Lesson 5: Political Economy

Undoubtedly, the most controversial part of Fratelli Tutti is its economic critique. Although he might not label it as such, the Pope recognizes we operate in a political economy. Kurt Anderson uses the term in his Evil Geniuses to indicate people, not the market, decide how an economy operates. He argues those who call for an unregulated market as the fairest way to conduct business are engaged in a con job that allows them to have their way. Ever since the Ronald Reagan presidency in the 1980s, they have convinced many of the poor that their best hope is enabling the rich to increase their wealth. And, they have used modern technology to maintain control very efficiently.

The Pope calls on us to recognize that there is not some invisible hand in the markets insuring the best possible equity. It is the responsibility of all in a democracy to do that. We are to work for the common good and that begins by making sure the weak and vulnerable are cared for.

Beyond that, Pope Francis asks us to recognize an economy is about more than making money. It is the way we organize our lives and provide for needs that go beyond finances. It also involves how we use our time, occupy our space, share our gifts, develop our resources, and so much more.

When we recognize that we live in a political economy, we realize practice is far more important than theory. Recently, there has been a great deal of name calling in regard to theory. Many conservative politicians accuse anyone who opposes their interests of being a socialist. They equate the American Way with capitalism and define patriots as capitalists. Of course, any honest examination of our society shows this is pure nonsense. Our nation operates with some capitalistic, some socialistic, and even some fascist practices, at least if you defer to the classic definitions of these. This hodgepodge is evident when you consider Medicare, social security, homestead acts, pandemic relief, oil company subsidies, government drug research funding, public education, corporate tax breaks, arts financing, etc. To see these as parts of a unified coordinated economic theory has to do far more with desire than reality.

The Pope asks us to concentrate on correcting unjust practices. In Fratelli Tutti #75, he maintains all those who live in and profit from a political economy share responsibility for making changes. One of these unhealthy practices is certainly the growing separation of rich and poor. The Pope claims healing this begins with rejecting classic economic theories that insist we must compete, because there is not enough to go around. He presumes an abundance that enables us to cooperate in sharing goods.

Kurt Anderson’s studies show this is not naïveté as the Pope’s detractors charge. Anderson was surprised to find evening out wealth would make everyone worth $800,000 and provide them with $149,000 a year. Moving in the right direction to restore fairness in this situation would involve debating all sorts of possible creative practices from increased taxation on the super-rich to guaranteed incomes for all, from providing meaningful work to compensating essential workers. There is a question, however, if lowering income taxes for the rich from 70% to 28% since 1972 has corrected or aggravated the problem.

Another assumption in Fratelli Tutti is that government plays an essential role in society when it functions as the voice of the people, not special interests. Sensible governmental regulations protect the vulnerable and promote justice. Again, there can be debate about what these might be. However, working for the common good forces us to examine anti-trust enforcement, fair pricing for essential goods, pollution controls, minimum wage requirements, car emission standards, and many more.

The bottom line in the political economy described in Fratelli Tutti is the responsibility to make your voice heard. And Pope Francis contends Christians should be speaking for the weak among us.

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