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Monday, September 21, 2015

Why the Pope Is Not A Socialist

All of Pope Francis’ writings revolve around one of the central paradoxes of modernity: How do we (a) elevate the poor out of physical poverty while (b) retaining their dignity? It may not be possible to do both.

Here's the first part of the problem: as many commentators have pointed out, the automation revolution provides physical wealth, but at the cost of jobs. By the late 1800s, the Industrial Revolution had begun to produce so many cheap goods that it allowed the creation or extension of four social innovations: (1) child labor laws, (2) retirement and retirement pensions, (3) commonly available extended education beyond grade school and a (4) five-day, forty hour work week, a work week which our current President is even now trying to reduce to 30 hours. 

Each of these four innovations effectively removed a segment of the workforce from the job competition market. Child labor laws and age 65 retirement removed those segment in the 1880s. The five-day, 40-hour work week was in place by 1930.  After World War II, we removed 30-40% of 18-30 year old adults from the full-time work force by encouraging them to get college degrees. In 2015, ObamaCare’ is trying to redefine the 30-hour work week as “full-time employment.” The machines which allowed world population to explode from 1 billion in 1800 to 7 billion today do not provide jobs at the same rate they provide food, clothing, housing and medical care.

It is easy to see why. Personnel costs are the highest component cost of any product. When personnel costs are removed, product price drops. In fact, removing personnel drops product price so low that it essentially eliminates physical poverty. Even the most impoverished nations in the world today suffer fewer famines and less disease than any previous population in the history of the world. The poorest of our modern poor are, in that sense, now physically wealthier than the wealthiest person alive in 1800.  World population is seven times higher today than it was in 1800: today, we feed, clothe and house seven planet’s worth of people in a style far better than we did one planet’s worth of people in 1800. Unfortunately, in order to accomplish this, in order to get the cost of production this low, we have to automate, we have to use machines as we once used slaves.

In the past, slaves and other low-skilled populations did most manual labor. Computers and other machines have replaced both. We are now, and have long been in, a service level economy that primarily moves information and automates services. By definition, half the population has an IQ below 100. They cannot participate in this economy. There are no jobs for them. 

Here's the second part of the problem: while Christian society has always said each person has dignity because each person is created in the image and likeness of the Persons of God, secular society assigns personal dignity on the basis of what each person can contribute to society. Children, the poor, the sick and the aged have less dignity because they contribute less. As society becomes secularized, as Christian faith fades from the public square, dignity is assigned not on the basis of being, but on the basis of work. But, as we have seen, half the population cannot work and can never be wealthy. That is, with religion gone, half the population has no socially recognized basis for dignity.

So, here is the paradox the Pope puts before us: how do we (a) elevate the poor out of physical poverty while (b) retaining their dignity? He insists the only solution is to give them jobs. Sadly, it isn’t clear we can, for the economic reasons listed above, i.e., increased personnel costs will dramatically increase unit costs thereby plunging the poor back into physical poverty. The relative number of jobs is continuously dropping and has been for over a century. Today, half the population will never possess the skills necessary to work the available jobs. Society doesn’t want Christian values back in the public sphere because Christian values often contradict business corporate values. 

Automation give bread but take jobs, i.e., secular dignity. Secular society will not permit Christian faith to assign dignity to the individual. It prefers to assign dignity on the basis of wealth and employment. The Pope finds this unacceptable. But no one has come up with a method for assigning dignity apart from either the dignity we each have as an image of God or the dignity we are assigned by society for being economically productive.

The Pope asks us to come up with a solution that squares this circle. He insists that, if work is the standard, everyone be given a job. Society refuses, for the reasons given above. We can condemn him as a socialist for pointing the problem out, but that doesn’t solve the problem he presents us. He welcomes discussion on this topic. He is open to recommendations. Does anyone have any?


Raul De La Garza III said...

3 acres and a cow as Chesterton put it or more proudly, adopt the third way, distributism.

Raul De La Garza III said...

broadly, not 'proudly'.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Why not adopt distributism?
Because distributism is stupid.
Next question.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

The reasons are obvious.
Belloc and Chesterton never understood the problem.
Wrote an essay on this several years ago.

pel said...

I don't have much use for the economic piece of distributism, but I think some of the socio-political pieces might warrant a second look.

Crass capitalism and consumption might be tempered if there were a renewal of civic engagement via clubs, organizations, societies, and the like. And, I'm thinking of the types modeled on the Church - perhaps some have national structures and umbrellas with the local "chapters" as being where the bulk of the activity and engagement occurs, following subsidiarity.

I'm involved in an Optimist club that was largely organized for youth sporting, and outside of its youth sports focus, it's dying. Even its youth sports focus is fighting a losing battle to the professionalization of youth sports, as parents would rather spend 5x the money to farm the instruction and ministering of the team to paid coaches and staff rather than engage a club and do the work themselves.

This is fine for parents of means, but for those without, the usual answer abounds: Get a better job (or another job) or have fewer children, as you'll be peer-pressured to spend more on the few you do have.

To some extent, I see this trend in other clubs minded towards youth, such as scouting and 4-H/FFA.

Mass entertainment, devices, and night life seem to have taken over the "free time" of adults and children, who used to be much more involved in social organizations.

Some return to and re-engagement of that might be helpful.

If organized appropriately (for instance, as non-profits under US law), it is possible to encourage a favorable interaction with professional businesses with regard to donations, encouragement for employees to spend time with them, partnerships, and other similar engagements.

These sorts of societies, clubs, and organizations, assuming they're not too politically oriented, are really extensions of families. Longer lasting local chapters of these usually demonstrate a multi-generation family involvement somewhere in its membership.

Ideally, these organizations would be leavened with Catholic values in some way, but the connection is murky to me, at the moment. Perhaps an Opus Dei style lay engagement?

Anyway, it's an idea that sprang into my mind.

Tony said...

First step, eliminate the minimum wage. If the goal is to put everyone to work, lower the cost of it enough for them to get a job they're able to handle.

Second step, eliminate regulations meant to allow big businesses to maintain their monopoly and prevent the entrance of new entrepreneurial businesses.

Third step, institute the flat tax so the rich lose their loopholes, and the poor have "skin in the game".