On Nov. 24, Pope Francis issued an “exhortation” to Catholics. Not Catholic but still curious about this fresh pope with a personal touch and an aversion to Vatican vanity, I read it. President Obama apparently did, too. Obama quoted the pope’s speech in his own Dec. 4 speech about raising the minimum wage.
Francis began with several appropriate exhortations against consumerism, frivolous pleasures, blunted conscience and idolatry of money. But Francis later expanded his focus, attacking the global economy overall with its rich/poor disparities. He charged that “an economy of exclusion and inequality ... kills.”
What is this killer economy of exclusion and inequality? Francis offered two examples. To explain exclusion, the pope asked this rhetorical question that President Obama then quoted approvingly in his own speech: “How can it be not news when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
In the U.S., this example misses the mark. Such simultaneous stories appear routinely, as on Dec. 6 when papers nationwide reported stock market declines as well as deaths of four homeless Californians from exposure. Americans care about both.
Explaining inequality, the pope asked, “Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality.”
That example also misstates America’s situation. Our poor here are disproportionately obese. Food stamps, school foods, soup kitchens and/or charitable pantries are usually accessible. Only stale food typically gets dumped.
Francis’ rejection of the global economy is remarkable considering that no major religious leader outside Islam has condemned the modern global economy as a morally condemnable killer, fundamentally opposed to the common good. Even the Islamic theocracy of Iran is eager to re-enter global markets.
Francis’ exhortations recalled not Jesus’ message, but the radical liberation theology of Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, circa 1971. Echoing Gutierrez, Francis called for the poor’s “liberation” and that we “radically resolve” their problems by rejecting the “absolute autonomy of markets.”
Francis didn’t mention that markets have become better regulated since 1971 or that the United Nations in September 2013 reported that the poorest group of global citizens has declined from 47 to 22 percent of the world population since 1990, much faster than expected, even while inequality increased because richer cohorts grew. That’s at odds with Francis’ assertion that trickle-down economics has “never been confirmed.” Even acknowledging Francis’ observation that the rich are too rich for their own good, the globe’s deepest poverty is rapidly shrinking, whether because of trickle-down, improved access to markets, or both.
Francis also didn’t acknowledge that global markets help poor people, for instance, by reducing costs of vital items; opening channels for the poor’s own goods and services; jump-starting enterprise through both micro and macro lending; and just providing windows into other realities. Unlike Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Nelson Mandela changed his mind and facilitated free markets in South Africa, substantially reducing poverty there.
And how might the poor escape poverty without markets? Hinting, Francis urged everyone to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society: “I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor!”
Francis’ words went beyond calling for engaged citizens and sensitive politicians. Francis urged politicians “disturbed” about inequality to “liberate” the poor from economic realities and “promote” them “radically,” apparently by redistributing wealth. Raising minimum wages in the U.S. makes sense, but not because labor markets are inherently unfair. Our rich and poor citizen-comrades need coercive equalization, or economic utopia draws nigh.
Rather, higher minimum wages would help counterbalance our welfare system that sometimes already bestows unnecessarily liberating alternatives to work. Higher entry wages could revive market incentives for some safety-netted Americans to reconsider working. That’s common sense.
Rationale matters. Despite sharing Francis’ genuine compassion for the poor, conservative voters won’t support raising minimum wages based on anti-market hyperbole. However, they may feel both morally and practically compelled to reboot work incentives.
David Oedel teaches law at Mercer University.