Labor Day 2014: Rejecting an Economy of Exclusion

The USCCB’s 2014 Labor Day statement follows in Pope Francis’ footsteps. The statement highlights those who have been left behind as the economy has recovered from the Great Recession:

Digging a little deeper, however, reveals enduring hardship for millions of workers and their families. The poverty rate remains high, as 46 million Americans struggle to make ends meet. The economy continues to fail in producing enough decent jobs for everyone who is able to work, despite the increasing numbers of retiring baby boomers. There are twice as many unemployed job seekers as there are available jobs, and that does not include the seven million part-time workers who want to work full-time. Millions more, especially the long-term unemployed, are discouraged and dejected.

The USCCB also points out the economic difficulties specifically faced by many millennials:

More concerning is that our young adults have borne the brunt of this crisis of unemployment and underemployment. The unemployment rate for young adults in America, at over 13 percent, is more than double the national average (6.2 percent). For those fortunate enough to have jobs, many pay poorly. Greater numbers of debt-strapped college graduates move back in with their parents, while high school graduates and others may have less debt but very few decent job opportunities. Pope Francis has reserved some of his strongest language for speaking about young adult unemployment, calling it “evil,” an “atrocity,” and emblematic of the “throwaway culture.”

The statement contrasts an economy of exclusion with the type of economy that is compatible with human dignity and the culture of encounter:

Supporting policies and institutions that create decent jobs, pay just wages, and support family formation and stability will also honor the dignity of workers. Raising the minimum wage, more and better workforce training programs, and smarter regulations that minimize negative unintended consequences would be good places to start.

In doing this we follow the lead of Pope Francis in rejecting an economy of exclusion and embracing an authentic culture of encounter. Our younger generations are counting on us to leave them a world better than the one we inherited.

This strong statement from the USCCB was not the only one worth reading for Labor Day; Bishop Howard Hubbard wrote an excellent article in NCR, as well. He explains the value and dignity of work, along with its connection to the rights of workers:

As we approach our national observance of Labor Day, it is good to remember the importance of work in our lives. Faith tells us that work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of contemporary participation in God’s plan of salvation and of being co-creators with God in bringing the world to its fulfillment. It is a means of growing, sharing and enhancing one’s own life and that of one’s family and the wider community.

Because work is so essential for the well-being of the individual, the family and society, the dignity of work must be protected and the basic rights of workers are to be respected: the right to productive work, to a decent and fair wage, to safe working conditions, to organize and join unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.

After outlining some of the economic justice issues present today, he explained the continued need for unions, always a good reminder on Labor Day:

It is imperative, therefore, that we promote workers’ organizations that defend their rights and ward off those forces of capitalism that can be exploitive and dehumanizing.

Unfortunately, far too often, the debate over economic policy tends to neglect the human, social and moral dimensions of economic life, and that is why the formulation and implementation of solutions to our economic woes cannot be left solely to the technicians, special interest groups and market forces. For what is at stake is not really economic theories or political programs, but human life.

Behind every statistic and chart that seeks to define the problem lie individual tragedies and families trying to cope with unemployment and poverty. Our present crisis is a moral as well as an economic one and must be addressed as such. May Labor Day 2014 prompt us to do so.

It is good to see such clear-sighted analysis of the economy and powerful defenses of the dignity of work and economic justice from Catholic leaders.


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Mercy, Part I by Michael Sean Winters: “Most of us Christians grew up with the idea that the God of the Hebrews was an angry God. Certainly, many Christians have conceived him as such. But, Kasper sets out to destroy this myth and largely succeeds.”

Part II and Part III

Finding Faith in The Simpsons: The Top Five Theological Episodes of The Simpsons by Katharine Mahon: “But hidden inside this deeply flawed family and this caricature of American culture is a honest and rich depiction of family life in 1990’s America. The show explores moral dilemmas, spiritual crises, the love of spouse, parent, child, and sibling, as well as the testing of that love.”

Saudi Arabia continues its outrageous repression of human rights activists by Washington Post: “Saudi Arabia remains determined to shut the windows, close the doors and throw dissidents into solitary confinement.”

U.N. says pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine murder, kidnap and torture by Louis Charbonneau: “Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine are guilty of a wide array of human rights abuses, including murder, abductions and torture, and are receiving a “steady supply” of sophisticated weapons and ammunition, according to a U.N. report obtained by Reuters.”

The Mental Virtues by David Brooks: “In fact, the mind is embedded in human nature, and very often thinking well means pushing against the grain of our nature — against vanity, against laziness, against the desire for certainty, against the desire to avoid painful truths. Good thinking isn’t just adopting the right technique. It’s a moral enterprise and requires good character, the ability to go against our lesser impulses for the sake of our higher ones.”

The Saint Who Taught Me to Worship by Timothy O’Malley: “The vocation of humanity is this kind of praise, a perfect praise in which every form of worship finds its end not in better, more sophisticated (and novel) worship that generates more and more emotion. But in that gift of self, which Christians call love. Worship is not about us, it is not about our affections. Instead, it is about becoming who God intended us to be: members of a symphony of perfect praise of the voice and the will alike.”

ISIS selling Yazidi women in Syria by Raja Razek and Jason Hanna: “Hundreds of Yazidi women abducted by ISIS have either been sold or handed out to members of the Sunni extremist group, according to an organization that monitors the crisis.”

Getting to the Crux of why Catholicism matters by John Allen: “In places such as the Philippines, corruption is a signature Catholic concern, and with good reason. Global Financial Integrity, a research organization based in Washington, estimates that corruption cost poor nations almost $6 trillion over the last decade, draining badly needed resources for education, health care, and poverty relief.”

Russia Is Burying Soldiers in Unmarked Graves Just to Conceal Their Role in Ukraine by Josh Kovensky: “The Russian government couldn’t care less about its dead soldiers. Paratroopers who have been killed in Ukraine are not receiving military funerals, nor are they being recognized for having died for their country. Rather, their graves have been kept unmarked.”

More Workers Are Claiming ‘Wage Theft’ by NY Times: “The lawsuit is part of a flood of recent cases — brought in California and across the nation — that accuse employers of violating minimum wage and overtime laws, erasing work hours and wrongfully taking employees’ tips. Worker advocates call these practices ‘wage theft,’ insisting it has become far too prevalent.”

What’s missing in the Ebola fight in West Africa by Jim Yong Kim and Paul Farmer: “To halt this epidemic, we need an emergency response that is equal to the challenge. We need international organizations and wealthy countries that possess the required resources and knowledge to step forward and partner with West African governments to mount a serious, coordinated response as laid out in the World Health Organization’s Ebola response roadmap.”

Siege of Iraqi town broken by CNN: “Iraqi security and volunteer forces have broken the siege of Amerli and have entered the town, retired Gen. Khaled al-Amerli, an Amerli resident and member of its self-defense force, told CNN on Sunday….The breakthrough came after the United States said it carried out airstrikes and dropped humanitarian aid in Amerli to protect an ethnic minority that one official said faced the threat of an ‘imminent massacre.’ Amerli is home to many of Iraq’s Shiite Turkmen.”

Right to Die, or Duty to Die? The Slippery-Slope Argument Against Euthanasia Revisited by Charles Camosy: “When euthanasia is legalized in cultures where the values of autonomy and consumerism hold sway, we soon end up with the kinds of deaths that almost no one wants. We also end up with a culture that almost no one wants – one that pushes vulnerable older persons, not just to the margins of society, but even to the point of dying in order to make space for the young, vigorous and productive.”


Race, Economic Justice, and Ferguson: An Interview with CCHD’s Ralph McCloud

Millennial had the opportunity to interview Ralph McCloud, the director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the official domestic anti-poverty agency of the USCCB, on some of the important topics that have emerged as part of the national conversation in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing and the protests that followed in Ferguson, Missouri.

RalphMcCloud

Ralph McCloud serves as the executive director of the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

It seems as though one of the things motivating people to protest is the sense that racial bias is leading to unequal and unjust policing. Do you see this as a major problem in the country? If so, what can be done to address it?

Racism continues to be a major problem in the country. Unjust stops, arrests, the use of militia-type tactics on citizens and discriminatory sentencing policies have led to a growing distrust among African Americans and other people of color toward police and the judicial “system.” There is a feeling that we will not be treated fairly and because of that, there is growing polarization, mutual disrespect and alienation on all sides… until it erupts unfortunately in a tragedy. You know there’s a problem when police view neighborhoods as war zones and kids feel like they’re under occupation.

Is there an issue of systemic or structural racism that is motivating those protesting?

Why is it the norm when dealing with people of color and alleged “criminals” to utilize violence? Why do we consider certain types of communities disposable? It’s a fact that racism shapes American attitudes and policies around criminal justice. It is systemic and structural, but on many levels and by many systems… We spend a great deal of time and energy applauding the gains we’ve made, but we ignore how far we still have to go. This isn’t just a law enforcement issue; it’s also about health care, education, economic opportunity, political participation. There are systems and structures in the United States keeping people from living up to their God-given dignity. Violence has never been solution to our problems.

What role does material inequality play in undermining efforts to reduce racial divisions and achieve a more unified, just society?  Do you see a connection between economic injustice and the protests in Ferguson?

Without question. In Ferguson, I see folk denied access and opportunity. Violence is the reaction of a society that refuses to address the growing divide between those who have and those who are disposable, what Pope Francis calls the throw-away culture.

People of color are more likely to be denied access to those things they need to reach their goals, what you might call the American dream. Historically, when people are denied opportunity, frustration and anger reach a boiling point.  People want to exist in a peaceful society, where they can raise families, contribute, educate their children, and be safe. When these goals are out of reach for lifetimes and generations, despair sets in.

What can be done to bring greater economic justice and reduce poverty in America?

This tragedy should make us rethink the evil that rampant inequality is inflicting on our communities, the use of violence to enforce it, and the “roping off” of opportunity to growing parts of our society. Whether its people of color, immigrants from the wrong country, or a growing group of people below the poverty line, we have to ask whether it’s appropriate to police the margins with violence and punishment. This type of punishment starts with impoverished communities and poor education, continues with lack of economic opportunity, and ends up in a prison and immigrant detention cell.

A preferential option must be shown to those communities where high poverty exists. Intensive efforts must be made to stimulate economic development, to educate tomorrow’s work force, to give families a sense of ownership and pride in their communities. Will we treat people, as Pope Francis has asked us to, as artisans of their own destiny or will they be objects of punishment and exclusion?

The protests in Ferguson have increased calls for criminal justice reform. One element is sentencing reform. Can sentencing reform be done in a way that brings greater safety and security to the people living in economically depressed areas while reducing unfairness in the system and helping those who have committed relatively minor crimes from falling into a life of crime? A number of existing proposals seem to disregard the impact on the law-abiding citizens in these areas who want greater safety and security for their families and who are disproportionately the direct or indirect victims of these crimes. The preferential option for the poor seems to create an imperative to drive down crime rates and drug abuse in poor areas, but also to eliminate unfair sentencing and counterproductive penalties that will result in more crime. Is this type of reform possible? A second element of criminal justice reform might be to help rehabilitate those who are imprisoned and help to reintegrate them into society. Would this be helpful? What reforms might be useful in this area?

It’s a fact born out in American history that more prisons don’t make our communities safer.

When you look at the current sentencing guidelines, for drug offenses in particular, huge disparities exist. The pall of criminalization keeps extending over more and more groups of people on the bottom while at the top we’ve witnessed rampant impunity. Who are we criminalizing and why? Who do we fear and why? We need to ask questions that get to the root of the problem.

The culture of our prisons isn’t one that leads to success on the outside. We need to assist persons who have made mistakes and who want to do better to get on a path to success, which includes employment, education, housing, voting privileges, etc. Restorative justice is becoming popular to help heal both the victims and the perpetrator of crimes. Another approach is to look (pre-sentencing) at what unique needs the perpetrator had going in—drug and alcohol use, anger issues, depression, family problems, low educational achievement, etc. and make sure those issues are dealt with before re-entry, making rehabilitation a condition of release. It is also critically important to acknowledge the faith component of rehabilitation. Inmates need access to those things that will strengthen and sustain their faith life.

All of this can only happen when local communities come together in trust—trust inter-racially, trust inter-economically, trust neighborhood to neighborhood. Sadly, Ferguson is any city USA and any city USA can be Ferguson.


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Bet on Africa rising by Michael Gerson: “Africa is not a brand. It is an impossibly large and diverse continent, which includes both Ebola hot zones and six of the top 10 fastest growing economies in the world.”

Pope Francis and the New Values Debate by John Gehring: “Pope Francis understands that talk is cheap. Families need more than lofty rhetoric.”

Why Modern Man Needs a Dose of Dawson by Jonathan Liedl: “As Christianity is the bridge between the spiritual and the material, Dawson is a bridge between religious truth and historical analysis.”

These Are The Things Men Say To Women On The Street by Alanna Vagianos: “Street harassment is defined as any unwanted gawking, whistling, commenting and/or physical contact of a sexual nature — something that up to 99 percent of women report experiencing in their lifetimes. In case you needed proof that the sidewalk can be a hostile place for women, these are just a few of the things female editors at The Huffington Post have heard while walking down the street…”

Is a Hard Life Inherited? by Nicholas Kristof: “This crisis in working-class America doesn’t get the attention it deserves, perhaps because most of us in the chattering class aren’t a part of it. There are steps that could help, including a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity. But the essential starting point is empathy.”

No, America Is Not Turning Libertarian by Jonathan Chait: “Older Americans oppose ‘bigger government’ in the abstract by a margin of some 40 percentage points. That young voters actually favor ‘bigger government’ in the abstract is a sea change in generational opinion, not to mention conclusive evidence against their alleged libertarianism.”

‘Dead Man Walking’ nun: ‘Botched’ executions unmask a botched system by Moni Basu: “Prejean wants Americans to understand that it’s not just the act of killing that was botched in the cases of Wood and Lockett. She believes the entire death penalty system is botched — from the moment an arrest takes place to the trial, conviction, appeals and execution.”


Meghan Clark: Power to the public workers

Millennial writer Meghan Clark has a new article at US Catholic. She writes:

Our teachers, librarians, police, firefighters, sanitation workers, and all civil servants actively contribute to the common good. They and their jobs are not lesser because their wages are funded by your taxes. They have equal dignity with private employees. In this current wave of hostility toward public workers, Catholic social teaching reminds us that the dignity of all workers—public and private—grounds their basic right to association, including the right to unionize and bargain collectively.

The full article can be read here.

Our teachers, librarians, police, firefighters, sanitation workers, and all civil servants actively contribute to the common good. They and their jobs are not lesser because their wages are funded by your taxes. They have equal dignity with private employees. In this current wave of hostility toward public workers, Catholic social teaching reminds us that the dignity of all workers—public and private—grounds their basic right to association, including the right to unionize and bargain collectively. – See more at: http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201407/power-public-workers-29109#sthash.GRiNzP9U.dpuf
Our teachers, librarians, police, firefighters, sanitation workers, and all civil servants actively contribute to the common good. They and their jobs are not lesser because their wages are funded by your taxes. They have equal dignity with private employees. In this current wave of hostility toward public workers, Catholic social teaching reminds us that the dignity of all workers—public and private—grounds their basic right to association, including the right to unionize and bargain collectively. – See more at: http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201407/power-public-workers-29109#sthash.GRiNzP9U.dpuf
Our teachers, librarians, police, firefighters, sanitation workers, and all civil servants actively contribute to the common good. They and their jobs are not lesser because their wages are funded by your taxes. They have equal dignity with private employees. In this current wave of hostility toward public workers, Catholic social teaching reminds us that the dignity of all workers—public and private—grounds their basic right to association, including the right to unionize and bargain collectively. – See more at: http://www.uscatholic.org/articles/201407/power-public-workers-29109#sthash.GRiNzP9U.dpuf

Robert Christian in Time: Catholics Should Back President Obama’s Pro-Family Agenda

Millennial editor Robert Christian has a new article in Time on why Catholics should support the pro-family policies President Obama recently endorsed. He writes:

The leaders and members of the Church are the perfect partners in this push for economic justice and stronger families. From supporting the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to minimum wage increases to a paid family leave program, Catholics should take up the battle to provide American families with the flexibility, support and economic security they need to thrive in the 21st Century.

The full article can be read here.


Pope Francis and a Closer Look at Argentinian Capitalism

Those who dismiss Pope Francis’ concerns about unfettered capitalism on the grounds that being from Argentina makes him naive need to brush up on their history. Paul Ryan has dismissed them on the grounds that “this guy is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina…they have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don’t have a true free enterprise system.” Larry Kudlow, economist and commentator, dismisses the Pope by saying, “I hope sincerely that the pope does not believe that his native Argentina was an example of capitalism. That was state-run fascism, and that was cronyism and stealing.”

Rather than being backwaters disconnected from the global economic system, the relatively advanced economies of the Southern Cone—Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay—were some of the first testing grounds of the extremist libertarian ideology that Kudlow, Ryan, and many others now promote. Living through Argentina’s transition to this form of individualistic capitalism and several subsequent economic crises puts him in an ideal position to understand the harm of idolizing this type of capitalism and warn against it.

Here’s a bit of background: Argentina’s neighbor Chile was one of the first to embrace this economic ideology. Starting from 1956, the US government provided 150 scholarships for young Chileans to study at the University of Chicago with Milton Friedman, the intellectual architect of neoliberal capitalism and a man deified by many rightwing libertarians. Students from other Latin American countries also came to study this economic model.

After carrying out a coup against democratically-elected Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, General Pinochet gave free reign to the “Chicago Boys” to implement their economic program, free from any civil society dissent. These policies were soon implemented by the dictatorships in Argentina and Uruguay in the 1970s and 1980s, with their own neoliberal technocrats. Judged on the basis of friendliness to foreign investment, market stability, and integration into the global economic system, they were pronounced a success. The perceived economic success of South America was a significant factor leading to the promotion of a particular set of neoliberal economic policies that prioritized profitability for foreign investors.

Far from being seen as examples of “crony capitalism,” worldwide economic institutions including the IMF and World Bank saw in the “success” of the Southern Cone a model to be replicated throughout the world. (To be clear, this ideology is not the same as the generally pro-business capitalism of moderate Republicans of decades past. Those Republicans often believed that strong investment in public works and social capital, moderate regulations, a solid tax base, and a social safety net were compatible with, and indeed necessary for, a strong market-based economy. The neoliberal model was something quite new.)

Further, the success of this economic “shock treatment” (as Milton Friedman called it) can’t be separated from how it was implemented with supreme contempt for human dignity. These same countries were also innovators in the use of forced disappearance and torture—frequently by electric shock—as political weapons. The comparatively strong social safety nets in these countries were systematically weakened, and to speak out against extreme poverty became a crime. To work with the poor was often a death sentence for priests, nuns, catechists, union members, teachers, and students.

It is not realistic to pretend that the events in Argentina have nothing to do with the rest of the capitalist world. In particular, it is an undisputed fact that the United States government and big business were connected to this history—both the economic changes and the bloody repression. The exact extent to which the US turned a blind eye, was complicit in, or was the chief protagonist in the military and economic affairs of these countries is a matter of heated debate. But it is clear is that Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Santiago shared a common project in cooperation with Washington. These countries were far from backward third world regimes stuck in their ways—they were key protagonists in the creation of our current global economic system.

Pope Francis’ lived experience of this extremist economic ideology and what he experienced as a human being makes it impossible to dismiss him as simply naive. As a young lab technician, he met and became friends with Esther Careaga, an atheist feminist Marxist. They developed a deep friendship. In 1977, she was disappeared because of her Marxist ideals and her involvement in the Madres de la Plaza del Mayo, a group of mothers who protested for the return of their disappeared children:

Careaga was one of thousands of people who “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983, a bloody spree that stopped only after Argentina entered into a losing war with Britain in 1982 over the Falkland Islands. Victims were taken to secret camps, tortured and thrown from military planes – drugged but still alive – into the South Atlantic Ocean…Careaga had been taken to the ESMA Navy School of Mechanics – which doubled as a detention centre – where she was brutally tortured, and then flown to her watery death, along with two other Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and two French nuns who helped them…Bergoglio, ordained Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, was in shock. “I was badly pained, I tried to communicate with some relatives but I couldn’t, they were in hiding,” Bergoglio testified at the ESMA trial in 2010.

Rather than dismissing the Pope because of his experience in Argentina, United States Catholics smitten with free market ideology need to learn from him, and from the Latin American experience. They need to look at this interconnected global system as it actually exists, not as a reflection of the abstract ideal that exists only in their own minds. Pretending that Argentina isn’t relevant to the discussion is obscene.

But, more importantly, they need to understand that absolutizing any materialist system—whether neoliberalism or socialism—is dangerous idolatry. Uruguayan Jesuit theologian Juan Luis Segundo, writing in exile at the height of the dictatorships, suggested a new way of thinking about faith and ideologies that may be helpful. He said that faith is what we put out ultimate trust in, what we center the meaning of our lives around. And ideologies are the tools and techniques we use to actualize this faith. For example, a person may have faith that Christ is present in “the least of these” and so work to ensure that all people have access to food, water, clothing, health care, and human companionship, even in prison (Matthew 25). In many cases, free market tools may be the best to bring this about, while in others, state intervention will be necessary. In Segundo’s meaning, all ideology needs to be judged by its fidelity to one’s ultimate faith and used when conducive to that end, and reevaluated or discarded when it is not. In that sense, ideologies can be positive or negative. However, it gets dangerous when ideologies displace faith—when the specific means for accomplishing something are absolutized over the ultimate criterion. The prophets of unfettered capitalism have done just that—rather than recognizing that the proper role of the market is to serve humanity, they have idolized certain economic tools at the expense of human dignity.

Francis is not a Marxist because he refuses to absolutize anything except God and the building of the Kingdom of God. For the same reason, he is not a Capitalist. Instead, he looks at human reality. The Pope is not rejecting all the specific tools of market economies—he recognizes many can be quite useful—but he refuses to let anything displace the ultimate criterion that “as you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” Pope Francis wants us to unflinchingly and honestly look at the reality of the current economic situation. He wants us to judge whether this corresponds to our dignity as human beings. Finally, he is calling us to take action, similarly grounded in the real world, to change the situation. It is a challenge because we are called to lay aside our entrenched idolatries and prejudices, but it is a prerequisite for building a humane and humanizing economy that enables the sons and daughters of God to flourish.