Bernie, The Pope, And A Moral Dilemma

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:

The Urgency of a Moral Economy: Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of Centesimus Annus

“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 iBernie Sanders meets Pope Francis during visit to Vatican Citys 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.”

FILE - Apple CEO Steve Jobs smiles with a new iPhone at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. In the white-hot competition for tech talent, some workers are alleging Silicon Valley's top companies conspired to keep employees from switching teams, June 7, 2010.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]



How Long Will The Excluded Wait?

Robert Reich begins his latest column this way:

People ask me all the time why we don’t have a revolution in America, or at least a major wave of reform similar to that of the Progressive Era or the New Deal or the Great Society.

Middle incomes are sinking, the ranks of the poor are swelling, almost all the economic gains are going to the top, and big money is corrupting our democracy. So why isn’t there more of a ruckus?

Revolution? Ruckus? Well, why aren’t people making more election-changing noise? Reich gave three reasons, which I will list without most of his supporting material:

1) “…the working class is paralyzed with fear it will lose the jobs and wages it already has…No one has any job security. The last thing they want to do is make a fuss and risk losing the little they have.”

2) “In prior decades students were a major force for social change. But today’s students don’t want to make a ruckus. They’re laden with debt…record numbers are still living at home.”

3) “Third and finally, the American public has become so cynical about government that many no longer think reform is possible…It’s hard to get people worked up to change society or even to change a few laws when they don’t believe government can possibly work.”

That last reason for a reluctance to raise a ruckus can be documented by the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, which found:

confidence in washington

As you can see, Republicans have done a good job of poisoning the well of governance, with their obstructionist tactics and willingness to sabotage the economic recovery and their refusal to do anything to address the income and wealth gap in America. But such tactics, although successful in bringing Democrats down, have damaged the Republican Party’s image profoundly. The poll found that only 36% of Republicans have significant confidence in their own party. Think about that.

But think, too, about the fact that a large part of the reason that even Republicans don’t have much confidence in their own party or their party’s leadership is that extremist teapartiers think the GOP hasn’t gone far enough in its obstructionism. Many of those folks think that John Boehner has sold them out. For God’s sake, many think that Mitch McConnell is too liberal.

As crazy as that sounds, things are actually worse. Consider the right’s reaction to Pope Francis. When the boss man of a gazillion Catholics dared to criticize increasing income and wealth inequality, when he called out “trickle-down theories” for their failure to deliver “greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” his words were branded as “pure Marxism” by Rush Limbaugh. Other right-wingers called him a socialist and annointed him “the Catholic Church’s Obama.” Just a few days ago a News Editor for, himself a Catholic, said that,

Pope Francis has declared war on those who aspire to provide a better life for themselves and their families, expressing the misguided snobbery of a man for whom money has never been an issue.

Such feelings run deep on the right. That editor went on to say that, “the only charity the pope supports is forced redistribution.” Ahh. That’s the real offense the Pope committed. He thinks, and he thinks Jesus thinks, governments ought to be involved in seeing to it that there is a more equitable distribution of wealth. He can see with his presumably holy eyes that if the world’s poor and underserved are to utterly depend on the generosity of the rich to keep them afloat, they are a most miserable lot indeed. The Pope says trickle-down economics,

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.

All of which leads me back to Robert Reich’s column. How long will the excluded wait? Reich listed three reasons why more people don’t make a bigger fuss about the breathtaking economic inequities we see here in America and the fact that “big money is corrupting our democracy.” But he should have included a fourth reason: the big money corruption itself. Rich people, particularly rich conservative people, are buying this republic and the politicians who manage it, as well as influencing low-information voters who fall for the slick and misleading advertising that big money buys.

If you have the stomach for it, I invite you to read one the most depressing articles I have read in a long time. The Mother Jones piece, titled “Meet the New Kochs: The DeVos Clan’s Plan to Defund the Left,” chronicles how a wealthy Michigan family, whose billions were acquired through the pyramid-like distributing company Amway, was able to purchase the votes necessary to pass union-crippling right-to-work legislation in a state that was once union friendly.

I will confess that after reading the article, my usual political optimism was shaken. I fear for our future if something isn’t done to restrain the flow of money into our politics. The 87-year-old Richard DeVos, who cofounded Amway, and his eldest son Dick DeVos should not be able to do what they did in Michigan. And what they did has effects beyond the obvious race to the bottom in terms of workers’ wages and working conditions:

Passing right-to-work in Michigan was more than a policy victory. It was a major score for Republicans who have long sought to weaken the Democratic Party by attacking its sources of funding and organizing muscle…So DeVos and his allies hit labor—and the Democratic Party—where it hurt: their bank accounts. By attacking their opponents’ revenue stream, they could help put Michigan into play for the GOP heading into the 2016 presidential race—as it was more than three decades earlier, when the state’s Reagan Democrats were key to winning the White House.

It’s pretty simple. Republicans believe that if they can weaken, if not destroy, labor unions, they can control the country’s politics:

the Michigan fight has given hope—and a road map—to conservatives across the country working to cripple organized labor and defund the left. Whereas party activists had for years viewed right-to-work as a pipe dream, a determined and very wealthy family, putting in place all the elements of a classic political campaign, was able to move the needle in a matter of months. “Michigan is Stalingrad, man,” one prominent conservative activist told me. “It’s where the battle will be won or lost.”

That Michigan fight is going on here in Missouri. The very first hearing this year in the Missouri House, which is dominated by right-wing Republicans, was used to promote anti-union legislation, in this case falsely titled the “Freedom To Work Act.” The only “freedom” written into this bill is freedom for workers who benefit from union representation on the job to opt out of having to pay any fee to the union for its collective bargaining services. In other words, this bill, and other so-called right-to-work legislation, establishes that there is, after all, such a thing as a free lunch.eric burlison

The idea, obviously, is to starve unions of needed resources, even though the Missouri bill’s sponsor, a Springfield Republican, claimed that the legislation “would make unions stronger.” Let me state the obvious here: If a right-winger tells you that a bill he is sponsoring will make unions stronger, he is lying through his gold teeth.

It’s equally obvious that if unions are starved of funds and can’t afford to defend the interests of working people, both on the job and during the election cycle, then rich Republicans will have their way. That is why rich Republicans pour so much money into these efforts, with 24 states now having such laws as the one being crafted here in Missouri. And if more states follow the trend and engage in a race to the bottom, the situation Robert Reich described—sinking middle incomes, growing poverty, and rich people realizing most of the economic gains—will get worse.

And if it gets bad enough, the ruckus, or the revolution, will come.

Hurricane Francis

Conservative Christians sometimes tell us that when bad things happen, like the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s, it is God’s way of telling us we have lost our way, become too permissive and sinful. The Almighty is trying to straighten us out by sending us plagues, storms, or earthquakes. Or else he is just, as C. S. Lewis once described him, the Cosmic Sadist and enjoys the miseries he creates.

Either way, God, at least the version that Catholics worship, is creating plenty of misery for the Republican Party in the form of a hurricane of a Pope: Francis. It has been several days now since Hurricane Francis issued what is called in the theological trade an “apostolic exhortation,” which is less authoritative than a papal encyclical, but carries more clout than a tweet. Or something like that.

In any case, this instantly famous exhortation is known in God’s tongue as Evangelii Gaudium, or in the tongue of mortals, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

It turns out, as far as God’s representative on Earth sees it, that the “joy” in the Gospel is not the ability to send your greenbacks to the Cayman Islands with a bottle of Banana Boat sunscreen and a command to relax and take it easy for a while. No, no, no. That’s not even close to the kind of joy this Pope is talking about. The fierce winds of Hurricane Francis threaten to blow away, or at least severely damage, all that the current iteration of the Republican Party represents.Pope Francis

“The Joy of the Gospel,” is, of course, primarily an exhortation for Christians, including the Church hierarchy, to renew their “personal encounter with Jesus Christ,” to never “tire of seeking his mercy,” to “start anew” and “enter into this great stream of joy.” There is also plenty of praise for the “delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

But the gusts of prose that have done, and hopefully will continue to do, real damage to the Republican brand are found in Francis’ “guidelines” as to how the Church’s “new phase of evangelization” should be accomplished. He writes (his emphasis):

All of them help give shape to a definite style of evangelization which I ask you to adopt in every activity which you undertake.

Uh-oh. You mean, every activity? Even government activity? Yes. Even that one.

The Pope says that while there have been many advances made “to improve people’s welfare,” there are some rather large gaps:

…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.

Francis also said something that has largely been overlooked in the popular press:

We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.

We see such anonymity at work here in the United States, as wealthy political donors are able to hide behind virtually unregulated front groups, many of whom promote the kinds of economics that the Pope next condemns:

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.

That may be as concise and devastating a critique of laissez-faire economics as you will ever read: “an economy of exclusion and inequality” doesn’t just injure people, it kills them. And just as there ought to be laws designed to deter murderous people, there also ought to be laws designed to deter murderous economies. That parallelism is quite clear. And it most definitely stands against everything that the Republican Party currently stands for.

The Hurricane continues with an equally devastating critique of the news business:

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?

And how can it not be a news item when tens of millions of Americans go without health insurance every year, many of them sick and some of them dying, but it is news when John Boehner, falsely it turns out, claimed he had trouble enrolling on the ObamaCare website? Something is very wrong, as the Pope recognizes.

But he wasn’t done with his attack—there is no other word for it—on Tea Party economics:

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. […]

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.

It is this analysis, this tree-snapping, roof-ripping analysis, that has people like Rush Limbaugh scrambling for the rhetorical basement:

This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.

A slightly more sober right-wing commentator, Charles Krauthammer, gave Francis, “a man who lived it in his own life,” credit for “incredible authenticity,” and then said:

I think it’s going to have a lot of influence, and I think it will unfortunately set back the movement in the Church at least recognizing how capitalism and the free market allows for the flourishing of individuals in a way that socialism and of course communism never did.

Notwithstanding Krauthammer’s suggestion, Pope Francis is not championing socialism or communism. He’s not a Marxist. He is attacking an economic system that has too little regulation, one without an enforceable code of what the Pope sees as Gospel-inspired ethics, which “would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order.” And it is here where I will emphasize something he said that deserves much more attention:

A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. 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 generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings.

pope francisKeep in mind that Francis is saying this to “political leaders.” And he is placing it all in the context of the Gospel, in the context of the evangelization of the world. No matter what you think of the Pope’s motives, no matter what you think of the source, this quite radical message represents all that is good about Christianity and all that our New Deal social policies inherited from it.

What Francis is saying is a galaxy away from attempts by Republicans—almost all of them Christians—to sabotage the new health care law and to keep millions from entering into the joy of its benefits. What he is saying is a universe away from fights over food stamps and unemployment benefits, from attempts to cut Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid.

Yes, what this refreshingly strange and cyclonic man of God is saying is far away from all that, but it is near to the heart of the best of our holy books. And, dare anyone to believe it, perhaps his words really are near to the heart of God.

[Photo: AFP]

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