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Can Catholics Converge on an Economic Vision?

The recent quarreling over Paul Ryan and “On All of Our Shoulders” can sometimes veer close to name-calling, and worse, a kind of scandalous dismissal of fellow members of the Body of Christ (in public!). As someone who is frustrated by Left/Right categories, and who doesn’t fit them, I lament that we cannot do a better job as Catholics elevating the level of our social discourse, instead of in practice descending to its level and its categories. The statement was not meant to dismiss voting for Ryan (the statement says that!) – rather, the point was to communicate key aspects of the Catholic vision that are often ignored or trivialized, and which have become overrun by a dominant language which more or less communicates a message that the government that governs least, governs best.

So, in this spirit, kudos to George Weigel, for offering a forthright statement of the constructive and positive economic hopes that conservative American Catholics want. There’s a real, constructive conversation to be had here, which is certainly what the statement hopes to generate. In that light, Weigel’s statement is a kind of manifesto in itself, and I think represents the best side of the vision conservatives are offering:

A robust economy is not only an economic imperative; it is a moral and cultural imperative. A robust economy makes honorable work possible for all who wish to be responsible for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. And work, according to Blessed John Paul II in the 1983 encyclical Laborem Exercens, is an expression of our participation in God’s sustaining “creation” of the world. A robust economy makes possible the empowerment of the underprivileged—the true “preferential option for the poor” in Catholic social doctrine, according to John Paul’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus—even as it helps conserve public resources by making the resort to welfare less necessary.

Of course, Mr. Weigel’s position here is not a new one – but his articulation of it today can help foster constructive engagement.

I have three real questions about the picture Mr. Weigel outlines. First, where is Blessed John Paul II’s prominent criticism of “superdevelopment” and consumerism? Where is Benedict XVI’s concern about “hedonistic lifestyles” devoted to moneymaking? The statement seems to believe that there is an unproblematic, uniquely American ability to combine charity and wealth-seeking which… well, is absent from the assumptions of the CST encyclical tradition. Mr. Weigel’s initial comments about Maritain’s observations suggest he recognizes some of these problems… and even in 1958, social critics had been raising questions about the American penchant for seeking ”gain” for many decades. The serious question: how is it that we get this kind of “shared prosperity” and economic growth without falling into crass consumerism?

Second, Mr. Weigel talks a lot about the noble dignity of work, and therefore the need to do something about unemployment. He is right about that. But implied in his comments is the idea that our welfare spending is tied to our unemployment. Get unemployment down, and we’ll be able to scale back welfare. But will we? At present, there are tens of millions of American households who are working, but who are also receiving substantial benefits in numerous forms. Why? Because they work at jobs that pay less than what is necessary to live on (the substandard wages are subsidized by things like the EITC and SNAP), and often do not provide benefits, most notably health care. In the present recovery, economists have noted that (troublingly) the jobs that are coming back are often low-wage. I’m all for Laborem Exercens (issued in 1981, on Rerun Novarum’s anniversary), but, as the late pope reminds us:

The key problem of social ethics in this case is that of just remuneration for work done. In the context of the present there is no more important way for securing a just relationship between the worker and the employer than that constituted by remuneration for work. … Hence, in every case, a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly. It is not the only means of checking, but it is a particularly important one and, in a sense, the key means. This means of checking concerns above all the family. Just remuneration for the work of an adult who is responsible for a family means remuneration which will suffice for establishing and properly maintaining a family and for providing security for its future. Such remuneration can be given either through what is called a family wage-that is, a single salary given to the head of the family for his work, sufficient for the needs of the family without the other spouse having to take up gainful employment outside the home-or through other social measures such as family allowances or grants to mothers devoting themselves exclusively to their families.

The pope of course goes on to enumerate numerous other rights of the worker, all of which are a consequence of his first principle, the priority of labor over capital. Moreover, the pope eloquently explains:

it must be emphasized, in general terms, that the person who works desires not only due remuneration for his work; he also wishes that, within the production process, provision be made for him to be able to know that in his work, even on something that is owned in common, he is working “for himself”. This awareness is extinguished within him in a system of excessive bureaucratic centralization, which makes the worker feel that he is just a cog in a huge machine moved from above, that he is for more reasons than one a mere production instrument rather than a true subject of work with an initiative of his own.

This is evidently and rightly an argument against Communist collectivism, but it is no less an argument against the appalling deadliness of much low-wage work within large corporate structures. This is why he advocates for structures of worker-ownership, for example. So here is the second problem: Mr. Weigel presents a romanticized view of the work world as it presently exists. We need to take seriously our dependence on exploited, low-wage labor, which we manage to do without too much social chaos only because of a number of subsidies. I’m not saying here that people need to have “cushy” jobs. I’m saying that people who work erratic hours at the local supercenter still need health care and rent, and it’s pretty hard to imagine them raising a child and doing all that without the subsidies. Let’s get real about just wages, and then we can talk about the dignity of work and the need to reduce welfare spending.

Third, Mr. Weigel lauds (again, rightly) charitable giving. As he points out, Americans give $300 billion a year to charity. Lest one be too impressed, however, this is out of $10 trillion or so in annual spending. Not exactly a tithe here. Moreover, it is misleading to imagine that such giving all ends up providing charity care at the local soup kitchen or cover the rent of someone who has unexpectedly lost their job. A considerable amount of this money goes to other (worthy!) causes – institutions of education, arts foundations and organizations, health organizations (like the American Cancer Society) and (above all) churches. Needless to say, not all the church giving involves assisting the poor. Now, all this giving is great. I think we need all these organizations – I’m happy to support my local parish, my college, and my community choir. These institutions all need support! But if we recognize that Europeans are notably less religious than Americans and do not give lots of money to private colleges, one might wonder how different their “charitable” concern understood as “giving alms” really is. Moreover, this point overlooks the gaping canyon between need and actual donation.

Mr. Weigel’s vision is right: an economy that provides prosperity to all through genuinely creative work. Now maybe we could recognize the real barriers to this – profligate desires for too many luxury goods (among some rich and some poor, to be fair), exploited labor in need of government subsidy, and a lack of attention in our giving to those who represent Christ among us. Those points might provide some common ground among those sincere Catholics seeking to foster an economy of charity and truth.

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2 Comments

  1. David,

    Here’s a real question I have. You say: “Second, Mr. Weigel talks a lot about the noble dignity of work, and therefore the need to do something about unemployment. He is right about that. But implied in his comments is the idea that our welfare spending is tied to our unemployment. Get unemployment down, and we’ll be able to scale back welfare. But will we? At present, there are tens of millions of American households who are working, but who are also receiving substantial benefits in numerous forms. Why? Because they work at jobs that pay less than what is necessary to live on (the substandard wages are subsidized by things like the EITC and SNAP), and often do not provide benefits, most notably health care. In the present recovery, economists have noted that (troublingly) the jobs that are coming back are often low-wage.”

    My real question is the following. Now, I’m going to exaggerate a little bit for the sake of putting the question starkly. Do those tens of millions of Americans who work but also receive welfare assistance receive welfare assistance because they cannot afford what is necessary to live, or because they cannot afford to participate in the broadly middle-class lifestyle of the wealthiest nation ever to exist? In other words, is the problem that people don’t have what’s necessary to live, or that the very out of control consumerism you rightly decry leads people incorrectly to judge what’s actually necessary?

  2. T. Harmon–
    Execllent question. THIS is what I mean by constructive conversation. How would one go about answering this question? The distributist economist John Medaille suggests that one can measure the problem in the aggregate by summing the redistributive programs mentioned plus the taking on of various forms of consumer debt (credit cards, payday loans, etc.). By this measure, the gap between a just wage and the actual wages of the working poor is quite large.
    But somewhere in there one can and should indicate that some lower-income workers “misuse” these funds. A lot? A few? To a great extent? One, we would need some better definition of “misuse” – but a definition that would apply equally to high-wage workers. I would suggest (as I do above) a critique of profligacy or luxury in all its forms. Two, some attention should be paid to the fact that the wealth of the society can have a tendency to inflate prices – housing is the most obvious – but in all areas, overprovision of goods and services to the wealthy means potential undersupply of provisions to the poor. An obvious example beyond housing is transportation. If a reliable and frequent provision of public transportation is made, one can view a car as a non-necessity… which would certainly lower the amount needed for a low-income worker. Unfortunately, areas with sufficient public transit are also usually areas with unusually high housing prices. Three, there are various forms of “living wage calculators” out there that try to allow for an account of this. At my food cooperative, our Board used a tool where the wage required (a) sharing a two-bedroom apartment, (b) about $100 a month for expenses beyond food, shelter, basic utilities (not cable!), and transportation, (c) assumed that the employer provided viable health-care benefits, (d) allowed for a very small contribution to retirement savings. This seems a reasonable, even stringent application of the traditional Catholic criteria. The calculation gave us a wage for our area of about $10/hour. Note that this is for a single person. This is above the standard retail wage, and the comparable wages for some other low-income jobs. I offer these considerations as a start.

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  1. A Truly Catholic Economy » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog - [...] on the website Catholic Moral Theology, David Cloutier offers kudos to George Weigel for “offering [in his latest column] a forthright …
  2. BrianKeaney.org - [...] is a good start but, as David Cloutier explains, it is missing several important considerations. Mr. Weigel presents a romanticized …
  3. A Truly Catholic Political Dialogue « BrianKeaney.org - [...] is a good start but, as David Cloutier explains, it is missing several important considerations. Mr. Weigel presents a romanticized …

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