“Why Popes and Economists Need to Talk”

Last Monday after work I made what I was surprised to learn is a very long trek from lower Manhattan to Fordham University in the Bronx to attend a talk by Daniel K. Finn, an economic ethicist at the University of Saint John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota. The lecture, sponsored by Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, was entitled “Building Better Economies: Why Popes and Economists Need to Talk,” and marked the kickoff of a planned two-year series of events to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s economic encyclical Rerum Novarum.

The main objectives of Finn’s talk were a) to encourage economists and theologians/ethicists, particularly within the Catholic academy, to engage in more interdisciplinary discussion, and b) to critique the tendency within academia for different subject areas to self-segregate into inward-looking cliques (he accompanied his introduction of this idea with a nice illustration of silos). As promised by his title, Finn made a compelling case for why popes and economists need to talk, but I had been hoping that he would deal more extensively with what practical steps might be taken to further promote and even institutionalize this kind of dialogue.

In the first half of the lecture, Finn summarized studies from a subfield known as behavioral economics that have sought to illuminate the psychological impacts of poverty. He focused in particular on an observation from the literature that the stress associated with a chronic lack of basic necessities leads to “reduced mental bandwidth,” and to shortsighted decision-making, poor impulse control, and weaker problem-solving abilities. This in turn can generate self-defeating patterns of behavior that can keep someone from rising out of poverty.

Such an empirical finding can have clear implications for public policy. Finn argued, for example, that accepting this understanding of why poverty persists would militate against imposing a fixed lifetime limit on the amount of welfare benefits that can be collected by a given individual, since this sort of restriction misunderstands the nature of “poverty-induced tunneling.” In other words, the intended incentive effects of such a limit will tend to be attenuated by the fact that the poor are focused not on making plans for far in the future, but on short-term subsistence. A better alternative might be to institute a cap on what can be collected during a given spell of poverty or unemployment (e.g. to allow a maximum of X dollars to be collected every Y months).

Although he didn’t deal explicitly with how “popes” might assimilate the fruits of such research into Church teaching, Finn did mention that Pope John Paul II is known to have consulted with economists when writing Centesimus Annus, his landmark social encyclical. At a more practical level, a better understanding of how to break cycles of poverty can assist Church-affiliated organizations like Catholic Relief Services in designing more effective strategies for promoting growth and development.

The latter half of the talk dealt with the contributions that popes and other churchmen, theologians, and ethicists can make to the dialogue with economists. In addition to simply reminding economists that their research ought always to be conducted with an eye toward fostering the common good, the exhortations of Church leaders can contribute to a deeper, more fundamental rethinking of what is possible in the realm of political economy. Finn quoted liberally from Benedict XVI’s 2009 treatise on the global economic order, Caritas in Veritate, to show what form this kind of rethinking might take. We can see hints of the Benedictine (and Franciscan!) vision of “commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends” in organizations like credit unions or grocery co-ops or health insurance co-ops, but these types of arrangements remain exceptions to the basic order of capitalism.

As Finn concluded his remarks, I was left wondering about what might actually be done to further the sort of dialogue he believes is necessary. Sure, popes have consulted with economists when they want to write about economics; have economists consulted with popes when they want to write about ethics? Do economists ever want to write about ethics? I approached Finn after the talk and asked him what he made of this asymmetry and how he thought it should be addressed. He acknowledged that this was a problem, and offered a few examples of forums and conferences that have modeled the kind of interaction wants to see become more widespread. Yet his examples were events that were sponsored by the Church! My point still stood.

The 2010 documentary Inside Job, in which Matt Damon explains the financial crisis, features a discussion about the uncomfortably close ties between the financial industry and business school/econ department faculty, and the ways in which these ties can distort and bias economic research. I personally am fortunate enough to work with morally upstanding economists on a daily basis, but the near-universal lack of ethical training as a component of degree programs in business and economics is something that worries me.

As insistent as recent popes have been that their social teaching is generally applicable to the whole of humanity, and rises above the level of ecclesiastical law binding only on Catholics, the Church will nevertheless have to build coalitions with those outside of Catholicism if it hopes to overcome the perception that its forays into discussions about political and economic concerns are driven by narrow sectarian interests.

I think that Finn and others like him have started in a logical place by zeroing in on Catholic universities, though. Kenneth Garcia, in a book called Academic Freedom and the Telos of the Catholic University, argues that Catholic colleges ought to focus more on recruiting intellectuals who are well-trained in both their own particular subject area and the broader philosophical and ethical tradition of the Church. This is a tall order, and at least one reviewer expressed skepticism that there are very many of these strange beasts out there to be recruited (not to mention that previous attempts to accomplish something similar, even at Garcia’s own university, have not necessarily ended well). But if Finn’s exercise in silo-breaking is to succeed, it would seem that these are the places where it will have to get off the ground first.

A day or two after Dan Finn’s talk, I read a review by Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Reporter of a forthcoming book by Andrew Abela and Joseph Capizzi entitled A Catechism for Business, which attempts to offer practical advice for Catholics seeking to integrate their moral principles with their professional work. Although Winters is critical of the free-market sympathies of its authors, one a moral theologian at Catholic University of America and the other the dean of CUA’s business school, he nevertheless believes that the book makes a unique contribution:

A Catechism for Business consists of quotes drawn from the Church’s teaching on issues of business and economics and one can only hope that many Catholic businesspeople will better acquaint themselves with that teaching via this medium. They certainly would be inclined to change some of their business practices and, what is more important, the whole way business is conceived in our hyper-commercial U.S. culture…

This Catechism is a worthwhile project and I hope it will be widely distributed and read. And, I believe the conversation between traditional advocates of Catholic social teaching and economists like Abela should continue, if only to convert him from his evident devotion to the fuzzy free-market thinking we associate with the Austrians not the Apostles. But, Abela is sincere, not sinister and his collaboration with Capizzi in producing this Catechism has yielded a fine compendium of Church teachings which, if taken seriously by the business community, could result in a far more humane economy than the one those businessmen have erected on their own.

Winters seems to equivocate about precisely how broad an audience the book might be able to attract, writing first that he hopes it will be read by “many Catholic businesspeople,” but then later that it would be wonderful to see it “taken seriously by the business community [in general].”

My own sense is that a book by two academics at CUA replete with quotations from papal documents will struggle to get a hearing outside of the Church. But in the age of Francis, who knows? People like Finn, Abela, and Capizzi are doing important work, but they should be cognizant of the fact that they may need to use different language when talking to different audiences. A multiplicity of approaches will be required if we really want to “build better economies.”


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