Dear Pope Francis:
I am writing to confess my sin. That’s what you Catholics are supposed to do, to confess your sin to an authority figure, right? OK, then, I’m confessing mine.
You see, I fit the description you recently gave of those who support the capitalist economic system, who have fallen into the sin of the “idolatry of money.”
I do have a high regard for money, and since I’m an American, the particular denomination of my idolatry is worship of the Almighty Dollar.
I should note, however, that it is not really the physical dollar that I worship, no more than you worship a small metal crucifix you wear around your neck. That would be idolatry indeed. You worship the god the crucifix stands for. I worship what the dollar stands for: wealth and the production of wealth. After all, what good is an actual physical dollar, a mere piece of paper? We send them back to be destroyed when they get too old and worn. And these days, we’ve largely dispensed with the need for physical cash altogether. Just wave your card in the general direction of the barista, and Starbucks draws from your account electronically.
No, it’s not the paper we worship. It’s the system that makes it possible for us to work to produce wealth and trade it for what others have produced. That’s what money really represents: it’s a store of value and a medium of exchange. Money is at the center of a system of production and trade. And that is why, as you observe, money is at the center of capitalism.
Yet despite confessing my sin, I somehow can’t bring myself to feel guilty about it, because production and trade—aren’t these good things? Aren’t they the key to overcoming poverty and raising the world into prosperity?
But I see that you don’t understand our idolatrous creed very well—why would you seek to study so debased a heresy?—so you regard the workings of money, production, and trade as inscrutable mysteries.
For example, you puzzle over the mystery of famine.
It’s proven that with the food that is left over we could feed the people who are hungry. When you see photographs of undernourished kids in different parts of the world, you take your head in your hand, it incomprehensible.
Why do some people have an overabundance of food while others are starving? That is a question that takes a little understanding of money, that is, of production and trade, to figure out.
Since people have been on the edge of starvation through most of human history, we can start by asking how it is that the rich nations got their abundance. (Here in America, our second greatest sin is gluttony.) The capitalist countries in the West have seen a centuries-long collapse in the cost of food, driven first by policies that allowed huge numbers of farmers to acquire title to land in newly settled territories, then by mechanization, the development of modern fertilizers, and a thousand other efficiencies that have increased yields and decreased the costs of production, so that American farmers now produce more than they ever have, but with only a fraction of the population that was once employed in agriculture.
So the real question is: why hasn’t this spread everywhere?
Note where the shortages have been most acute in modern times. It was in China under Mao, in Ukraine under Stalin, and most recently in North Korea under the Kims that people were reduced to eating one another. Those were countries that lacked property rights, independent producers, the freedom to trade, and the ability to raise or invest capital. They were societies without any trace of the idolatry of money that you condemn.
By contrast, observe how poor countries that used to have trouble feeding themselves have risen to greater prosperity: by joining the system of global production and trade, building factories and loading container ships full of goods to be sold to us ravenous consumers in the wealthy countries. I believe you complained about an economy “moved by the ambition of having more.”
These countries can now afford more modern agricultural equipment and techniques. And in China, for example, they’re also buying up farmland around the rest of the world where they can pay people in those countries to grow food to import back to China. So maybe making a lot of money does make a difference in that whole riddle about not starving.
In the countries that still struggle, as Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has explained, people often lack clear ownership rights to the land. They struggle under complex regulations and corrupt bureaucracies that give them no clear right to operate their businesses. This is the key to a lot of the world’s poverty and unrest. A farmer with no clear title to his land can’t raise the capital to buy a new tractor. A fruit seller living under arbitrary regulations faces the threat that a vengeful policeman will seize his entire means of making a living. You may want to familiarize yourself with the case of a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi. Then maybe you might spend more time warning about the idolatry of government than the idolatry of money.
Speaking of which, there is also the distorting influence of government subsidies for agriculture in developed countries, which makes it harder for farmers in poor countries, who can afford less efficient methods, to compete. I will admit that in our capitalist countries there is a heretical sect which holds the mystical belief that money does not represent production and trade but is created ex nihilo in Washington, DC. We’re trying our best to refute this heresy, and frankly, comments such as yours aren’t helping.
There are other strange things you seem to misunderstand about the practices of us dollar-worshippers. You mention a “throwaway culture” in which “The elderly are also discarded because they don’t serve any use anymore, they don’t produce, this passive class.”
You must ask your advisors to schedule a papal visit to Florida as soon as possible. There you will observe millions of superannuated retirees living for decades beyond the point at which they devote full time to economic production. They’re not exactly “passive,” though. Most of them are investors and are living off their savings. The years of leisure they enjoy in their old age are made possible by their participation in the system centered on money.
What really puzzles me is your complaint about the young.
And now also it is in style to throw the young people away with unemployment. The rate of unemployment is very worrisome to me, which in some countries is over 50%. Someone told me that 75 million young Europeans under 25 years of age are unemployed. That is an atrocity. But we are discarding an entire generation to maintain an economic system that can’t hold up anymore.
How is massive youth unemployment maintaining the capitalist economic system? In fact, high unemployment for the young has long been associated, not with the money-chasing “Anglo-Saxon model” but with the stagnant European welfare states, where labor regulations make it very expensive to hire employees and almost impossible to fire them, while there are relatively generous welfare benefits for those who don’t work. The result is that employers aren’t very willing to risk hiring young people with few skills, and those young people have more incentive to stay out of work.
That’s a system that does waste the lives of young people, but it comes from attempting to restrain production, trade, and money-making. Money and prices serve to co-ordinate the supply and demand of goods, and of labor. Youth unemployment is what happens when a society doesn’t leave money free to do its job.
I must also confess to being utterly stumped by your views on war. You describe capitalism as
a system that to survive must make war, as the great empires have always done. But as a Third World War can’t be done, they make zonal wars. What does this mean? That they produce and sell weapons, and with this the balance sheets of the idolatrous economies, the great world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money, obviously they are sorted.
As a devotee of money, I am able to see through the “money illusion,” the truly idolatrous attitude that views the movement of pieces of paper as if it were the real economic activity that sorts out the balance sheets. In fact, money is valuable only insofar as it represents production. But wealth sent off to be destroyed in war is not production. We dollar-worshippers call that the Broken Window Fallacy.
Even on its own terms, the claim that the big economies have been stoking wars so they can make money just doesn’t add up. War has been declining, not increasing. Deaths from war have been falling precipitously since the end of World War II to the point where today’s conflicts, as tragic as they are, barely register by historical standards. Notice that this coincides with the rise of global capitalism, and it is generally considered to have happened because of global capitalism.
After the Cold War, the Europeans have stopped spending money on their militaries, which has them caught flat-footed in facing a resurgent Russia. Even after a slight increase during our recent wars, US military spending is way down as a share of our economy.
So how about exports to stoke wars overseas? European arms exports are about $200 billion per year—out of an economy that produces somewhere between $18 and $20 trillion per year. So arms exports are maybe 1% of the Western economy. It’s just not big enough to prop up the other 99% that is focused on civilian manufacturing and technology, on the production of goods and services used by people in peacetime.
As pope, I am sure that you are very concerned about world peace and reducing war. So how can you not know these facts?
With all due respect, Pope Francis, I’m beginning to think that maybe it is you who might have a sin to confess. Popes can sin, can’t they? I believe you have an unwarranted prejudice against us dollar-worshippers, blaming us for every possible crime from unemployment to war.
Now, I know there are interpretations of Christianity that are more compatible with capitalism and that Catholicism has always been a particularly intellectual religion, so I won’t presume to wade into the debates between its various philosophical interpreters.
But I would suggest that if you’re concerned about poverty and the well-being of humanity on this earth, you would do well to show a little more tolerance and understanding for the creed of those of us who believe in the value of dollars, money, production, and trade.
Follow Robert on Twitter.