerful moral arguments. This lays the groundwork for solutions.
A few examples when it comes to discussing economics. What are the challenges with laissez-faire capitalism? What is the moral case for change?
How does Pope Francis do it?
This Pope would be powerful even if he weren’t Pope because not only does he understand the importance of moral arguments but he's able to make the case like few others I've seen.
He points out the deification and false power attributed to markets:
“The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything that stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”A deified market. I wish I would have said that. This is exactly the power some want to invest in markets when they say “Let the markets decide”.
Do we really want to grant markets that much control over our lives?
Markets have allowed slavery in the past. Markets have allowed child labor. Markets have led to monopolies and vast inequality. Do we really want to get rid of laws prohibiting slavery? Do we really want to allow companies to hire children again?
Shouldn’t we maybe be saying “Let the people decide!” or “Let’s do what’s right!”
Anyways, back to Pope Francis. Here, he reminds us of the importance of other values:
“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.”Markets say nothing about the morality of killing. This is a belief that we have made into law through government. Markets don’t care one way or the other.
The same goes for inequality. When has the market has ever weighed in on starving or inequality? Last time I checked, markets simply determined price and helped efficiently allocate resources.
Francis goes further though:
“Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of Ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it threatens the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, Ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace.”Wow. Not only a rejection of ethics, but God. No wonder he's making such a stir here in the U.S. where certain groups have been selling us supply-side Jesus for the past 40 years.
He is right though: Ethics exist outside of markets and should guide markets.
Compassion, caring, empathy, and feeling. Also outside of markets:
“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. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”It's not that markets don't care; it's simply that markets are about trade.
Yet we’re being told we should set everything outside of trade aside and somehow markets will magically deliver us a better life for all. Despite any evidence to the contrary, we’re supposed to believe that somehow out there this great utopia awaits if we can just find a purer form of markets.
Is the Pope socialist?
Does this make the Pope anti-capitalist, or in Rush Limbaugh’s words “pure Marxism”?
Here is how the Pope answered Limbaugh:
"The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended."What I really admire about Francis here is that he doesn't get upset with Limbaugh. He doesn't get defensive. He simply says what he believes and shows empathy for people who believe differently. He believes Marxism is wrong, but the people are good. In other words, he disputes the ideology rather than the people.
Then, he goes on to emphasize how he isn’t against capitalism, only certain aspects of supply-side economics:
"The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist."I don't think Limbaugh ever thought the Pope would respond. Not only that, but what a response.
The Pope simply reminded us of the failed promise of trickle-down economics, a certain kind of capitalism, and how pointing this out does not make him a socialist.
Notice he didn't call Limbaugh an idiot. He didn't lose his cool. He simply held his moral ground.
This is the last reaction people like Rush Limbaugh want and my guess is that Rush will search for weaker folks to bait.
The tyranny of markets
Another argument I’ve heard from conservatives is an anti-government argument. You hear this a lot when it comes to the Affordable Care Act.
The argument goes something like this: Government shouldn’t force me to do anything I don’t want to do.
You’ll see it expressed in memes like the following:
Spooky, right? Big government is bad and making me do things I don’t want.
In some sense, this is a version of de Toqueville’s “tyranny of the majority”.
This is a good argument for Constitutional Rights. What it isn’t, however, is a good argument for fundamentalist capitalism.
Why? Because unfettered markets have their own tyranny. Pope Francis explains:
“While the earnings of the minority are growing exponentially, so, too, is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. The imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation…. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules…”Yes, our Democracy (or Constitutional Republic as my Libertarian friends will remind me) imposes laws. We elect people to act in our interests and our representatives create laws. These laws range from traffic rules to food quality rules to rules that govern transactions to transparency rules to laws against specific crimes such as murder or rape.
In this system, each person has an equal vote. One person, one vote.
In a market where you vote with your dollars, one dollar equals one vote. Doesn’t this system impose a much greater tyranny? Don't you have less influence?
A billionaire would have a million times more power in this system than the average person. Do we really want a system where your vote depends on how much you own and how many dollars you hold?
Yet this is the system many want to institute, a system of market fundamentalism, where everything should somehow be decided by the “market”.
A system where the rules change depending on how much money you have.
How again is this going to be better for everyone? How is this ethical?
Francis reminds us that markets should be subjects, not rulers:
“Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect, and promote the poor. I exhort you to a generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.”Takeaways from the Pope (Subtitle: Pope-a-dope strategies)
Whew! Before I turn Catholic, I’m going to come down from my Francis lovapalooza and summarize a few things I took away from Pope Francis:
• It's the ideology, not the person. Most conservatives I know are good people who honestly think they are doing what is best. Treat them as such (until at least they prove differently).
• Win the person, not the argument. Has telling someone how wrong they are ever changed their mind? Has someone ever changed your mind this way?
• Make your arguments more moral. This is the George Lakoff argument that everyone knows but doesn’t get used nearly enough.
• Capitalism is not god. Thank you for reminding us, Pope Francis, that capitalism should serve the needs of the people. It is what we make it and needs to be subject to other forces if it is going to work for the benefit of all.
How am I going to use this?
I’ll talk about some of the examples where markets haven’t worked so well. Child labor is a great one, for example. In Britain in 1819, lawmakers introduced a law called the Cotton Factories Regulation Act. This law banned the employment of children under age 9 in cotton factories (which were at the time recognized as extremely hazardous to your health). At the time, some members of the House of Lords argued that ‘labour ought to be free’.
Heheh … Does “ought to be free” sound familiar?
Examples like this demonstrate that “freedom” of markets is actually what we want it to be. We now take for granted that children under certain ages should not be employed as part of what we think of as a “free market”. Markets themselves never came up with this rule though.
Keep the discussion civil. I wouldn’t, for instance, say something like the following: “You’re making the market a god!”
I bring that point up here only because it helps to understand the moral worldview behind many of the arguments you hear everyday.
I would also illustrate the moral arguments for change. Pope Francis does this by talking about the outcomes we’re seeing as a result of our current capitalist system: economic inequality, increasing indifference to how we treat each other, and the erosion of ethics.
Once you’ve laid the moral foundation for change, then and only then, should you start talking about solutions.
All too often solutions are where we start. Then and only then, should you make the case for a working capitalism.