Russ Roberts

Robert Whaples on the Economics of Pope Francis

EconTalk Episode with Robert Whaples
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Crafts, Garicano, and Zingales... You will always have the poor ...

Vaticanstorm.jpg Is capitalism part of the poverty problem facing the world or part of the solution? Are human beings doing a good job preserving the earth for future generations? To improve the world, should we improve capitalism or ourselves? Robert Whaples of Wake Forest University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about "Laudato Si'," Pope Francis's encyclical on capitalism, poverty, and environmental issues.

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0:33

Intro. [Recording date: February 13, 2017.]

Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is a recent article of Robert Whaples', "The Economics of Pope Francis". Your article was the introduction to a set of articles in The Independent Review, online Symposium that will be published as a book on the Pope's Encyclical of 2015, Laudato Si', which is Latin, I think for Praise Be to You, and the 'You' being God. And that Encyclical was dealing with the environmental issues generally but also dealt with a wide range of issues related economics: capitalism, rich/poor inequality, money, and so on. So, I want to start with, for those of us who are not so familiar with papal habits: Why did the Pope, do you think, write such a message and what was the Pope's goal in publishing it?

Robert Whaples: So, it follows in the footsteps of a lot of other papal encyclicals, especially in what are called social encyclicals that date back to 1891 when Pope Leo XIII had this encyclical called 'Rerum novarum,' which was on kind of the labor questions, and labor and capitalism, questions of the day. But it really follows in that tradition. And I think his main purpose for publishing it was that he thinks there's just something fundamentally going wrong with humanity--not just with how we interact with the environment, but how we interact with each other. So, it's kind of billed by most readers as an environmental encyclical; but in fact it goes a lot deeper than that. It's as much about the environment as it is about broader social questions, especially rich and poor and those kind of questions.

Russ Roberts: And, an encyclical is just a public statement, right? An open letter--how would you describe it?

Robert Whaples: Basically, I would describe it as his attempt to, as he puts it, dialogue--he uses the word 'dialogue' in the encyclical like 25 times. But really to get out, the Church's point of view on something, as a teaching document to the faithful but also as a document to everyone else, hopefully to learn from.

Russ Roberts: So, why did you respond to it? What argument would be--the Pope's views on economics might be important for Catholics; maybe not; depending on its influence and depending on its persuasiveness. But why did you as an economist feel it was important to respond to it?

Robert Whaples: So, I will let you know that I kind of approached this thing with great trepidation; and that is: the idea was proposed by some people at the Independent Institute; and I tried to kind of push them off for a little while.

Russ Roberts: Get out of it?

Robert Whaples: Yeah, exactly. But they were persistent. And they made a very good point, right? That the Pope has asked for dialogue, and he has asked for dialogue specifically with economists. And so, I think there's a lot of economists who have read the document and that think that it could be a fruitful dialogue, right? That maybe we can learn as much from reading him; that he could learn a lot from discussing these things with us, as well. So that's finally why I was finally talked into it--that maybe there could be a fruitful exchange. And I know I personally, I think I got a lot out of reading it and working with the other economists to put together this Symposium and then ultimately the book, Pope Francis and the Caring Society. I don't know--he's a very busy man, of course; he's got a billion Catholics or something to tend in his flock. So the odds that it actually reaches his ear are pretty low. But, might as well try.

Russ Roberts: I was going to ask you--you gotten an invite yet?

Robert Whaples: No, no.

Russ Roberts: But you could. Or somebody could. I've found--

Robert Whaples: That's true. You know, he has had a number of scientific advisory panels over the years. Including one of economists. And I don't know who is on it, but I know, for example, Gary Becker, and other leading economists like that were on previous incarnations of these panels. And so, I think that modern Popes take it pretty seriously that they've got a lot to learn from professional scholars. And it just takes a lot to filter through them because of course they are working with committees of churchmen and stuff on these things, as well.

5:20

Russ Roberts: So, after reading your article I went and read the Pope's piece. And it's quite long. We'll put a link up to it. It's a public document. And your essay, which introduces the other essays in this Symposium, is also available online; and we'll--the other essays will be in a few months--you give a nice overview of both the Pope's views and how some of the people responded in the essays that The Independent Review will publish. So, let's start with the environment. And, I agree with you. I had heard of this Encyclical as an environmental piece. But that's really only a small piece of it. It's environmental in the sense that we are all here at home on the Earth: and how do we treat each other and the earth are really the focus of the encyclical. Let's start with the environment, in particular. What is the Pope's argument and view on the environment--and the environment and how we are treating the earth?

Robert Whaples: Yeah. I think he sees a real possibility of Doomsday--and that's a word he uses--scenarios. That is, that we've just been consuming and producing on this unsustainable path and it could easily precipitate a catastrophe. That's his point of view. And so, other people have made that argument. Obviously. But what I think he adds to it is kind of a new emphasis and new moral direction. And that is: If you think about it, arguments about why, you know, we should treat the environment better are like, 'We need to treat the environment better because it's the only environment we have. And generations to come are going to have to live with the decisions we make.' And that only goes so far. And I think the Pope wants to add to that: All that, yes; but also, the way we are treating the environment--and the way we are treating each other--is harming our souls. You know, it's bad for us in moral ways. And ultimately the problem he sees is that we are just consuming too much. And producing too much so that we can consume too much. We are addicted to excessive, wasteful consumption. We--especially the people in the rich parts of the world--are just consuming too much. And, of course, the Church has been arguing similar things going all the way back to Day One. But, kind of a combination about those old arguments about our just consuming too much, added with an environmental set of arguments: Put them together and maybe finally people will get the message? And so, ultimately what does he mean by us consuming too much? It goes back to, basically, you know, the Biblical passage about: You can't serve God and Mammon. We have gotten so wrapped up in mammon and wanting to get richer and richer, consume more, and have all this new stuff that it is pulling us away from God.

Russ Roberts: Mammon, being the material side and money--

Robert Whaples: Exactly right. Yep.

Russ Roberts: So, I found this--putting my cards on the table, I have two challenges reading the Pope's document. One is, I'm Jewish. But I'm very respectful of religion and organized religion, probably more than the average academic, type. But I also am a free-marketer, also. And so I have two sort of strikes against me in reading this document. It's strikingly reminiscent of the 1960s, for me.

Robert Whaples: It's kind of like Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb, except it's not population that's the bomb. It's just that we're over-consuming and that is bad for us. And the Pope is happy for us to have more population, so that is not the part of the bomb. But yeah. I did--in fact, I was just re-reading it parts of it this morning, and yep: It kind of brought back the whole set of feelings, kind of 1960s and 1970s, kind of, just doomism that you saw then.

Russ Roberts: Well, The Limits to Growth, which was an important book--

Robert Whaples: Yep--

Russ Roberts: --in the, I think, early--I think it came out, I want to say 1972. Which forecast shortages and ecological destruction. That--but I want to say two things about the Pope's take on it that are not 1960-ish. So I want to give him his due and not just take a cheap shot at him. Because I'm not--it's not helpful. So, the first is that he channels his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. And argues that our attitudes affect our behavior. Particularly, toward the earth--is the way I read it--is by, if we can see ourselves in a different relationship with the Earth, we would then behave better. We would be less wasteful. We would pollute less. And I find that interesting because I'm very interested in general in the idea of self-transformation being motivated by emotion and attitude, not just external incentives. And then, the second part is, that he sees the Earth as a sentient thing. Which I found kind of shocking. We talk about this occasionally on EconTalk. But he calls the Earth 'Our sister.' And that 'She is crying out in pain'--at the way we are treating her. And I found that--I was surprised by that. So, comment about those points, if you can.

Robert Whaples: That is very, um, Franciscan--you know, his namesake, Francis of Assisi, to see the Earth in this light and refer to it as, you know, brother/sister Earth and likewise other created things kind of being referred to as brother and sister. And so, that's a direction that you will see some in the Church go. It's not really what I would say the main thrust of where the Church goes, because, I think they've rightly worried over the Millennia that that kind of moves you toward Paganism, if you push it too far.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; that's what struck me.

Robert Whaples: Yeah. Exactly right. And so I don't think you would see that in a lot of the earlier encyclicals; and I've read some of his predecessors. And you wouldn't see that there. But, it's not as radically, as radical as a break from predecessors when it comes to the more economic arguments, I think, where there's been an ongoing critique of--you know, the teaching office of the Church about free markets. You know, and free market capitalism. And I, like you, consider myself generally to be a free market kind of person. That's my default assumption unless there's a good reason to think otherwise. But it's not his default assumption. It's kind of like the case must be made. He's more of a precautionary-principle kind of guy. In fact he even uses that term in the Encyclical. So, all those worries that a lot of us have about the Precautionary Principle, you know, got to get right out there. But basically, I think he's in the mainstream of Church teaching from over the years to have a, we'll say, respect for the market but also a wariness of the market, and that it just--letting us all go together free-for-all is not going to work out as well as the standard economist says.

13:32

Russ Roberts: So, what's fascinating to me about that--and it forces me to think about an issue that sort of lurks in the background of economics as a teaching--which is that: The Market doesn't really have any feelings. It's just a thing that emerges from our interactions. Prices emerge. And overlaying--or underlying--because it's both--market activity is our cultural attitudes toward that enterprise. And I have the tendency to romanticize that. Because I'm sympathetic to the outcome. I like in general the way it turns out, so I think I'm prone to say things like, 'Markets encourage you to be empathetic.' I recently had Paul Bloom on the program and we talked about empathy; and one of the thoughts I had after that program ended, which was pretty anti-empathy, is that: We didn't talk about one of the uses of empathy, which is that it encourages you to put yourself in the shoes of your customer, for example. Capitalism does. And make you be more successful in policing that customer, if you can imagine what their needs and desires are. So, I like that human side of the market. I like the way it enhances our opportunity to be creative. I love innovation, for that reason. I see that as a form of human flourishing much more than a way to make us rich. And so, I tend to romanticize it. The Pope, and others, tend to de-romanticize it. They call it 'sterile.' They call it 'motivated by money.' They call it 'cruel.' They call it 'heartless.' And I just wonder how much of--coming back to this question about attitudes and behavior--I wonder how much of our behavior is, market-participants, depends on the way we see ourselves, day to day in that fray. In that competitive and cooperate aspects, of the competitive and cooperate aspects of market activity.

Robert Whaples: Yeup. I think that once, kind of big-picture, how-do-you-feel about the market has a lot to do with your operating in your background. And so there's one article in our Symposium that makes the case that so much of Francis's take on the market--

Russ Roberts: He's the Pope, now--

Robert Whaples: Yeah. Exactly. Jorge Bergoglio's (=Pope Francis, pre-papal name) point of view is that he is from Argentina. And so, he calls himself--he wants--that he has a great allergy to economic things that he learned from his father, an overworked accountant. But, you know, he grew up in Argentina and lived there until very, very recently. And, if anything, Argentina is kind of the poster child for Markets Gone Wrong. And markets not living up to their potential. And so, a free market economist would say, 'Well, that's because it's not a true market. It's because that's not capitalism: It's crony-capitalism.' And a number of the people in our Symposium make that point: He's kind of looking at the worst-case scenario where the winners and losers aren't determined by consumer sovereignty. They are determined by your political connections, and all that kind of stuff. Compare that to one of his earlier predecessors, John Paul II, who grew up--well, didn't grow up but lived much of his adult life under Communism. And so, he was coming from like a waaay different point of view, and was so much more able to clearly see all the benefits that we see in markets. And he had some of the most, you might say, pro-market things to say of any of the recent Popes, just because of his starting point, in comparing it to Communism and knowing how much it allowed people to do. And how vital it was to the very word that you used earlier--the flourishing of people.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; I want to come back to that. But I think it's a fascinating point about upbringing and perspective. And I'm going to be tough on my side, our side, for a minute, which is that: You know, when people say that Socialism is great, our side, the Free Market side tends to say, 'Yeah; how's Cuba? How's Venezuela? They don't work so well. Communism, the Soviet Union was a nightmare. Horrible, a horrible nightmare. And the Socialist's response is, 'Well, that's not what we mean by Socialism. That's the wrong kind. That's the kind that went amok, that went awry. That's not what we have in mind. We have a different thing in mind.' And then we, snidely respond sometimes to ourselves or sometimes to the person, 'Yeah, well, how come there's never that other kind? You know, that's utopian. It's unrealistic.' But when we have capitalism gone wrong, which is what crony capitalism is, we say, 'Oh, that's not--that's not we meant. We mean the other kind.'

Robert Whaples: Exactly.

Russ Roberts: And so, you can argue--it's one thing to say, 'Well, the Pope is biased: He saw the wrong kind.' But maybe he saw the real kind--to some extent. The growth of capitalism does empower businesses to influence the political process for their own sake. And my response to that is: Well, that's why we need less power in the political process. But, maybe I'm being as idealistic and unrealistic as my socialist friends. I have to confess that possibility.

Robert Whaples: Well, I wouldn't quite make that contention, because there are some pretty strong metrics, right? By which capitalism has delivered the goods. And so, we can measure--and of course, income per person is of course hard to measure; and there's, you know, what the price index is and all that kind of stuff. But it's pretty clear that if you look at the countries that have adopted more market-oriented things, they do have higher economic growth rates and higher standards of living. And what is striking, though, is that the Pope does not seem to see that or acknowledge that. There is a section--

Russ Roberts: [?] a footnote--

Robert Whaples: Yeah. A section in the Encyclical that talks about the declining quality of the standard of living. And so, you know, I guess it is in some places. But the overall big picture to me is a rising quality of standard of living, by lots of metrics. Including early blunt ones like people being able to live longer and not be malnourished, and all that kind of thing. But I do think it cycles back to his bigger point. And that is that, to him a true quality of living is that, well, just like you can be obese from eating too much food, you could be the equivalent of obese from consuming too much of everything. You just have too much. And we consume it often conspicuously. So the market is failing, in his point of view, by delivering some people just too much: more than they need, more than is for their own good. And economists are incredibly hesitant to ever say that.

Russ Roberts: Very unsympathetic to that idea.

Robert Whaples: How many do you ever find--an economist who is like--take your standard introductory or intermediate textbook where they lay out the principles--and I say this in my introduction, right? One of our core principles which you'll see in your Intermediate Micro is: More is better. And Francis would say, 'Huh? What are talking about? No, it isn't. You have too much. It's bad for you. Give it away. Scale back. Do less. Enjoy life more. Work less. Consume less.'

21:04

Russ Roberts: Yeah, let's talk about that. Actually, I was going to turn to it next, anyway. So, I do think--this is where I thought the Pope is on the right track--and of course I'm channeling my Theory of Moral Sentiments side of Adam Smith--in that, we as--he doesn't, explicitly, I don't think, condemn economists for their views of utility theory. But I will, for a minute. Which is: Yes, we teach that. We teach that more is better; that there is no satiation; that people always want more. And if I were asked to defend that, I'd say: Well, that's a good starting place for how people actually behave. That's what they do. When you give them a chance, they tend not to sit back and say, 'I've got enough.' They want more. And yet--and we call that, by the way, we call that 'utility maximization.' We suggest that people try to get the maximum amount of utility--which is a vague, empty word, which we sometimes conflate with happiness or satisfaction. They want to get the maximum utility given the fact that they are constrained by their resources: their income, etc. And, we have to concede the point, though, that it's not always the case that that's good thing. And I do think that we confuse our students in thinking that because that's the way people actually behave, that therefore it is a good thing. Those two things are not true. Those things do not necessarily go together. And yet we often, I think, deliberately or not, confuse our students into thinking that how the world is is necessarily good. And it's not necessarily true.

Robert Whaples: And we especially do when we connect a couple more dots and find that intersection point is the equilibrium and we say, 'That's the efficient point as well. That's kind of the social optimum.' And so, you know, we're so used to critiques of that in a later chapter or wherever where we say, 'Well, if the costs don't really measure the marginal external costs, then, yeah, we could have a problem.' Benedict pushes that, but he also pushes that the marginal benefit is just not equal to the demand curve. The true benefits that you get from consuming things just run out a lot before we act like they do. We just keep buying new stuff and using it up real quick and throwing it out, he would say. And you don't need to. Just hold onto the old stuff. Use it longer. You don't need as much stuff, because, I guess to put him into economic-ese, the marginal benefits are getting down toward zero a lot sooner than we act like they are.

Russ Roberts: Do you agree with that?

Robert Whaples: So, I think fundamentally I do. And maybe it's just because I'm that kind of person that doesn't get a lot of extra satisfaction, never really has, out of all that extra stuff. But I think there's a deeper moral argument that can be added on to that as well. And so, I'll lay my cards on the table; and that is that I am a convert to Catholicism. Before I was Catholic, I was an atheist for many years and so would not have bought that argument at all. But after converting, I have come to understand that and in many ways embrace that argument as well, that, no, we don't really need all that extra stuff that we continue to pant after.

Russ Roberts: Well, I agree with that as well. I think where you and I might differ from others is that I think people should be free to make those choices.

Robert Whaples: Yep. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: And that popes and other kinds of economic thinkers are free to discourage people from pursuing [?] is the most--

Robert Whaples: And to me that seems like mainly what the Pope is doing, right? There's a few times that he talks about laws that need to be done or international actions that need to be made. But it's mainly to solve tragedies of the commons and those types of things. It's mainly on the--the point we were talking about before, consuming too much. It's exhortation. He is basically saying what has been said by the Church for the last 2000 years, although in fact Jesus the Founder of the Church: Look, you don't need all this stuff. It's pulling you away from the ultimate ends of your life. You are just pursuing it and not what you are meant, what you were created by God to pursue. You were created by God to pursue God, not to pursue this Mammon stuff.

Russ Roberts: Holiness, righteousness, virtue.

Robert Whaples: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: So, some listeners are going to be offended by this--which is understandable. They don't like the God talk, for one; and they also think, 'Hey, if I want to buy a fancy car, a second, third, fourth, eighteenth pair of shoes, there's nothing wrong with that.' And of course part of me says that's true. There is nothing wrong with that. But I do find it interesting how much time--because I do want to get to this issue which he condemns of excessive consumption or materialism that's sort of built into capitalism. I encourage readers to think about how much time you spend surfing Amazon, or the web more generally, looking for cool stuff to buy. Because I know I do. And I do get kind of a thrill when I find something. And I get a thrill when I order it. And occasionally I get a thrill when I get it, when I receive it. But a lot of times it just ends up on the shelf. And doesn't add that happiness I anticipated. And sometimes just the shopping and spending, what Wordsworth called 'Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.' That was his indictment of it. There's something there, and I think it's useful to think about.

Robert Whaples: And so, I think one of the Pope's purposes is to get us to think more about that and maybe move us a little bit in the direction he's arguing.

27:25

Russ Roberts: The other thing I do want to add, though, about our previous conversation about the environment before we move on is that it is a document, the Pope's Encyclical, that is, if I read it correctly, that is very short on empirical evidence. And shockingly so in that many of the claims about environmental destruction, poverty, and so on--it's not so much that the document cherry-picks data to make the Pope's case. There's very little data in it. And the data that comes to my mind is on the other side. Did you notice that? Was that striking to you?

Robert Whaples: Yeah. To me, there was just a great tension in reading the Encyclical, because I obviously have a point of view that I've formed over decades now about how well our policies are working--especially for environmental things. I teach an environmental economics class. And so, if I had seen some of my students making arguments like that, I would have, on their paper, you know, 'tsht-tsht [sounds of pen slashing paper--Econlib Ed.]: Bring me some evidence.' Exactly right. And so, one piece of evidence that is totally lacking is the idea of an environmental Kuznets curve. So, we've clearly seen this with lots of pollutants, especially in rich countries like the United States--

Russ Roberts: Explain.

Robert Whaples: where, when you get richer, at first the pollution levels, the emission levels go up. But once you get to a certain point, they plateau; and once you get past that point, they start to go down. So we've clearly seen this, say, for air pollution in the United States. The worst air pollution levels we had in this country's history were many decades ago, back when we had a lot of factories that were spewing out coal soot and lots of cars that were dealing out all of this stuff from their tailpipes. And then we got richer. And as we got richer, we said, 'Gosh, we can afford to clean things up.' And we forced the coal companies to put scrubbers in. And we moved more and more to clean fuel so we could afford, like, natural gas. And our cars, we put catalytic converters on. And so our environmental quality--especially air pollution--it's gotten better and better. And there's just not an acknowledgement that something like that could happen in the Encyclical that I see anywhere. And it's not just that this is a trivial thing: This has happened big time in a lot of places. Objectively, environmental standards on many key measures, like what's going into your lungs, are getting better, in lots of places.

Russ Roberts: And lots of other things have improved: forest land, despite the claims to the contrary. There are places where it's not true, of course. And I think the environmental movement falls back on both global warming and habitat destruction--which is worrisome. Both of them are somewhat concerning because there's some uncertainty about what their effects and costs are. That we are potentially losing keystone species as we expand human reach is a concern. I don't think we know very much about it. But, I understand the argument on the other side of mine, which is to be concerned about it. I think that's a legitimate argument. But what is striking is what you've pointed out, which is, on so many dimensions, we've cleaned up pollutants, toxins, in the air--mainly through government regulation; often inefficiently done, through scrubbers: it should have been, I think, a tax; that would have been a lot cheaper. But at least--it's made some progress. And if you live in Los Angeles you know it's true because you know what it looked like in the air and what it felt like; and it's different. There's no doubt about that. I agree with you: I'm just surprised it's not acknowledged at all.

Robert Whaples: Yeah. And then, he's got some, just, I don't know, deep skepticism--you'll see--of business and markets. There's a section where he basically says, talking about development of poorer countries and the developing world, about 'the multinationals come in and they leave all these problems behind, and the governments and the NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] with their white hats [tooting announcement sounds--Econlib Ed.]--they come in and they are just the good guys.' If I were to make public choice critique of the document, it's that: 'Hey, you totally get how markets can fail, because you totally understand that man is a fallen species, that we are sinful. And so, boy we're going to export our sins into every nook and cranny of our lives, and into the marketplace big time. But then you kind of forget that, when you talk about government coming into the--right? They're fallen, too. They are sinners, too. They are going to cave in to the exact same selfishness and sinfulness you see everywhere else in the economy. So, how do you think they are going to come in and fix these problems?' I don't know--there's a little bit of a [?] and naive optimism there that I see sometimes. I won't push it too far, because there are some cases like, in the document, one of the specifics is he thinks that we need some kind of global agency or global agreement on the oceans. I agree. The tragedy of the commons--boy, has that played out in our [?]. But there's other places--I just don't see this. Take another example: he talks about genetically modified crops [GMOs]. And he gives them a little bit of a, you know, positive spin; but it's mainly skepticism when you get to that part. And one of the things that he worries about is that these genetically modified crops only seem to increase economies of scale; and to an economist, 'Ah. Economies of scale--I like that.' But to him, no: economies of scale, that's driving the little guy out of business. And so he's very, very skeptical about that. Because he does take kind of this producerist point of view that we don't see so much in economics. In fact, if you think about the way we approach things in economics, we couldn't care less about the producers. It's all about the consumers. And those producers are just a bunch of captive species that we've--right--well, yeah, they earn a lot of money in the process--

Russ Roberts: They respond to and fro to our demands, and that's the way a market should work.

Robert Whaples: Right. We're just harnessing them, to the benefit of the consumers. But because he has this great sympathy with a lot of [?] small-scale producers--mom-and-pop businesses and peasant agriculture and that kind of stuff--he would not take that approach at all, and is very wary of something like these genetically-modified crops, not because of the Franken-food, but because it's harming the little peasant agriculture kind of reason. A point of view that we as economists would just totally miss. And we just kind of act like it's just [?]--

Russ Roberts: [?] Creative destruction.

Robert Whaples: They will go into some other sector; don't worry about it. And so, no, he says we've got to worry about it.

34:38

Russ Roberts: So, I want to take another claim seriously, which is hard for me, but I'm going to try. He really makes the point that excessive consumerism--the point we were talking about earlier--that more and more--that it's an inherent part of capitalism. And, my view has always been--I always think about this around the holiday season, where, when I think--a very unattractive aspect of our profession is economists who get quoted in the newspapers saying, 'It's very important that we have a big holiday season, keep the economy going.' And my view has always been: Maybe some people don't want a big holiday season. They want to give fewer gifts. They don't want to be as material. They want to spend more time in front of the fireplace with their family. And that's okay. We'll have a smaller economy. There's nothing inherently good about a bigger economy, if we don't want it. And it does raise the question of, whether, how hard is it, how difficult it is for us to resist that material call. And, of course, the Pope is right: Businesses do want to sell stuff. So, they are real eager to encourage us to buy more stuff. Is it realistic to think that there could be a small capitalism, and a community of people who choose--something akin to the Amish; the Amish have chosen a different lifestyle. But it's a very small group. Is it imaginable that a large society could say, 'We've had enough. We're going to spend more time with our families and less time making and getting and spending'?

Robert Whaples: And so, I think the Pope would say something like, 'That task is just getting harder and harder and harder. But that doesn't mean we should give up.' Take an example within the Church: and that is the equivalent of the Amish, if you will, is, you know, religious nuns and monks and those kinds of things, who would do something like that, right? They would, kind of, from our point of view, drop out of society, go off by themselves; live this humble life with a much, much lower level of consumption, and maybe do some production for themselves, but spend most of their time actually in the worship of God. And so, they see a lot more people who are willing to do that. You just look at the total number of nuns around the world; and just people have been pulled away from that. And the Pope would say it's just basically because we're fighting against all this noise in society that's luring us to worry about the material things and just drowning out the celestial noise. And so, I [?] agree with you--

Russ Roberts: You don't have to be a religious person to feel this way. You can be a secular person who wants to drop out, join a commune, join a local farm, live on a kibbutz. But as you point out, the answer is while they had a little bit of a heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, have simply become less attractive to most people, for whatever reason.

Robert Whaples: Yeah. And so I think that the Pope is just trying to pull us back in that direction with this exhortation. But also, what I did in writing my introduction to the Symposium is I went back and tried to read the most authentic Pope that I could. And that is, the most authentic you are going to get is when he's there talking and his daily Mass, giving his homily that he does to the people who come, just kind of is briefly prepared, off the cuff, remarks. And I went back and I read them. And they just--it pervades all of them: That, what we all need to do is just lead these more simple and humble lives, and that's our true key to eternal happiness. And you can say that over and over and over--and he will say it over and over and over; and the Church said that over and over again. Right?

Russ Roberts: Well, every religion, I think, emphasizes the dead end that material prosperity--by itself--there's different views of, say, ascetic practice. Judaism, for example, does not really embrace asceticism. It's a different--it talks about elevating and making holy the material. But every religion warrants against excessive pursuit of money; and certainly in the Judeo-Christian tradition, money is seen as potentially idolatrous. And I think we can all understand that, whether [?] you are religious or not. There's a seductive aspect of monetary success; and phrases like, 'No one on their deathbed wish they spent more time at the office' is not a religious--that's not in the Bible. That's just sort of human folklore that I think we all understand. I was actually talking to someone yesterday about--he was quoting David Brooks; I don't know if this is accurate, but David Brooks makes a distinction--and maybe this is not David Brooks' idea, either--but a distinction between your resumé and your eulogy. Your resumé is your career accomplishments--the things you've done in the material world; but your eulogy is why kind of human being you were: What kind of husband, father, son, friend, and colleague? And those things are easy to forget; and we tend to focus on the resumé. I think that's a common human challenge, again, whether you are a religious person or not.

Robert Whaples: It's interesting, the comment you made about on your deathbed, spending time at the office, whatever. And because, maybe a surprise one would get from reading the Pope is that his point of view toward work is different than economists have on work. So, you know, if you've ever taken a Labor Econ class, you draw the indifference curves, about leisure that you're giving up to get these other goods, and this leisure is the really good thing; and work is a bad. I've heard many economists say 'Work is a bad.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah; they love saying it, too.

Robert Whaples: Including an editor for The Independent Review: 'These arguments forget the fact that work is bad.' Okay? But the Pope would say, 'No, it's not. Work is so fundamental to your life, it's not a bad. It's you being able to be creative and being productive and giving to the rest of society. Work is a good thing. Excessive work--work until you are ready to drop dead--is not good.' Obviously. But, work is good. And so one thing that he asks, that he challenges employers to do is to put people to work. Do some projects that will get more and more people, getting them to work. Work is a very good thing.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. This is not quite on that point, but I do want to quote the Pope, because there is a piece here, a sentence I loved in the Encyclical, which says "Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise." And I feel that very strongly. It plays to my bias against the economist-as-engineer, where we just have to steer things the right way and push the right levers. And I love the mystery of that. And I think gratitude--which is what I see, the gladness part and the praise part: again, if you are not a religious person, you are not going to praise God. But, the idea of being appreciative of the glory of being alive seems to me to be a really important part of the human experience. And can easily be forgotten. So, I really like that.

42:39

Russ Roberts: I don't know if you know the answer to this, but do you know how something like this Encyclical was created? Does the Pope pen this document in his own hand? Does he collaborate? Does he meet with that Committee, or two, that you talked about? Because it's obviously a very broad, wide-ranging document. And as you say, he's busy. Do you know anything about the construction of these statements?

Robert Whaples: So, I'll tell you what I have heard second-hand, right? And so, one of the authors in our Symposium knows a, I guess, Vatican-insider type of person who kind of explains to him that these things are drawn up by these very large committees. And they write multiple drafts. And the Pope will then read through the drafts, and the one that he thinks is kind of the right one is the one that he'll pick. And in fact, much of this particular Encyclical was drafted before he became Pope. And therefore has a good Benedict imprint on it as well--

Russ Roberts: His predecessor--

Robert Whaples: Yeah, his predecessor. And so, I was a little surprised by his explanation of that. And so, assuming that it's right--I don't know. Maybe it was handed through 3 or 4 versions to read, and then, say, 'This one kind of encapsulates most what I want.'

Russ Roberts: It reminds me of a speech-writing team for a President. Typically there's a lot of jockeying within the speech-writing group about whose phrases are going to count more or less. Obviously, if they want their speech to be read they have to write something the President would be willing to say, or happy to say.

Robert Whaples: So, that's especially going to be true for somebody like this particular Pope, who is not an intellectual--like his two immediate predecessors were. Right? And he's much more of a, you know, more of a pastoral Pope. And so, is not used to writing long documents and all that kind of stuff, like both Pope John Paul and Benedict would have been.

Russ Roberts: Has anything come of this document, other than it generating a response from The Independent Review? And Robert Whaples? Did it land with a thud? Did it land with a splash? Does it have any significance other than it's fun to talk about? I'm enjoying our conversation, but is there any significance to it?

Robert Whaples: And so, I think that attracted a lot more attention that most Papal Encyclicals do. The media talked about it a lot when it came out. And environmentalists did. Economists, a little bit. Within the Church, I have seen a number of parishes around where they've held, like, little education seminar things: Meet for an evening and talk about what's in this, in the Encyclical and kind of what it means for your day-to-day life. So, I think it's kind of filtered out in that direction. And the big broad message that the environment is in trouble, and we need to do something about it. But at the same time, we're all in trouble. And the poor of the world are in trouble. And we need to do something about that, at the same time. And they are all linked together is the main message that he pushed. And, like almost all of religion, the impact is one soul at a time. And I think that's the way he would view it.

46:10

Russ Roberts: You mentioned the poor: we haven't much about that other than the encouragement to business to be better employers, to employ more people. Obviously, you and I can be as happy as we might be about improvements in world standard of living. And that it's fairly--while there is inequality, that many, many millions, hundreds of millions of people have left poverty in the last century, in the last 20 years. It's been, I think, an incredible success story. You can debate about what aspects of capitalism are responsible for it, and how much government was necessary. That's all fine. But put that to the side. But, it does remain the case that there are lots of people alive in the world today who have miserable lives. It may not be the bottom billion any more; it may only be the bottom 800 million. That's still a horrible situation in many parts of the world. What's the Pope's view of that? And what does he encourage to help fight that?

Robert Whaples: And so, that's a hard question to answer. And so, we know that the economist's answer is just kind of bring free markets to more and more people and places. But the Pope doesn't see free markets as helping, especially at the bottom very much, because those people don't have very much money to spend. Right? And so, his take is much more one that is kind of a broad, wholistic [holistic?] take that the Church has given, and that the most important thing is this: Absolutely poverty is very bad for people, for obvious reasons. They are malnourished, they are sick, their stomachs are hungry. But it's also even worse for other reasons. And that is: Those people struggling in those positions--and this would be people struggling in relative poverty, as well, are often just marginalized by everybody else. They are kind of treated as though they are just not important, and they are no good, because they are not productive. And the fact that they weren't productive is why they are poor. Right? And so they are just marginalized by the entire system. And so the solution to that--I think he's ultimately arguing--is, 'Well, yes, some state, some redistribution; and the Church has pushed those kinds of things for a long time. But more importantly, more individually, you, me, each one of us need to just start changing our attitudes toward poor people, acting like they really matter. Acting like they are our friends. And like they were our brothers and our neighbors. And, once we do that, you know, that's the beginning of the solution.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I wish he'd spoken more about what I would call Civil Society--the ways that people voluntarily help people less fortunate than themselves. But I do think there is a--going back to the very first point I made about attitude and behavior--it's certainly the case that it's very hard to treat our neighbor as ourself. And homeless beggars are no fun to look at, for most of us. We struggle to treat them as human beings when we go past them. I try to respond to them: even if I don't give them money, I try to give--I usually try to give them something; contrary to what a lot of people think is a good idea--but I try to give them something. And when I do, I try to do it--

Robert Whaples: I now do what I've been taught to do in Church. And that is, basically we're going to make an exchange with each other that's going to benefit both of us. And so, I say to somebody who has asked for money, who is obviously in need--you know, I hand them a $10-bill or whatever and I say, 'What's your name? Because I want to pray for you.' 'My name is Robert. And can you pray for me?' And the Church's teaching, traditional teaching, is that that's an exchange where he is benefiting himself and me by praying for me. And I'm benefiting myself and him by praying for him; and also contributing to him.

Russ Roberts: It's interesting. I do try to interact in a human way with the people I give money to. I'm not comfortable asking to be prayed for--or to pray for them. Partly it's--I view that as--I'm more--what's the right word: I view that as a personal choice. And I'm curious what kind of response you get when you do that. And, by the way, if you really give a $10-bill, I'm really impressed. Because I give a dollar. And sometimes I only give a quarter. Depends on how many beggars there are on my walk--the stretch I'm covering.

Robert Whaples: I do not live in a very urban area, so I don't come across people panhandling that often. And so, yeah, I think I used the $10 example because that [?]. There's a person at an intersection we drove by; my wife said, 'You better make a U-turn.' And so I made a U-turn and went back and gave him a $10-dollar-bill. And so, the reaction is usually, um, one of, 'Oh, thank you.' And like, 'Nobody asked me that before.' And 'Yeah, of course I'll pray for you.' So, I hope so.

Russ Roberts: It's interesting. I was in England about a month ago. And this is just a random observation, but I was struck by how polite the beggars are in England. They were extremely civil: if you turned them down or if you gave them less than you might have given them or they would have liked. And I would just strike a contrast to the United States. I don't know what the reason for that is; and I don't even know if it's generally true.

Robert Whaples: Well, I think people are very polite here in the South, as well--that's been my observation.

Russ Roberts: It could be it's just a cultural generalization. I think people in England are more polite, so maybe it's not surprising that the homeless or the beggars are more polite. Maybe that's what you'd expect.

52:18

Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to ask you a strange question. We talked at the beginning of this conversation: you know, you'd heard from the Pope, you pointed out the Pope wants to dialogue. And so, you're dialoguing in a way. And you haven't heard back yet. But maybe you will. If you did hear from the Pope, and you got an audience; and you had 15 minutes--which would be a lot of time--that's what Gary Becker used to give me. If I told my adviser, if I went to a secretary and I said, I'd like to meet to discuss my thesis, I got 15 minutes. I didn't get a half an hour. I didn't get an hour. And I didn't get an open-ended appointment. It was 15 minutes. And we sometimes were done before the 15 minutes was up. There's not a lot of chit-chat. Now, it might be different with the Pope. Maybe you'd get a half an hour. But let's suppose you get 15 minutes. And you get to make your case. You've got 15 minutes to give your perspective on the Encyclical. What's your pitch?

Robert Whaples: And--I guess I would not take all 15 minutes. I'd give a pretty simple pitch, I think, where I would say that, while the Encyclical says a lot of really important things that need to be said, we can do I think a little bit even more with it. And that is that, a couple of missed opportunities, right? There are some solutions to these problems that will solve them in ways you'd like them to. Not like, you know, mechanical solution where we are just [?] engineers, tweak whatever lever; but real solutions that will make people's lives better, and will also make their lives more virtuous and more holy. That, just, didn't come out in the Encyclical, and that I think that you should pay more attention to. And the primary ones would be things like: Solving environment problems with some of the techniques that economists have talked about, especially with securing property rights, because that seems to be one of the main problems, you know, where--look at the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I'm sure you've seen the picture. Trees on one side, mud on the other side. Because property rights are enforced on one side and they are not on the other. You know, arguments like that: That we can be harnessing some additional ways to act virtuous together that will help solve some of these problems. See? And, you know, one of the articles in the Symposium pushed that point pretty hard and brings in a lot of stuff--research by Elinor Ostrom, and that whole school of thought along those lines. So, that's what I would mainly expound on, I think.

Russ Roberts: So, if I had my chance--and I sort of broaden this beyond the Pope--when I think about people who are hostile to capitalism, per se, I would argue that capitalism is not the problem. It's us. Capitalism is, what it's really good at, is giving us what we want--more or less. Yep, sometimes it breaks down--

Robert Whaples: I think he would agree completely--

Russ Roberts: Sometimes there's flaws in how the system works because of issues of externalities, of course. But what capitalism really does is give us what we want. And if you want to make capitalism better, you've got change what we want.

Robert Whaples: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: So, you think modern television is a cesspool? And that's because there's more choices now. And we get more of what we want. It used to be there were three choices and it wasn't very competitive; and it wasn't very good. And people--you know--got a pretty mediocre product. Now they get a fabulous product. And it's easy to stand on the outside and go, 'Yeah, it's fabulous. People really like it.' But it's kind of gross. Or it's whatever it is: whatever aspect you don't like about modern TV. I actually think the quality is unparalleled--in terms of the artistry of it, even. And so, if you want to change capitalism, you've got to change us. And that's--I really see that--I like the Pope doing that. I'm all for that.

Robert Whaples: [?] If he would grasp you by the hand and say, 'My son, you have exactly what I've been saying. We need to change us.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah. The problem is the document has got too much other stuff there. It comes through--it doesn't come through as a document like that. Maybe that's a communication problem. Maybe it's my biases and take on it. But, it comes across as an institutional indictment, and much less an indictment of human frailty.

Robert Whaples: Mmmhmm. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: I can't say it enough: I want the Pope and the other preachers of the world to be the ones who influence humanity; and not the governments with the guns. And if people don't want to listen to the Pope, don't. That's our choice, too. I just don't want somebody to be able to impose that choice on us--

Robert Whaples: mmmhmm, hmm--

Russ Roberts: about our economic system. So.

Robert Whaples: Yeah. That was about right.



COMMENTS (43 to date)
Greg G writes:

Jesus could have preached capitalism as the best way to help the poor.

But He didn't!

Yes, I know that capitalism came many centuries later for ordinary humans but that shouldn't have been much of an obstacle with God's omniscience.

We should not be surprised to see the Pope preferring the teachings of Jesus to the teachings of our best economists.

The Pope's economic analysis is not even wrong if you accept his assumptions. (I don't) If you simply assume that the Church is right that the tiny spec of eternity represented by this life decides your salvation or damnation for all of eternity, then the Pope's economic analysis makes perfect sense. Long term investment takes on an entirely different meaning.

You only need one additional assumption: That following the teachings of Jesus is the best road to salvation. Jesus was quite consistent in maintaining that rejecting the pursuit of economic success in favor of acts of immediate charity and spiritual focus was what he was recommending.

Now please understand I am a non-believer who actually much prefers the economics of capitalism. But I was raised Catholic. I went to church every Sunday with my family until I left for college. Never went to a Sunday Mass again after that. It just didn't stick. I also took, without complaint, all the religious instruction my parents signed me up for including whatever was necessary for a First Communion and Confirmation. I still believe that the Commandment "Honor thy father and mother." is one of the best.

I am not hostile to religion. I get why people find Christian theology inspirational. I just don't get why they find it believable.

Either way, I REALLY don't get why anyone would expect the Pope's economics to be compatible with the economics of anyone considering only THIS world.

John Alcorn writes:

@ Greg G (comment above):

You posit that the Pope teaches how to get to heaven. Fair enough.

However, plainly, the Pope teaches also how to help the weak, the poor, & the vulnerable here and now, and how to care for the earth. Would you say that, in Catholic teachings, good works are merely individual investments in salvation?

I posit that the Pope also wishes simply to alleviate the sufferings of the vulnerable, and to protect the earth, because to do so is good. Then, in order to achieve good results, he should make use of our best knowledge of cause and effect in human affairs and in nature.

When Jesus taught, he had to tailor his lessons to what could be understood by people at the time. Although human nature has not changed since Jesus, our scientific knowledge of society and of the environment has improved. Much of this knowledge is readily accessible to the Pope and can be understood by the faithful. For example, is Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, more difficult than the Bible?

Of course, the Pope also wishes to inspire people to act on good intentions (i.e., to improve motivations). But we should recognize that in many contexts markets & the rule of law help the poor & protect the environment, no matter what motivations people have.

PS: Thank you for posting your comments, which are always helpful.

Greg G writes:

John,

I trust I made clear that I happen to agree with your economics and Robert Whaple's economics much more than the Pope's or Jesus' economics.

Jesus surely did teach many things that were not "understood by most of the people at the time." He did not "have to" do anything in particular if He was God. Least of all teach things that would be easily and very widely understood at the time.

I am not an expert on Catholic theology but I would say that, in Catholic teaching, good works are not "merely" individual investments in salvation. The most charitable thing you can do for ANOTHER person in Catholic theology is to convert them and cause their souls to be saved for all of eternity. Poor people can be distracted from spiritual priorities by material things just as rich people can. Acts of charity toward the poor are probably the best way to befriend them and get them to really listen to and hear the good news about salvation.

Motivations count for a lot more in theology than in economics. And they should.

Recall that Christopher Hitchens published a rather startling attack on Mother Teresa on the grounds that she wasn't interested in attacking the root causes of poverty at all and was only interested in acts of charity for their perceived spiritual merit. It's hard to argue with that but she remains perhaps the Church's greatest role model for helping the poor.

John Alcorn writes:

I would like to point to several links that might interest the EconTalk audience.

1) The value of work.

Prof. Whaples points out that many textbooks about economics, and many economists, conceptualize work as a 'bad.' However, there are influential economists who give work its due. See, for example, Bryan Caplan (next door at EconLog) here.

2) The value of market prices as information for effective altruism.

John Meadowcroft (King's College London) explains:

"altruistic ends can be best served by utilizing the price signals generated by the market: Market prices offer the most effective means of learning about the needs, values, and preferences of people of whom we have no direct personal knowledge and of ensuring that the benefits of our actions exceed the costs."
Prof. Meadowcroft's article is available online here. The quote is at p. 357.

3) Hedonic adaptation.

Prof. Whaples points out that many prosperous people find that more does not mean happier. This is the hedonic treadmill. See here. Note, however, that the hedonic treadmill is but one half of a double-edged psychological mechanism, hedonic adaptation. This mechanism cuts both ways, by blunting enjoyment of prosperity and by protecting psychological resilience in adversity.

4) Is greater consumption really like obesity?

Prof. Whaples draws an analogy between obesity and the consumer society. This analogy is misleading. Within prosperous societies, actual obesity does not have a positive correlation with incomes; and healthy behaviors do have a positive correlation with incomes. See Angus Deaton (Princeton University, Nobel Laureate in Economics), "Health, Income, and Inequality" (NBER Reporter: Research Summary 2003), here.

To my surprise, the interview did not address status as a motivation. In many contexts, people care much more about relative levels (interpersonal comparisons) than about one's absolute level.

Matěj Cepl writes:

I like the part where both gentlemen got to the question of how economists understand utility. I think, it is the key problem, which is too much overlooked. Every Economy 101 tells you that utility is not measured in the plain dollars, because everybody values different things differently, but do we really remember it?

I got to the point in my life, where I think I have basically sufficient income for whatever I need. The result is that I can spend my spare time, energy, and money on something else than providing for my family. Is that rational utility-maximizing behavior? I think so. But isn’t it contrary to the general persuasion that more money I make better I am? That in the end welfare of the nation is measured only by its GNP, and more better?

Langford writes:

As a devout Catholic (a convert like Dr. Whaples) I was very keen to hear this interview, and indeed it was very interesting. I think in the very challenging words Pope Francis often uses there are valuable lessons. Jesus had a lot to say about rich men and eyes of needles; and we should heed these lessons.

However (it's a big however), behind Francis' wide smile and seemingly benign nature, lurks an uninformed class-warfare radical who imagines every businessman a villain, triumphantly twirling his mustache as he puts out women and children to the street. Lost to Francis' limited experience is the small business owner who struggles to sustain his or her dream, getting paid last of all and sacrificing for years with failure baying on the doorstep. If the businessman "makes it rich" he is often just as likely to understand the struggle and threat of poverty and to help others, rather than become a cigar-chomping SOB.

That's my American experience anyway. Francis' is different as both Russ and Whaples pointed out, and clearly clouds his opinion on markets and businessmen.

Like many people Dr. Whaples mentioned, I read Laudato Si with a discussion group. It's an unhappy disaster, a committee-borne potpourri of unsubstantiated, hyperbolic doomsday claims that imputes bad motives to an unknown "they" - about the environment, the markets, and most of humanity. The wide, benign smile becomes the cynical sneer.

Look, Francis' economic views mirror his other radical class-based agendas - probably little known to many EconTalk listeners, he is tossing out orthodox bishops and surrounding himself with dissidents intent to overturn traditional Catholic beliefs. It may be that he has already set in motion another major schism in the Church. All this inconsequential debate about economics and Sister Earth could very well be the false flag, the bright shiny diversion, to a much bigger problem for Christendom (and the world).

Fortunately, I know that the Church will prevail in the end.

Langford writes:

One more thought: frequent listeners might remember the EconTalk episode featuring Jesse Ausubel about how nature is apparently "coming back" from the pressures of modernity in exactly the way Dr. Whaples and Russ agreed today.

Or check out Ausubel's Rockefeller University paper, "Nature Rebounds." Lots of compelling data that mirrors his talk with Dr. Roberts.

L

Andrea M. writes:

Thanks Russ for another thoughtful conversation. When I read the encyclical I was also puzzled by the pope's take on GMOs and his skepticisim of economies of scale. In responding to you and Whaples' comments regarding economics' tendency to care only about consumers and forget about producers, however, I must say that the neoclassical paradigm can accomodate the idea that producers too have preferences for "producing" , which would lead to an optimal scale of production that smaller than one with standard preferences.

I don't see this a critique of economics per se, but I agree that perhaps the way some people interpret economics is wrong, and in the conversation you ended up reiterating the same fallacy that people fall for when they confuse utility with money. There may be work to do in the way we teach economics.

Amos D.W. writes:

Jesus wasn't a Leviathanist. Commandments to do good are individual, private commandments.

In order for Leviathanists to do any good, they first have to erect and put into motion coercive policies.

Only after they have done violence and theft is it possible for them to do something useful with it.

That's no fishes and loaves, in which people coming together peacefully and willingly made an abundance.

All that said, I wanted to answer the point Russ makes, which has been made before: That both Liberty-oriented people and Leviathanists argue that the failures of their system do not indicate any problems with their system, per se, but with the execution.

"Oh, but that's not really Communism / Capitalism."

Sort of. In the end, where both systems go bad, they go bad for the same reason: the interference of Leviathanism. There is no crony without a Leviathan to hand out previously-coerced goodies and pick favorites.

One way we know that the problem is with Leviathan is that we can see that crony capitalism — or Leviathan-infected capitalism — tends to produce a lot better results for a longer period of time than straight Leviathanism. We've had a crony system in America mostly since the Progressive era (with one big exception), and it clearly outperformed Leninism and Maoism.

The exception: American slavery. Which was a government program, enforced with government weapons and laws.

Nonlin_org writes:

Has there ever been anyone that didn't like the environment? No. However, questions arise only when there's a trade-off such as between hunger and clean air. Solve hunger first and the environment will be much better too.

Cronyism is not at all related to capitalism: "the appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority, without proper regard to their qualifications". Russ, stop mixing the two and confusing your audience.

Pope Francis is more leftist than his predecessors but the church is big enough to accommodate all.

It seems Catholics are split about 50-50 Left vs. Right. This comes from the misunderstanding of the Bible:
1. All Bible mandates are individual, not collective
2. It is wrong to mix God and Caesar as Caesar is not necessarily your friend. Today's Caesars are in fact quite hostile to the church.

Congratulation on your conversion, Dr. Whaples.

Cowboy Prof writes:

A nice podcast on what was a well-done symposium in the Independent Review. I would like to note that for those listeners interested in this topic, there is another podcast by another contributor to the IR symposium, Samuel Gregg (Acton Institute), who talks about the "economic education" of Pope Francis in Argentina. It nicely fills out the history of the pope, the history of Argentina, and how this all combines into the new encyclical. It is over at Research on Religion.

It can be found at: http://www.researchonreligion.org/historical-topics/samuel-gregg-on-pope-francis-argentina-and-economics

(I hope I'm not violating the posting rules by mentioning this.)

[No rules violated. Just please use full URLs, not shortened ones, so people can see where they're going. Econlib Ed.]

Cowboy Prof writes:

A few added thoughts here:

1. Does anybody see a contradiction between the pope's advocacy of work and employment, and his skepticism of "consumerism"?

If you put more people to work, and if they become more productive at what they do (which is usually the case), we will end up producing more "stuff." This not only includes physical things like TVs and tennis shoes, but also leisure time activities like skiing, listening to music, etc. And those "leisure time goods" often are the result of producing tangible things (e.g., skis, guitars) and the increased productivity to allow more leisure time.

I never have really understood the concept of "consumerism" as its negative stereotype would seem to suggest that its antithesis -- "producerism" -- is better. I would argue that the USSR and other planned economies engage in producerism ("production for use" as Hayek would call it) and it created a lot more waste than production for consumption (or "production for profit" as Hayek would say).

It would be great if you could have an episode devoted to deconstructing the term "consumerism" and all of its ramifications, policy-wise or otherwise.

2. I understand how work can be considered a "bad," and how David Brooks (or whoever) says there is a difference between a résumé and a eulogy, but if you really like your work and it brings great joy not only to yourself but to others, the two are not necessarily separate. I hope my résumé is part of my eulogy and that it inspires others, including my spawn, to create great things too.

As a Christian, I consider work to be the use of God's gifts to me in a way that celebrates His creation. And this applies not only to the "finer crafts" (e.g., education, art), but to things like bartending, auto repair, landscaping, etc. Indeed, I often dislike our hierarchical ranking of what constitutes the "finer" professions as I know people who love to bartend for others and do it with Christian passion.

Eric writes:

For anyone who thinks that free market capitalism and the Bible are antagonists, I would invite them to reconsider more carefully where the real conflict is.

Within the ten commandments of the Mosaic law, private property is assumed and affirmed both by the commandment against stealing and by the final commandment against coveting "anything that is your neighbor's".

In this Econtalk episode, I felt there was something of a false dilemma between efficient productive work in a free market system and the problem of increasing consumption. Just because we are efficient at producing value, that doesn't mean we must ourselves consume all of the value we produce. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul gave this instruction.

"He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need." Eph. 4:28 NASB

Private property and productive labor are both affirmed as well as individual control over the privately owned value of that labor "... so that he will have...". Yet the goal is not simply personal consumption, but rather to have more than you need so as to be able voluntarily "to share with one who has need."

Throughout the New Testament, the repeated Christian advocacy of generosity and sharing is always with voluntary sharing in mind, never coerced redistribution. The voluntary aspect is essential.

I would submit that there is no necessary conflict between what is taught in the Bible and private property, the positive value of work*, owning the fruits of labors, voluntary exchanges, the free market or any other essential aspect of free market capitalism. Though the word "capitalism" does not appear, I would suggest that all the essential elements of free market capitalism are present and affirmed.

One classic examination of this topic by a Christian author is Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem by Jay W. Richards.

I would submit that the real issues of conflict and contention come down to what a person chooses to do regarding their work, possessions, values, and priorities. There is nothing wrong with producing great value that may result in great return. But then what? Do we live for selfish consumption? Do money or possessions become our god? What do we do with what we have?

The Apostle Paul gave instructions to believers who are rich with the wealth of this world. For the interested, see 1 Timothy 6:17-19.

*I was glad to hear about the affirmation of the value of work. One of the rediscoveries of the Protestant Reformation was that work by humans was part of God's good creation and that all legitimate work can be done to the glory of God. This is where the idea of the Protestant work ethic comes from. Everyone has gifts that can be employed in labor that honors God, as the Apostle Peter indicated (1 Peter 4:10,11).

David Zetland writes:

This was a very interesting conversation, but I think that BOTH Russ and Robert were too quick to dismiss the Pope's worries about the environment. The worries of The Limits to Growth (1972) as well as Tragedy of the Commons (1968) are still very much with us today, except even more serious due to the ongoing, and worsening impact of consumption and population growth on the NON-market goods that everyone shares.

Yes, the Environmental Kuznets Curve "holds" for local pollutants but it does NOT hold for global pollutants (GHGs) or for other negative spillovers (e.g., overdrafted groundwater in California), which means that we are STLL on an unsustainable course. Hardin wrote in 1968 that the "solution" to population -- given the non-excludable nature of the commons -- was moral forbearance (i.e., deciding to have fewer kids/"shifting the demand curve in") and the same "solution" lies at the Pope's appeal for less Mammon and more God (or community, etc.)

In the absence of abstinence (and a global governing authority capable of governing the commons), we are indeed still on a very dangerous path in which environmental degredation will undermine all of the economic progress we're making.

For more on how markets cannot save us, read this post on Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich's "Bet" which has been widely misinterpreted as evidence that the free market will protect the environment: http://www.env-econ.net/2008/05/was-julian-simo.html

Lauren writes:

A word on offering to pray for someone else:

Around the 49:36 time mark, Robert Whaples offers what he's been taught to do in church, after giving alms: "... What's your name, because I want to pray for you?"

I think the words "I want to pray for you" are, unfortunately, troubling. No doubt any particular Church or religious group would like to bring into their fold many folks who are on the brink. Including the weak, the folks on the street, the poor, the orphans--including by handing out $10-bills or even $1-bills on the street--it seems kind.

But offering to "pray for you" goes a step beyond, into the realm of tit-for-tat. If you offer generosity with sincerity to someone who asks for help, there should be no strings attached. No sincere offer of $10 or $1 or even 10 cents to a street person should be accompanied by an additional offer to pray for the person. Either you offer someone a gift or you don't. A gift is a gift. No strings attached.

I suppose I may be particularly troubled by the words "I want to pray for you." The recipient of your prayers may not be desirous, no matter how sincere you may be by offering. And, it may be particularly difficult to decline if the prayers are offered concomitant with or in exchange for something else.

John Alcorn writes:

@ David Zetland:

Dr. Roberts does not "dismiss the Pope's worries about the environment." He states (in the middle of the interview segment that begins at 27:25):

"the environmental movement falls back on both global warming and habitat destruction--which is worrisome. Both of them are somewhat concerning because there's some uncertainty about what their effects and costs are. That we are potentially losing keystone species as we expand human reach is a concern. I don't think we know very much about it. But, I understand the argument on the other side of mine, which is to be concerned about it. I think that's a legitimate argument."
David Friedman, however, does systematically challenge the view that global warming and population growth are unsustainable. See, for example, a) the video of Dr. Friedman's lecture, "Global warming, population, & the problem with externality arguments" (Oxford Hayek Society, January 15, 2013), here; and b) his blogposts about anthropogenic global warming (keyword search: AGW) at his blog, here.

Let me mention also a seminal article about population by Dr. Friedman, although this article, regrettably, is not available online: David Friedman, "What Does Optimum Population Mean?" Research in Population Economics, Vol. III (1981), Eds. Simon and Lindert.

FredC writes:

It is more than the Amish and nuns who are, in a sense, dropping out of the modern economy and downsizing their lifestyle.

There is a pretty popular movement out there of youngish people, many of whom are professionals, that are aggressively trying to build a 7 figure nest egg as quickly a possible, and then dropping out (or, "retiring early") by moving to places with LCOL, maybe working part time at most, living off interest and dividends, and being frugal. The mr money mustache blog is one of the best examples/forums for those so inclined.

The guy who runs it could be an interesting guest.

Trent writes:

An interesting podcast as always, and I hope that you have additional podcasts on 'economics and religion' in the future.

I particularly enjoyed the brief sidebar on the distinction between a person's resume and the essence of that person. I've always thought it a mistake to view a person as a plumber, a financial manager, etc., etc. That doesn't let you learn about who that person really is. If you view only in the 'resume' lens, then your interaction is going to be limited to that function.....was reminded of Nassim Taleb telling people at parties that he's a cab/limo driver to avoid having to discuss financial markets.

If we learn about the essence of the people we encounter, then we can indeed learn something from everybody we meet. And that's part of what makes life interesting.

Lastly, if we take this distinction in the opposite direction, how do you describe your best friend when somebody asks you about him/her? I know I'll say something akin to I've known him for nearly 30 years & we've gone to all sorts of sporting events together....he was there for me at my toughest times....he was there for me at my best times, etc., etc., etc. I don't think we ever start out by saying he's a plumber or financial manager or journalist.

Luke J writes:

Eric's comments (re: false incompatibility, markets and Biblical tradition) are spot on, and, unfortunately, a minority view among modern Christian thinkers, including the Pope.

Still, the Pope does nail several points worth rehashing. There issomething wrong with human beings and that does negatively affect human relations and the environment.

Bible narrative in four sentences:

  • Greater, creator being brings all matter into existence, and appoints human beings as economists over the earth, to continue the work of creation (be fruitful and multiply).
  • Humans reject reliance upon God for knowledge of good and evil, and instead appoint themselves "wise gods" to rule the earth.
  • Despite human effort to destroy itself and the earth, God works to preserve (save) humanity by tugging and pulling at the hearts of specific persons that lead others to turn back to God's goodness.
  • God's plan to save human kind is ultimately expressed in the life of Jesus, the Second Adam (adam = humanity), who shows us what kind of beings God originally created us to be.

So the Pope is really addressing sin, which is small word that really expresses the idea that humans have failed to care for one another and the earth. Sin = missing the mark, and is an old archery term. The failure begins with an inner rejection of God as ruler of the heart, and the outworkings are death and destruction.

He gets the radical correct, but Whaples correctly criticizes Pope Francis' suggestions for improvement.

Jack K writes:

Being an argentinian, 68 years old, I can tell you some facts about Bergoglio. He is basically a "peronista", and has been all his life. In his adolescence he belonged to Guardia de Hierro (Iron Guard) named after a nazi, ultra nationalist and antisemitic rumanian party (just google it,everybody knows about it in Argentina).
Now, older he is just your average peronista: christian socialist, anti capitalist, voluntarist (he likes to think that if everybody seats around a table, "we can strike a deal: capitalists and workers, under the friendly umbrella of the government". Typical basic fascism. Il fascio was that idea.
So, any idea of talking or "convincing" him out of his ideas, is laughable. He has an agenda of populism " a la Peron", and will stick to his guns.
Argentina is a failure, and probably will keep like this for an unforseen future just because there are too many peronists, and Bergoglio is one of them.
Best regards
Jack

Mort Dubois writes:

A couple of unrelated thoughts:

First, let’s acknowledge that Pope Francis isn’t just some random guy, but the person elevated to leadership by what is one of the dominant organizations in human history. Love it or hate it, the Catholic Church has survived the twists and turns of a huge amount of political and economic change. We should consider the ways that he embodies that experience. For instance, Russ and Mr. Whales snort at the concept of an elite cadre being in any way distinguishable from all the rest of us in motivations and failings, but the Catholic Church operates with exactly that structure. All priests are expected to forswear some experiences (pursuit of wealth and sex) that the rest of us partake in, and also have a very different outlook on the place that this life should have in our calculations for how we should behave. If that wasn’t an effective way to survive in the real world, we wouldn’t have the church. (Disclosure: I was raised Catholic, but no longer practice.)

Second, and this is not directly related to the first point, I’m very glad to hear Russ acknowledge that this podcast has a bias against considering the welfare of producers in discussions about - well, just about everything. As if what happens within productive enterprises is irrelevant as long as markets are allowed to operate. As a matter of fact every worker is, theoretically, producing something, and has to sell that output for cash before they can participate in the other half of the equation. So driving down costs of production may be good for consumers and bad for producers simultaneously. Workers being producers, there’s no guarantee that reducing the value of their output is only in proportion to the overall gains, or that the pain of constant disruption is evenly distributed. We’re seeing that pay out politically all over the world.

I am impressed that Russ has the intellectual honesty to talk about this, and also his admission that the capitalist economy we enjoy may be an anomaly, and that corrupt cabals of political and business elites might well be the default mode.

My simple analysis of our current political and economic woes: too much money at the top. The structure of the markets we have relentlessly concentrates wealth and power upward, and we’re reaching the point where that tendency has caused enough pain in enough people that they are being compelled to act. I’m glad we have political structures that allow for this to happen without violence (so far.)

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ Mort Dubois

First, let’s acknowledge that Pope Francis isn’t just some random guy,

As a non-Catholic myself (raised as a Protestant in churches that stressed a very negative view of Catholicism), I give the Pope no more regard than a drunk at a bar who shares his opinions about economics. This is on par with actors (or actresses) speaking of their own view of politics. Who really cares? I couldn't care less..

Preaching against "consumption" given the opulence on display at the Vatican (and the massive wealth held by the Catholic Church) sure sounds like "do as I say, not what I do".

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ GregG

If you simply assume that the Church is right that the tiny spec of eternity represented by this life decides your salvation or damnation for all of eternity, then the Pope's economic analysis makes perfect sense.

Yet another reason I am an atheist. I agree that this assumption is necessary for that analysis to make sense. However, I view the purveyors of religion as snake-oil salesmen. They want you to exchange your time (on them), money (to enrich them), and effort (for their benefit) in return for an eternity that resides only in your imagination. From my perspective, not only do I care very little of the doomsday opinions held by the Catholic Church, but I am thoroughly hostile to the entire organization.

I prefer capitalism precisely because it is the only system that allows the individual to choose what to consume, how much to consume, how much to work, etc. All the alternatives to capitalism (socialism, communism, all the goofy dystopias of the Left) does away with this individual choice, it reduces the ability of the individual to balance their life as they see fit. I don't need (and will remain very hostile towards) any self-anointed "authority" that intends make these decisions for me. I don't have any theological need for any church, and certainly I don't need any economic advice from snake-oil salesmen.

Bogart writes:

If the Pope is against materialism then why not be against the biggest enabler of materialism: Western Governments and their pet central banks. The governments of the West literally send out more in welfare than they receive and to do this they engage in continuous currency devaluation. The end product of this is rampant materialism and over consumption as people who would otherwise save just purchase more and more stuff hoping to get the stuff before the prices go up. Then when they blow all off their money the governments come in again and bail them out with institutions like old age pensions and what not that the Pope seems to be all for.

And the Pope grossly discounts energy saving devices like the Amazon Kindle that eliminate the need for people to cut down trees, make the wood into paper. Cart the paper around to manufacturing facilities, chop the paper up, print it and glue it back together all to transport it to a store then have it lugged around by users. Instead Amazon builds this little machine that stores entire libraries of books that is about the size of one book. We should be celebrating this.

Eric writes:

@Mark Crankshaw

It is wise to be wary of counterfeits. Yet, even though counterfeits exist, that does not mean that the authentic does not exist.

People who use manipulation just to enrich themselves are certainly to be avoided. Informed observers will also note that such people are clearly not following Jesus.

@Greg G wrote

"We should not be surprised to see the Pope preferring the teachings of Jesus to the teachings of our best economists."

Except that in his criticism of free market capitalism, the Pope isn't "preferring the teachings of Jesus". Nothing Jesus taught argues against the free market or against private property or against personal control of your property or against voluntary exchanges or against any other essential aspect of free market capitalism.

On the contrary, throughout Scripture one of the major themes is the way God affirms both the authority of the individual to make choices and the responsibility and accountability of people for the choices they make. There is nothing in the teachings of Jesus that undermine this or that propose to remove from the individual their own control and choices over the resources they have.

As one example, consider the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 20:1-16. He is teaching about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. To do so he provides as illustration a story about economic exchanges (which he often does). Along the way and along with making other points, his chosen story affirms...


  • the legitimacy of contracts,
  • the rightness of fulfilling such contracts according to the terms the parties agreed upon,
  • the fact that a worker is owed their agreed upon wages,
  • private ownership,
  • the legitimate freedom of people to make choices regarding their property,
  • as well as the fact that there is a place for generosity in those choices.

Even though the story is designed and intended to provoke attention, even those who find this teaching of Jesus difficult should notice that Jesus is taking the side of the owner in this dispute. According to Jesus, the owner is meant to illustrate one aspect of the kingdom of heaven.

The real economic challenge of Jesus is about the nature of the choices we choose to make regarding the resources we have control over.

The point is not to eliminate our ability to choose (as some economic systems are designed to do). In the story of Eden, God didn't build an impenetrable fence around the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to make it impossible to eat. Instead he gave a command and allowed them to choose. Do you trust me or not? And there were consequences for not abiding by that limitation.

The whole design from end to end is one of allowing both choices and also responsibility and accountability for the choices we make.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ Eric


Informed observers will also note that such people are clearly not following Jesus.

I beg to differ. I see the character of Jesus (whose very historical existence is a matter of faith and speculation) as portrayed by the Christian religion as a classic snake-oil salesmen. The character of Jesus was purported to have said:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

I would paraphrase this as: don't worry about reality, the here and now. Instead, use your imagination and project imaginary "treasures" there, since no one can rob your imagination. Religion is, in my view, the greatest con of all time. The religious orders from time immemorial have exhorted their "flocks" to trade reality (money, time, labor, devotion) for fantasy (heaven, imaginary treasures, imaginary after-life, imaginary love, and imaginary "forgiveness"). How many billions of dollars have been squandered on this fruitless endeavor? How many billions of hours squandered, millions of lives destroyed? The only thing greater than it's venality is the tragedy of it all.

While that may be true, no one can rob you of imaginary treasures (which is perhaps why many people often actually do prefer fantasy to reality), it really isn't what I would call sound economic advice. A lot of the poverty that humanity has suffered with for the past 50,000 years stems directly from this type of economically crippling thinking.

Eric writes:

@Mark Crankshaw, your quotation of my statement omits the relevant part. I wrote (emphasis added):

People who use manipulation just to enrich themselves are certainly to be avoided. Informed observers will also note that such people are clearly not following Jesus.

The reason my statement is clearly true is that Jesus did not use manipulation to enrich himself. He did not enrich himself by any means. Anyone who does use manipulation to enrich himself is plainly not walking as Jesus walked. In other words, they are not walking as followers of Jesus. This is a straightforward statement of fact regardless of whether one believes what Jesus taught (which is a topic far beyond the scope of these comments).

What is relevant to this discussion is that the teachings of Jesus do not conflict with the economic system of free market capitalism, even if the Pope might have implied there is some conflict.

Even the passage you quoted (about where your treasure is) does not imply otherwise. Quite to the contrary, the way to lay up "treasures in heaven" is to choose to use ones material goods and services in ways that help others who are in genuine need in this world. The next verse that you didn't include says this.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (cf. Matt. 6:19-21)

The point is to not make accumulating material wealth your treasure, i.e. the thing your heart is set upon.

If one reads through the rest of the sermon on the mount, Jesus commends giving to those in need (Matt. 6:1-4), not letting ones life be ruled by money, and not living in anxiety regarding how to accumulate what we need (Matt. 6:24-34).

Jesus taught that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves and that we should do to others as we would want others to do to us. The influence of these Judeo-Christian values has made the U.S. one of the most generous nations in the history of the world.

The economic result of following his teaching is not to create poverty. Instead, it sets us free from the love of money, personal acquisition, and enriching ourselves as the thing our heart is set upon. The result is to liberate people to spread and share earned goods, services, and other resources in a way that is voluntary, motivated by love, and therefore also responsible, since genuine love looks for those actions that will actually benefit other real people in this world.

Robert Swan writes:

I was glad Russ, somewhat later, contradicted this from Dr Whaples:

"You don't need as much stuff, " ... "I was an atheist for many years and so would not have bought that argument at all"
There's no so about it. Not everybody needs to find religion to realise that adding to possessions does not necessarily add to happiness.

On air pollution, yes, the air in wealthy nations is cleaner because the populace has been able to afford to clean it and, further, the cleaned air has been more valuable to the people than the cost of cleaning it (in terms of health, comfort and property value). You might even say it was market driven.

Unfortunately it has also let the genie out of the bottle. The fact that they have some very good regulations under their belts has encouraged the regulators to add more and more questionable regulations. In the same way I have realised that the joy of new possessions is limited, it would be nice if our governments would realise that the benefit of new regulations is limited. Perhaps the Pope might consider covering that in a future encyclical -- though, from what commenter Jack K says, it might need to be a future Pope too.

Avi writes:

Russ Roberts: "I would argue that capitalism is not the problem. It's us."

I for one welcome Russ as a social democrat. Welcome aboard. How do we create rules so that capitalism best serves people rather than an ideal of capitalism?

John L writes:

@Robert Swan,

You talk about regulators the way Pope Francis talks about capitalists. Both are abstractions that are easy targets for anger.

To my knowledge, we have never faced and solved a global environmental challenge before. I can't imagine how we ever get there without government regulation of some kind. The rights of individuals to make choices are important and yet, in this case, the choices each individual makes affect every person in the world, clearly impeding on the rights of others to make their own choices. There is no practical way to use private ownership of the climate to address this issue. LA reduced smog through the adoption of increased regulation of emissions. Yet this was within a framework of competition between cities and states.

jw writes:

I thought that this might devolve into a believer/non-believer discussion, and though sometimes interesting, I have found that almost all points of view have been covered thousands of times before and centuries ago, it all comes down to faith.

In any case, just two points:

- I appreciate the Pope's view that modern consumerism may be affecting peoples' pursuit of prayer, but that is already covered by "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." Those temptations were there two millennia ago, both by government and individuals, it is your choice how to proceed.

- I reel at the term "crony capitalist", it is simply an alliteration invented by a journalist in the 60's. Cronyism has nothing to do with capitalism. It is a function of a (usually large and centralized) rentier rewarding government (so I agree with Amos D.W. above). Cronyism is far larger in socialist governments than capitalist ones. If you think that the degree of cronyism is too high, that is an indication that you need freer, less regulated markets, not more crony enriching regulations.

And since free market capitalism is by far the most efficient and fastest way to increase the total wealth of ALL people, including the poor, then IF the Pope were to spend time worrying about what is Ceasar's, he should focus on preaching that.

liberty writes:

As always, I enjoyed this episode. I don't have time right now to comment on the substance but I did want to mention one thing:

The episode came off as quite sexist, since at least twice you both referred to "brothers, husbands, sons" or used male gendered pronouns or grammar in a way that indicated that only men, not women, would be the subjects under discussion. So, women do not have careers, are not primary breadwinners, etc.

I am sure it was not conscious, but as my husband pointed out to me when I was decided whether it was worth leaving a comment, this may be all the more reason to point it out.

~ Hey, if you were going to dismiss my comment, maybe you will take his more seriously.

Robert Swan writes:

John L,

You talk about regulators the way Pope Francis talks about capitalists. Both are abstractions that are easy targets for anger

I'm not sure why you say that. I see regulators as a necessary evil; Pope Francis appears to think capitalists an unnecessary evil. My intended point was really just a variation on Prof. Whaples's theme when he said:

when you talk about government ... They are sinners, too. They are going to cave in to the exact same selfishness and sinfulness you see everywhere else in the economy.

I'm also not sure why you bring up climate change, but let's briefly probe what I think you're implying i.e. that putting the right regulations in place is the only chance we have to solve global warming. It's pretty clear that any such regulations would have to apply internationally. Who's going to invigilate them? And who's going to enforce them? Will war be declared on China, say, "for the good of the planet"?

Pope Francis is Primate of the church that, five centuries ago, was the faith-based source of authority and regulation for most of the western world. It's seems quite apt in this discussion that you should bring up the current pretender to that same power: the church of the environment.

Robert Swan writes:

Oh, I meant to mention I loved liberty's closing remark. Very funny.

John L writes:

Church of the environment? I guess I am exposing my ignorance but I've never heard of it.

War is not the only way to enforce international agreements, just as the death penalty is not the only way to enforce the penal code.

I mention climate change because it was the context of the discussion about LA air quality in the podcast and is the major current focus of debate about new regulation of impacts to the environment, and so I thought that it was what you were referencing in your post. I apologize if you were discussing environmental regulations unrelated to climate change.

Eric writes:

Dan Mitchell has posted a timely and very relevant article that, among other points, contrasts the voluntary generosity taught by Jesus with advocacy for the coercive policies sometimes adopted by government.

As Mitchell points out, the economic leanings of Pope Francis are unfortunately misguided, not only because of this discontinuity with the actual teaching of Jesus, but also because those policy preferences can actually be more harmful to the very people one supposedly wanted to help.

Libertarian Jesus Strikes Again
March 24, 2017 by Dan Mitchell
https://danieljmitchell.wordpress.com/2017/03/24/libertarian-jesus-strikes-again/

His first P.S., which includes a link, should not be missed.

"P.S. I’m rather amused that socialists, when looking for Christmas-themed heroes, could only identify people who practice non-coercive generosity."
Robert Swan writes:

John L,

Church of the environment? I guess I am exposing my ignorance but I've never heard of it.

If I tell someone "I flew to Dublin last year" I don't expect them to respond "What a crock: you can't fly at all!" And if they were to say that, I wouldn't point out that I see no sign of an earthenware container. The linguistic device is called metaphor -- common in many languages including English, even American. If a thing doesn't make literal sense it's pretty usual to look for ways in which an analogy might apply. I hope that tip helps you avoid further embarrassment.

War is not the only way to enforce international agreements

No, indeed; but what is to be done about international disagreements?

Have you considered the questions I asked earlier? For worldwide regulations: who decides whether you comply? Who compels you to comply?

Perhaps a global environmental organisation will emerge as a supra-government body, something like the Catholic Church was eight centuries ago. Some of the NGOs are already pretty influential. Would this body's rule be better or worse than the Catholic Church's? How many will die in their crusades? Will their reign improve the environment as much as the Catholic Church's did the Kingdom of God?

jw writes:

Robert Swan,

I am not so sure that God cares all that much about the environment (or Earth, for that matter).

He (or whatever infinite randomness you like) created the Earth 5B years ago. It took this long for modern man to develop, and we have been here 200K years, a blink of an eye in geological timescales.

In a billion years, the sun will heat up to where life will be impossible and 3 billion or so years after that we will be engulfed by our sun becoming a red giant. The environment will cease to exist. (This is assuming we dodge collisions with massive comets or other global catastrophes - remember, normal fluctuations in climate had Chicago under a mile of ice only 12K years ago.)

NGO's will have little effect.

Robert Swan writes:

jw,

I agree. I'm afraid, having just got through explaining metaphor, now it's sarcasm's turn.

I thought it was pretty clear that the Catholic Church's centuries as a supranational power had only served (some) men and done nothing for God. I boldly predict that if a supranational environmental body were to come to power, it similarly would serve men and do nothing for the environment.

I'm reluctant to use things like "sarc" tags, but all my comments should probably be treated as if they were wrapped in "droll" tags (or maybe "smartarse").

jw writes:

Robert Swan,

I was mostly agreeing with you. I certainly agree that the Tokyo accords are unenforceable, as are the Paris accords. For than matter, the Euro has deficit limits in it that are never enforced and Pres. Trump recently pointed out that NATO has defense spending minimums that are never enforced as well. So the unenforceability problem is real.

However, attempting to guess the will of God in economics and environmentalism is impossibly difficult (as I tried to point out above), given all of the unsolvable conundrums that He has left us with, so one might be content to simply concern oneself with one's soul, and this is where I believe that the Catholic Church's contributions far outweigh its transgressions.

John L writes:

@Robert Swan,

I find your explanation of metaphor to be pretty condescending. I suggest you heed your own advice about not interpreting others' statements literally. And here's another suggestion: if you find yourself repeatedly explaining basic components of interpersonal communication twice on the same thread (metaphor, sarcasm), consider whether maybe you are the one who is missing others' points.

I was trying to imply that I don't think your metaphor comparing environmental movements to the church is particularly apt: there are many significant things--the lack of a Pope or similar authority figure and organizational structure that formally owns property, the lack a single text that is the underlying source for a collection of metaphysical beliefs being just a few--that are different between current concerns about air quality and global warming and organized religion and that would be consistent with never having heard of the organization.

Yes, it can be argued that any government action is backed by the use of power on some level. However, in addition to the threat of violence, forms of power might include controlling access to trade, information, raw materials, cultural prestige, etc. We have not gone to war because people in the US disagree about NAFTA. There are absolutely examples of countries joining together for a specific purpose, even if the constituent governments and/or individuals within those countries are not unanimously behind a specific decision. I'm not saying it's easy or perfect, and it's something people haven't had to think about until relatively recently so the structures haven't been completely worked out, but it's possible and it seems to me very unlikely that climate change is going to be addressed by free market capitalism alone.


Robert Swan writes:

John L,

It was clear to me you knew I had used "church" metaphorically but, rather than criticise the analogy, you chose to pretend ignorance. That didn't give me much to work with and I'd say a little condescension was fair reward.

You have now listed several ways in which environmentalism is not like a church. It's early days yet in environmentalism and none of the things you listed was present in the early church. In time, maybe some of those grander structures will emerge.

A metaphor is never perfect, but there are plenty of ways that modern environmentalism is already quite like the church at its worst: hypocrisy in the leaders; ostentatious piety; buying off sins; fervent believers; fundamental heresies; sects; excommunication. The metaphor seems not too bad to me.

One example: rationally, nuclear power is clearly the most reliable way to replace fossil fuels for electricity. In the vast majority of environmental "sects", to even entertain such an idea is a "heresy".

On the enforcing of rules, as you point out, there are non-violent paths that can be taken, but whether at the individual or the national level, these apparently civilised paths are ultimately backed up by physical power. Violence might be the last resort, but it is always there.

It's reasonable for you to doubt that climate change is going to be addressed by free market capitalism alone. Nevertheless, if more people become convinced of the dire threat, the free market will be more driven do something about it. As I understand it though, numbers are falling, not rising. If doubters are in the majority, and aren't convinced by the evidence that convinces you, what would you like to turn to?

Robert Swan writes:

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