Every so often, a series of news items come together and shine light on each other's point and perspective. Recently, Pope Francis I issued Evangelii Gaudiam (the joy of evangelization), a pep talk for Roman Catholics. In it he called on Catholics not to give in to the seduction of the market and criticized trickle-down economics as something to be wary of as naive in that it depends on the powerful sharing with others. He warned about the tyranny of money and called for a church willing to commit to helping the least of our brothers and sisters. As the Pope sent out his message, workers at hundreds of McDonald's franchises protested the low wages they are paid. A leaked memo to some of them encouraged them to cut their meal portions into smaller pieces and eat slowly so as to feel more full and it walked them through the steps necessary to apply for food stamps. On top of these, a new study out of the University of Ottawa reveals only Italy and the United Kingdom have less economic mobility than does the United States. The myth of Horatio Alger, the fantasy anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can pull themselves up by their bootstraps to material success, is long dead. In the United States, the income of your parents is directly correlated to how well you will do, and by age 30 most Americans have reached as high as they can on the economic ladder.
The attacks on the Pope were swift and predictable. Rush Limbaugh accused him of being a Marxist and said the Pope's comments were "sad". Fox commentators took umbrage with the Pope inserting politics in church and other business pundits explained how ignorant the Pope is on economic matters. Still others pointed out how wealthy Rome is and as such is in no position to cast stones at anyone else. One critic suggested two verses of the gospel of Luke, where Jesus declines to get involved in an inheritance question, as proof the little Jewish carpenter from Nazareth would denounce the Volker Rule and celebrate collateralized debt obligations. The squealing from rich regressive Catholics, the ones who always talk about obeying the Pope on abortion or birth control, was only surpassed by those who are fighting increases in the minimum wage.
According to the gospel of Arthur Laffer, if you give the rich more money the benefits will trickle down to everyone else and lift all boats. In 2013 the top 1% control more wealth and own more of the nation in any time since the Gilded Age. Yet, the middle class is shrinking, poverty increases, the number of Americans threatened by lack of food grows and the tools to climb out of poverty, particularly access to higher education, are fading. How is it that giving the rich more money is a good thing in regressive theology, but paying working Americans more for their labor is anathema? How is it good to have rich Americans increasing their investment income, which doesn't result in more jobs, but giving working Americans more disposable income, which they will spend in the local economy for food and other essentials, a heresy? In Europe, where minimum wages are higher, the result is a Big Mac costs about twenty-five cents more. Whatever the number, who wouldn't be willing to pay some more for a burger if it meant the person serving it isn't going to have to cut up their food into smaller pieces and hope they have enough food stamps to get through the month?
As the attacks from regressives rain down on the Pope, and on labor activists lobbying for a high minimum wage, no one notices how the economy is stagnating and our economic classes are calcifying into inflexible categories. When progressives pushed for a G.I. Bill and F.H.A. housing, the result was an entire generation who went to college, improved their economic standing, bought a house and created the largest middle class in history. Parent's hoped their children would be able to exceed them and increase their economic power. The American dream was one of upward mobility. At a time when the top tax rate was 90%, over 35% of the work force was unionized, the government was paying for people to go to school, and infrastructure projects like the interstate highway system were employing thousands, the gap between CEO's and workers was the smallest in the 20th century and the middle class was exploding. Today, with the richest Americans paying an effective tax rate between 20%-24%, 10% of the workforce belongs to a union, our infrastructure is crumbling and we are told there is no money to fix it, most Americans can't afford to go to college or if they do incur monstrous debt, the gap between the rich and everyone else is reminiscent of the era of Morgan, Carnegie, Rockefeller and the robber barons at the turn of the 20th century. How is this possible?
G.K. Chesterton once observed, "...it's not that Christianity was tried and found wanting. It's that it has never been tried." The Pope has called attention to something we all instinctively know. Capitalism, by definition and design, produces great wealth for a few people. It's why Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI both condemned free market capitalism and unregulated markets along with Francis. The dedicated pursuit of all things economic...the oppression which results when all one's energies are devoted to having and acquiring...the illusion created by the myth of wealth equaling happiness or satisfaction...can only end with one result...a society where we ignore or avoid those in need and canonize those who are at the top for being brilliant and exceptional.
Today we watch as the McDonalds and Wal Marts of the world drive down wages and benefits in a race to the bottom, which everyone will lose. We sit back and listen to regressives attack any proposal to raise wages, and improve the economic standing of some Americans, as Marxist or socialist as if those words have any meaning in this new century. They tell the Pope to shut up and raise their voices in hymns to a new golden calf as they object to a church which wants to follow the guidance and mandate of Matthew 25. All of this at a time when people all over the globe, in socialist economies, have a far better chance of moving up through their economic system, living longer, healthier, with fewer infant deaths and are rated happier than Americans living in the richest nation on earth.
The Pope and I disagree on any number of issues. However, I never doubt for a moment his commitment to following and emulating the teaching and example of Jesus and call on all of us to have similar values. I welcome the challenge and the role model and am grateful for his courage and vision.