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.
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.