The Pope, Capitalism, and los Yanqis

Below is a comment that seems to me to be missing about Pope Francis’ current grasping for the Nobel in Economics. It’s beyond the simple observation that what he said recently about capitalism re-affirms the simple fact that princes of the church want to do good but have not understood simple economics, ever. And, by the way, there is nothing new to what the Pope said. I heard the same when I was growing up in a progressive Catholic parish in Paris, a long, long time ago. (And no, I was not molested, except by that older girl-scout, another story obviously.)

The current pope is a member of the Jesuit order. In the Catholic world, the Jesuits enjoy a reputation for intellectualism. It’s true that almost all have advanced degrees. (This pope appears to be an exception.) It’s also probably true that the many schools the Jesuits run, including universities, are not allowed to fall below a certain minimum level of competence. Beyond this, 25 years of close observation tell me that their good reputation only holds in a relative sense. Only the widespread ignorance of the Catholic church and of its other religious orders makes the Jesuits look good. They are quite tightly wrapped in their prevailing ideology and largely blinded by it. That ideology happens to be left wing right now. (Jesuits used to be fierce right-wingers of the most ignorant, closed-minded kind.) I don’t expect any Jesuit to be an intellectual giant although a few are.

The Pope is also an Argentinean, a provincial Argentinean. He did not suddenly free himself from the associated intellectual burdens upon his election. Like many, nearly all (I have not done a count, I confess, Your Holiness) of his compatriots he has had to struggle all his life with the following question:

Why isn’t Argentina Canada, with a constant high level of prosperity and political institutions that guarantee stability and peaceful alternance in power?

A subsidiary question: Why does Argentina become rich every thirty years only to plunge back into poverty?

Confounded by the brutal reality of the fact that there is no response that does not point straight at themselves, Argentinean intellectuals have developed a short, undemanding answer and a long-winded complicated one, both of which hold them innocent of their plight.

The short answer is this: It’s because of los Yanqis.

Of course, there is a problem in the fact that Canada with many more and tighter economic and political links to the US performs splendidly on any measure of economic or social welfare.

I spent a good deal of my scintillating youth debunking the second, long answer to the query described above. They came out of Argentina in the late fifties as a narrative production called “Teoría de la dependencia.” It later morphed into something called “World System Theory” under the influence of an excellent book by an American.

To make a long story short the theories’ main allegations about Third World poverty were that the more economically tied poor countries were to major developed economies, (such as the American economy) the poorer they became. Those allegations finally did not hold up under the scrutiny permitted by computers handling large amounts of archival data. (See my own co-authored piece for example: Delacroix, Jacques and Charles Ragin. 1981. “Structural blockage: a cross-national study of economic dependence, state efficacy and under-development.” American Journal of Sociology. 86-6:1311-1347.) The modern empirical research performed in the US and other part of the English-speaking world utterly destroyed Latin fantasizing in that area.

Pope Francis did not get the news apparently. Few Latin Americans did. Proudly innocent of any understanding of statistics, they cling to their beloved narrative as tightly as they did in 1965. They may cling to it even more tightly than they did then since they tasted the dust of South Korea’s and even of India’s economic development. (I am deliberately not mentioning China’s real development and its fake relationship to “socialism” because I don’t want to have to write another ten pages.) It’s not my fault; the Pope is older than me. He never sat in my classroom or in any of my former students’ classrooms. We never got a chance to straighten him out.

You have to think of every one of Pope Francis’ economic pronouncement with the understanding that he would probably not receive a B in the Econ. 101 class of a good public university. (In a good private university, in a Jesuit university for example, there is a good chance he would be made to achieve a B by any means necessary, including legitimate means.)

I don’t blame the Pope or the Catholic Church much. The old Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) is still esoteric reading to many of our contemporaries, including college graduates, including most college professors, I would guess, including many who tango on in the media. (Just listen to National Public Radio.)

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5 thoughts on “The Pope, Capitalism, and los Yanqis”

  1. When I was reading through his exhortation I came to the conclusion that I completely think that Dan Hannan has it figured out. It has little to do with economics at all. The real difference between Argentina and the US/Canada is very simply ‘The rule of law’, or I suppose you could call it,. “If you like your investment, you can keep your investment”. Or perhaps we are now using Argentina as our model?

  2. I’m an atheist. Interacting with family and neighbors over the years has made me somewhat aggressive in my atheism. Unlike President Obama I think transparency is important.

    I find the brouhaha about the Pope puzzling. I’m willing to grant that the Pope has expertise with regard to Catholic theology. I have no expectation that he has anything sensible to say about anything else. Nor do I have any reason to expect anything sensible out of theology. I put as much credence in a religious leaders’ pronouncements on politics as I do in Hollywood actors.

    “They are quite tightly wrapped in their prevailing ideology and largely blinded by it.”

    Lol. Kettle answer the phone, Pot is calling.

  3. Prof. Terry: The Catholic Church has had something to say officially about economic life and especially about the distribution of riches since the French Revolution at least. The forces that kept communism at bay in impoverished western Europe in the late forties and in the fifties called themselves “Christian-Democrat.” They were explicitly associated with the Catholic Church. To believe that the church’s reach is limited to “theology” is almost, well…Argentinean.
    PS I am an atheist too, of the Catholic variety.

  4. I think it’s worth noting that while the pope attacks capitalism, that doesn’t necessarily make him a socialist in any sense. He is most likely some sort of distributist, an economic philosophy strongly linked with Catholicism.

    “According to distributists, property ownership is a fundamental right[4] and the means of production should be spread as widely as possible rather than being centralized under the control of the state (state socialism) or of accomplished individuals (laissez-faire capitalism). Distributism therefore advocates a society marked by widespread property ownership[5]”

    “Distributism has often been described in opposition to both socialism and capitalism,[7][8] which distributists see as equally flawed and exploitative.”

    - From the Wikipedia article on Distributism.

    I’m not saying this makes him economically literate but that the economic failings of socialist nations has little to do with the popes stance.

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