Bernie Sanders, who gets my praise for being a secular guy, got lots of press and pundit praise over the weekend for going to Vatican City for a too-obscure conference “on social, economic and environmental issues hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.” He also got a quick meeting with Pope Francis. Good for Bernie.
But let’s look at Bernie’s speech to the conference and compare it to what he, and to be fair, what Hillary Clinton have been saying on the campaign trail. And I will compare it to what a lot of Americans in both parties believe. First, here is the title of Bernie’s speech:
“Centesimus annus” refers to an encyclical offered by Pope John Paul II in 1991, which was essentially an update of a prior pope’s encyclical, in 1891, on how the Church views the “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor.” Most people consider that 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII to be, as Georgetown’s Berkley Center put it,
a foundational text in the history of Catholic social thought, establishing the position of the Church on issues pertaining to the proper relationship between capital and labor. The vision expounded by the encyclical emphasizes the duties and obligations that bind owners of capital and workers to each other.
So, that encyclical, and those related to it that have followed, are big deals, in terms of how Catholic doctrine addresses the way the world’s economy ought to work. As Bernie Sanders acknowledged and emphasized, these are “moral” issues, and he lauded Pope Leo XIII for highlighting “the enormous wealth of a few as opposed to the poverty of the many.” All of this makes sense for Bernie, obviously, since income and wealth inequality is one of the big themes of his presidential campaign. But let’s keep in mind a very important distinction here. The Popes, when addressing social and economic issues, are talking about the entire world. Bernie is talking almost exclusively about the United States. And, as we will see, there is a conflict between what the Catholic Church says it stands for and what both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton—not to mention Drumpf, in his own weird way—are advocating as presidential candidates.
Since Bernie is the one who spoke at the conference at Vatican City, and since he got his five minutes with the Pope, I will mostly use Bernie’s positions to draw a contrast between Catholic social teaching and what has become the standard position for many Democrats, and, increasingly, many Republicans. First, though, at the heart of the Church’s social teaching on economics is the following, from a section in the 1991 encyclical that Bernie quoted in his speech:
The essential wisdom of Centesimus Annus is this: A market economy is beneficial for productivity and economic freedom. But if we let the quest for profits dominate society; if workers become disposable cogs of the financial system; if vast inequalities of power and wealth lead to marginalization of the poor and the powerless; then the common good is squandered and the market economy fails us. Pope John Paul II puts it this way: profit that is the result of “illicit exploitation, speculation, or the breaking of solidarity among working people . . . has not justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man.”
Again, remember that this laudable statement of the Church’s position regarding how market economies ought to work is not limited to one country. It is a statement applicable to all countries, to “the common good.” I want you to notice something from that last line:
Pope John Paul II puts it this way: profit that is the result of “illicit exploitation, speculation, or the breaking of solidarity among working people . . . has not justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man.”
“The breaking of solidarity among working people…has not justification…” Think about that for a moment. That solidarity, as far as the Church is concerned, extends across national boundaries. It crosses oceans and deserts and leaps over mountains. In the Church’s eyes, that solidarity ought to include workers in Malaysia and Michigan, Vietnam and Vermont. It ought to include garment workers in Bangladesh and flat-screen factory workers in Mexico. It ought to include Apple iPhone assemblers in Zhengzhou, China, and autoworkers in Warren, Ohio. But let’s look at something Bernie Sanders said recently and examine it in light of what the Catholic Church teaches.
Bernie’s now infamous interview with the New York Daily News featured an attack on General Motors. Here is what he said:
General Electric was created in this country by American workers and American consumers. What we have seen over the many years is shutting down of many major plants in this country. Sending jobs to low-wage countries. And General Electric, doing a very good job avoiding the taxes. In fact, in a given year, they pay nothing in taxes. That’s greed. That is greed and that’s selfishness. That is lack of respect for the people of this country.
Notice what Bernie said: General Electric is greedy and selfish because it is guilty of “Sending jobs to low-wage countries.” A lot of Democrats have said similar things. I have myself. As Bloomberg pointed out last month, “Hillary Clinton proposed rescinding tax relief and other incentives retroactively for U.S. companies that move jobs and operations overseas.” Here is what she said in a speech delivered at an automotive supplier in Detroit:
If a company like Nabisco outsources and ships jobs overseas, we’ll make you give back the tax breaks you receive here in America. If you’re not going to invest in us, why should taxpayers invest in you. Let’s take that money and put it to work in the communities that are being left behind.
Such expressions of exasperation with American corporations aren’t hard to find. We all know what a ruckus Donald Drumpf has started among Republicans over outsourcing and trade issues, to the point that he is even attracting some support among working-class Democrats. Bernie Sanders, raising a ruckus himself, has said that General Electric and companies who behave similarly are “destroying the moral fabric of this country.” Again, he puts it in a moral context, just like, he admits, the Church does. But clearly the Church wouldn’t agree with what Bernie told the Daily News when someone suggested he sounded like Drumpf:
Well, if he thinks they’re bad trade deals, I agree with him. They are bad trade deals. But we have some specificity and it isn’t just us going around denouncing bad trade. In other words, I do believe in trade. But it has to be based on principles that are fair. So if you are in Vietnam, where the minimum wage is 65¢ an hour, or you’re in Malaysia, where many of the workers are indentured servants because their passports are taken away when they come into this country and are working in slave-like conditions, no, I’m not going to have American workers “competing” against you under those conditions. So you have to have standards. And what fair trade means to say that it is fair. It is roughly equivalent to the wages and environmental standards in the United States.
There is no equivocation here from Bernie. He sides with American workers. There is no talk of “the urgency of a moral economy” when it comes to Americans having to compete against low-wage workers elsewhere. He doesn’t mention, as John Paul II did, “solidarity among working people.” He does talk of a low minimum wage in Vietnam and “indentured servants” and “slave-like conditions” in Malaysia. But those things could be fixed without bringing those jobs back to the United States. The issue with Bernie is what’s best for Americans, not the Vietnamese or Malaysians. The “Feel The Bern” website puts it succinctly:
American trade policy should place the needs of American workers and small businesses first.
Maybe it should. But is that moral? And is it moral in the sense that the Catholic Church and the current Pope criticize unfettered capitalism? Let’s go back to that passage from Bernie’s speech at the Vatican where he quoted the 1991 encyclical:
The essential wisdom of Centesimus Annus is this: A market economy is beneficial for productivity and economic freedom. But if we let the quest for profits dominate society; if workers become disposable cogs of the financial system; if vast inequalities of power and wealth lead to marginalization of the poor and the powerless; then the common good is squandered and the market economy fails us.
Aren’t Bernie and Hillary and me and other Democrats—and now Drumpf Republicans—simply defending, in another form, what the Church is condemning? When we make statements like Bernie makes on his website—“If corporate America wants us to buy their products they need to manufacture those products in this country, not in China or other low-wage countries”—aren’t we guilty of letting “the quest for profits dominate society”? Aren’t we guilty of making foreign workers “become disposable cogs of the financial system”? Aren’t we guilty of allowing our own “power and wealth” as Americans to “lead to marginalization of the poor and the powerless” and squandering “the common good”?
When I first heard that Bernie Sanders was going to speak at that conference sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, I wondered what he might say. I have often thought about how selfish we Americans—who live in the wealthiest nation on earth—sound to the rest of the world when we talk about jobs and trade. You can read Bernie’s entire speech yourself, but I especially noticed this:
The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great economic issue of our time, the great political issue of our time, and the great moral issue of our time. It is an issue that we must confront in my nation and across the world.
It’s hard to see how an American, especially one who is adamantly opposed to spreading American wealth to “low-wage countries”—let’s face it, people, that’s what this is all about when it comes down to it—can confront “the great moral issue of our time” by demanding that American companies make all their products here. Nor can an American confront that great moral issue by saying that “fair trade” means only trading with countries that have standards that are “roughly equivalent to the wages and environmental standards in the United States.” As we have already seen, Sanders made that statement in his Daily News interview, and as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp (formerly at ThinkProgress) pointed out about Bernie’s impossible-to-meet standard:
But there’s one big problem, according to development economists I spoke to: Limiting trade with low-wage countries as severely as Sanders wants to would hurt the very poorest people on Earth. A lot.
Free trade is one of the best tools we have for fighting extreme poverty. If Sanders wins, and is serious about implementing his trade agenda as outlined in the NYDN interview and elsewhere, he will impoverish millions of already-poor people.
I don’t want to just pick on Bernie Sanders over this issue. All of us who worry about outsourcing—which is not done for altruistic reasons but does bring some benefits to the world’s most vulnerable people—and who also worry about world poverty have to confront the moral dilemma involved. Bernie said at the conference:
Pope Francis has given the most powerful name to the predicament of modern society: the Globalization of Indifference. “Almost without being aware of it,” he noted, “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.”
Pope Francis is right, of course. And Bernie was right to cite him. But Bernie did not, perhaps because he can not, tell us why his own nationalist position on trade—a position he shares with a large majority of Americans—is nothing if not a perfect example of what the Pope means by “the Globalization of Indifference.”
And although it was Bernie who got to meet Pope Francis, it is up to all of us—all of us who believe the common good should extend beyond our borders—to face the moral dilemma created by such seeming indifference.
[Photos: Bernie at St. Peter’s Basilica: AP; Steve Jobs: Reuters; Outsourcing protest: DaytonOS; Pope Francis: Luca Zennaro/EPA-Pool]