Popeconomics - Vatican Dips Toe Into 21st Century

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If asked, I would have predicted a Pope would make our Wall of Shame long before showing up on the Wall of Fame, obviously because of the Catholic Church’s longstanding war on contraception. At Growth Bias Busted, however, we love having a reason to congratulate growth-pushers on the rare occasion they get something right.

Last week such an occasion arose, when Pope Francis issued the exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel. The document’s comments on economics earn the Pope a spot on our Wall of Fame today. Let’s be clear that the Vatican’s, and especially the Bishops’, efforts to obstruct contraception give most sustainable population advocates, myself included, heartburn, . But I do want to applaud and encourage every step the Vatican takes into the 21st century (or even the 20th). So today Pope Francis finds himself on our Wall of Fame!

Here are a few choice quotes from the document:

"…today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

“Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading.”

Most significant to my commentary today is this passage:

“…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. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed.”

And this one: 

“We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth….”

Unfortunately this means Pope Francis hasn’t completely seen the light about the destructiveness and futility of our quest for economic growth everlasting. He is not dismissing economic growth as a societal goal, just adding to it.

Perhaps the best thing about this exhortation is the dialogue it’s provoking. In Such an Economy Kills, economics professor David Ruccio offers:

“The following paragraphs expand the critique of current economic arrangements by referring to how money and finance are out of control (in the form of the ‘idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose’ and ‘financial speculation’), the existence of increasing inequality (‘While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few’), the negative effects on the natural environment (‘this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule’)….”

Of course the growth-pushers and apologists are going to come out of the woodwork, some to defend trickle-down economics, and others to point out the many benefits of capitalism, free markets and economic growth.

Ryan Avent, economics correspondent for The Economist, writes in that publication’s blog, On The Inevitability Of Justice:

“Economic growth is indeed a wonderful thing. Enormous increases in real output per person over the past two centuries have allowed humanity to escape the grinding poverty that was the normal human condition for thousands of years. But the Pope does not appear to be attacking growth. Rather, he is attacking the view that ‘economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world’.”

While the above fails to impress me, Avent goes on to earn some points:

“History suggests that growth doesn't simply take care of things while we go about our business. Growth often creates significant injustices which are ameliorated when popular outrage demands change. The Pope's words, and the public response to them, suggest that just now—with the top income share rising, the share of income going to labour falling, and real wages and employment rates stagnant—there is a certain appetite for calls for change.”

While Mr. Avent remains enamored of the myth that even in a full world economic growth is good, at least he knows better than to depend on it to right many of the wrongs in the world. He also takes to task economists who responded caustically to the Pope’s exhortation. Bravo for that.

We’ll be watching this Pope and rooting for him to make the Vatican more relevant in a world that passed it by.

Photo Credit: Tânia Rêgo/ABr (Agência Brasil) [CC-BY-3.0-br (Creative Commons License)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Dave is the director of the documentary GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave is also president of Citizen-Powered Media, a non-profit working to find the cure to our society's growth addiction. Growth Bias Busted is one of the projects of Citizen-Powered Media's ongoing GrowthBusters public education program.

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