I am so grateful to both Matthew Shadle and Christina McRorie for their comments on my essay. I’m especially grateful that the basic typology – three types of inequality: exclusion, theft, and fragmentation – proved helpful in guiding the many excellent points they make about economic ethics. McRorie really helps us understand how focusing only on exclusion and theft creates a good guys/bad guys conversation that can be too comforting, and also can seem remote from the everyday economic agency of so many. And Shadle provides some crucial examples of the need to push CST beyond the (still essential) responses at the personal level, especially in light of genuine Catholic achievements in the past, such as the support of the labor movement and of governmental “reconstruction” of the economic system. I’ve benefitted a great deal from their work, and look forward to our continued conversations in the field.
In re-reading this material, I did think – following McRorie – the most obvious “response” was to speak about the current moment. The essay was written at a particular time – in economic terms, a time that might be termed “late globalization.” The contours of the economic debate of that era are really debates over the so-called “neoliberal consensus” that apparently emerged as the victor, after the waning of explicitly socialist state and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This infamously-named “end of history” ushered in a period that, I think we can now see from afar, saw two competing results: on the one hand, the rise of new powers (especially but not only China) that at the pure economic level led to a rather stunning expansion of economic activity that lifted very large numbers of people out of extreme poverty, but on the other, the fragmentation of “advanced” economies into more and more separated winners and losers that led to (among other things) internal disruptions and forms of reactive “populism.” Add to this mix the enormous transformation of communications media resulting in the richest and most powerful global actors being corporations that (in many cases) did not exist in 1990, but indeed that engage in business activity that didn’t exist then.
It is conceivable (though far from certain) that 2020 marks a real end to that era. It is important to recognize that the upheavals we are currently experiencing, while they are in a real sense “caused” by a virus and a case of police brutality, cannot really be understood except as responses to these specific causes whose roots lie in much larger patterns. The response to the coronavirus continues to magnify – more every day – the divides between those who can work at home and those who can’t, those whose jobs are apparently supported by a ceaseless flow of dollars and those whose dollar-flows have abruptly stopped, and the like. The oft-repeated mantra that “we are all in this together” is simply not true. Individual agents face radically different prospects in the wake of the virus and the government-managed economic responses to it. And the same is true in the responses to police brutality: we are NOT all in this together, and that’s a big part of the challenge. True, there is a familiarity to the script in the case of policing – we’ve seen the outrage at police brutality many times in recent years – but there certainly are ways in which this time around seems different. Again, what is exposed are far deeper rifts, ones that in the end are not simply racial but more broadly cultural. And the cultural divergences, while not reducible to economic ones, are certainly related to them – on the one hand, the gaping differences experienced daily by African-Americans living in gentrifying, expensive cities, or on the other, the fact that policing and police institutions are still a place of economic security and social esteem for many lower-education males, especially (but not only) white ones.
What all this means for economic inequality is, of course, not predictable. But it is possible to venture some thoughts. First and foremost for this topic, we need to reckon with the economic effects of the virus. The virus has resulted in a very large disruption in the economy – in effect, traditional economic statistics that focus on trends in the aggregate don’t work well to explain the scale of the disruption. This disruption is partly direct – because of the virus, people have stopped or reduced economic activities that seem to them dangerous – but the larger portion has been indirect, one degree removed from the virtus – governments have, on the one hand, permitted or excluded all sorts of activity, and on the other, provided funds to offset these rules. Some who envision “reopening the economy” as simplistically a “return to normal” are thinking only in terms of the latter category.
But this misses two really crucial things: one, that the disruptions from the latter have lasting effects, and two, that the disruption from the former may persist for quite a while. In both cases, one need look no further than the “industry” in which those of us on the blog work: higher education. Nearly all traditional colleges and universities experienced a fairly severe economic shock from shutting down spring semester. But “reopening” in the fall is… well, chaotic is a panicky sort of word, but perhaps better is living in a world of unknown variables. Institutions are “downstream” from plenty of families dealing with job loss and fragility, they are grappling with “de-densification” that involves constant improvisations, and they are unsure especially how the choices of students and parents will change with the virus around. While we are not quite Disney World or professional sports, we do have a core product that is premised on a lot of physical, human interactions in a physical place – and also, a competition created by possible “substitutions” (in economic terms) lurking out there. The core product is different – online education lacks a whole lot of things – but we all know that people might buy the somewhat-inferior substitute product if (a) it’s a lot cheaper, and (b) it still gets them the outcome they want, i.e. a worthwhile credential. Add in “convenience,” and campuses begin to look like Borders bookstores. And also like these industries, as the business decays, the real (employment) losers will not be the incumbents of the most important positions (i.e. the tenured and the management), but all of those who are in much more marginal economic positions relying on steady, on-campus enrollment.
Yet, for all these details, it is important to note that the disruption in a lot of ways just presses forward more quickly economic trends that were already in motion. The most obvious is a wider division between haves and have-nots, which a shrinking group in the middle. Rich, prestigious universities are not endangered in scenarios short of societal breakdown. But mid-level institutions end up sliding gradually into more and more fragile positions, squeezing resources out, pushing those already “lower” on the totem pole even further down. Meanwhile, technological speed-up almost certainly will help all-online institutions – again, it may not be quite as good a product, but visit your local Aldi and see the array of specialty and organic products now available at rock-bottom prices, and consider how long mid-market grocers can hold up. Like Aldi, online institutions are about very standardized, limited-selection private label products – otherwise known as cheaply-reproducible online instruction modules that can be run again and again – run by the fewest number of laborers possible. Don’t expect someone to fetch your cart from the parking lot (i.e. meet for mentoring) and don’t expect workers to do much beyond a very focused and fast work running that checkout line (i.e. grade as many papers as possible, and forget real research, etc.). In short, a combination of technological development and wider trade (i.e. companies who can more and more dominate larger and larger market spaces) gets you a divide: a few dominant players (and perhaps the online dominators will, for prestige reasons, start funneling some of their money into research-like operations – but there’s virtually no limit to how many students they can enroll, and their per unit increments are also much more advantageous), and some prestige brands (elite universities have such a social status in our current system, as well as such large endowments, that the top 25-50 are not going away)… and not much in the middle (bye-bye, JCPenney).
To say this is the end of an era is to say that, with the economic populists of the Left and the Right, things are not going to be able to go on like this much longer. What this means is both unclear and genuinely uncertain – that is, the direction of the economy is not a natural process, but a political one. We can imagine two types of trajectories that try to draw on past experience. One is seen in Shadle’s references back to the activism of unions and the governmental interventions of the Progressive and Great Society eras. These scenarios to a large extent take their template from Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, a history of capitalist modernity that insists on a painful-but-ultimately-successful movement in which the advances of capital are (eventually) met by an opposing force from society, which serves to blunt and socialize them. Of course, Polanyi’s story moves us through the Dickensian hell of mid-19th England and the utterly bleak “populist” reactions of fascism – but his overall story is a constructive one: human societies necessarily place limits on economic revolutions, when the effects of those revolutions become too de-humanizing and too full of suffering. A second trajectory, of course, is the more revolutionary one – the overthrow of an order and its replacement with a new one. I must say that, while this is a story we tell frequently, and while we do have numerous instances of this in world history, what we have not seen is an advanced, wealthy economy where this happens. It’s hard, frankly, because in those economies, for all their inequalities, far too many people still have an overall stake in sustaining the status quo.
So if I had to choose between these, I would certainly find the reformist Polanyian story the more likely one. Exactly what the relations between a Google and a government might look like in that state of affairs is unclear (“what’s good for Google is good for the United States”???). It’s also less clear that Google or Amazon would ever support the kind of employment levels supported by the industrial giants of the 20th century – in which case, the cueing of some form of UBI, essentially supported by their profits, might be inevitable. I’m less sure that unions play much of a role in this – unions have their sweet spot in leveraging large numbers of mid-skill workers in relation to stable, large corporations. But it’s not clear that either Google programmers or their army of independent yoga instructors are ripe for unionization. And unionizing low-skill service jobs has not proven easy.
At the same time, I think CST should encourage us beyond these two pictures, toward an economy that is something other than either of these options. In telling these two reform/revolution stories, we let what Oliver O’Donovan calls our “anticipations” get in the way of our genuine hopes. That is, we build imaginative futures for the present based on projecting past patterns. While “anticipation” has a role in hopeful action, it is neither immediate, purposeful action (which O’Donovan terms “the future beneath our feet”), nor is it fidelity to a promised future that truly transcends the present.
An alternative is possible: an economy of relative abundance that focuses not on minimizing work, but on the dignity of work, what John Paul II called its “subjective value” in making us more human and fulfilling a genuine sense of vocation. There are foggy images of this on both the Populist Left and the Populist Right. On the Left, there’s a kind of mythology of urban maker cultures, a sense that everyone can find themselves in harmony if they are encouraged to develop creative talents – rather than being shunted into deadening office or service work. As a proud small liberal arts college graduate, I mean no disrespect by saying that the imagination is to make the world more like a big (!) small liberal arts college, filled with quirky, talented people doing stuff together. On the Right, serious policy voices are offering a “worker economy,” where decades of economic incentives for free-market corporations are re-worked, so that capital can instead be channeled to serve workers. In an odd way, these proposals are not unlike the maker economy, although they are likely to image the ideal in terms of small-but-collaborative manufacturing plants in Georgia rather than store-front art studios in Brookland. Moreover, these proposals tend to rely much more on continued private capital direction, whereas the urban makers have a bit more of an individualist sense of doing-it-yourself – and typically, a sense that all this needs significant support from governments. Finally, the flavor of these proposals tends to be class-inflected – which is somewhat unfortunate, since it could easily be the case that general policy proposals could be made that would end up helping both sorts of vision.
I think CST should incline us to these sorts of responses to our situation for two reasons. One is the dignity of work. The other is scale. I am (perhaps inordinately) fond of quoting Benedict XVI’s insistence in Caritas in Veritate of the need to get beyond “the binary of market and state” – the difficulty with backward-looking anticipations projected onto the present is that they tend to reinscribe even more heavily the market-state binary. Google and Amazon are even bigger and much more amorphous than General Motors or Walmart – and any state intervention to counter them will also end up being even larger. Location matters; it was not an accident that so many industrial giants of the 20th century left so much mark on the cities and towns in which they were physically located. Without that, both local governments and other civil society organizations will be even more reliant on straight redistribution from above. Both get bigger.
This last scenario – where we get REALLY big corporations working with REALLY big government – may, in fact, be the default path – since it in effect entrenches most clearly those who, at the end of 2019, when the music stopped, held the most resources. Those foggy populist images will fade away, just like all those imaginings in the early days of the internet, when people thought this new web would unleash a kaleidoscope of freedom and creativity. There will always be outposts of creativity, but everything else – and indeed, to some degree, even those outposts – will be dependent on passing through the dominant channels. They will need grants from a central authority, and they will need at least some friendly relations with the “railroad barons” running the superhighway.
The rest of us? Well, it’s not a pretty picture. Quite honestly? It’s the kind of future imagined (in an extreme way) by narratives like Brave New World and Wall-E. Those worlds are, in some sense, very equal – most people are light-work, high-consumption people with a centrally-designed material base and an essentially-infinite stream of diverting entertainments. A variation on these visions, considerably darker, is found in The Hunger Games – the entertainments can’t actually be truly widespread, for example, and those in power cannot be relied on to be benevolent. Strikingly, all these imaginings are post-apocalyptic. In different ways, they imagine a disaster after which all this happens (so does 1984, of course). They also are terrifically Euro-Ameri-centric.
But what should strike us the most in these visions, especially the less-bleak ones, is that they are massively authoritarian and reduce the vast majority of the population to consumptive passivity. And they have to be. That’s exactly how they “work” – technology enables material surplus, mass logistical organization, and (importantly) highly compliant people. I need not point out that, in some ways, this scenario has already arrived. And it’s clearly the situation most beneficial for those with current power: the owners of the technologies and the incumbents in government office.
By some measures, this would be a more equal economy – assuming we are not geographically separated into “districts.” It would not, however, be a more human economy. So, as we rightly seek paths to overcoming the continued problems of poverty and luxury, let’s hope we do not embrace a technocratic paradigm that assumes we can solve the problem of justice either bureaucratically or algorithmically.