Pope Francis' critique of 'savage capitalism,' coupled with the power of his own personal witness, has resonated with many across the world and awakened new hopes and aspirations. But it has not yet led to large scale self-examination among American Catholic public intellectuals, or a critique of America's current economic and political realities, writes Michael Stafford.
- ABC Religion and Ethics
In the United States, the descent into savage capitalism has been marked by increasing inequality, financial and economic insecurity, social fragmentation and constricted opportunity. Politically, savage capitalism - or more precisely, the concentrations of private wealth that are one of its hallmarks - has corrupted and distorted our public discourse, creating a system that is increasingly unrepresentative of, and unresponsive to, the concerns of the citizenry. It is a system that sees only private interests, locked in competition - hence, it has no vision of the common good.
In the end, savage capitalism is akin to the beasts of Daniel 7 - a monstrous power emerging out of chaos. The challenge is to humanise it - to give it a heart, and clip its wings- to make it our servant, rather than our master. By any measure, wealth and income distribution in American society have been growing more unequal for quite some time - a process termed the Great Divergence by Slate's Timothy Noah.
Meanwhile, wages for middle class Americans have remained largely stagnant, and those of blue-collar workers have decreased as pay and benefits have been slashed and jobs in the manufacturing sector shipped overseas.
These problems long pre-date the financial crash of 2008 and the recession that followed. The crash, however, has exacerbated them because its worst effects have been disproportionately borne by ordinary Americans. The scale of this calamity, and the manifest injustice of it, are difficult to fully comprehend. As former Republican congressional staffer and author Mike Lofgren has explained, 'according to the Federal Reserve Board's report of June 2012, the median net worth of families plummeted almost 40% between 2007 and 2010.' Of course, much of this decline is due to falling home prices, since a residence is the only significant asset most American families own.
Even worse, for many Americans there has been no recovery at all. A 2011 report by Germany's Bertelsmann Stiftung Foundation found that "in measures of economic equality, social mobility, and poverty prevention, the United States ranks 27th out of the 31 advanced industrial nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development."
Thus, Pope Francis's observation that '[w]hile the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling,' is as true domestically as it is abroad, and it speaks directly to the situation of American workers and families today. In truth, many middle and working class Americans are just a pink slip and a few missed paychecks away from ruin.
Families and individuals need stable and predictable employment, secure benefits and living wages in order to thrive. Our economy offers none of these. As the United States Council of Catholic Bishops have noted in their 2013 Labor Day message: 'For every available job, there are often five unemployed and underemployed people actively vying for it. This jobs gap pushes wages down. Half of the jobs in this country pay less than $27,000 per year. More than 46 million people live in poverty, including 16 million children. The economy is not creating an adequate number of jobs that allow workers to provide for themselves and their families.'