Bloomberg.com describes Lant Pritchett as a professor of the practice of international development at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. With a title like that, I’m quite sure even he isn’t sure what it is that he does. In an article provocatively titled, Why is Pope Francis promoting sin?, Pritchett describes himself as a “full-time preacher of economics” (of what denomination—Keynesian, neo-Keynesian [Krugmenian], Friedmanian, Hayakian, etc–he does not disclose, but it would be a fair bet that it’s not Marxist—and yes, Marx, too, was a full-time preacher of economics). He takes Pope Francis to task for his recent papal exhortation deploring the inequities that inhere with capitalist economic systems, claiming that the Pope has no theological justification for his views. Really, he said the Pope doesn’t understand Christian theology. And he said that as the Pope has undertaken to opine on his field, economics, he should be allowed to opine on the Pope’s grasp of Christian morality. Okay, fair enough, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And I am hardly of the traditional Catholic belief in the Pope’s infallibility, as I sense is also Pope Francis’ view. But Mr. Pritchett’s opinion reveals he knows precious little about Christianity, or about its moral basis, and more poignantly, that he completely misses the Pope’s point.
The adage that sometimes it’s better to let people think you a fool than to offer an opinion proving that you are comes to mind in Pritchett’s case. Here’s part of what Pritchett observed about inequality and the Christian morality regarding it:
While Jesus repeatedly preached against the love of riches, he was urging people to respond to a call to God and to become “rich to God.” It was not an appeal for people to resent the riches of others and obsess about material inequality. Jesus, when asked to remedy inequality, turned the focus back on envy and greed.
“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.’ He replied to him, ‘Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?’ Then he said to the crowd, ‘Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.’” (Luke 12:13-15)
Here’s what Pope Francis actually said regarding inequality:
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. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new.
In other words, Pope Francis was hardly exhorting Christians to seek equality because it’s just not fair that some have so much while so many have so little, which would be indulging the sin of covetousness, or envy, as Pritchett puts it. In fact, the Pope wasn’t speaking to the poor and downtrodden at all. He was speaking to the power structure that ignores and excludes them—the capitalists and their government puppets who greedily allow their exploitation.
Pritchett uses the example of Google’s founders, each worth about $30 billion, as evidence of the abiding goodness of capitalism. After all, they saw a need—the ability to quickly search trillions of tidbits of information on the internet—and met the need in a fabulous, cost-free way. No. The Google boys figured out how to apply to the internet the oldest of strategies for reaping economic rents. Google is a gatekeeper. It is a gatekeeper to information accessible via the internet. It collects its economic rents via directing searching eyeballs to advertisements, giving vendors a crack at converting eye traffic to money. Google’s business model works, for now, because it is one of only a few channels through which an internet search might yield some comprehendible results. But in the end, it is not much different than a troll under a bridge who charges for the privilege of crossing over the bridge, the difference being that the bridge to be crossed is access to user’s eyeballs and attention.
Though he doesn’t speak to Google specifically, I doubt the Pope has any problems with Google’s business model. It mainly does not require the exploitation of workers to achieve its ends, except perhaps in the bits it extracts from vendors who must then pass the costs on to consumers, who are also workers. But he might have a problem at the wealth being accumulated by its founders while the world’s poor go starving. If so, the Pope would be making an excellent and insightful observation about economics—Google’s enlightened self-interest is to have as many people searching for as many goods as possible so Google will reel in as many advertising dollars as possible. But the $60 or so billion tied up with its founders is $59.5 or so billion that is mainly worthless to Google’s founders, given the diminishing marginal value of a dollar past some level of accumulation (is $250 million enough?). If that wealth were spread around to its customers, Google would generate even more revenue. Multiply that by a factor of several thousand, that is, institute a policy discouraging such outlandish wealth accumulation across the board, and all of mankind and his activities, including Google, would profit. Google’s credo is “do no evil”. Perhaps its founders are not evil. But here’s what Christ said about their chances of getting into heaven:
“All these I have kept”, the young man said. “What do I still lack”?
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. The come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19: 16-24)
And why is getting into heaven so hard for a rich man? Pope Francis explains it is the idolatry of money:
One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.
Pope Francis points to the reality that apologists for capitalism repeatedly fail to understand—economic systems fail of their essential purpose when they impoverish the many while enriching the few. And economic systems that fail of their essential purpose are doomed to ultimate failure. To put it in terms even a capitalist apologist might understand—if only the capitalists are rich, to whom might they sell their wares so that their riches can continue to accumulate? Pritchett didn’t use the example of Apple Computer as his virtuous capitalist, and for good reason, for Apple is a perfect example of the self-limiting market principle—its workers in China do not earn enough money to buy its mass consumption technical gadgets. How is this in Apple’s long-term interests? Henry Ford figured things out long ago—that products intended for mass consumption need to be within the reach of the people bringing them to market. It is only through Apple’s exploitation of international disparities in wage levels, made possible by the collusive governments of China and the US, that Apple can profitably sell its phones and other electronic gadgetry to people other than those who actually make them; people in the developed world who are, for the moment, rich enough to afford them. It all falls apart when the developed world market gets saturated, and other markets don’t have people rich enough to buy them.
Economic systems absolutely must be designed to enhance the welfare of the people comprising them. Any economic system that fails to do so is inherently unstable and will ultimately fail. As such, the global economic system is heading for disaster, of which the financial crisis was a harbinger. And that, I think, is the message Pope Francis is trying to deliver. Not that people should be envious of others, but that we are all in this together, and we need to start behaving accordingly, or disaster looms.
Pope Francis is better at Lant Pritchett’s job of preaching economics than is Lant Pritchett. And the Pope needn’t fear Pritchett might displace him as a theologian, either.