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From Rome, Five Basic Insights on Inequality

Research & Commentary
November 30, 2013


In plain yet powerful language, Pope Francis is challenging the givens of our deeply unequal world — and helping inspire resistance to it.

By Sam Pizzigati

A new statement of religious belief from Pope Francis offers a wide-ranging condemnation of the economic gaps that divide us.

A new exhortation from Pope Francis offers a wide-ranging condemnation of the economic gaps that divide us.

Sometimes you don’t have to say anything “new” to make news. Consider, for instance, the “apostolic exhortation” the Vatican released last Tuesday.

This statement from Pope Francis, observers note, didn’t really break any bold new theological ground. But the Pope’s exhortation, the first all his own since he stepped onto the world stage last March, still made front pages the world over — and fully merited all that attention.

What makes this new papal statement so significant? No global religious figure has likely ever before denounced economic inequality with as wide-ranging — and as accessible — an assault.

Commentators are already tracing the roots of the new exhortation, formally titled Evangelii Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel, in the Catholic religious tradition. But the statement also seems to draw inspiration from the world’s most insightful research into inequality’s economic, social, and political impact.

And just what insights can we take from what Pope Francis has to say about inequality? These five jump out most dramatically.

Inequality has no redeeming social value.

Our most clever apologists for maldistributions of income and wealth no longer argue that the richest among us have more brains — or get-up-and-go — than the rest of us. They argue instead that we need grand fortunes.[pullquote]The rich-people friendly take on trickle-down, Pope Francis points out, ‘has never been confirmed by the facts.'[/pullquote]

Grand private concentrations of wealth, the argument goes, serve as an incentive for the rest of us — and supply the investments that keep economies thriving.

Pope Francis, in clear language that demonstrates his command of the vernacular, blows away these claims.

“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,” Pope Francis writes.

This rich-people friendly take on the world, he points out, “has never been confirmed by the facts.”

Markets demand our critical attention.

The market “fundamentalists” now driving public policy decisions all around the world are constantly warning us not to interfere in the marketplace. Any serious attempt to undo the inequality that markets engender, they insist, risks upsetting the natural order that markets in their inherent wisdom create.

But all markets in real life run by rules, and these rules reflect the economic power of those who set them, not any deeper wisdom or divine providence.[pullquote]The security we all seek, Pope Francis advises, will remain unattainable so long as we remain perilously unequal.[/pullquote]

Pope Francis sees no reason to automatically accept the verdicts that markets deliver. He sees every reason to examine how markets actually operate — and to challenge those operations that leave us staggeringly unequal.

We need, he writes, to reject “the absolute autonomy of markets” and confront “the structural causes of inequality.” Until we take these essential steps, “no solution will be found for the world’s problems.”

Wealth works best when we share it.

A previous world-famous Francis — the English philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon — advised us centuries ago that wealth, like manure, only does good when we spread it around.

Pope Francis agrees. His exhortation encourages those who sit at our economic summits “to ponder” the teachings of the ancient sage who told us that “not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them.” We must, Pope Francis advises, “say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.”

Adds the Pope: “Such an economy kills.”

Inequality endangers us all, not just the poor.

Pope Francis, ever since arriving in Rome, has consistently reminded the world that “the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day.” His new exhortation eloquently decries the suffering of those “without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”[pullquote]In unequal societies, things — and the money to buy them — become primary.[/pullquote]

But in an era where “the thirst for power and possessions knows no limits,” his new statement also contends, anything that “stands in the way of increased profits” — “like the environment” — stands “defenseless before the interests of a deified market.”

The security we all seek in our daily lives, Pope Francis notes, will remain unattainable so long as we remain perilously unequal. No “law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility,” he writes, until we reverse “exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples.”

The reason, the Pope notes, goes beyond the reality that “inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system.”

“Just as goodness tends to spread,” he explains, “the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear.”

In unequal societies, social fabrics will always tear.

In relatively equal societies, where most people can afford to buy the same things, things in general tend not to matter all that much. But in unequal societies everything reverses. Things — and the money to buy them — become primary.

“The worship of the ancient golden calf,” observes Pope Francis, “has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”

[toomuch_promo]In this economy, the Pope continues, “we end up being incapable of feeling compassion.” Together, “unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric.”

Sums up Francis: “The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

And Pope Francis clearly wants us moving. Against inequality.

Labor journalist Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, writes widely about inequality. His latest book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970.

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