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Rich, the poor, the jubilee.

The following article is a reflection on neo-conservative economic attitudes in the light of the coming Jubilee year and the third millenium. The subject was discussed by David Curtin in his reflections on the economic statement by the Canadian bishops (see C.I., May 1997, pp. 5-6). This is a complementary perspective.

In an address he gave in 1996, James Tobin, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, traced the objectives of the neo-conservatives all the way back to Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776), which launched the economic theories of the free market. Smith held that free enterprise, in competitive markets unrestrained by government intervention, would generate the optimum economic performance for society. This would occur not because people were altruistic but merely as a function of each person's following his own interest, doing his best in his own trade and his own neighbourhood.

Tobin ridicules the idea that the pursuit of private profit by individuals would result in public welfare. David Olive, a Toronto financial columnist, takes the same view in his book Just Rewards: The Case for Ethical Reform in Business.

The Tobin and Olive arguments stand in contrast to the view of one of the best-known economic gurus of our time, Milton Friedman, who holds that business should concern itself exclusively with profit and not with public welfare. The acceptance of social responsibility by companies -- worrying about joblessness, or the environment, or inflation, instead of trying to make as much money for their shareholders as possible -- would undermine the very foundations of our free society, Friedman maintains. If you want to save the world, he tells executives, use your own money, not someone else's, not that of your shareholders. Tobin complains that inequality of income and wealth has been increasing in the United States, and that this inequality is undermining the living standards, nutrition, health care and education of poor children. Olive does not present a one-sided view -- he praises ethical businessmen where he finds them. But on the whole, to judge by Arthur Schafer's review of his book, he tells a story of business fraud, criminality, venality, corruption, deception, and hypocrisy.

Love of gain, the motor of progress?

In the late 1800s, an Episcopal bishop comforted his wealthy parishioners -- such as J. P. Morgan -- with the assertion that "the rich man is the moral man. Godliness is in league with riches." Andrew Carnegie's "magic formula" for getting rich provided a classic inspirational text for all who greatly desired to make money:

"Here is where a burning desire will come to your aid. If you truly desire money so keenly that your desire is an obsession, you will have no difficulty in convincing yourself that you will acquire it. The object is to want money, and to become so determined to have it that you convince yourself you will have it."

A Nova Scotian entrepreneur, R. A. Jodrey, had such a desire in abundance. By the time he read this advice of Carnegie, in Napoleon Hill's book Think and Grow Rich, he was wealthy. "Half a century had passed," writes Harry Bruce in his biography of Jodrey, "since, in the white heat of his desire for money, he'd stomped around Pauline Martin's farm kitchen, kicking the table, pounding it with his first, shouting again and again that, dammit, he damn well would be a millionaire." He told CBC television in 1965 that "it's the love of gain that makes things go."

Canadian bishops

It virtually goes without saying that the rich man is not necessarily the moral man, and that Godliness is not in league with wealth. Our Lord says, in fact, that it is very difficult for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven. Jodrey's burning desire for money and single-minded pursuit of it were surely sinful. In their statement on the present situation, Ethical Reflections on the Economy, our bishops look for more ethical responsibility than they see, and undoubtedly they can find some support for their views. For example, in a book entitled Shakedown, pollster Angus Reid has argued that 1989 was the year in which the Canadian way began to unravel. Mean-spirited individualism, he holds, won out over our traditional sense of collectivism; some of the country's most important values, such as trust and fairness, began to lose ground. The neo-conservative response to difficult times was to argue that, for the country to become competitive in the world economy, it had to cut government and dismantle social programs. So it cut jobs, and led the way for large, profitable corporations to do the same -- increasing the burden of unemployment and poverty. Reid concluded that what was needed was the reverse of the current economic wisdom: "If Canada is to have any chance for success in the global economy, we must do more than promote unrestrained self-interest."

One good example of the behaviour Reid condemns would be that of Bell Canada. Its third-quarter report for 1996 showed that it was making record profits. But, paradoxically, its president wrote, "Bell Canada remains confident that its operating plans for the remainder of 1996 will continue the progress towards its goal of returning to financial health." He also said, "Eliminating work as we trim our workforce by 10,000 is a key goal of business transformation." So the company's response to Canada's major economic problem -- unemployment -- was to cut down its workforce by thousands! And in spite of that reference to "returning to financial health," it had made a profit of over half a billion dollars in the first nine months of its year!

As Michael Coren showed in a Financial Post column he wrote in November 1996, adherence to laissez-faire economic principles may mean neglect of charity and social justice. When the Irish potato famine began in the 1840s, Britain's Tory Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, took steps to remedy the situation: he introduced a public works program to provide employment, injected money into the economy, rigidly controlled food prices in Ireland, and brought in Indian grain to be distributed to the hungry. But after he lost an election he was succeeded by a Whig (Liberal) administration committed to laissez-faire policies. Lord John Russell, the new prime minister, was a follower of Adam Smith and therefore thought that an "invisible hand" guided the marketplace and that interventions along Peel's lines would be counterproductive. The market did not solve the problem of the famine and the British let two million Irish people die or be forced into exile. A little economic practicality and a little moderation, Coren writes, would have gone a long way in the 1840s.

Michael Novak

Michael Novak, a well-known American Catholic writer, leans to the neo-conservative side in his book Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life. In a Globe review, David Olive said Novak seemed to suggest that the entrepreneurs are divinely inspired: "Like the Creator in Genesis, they look over what they have made and find it good -- but usually with a restless eye, trying to make it better." Interestingly, Novak finds support for the profit motive in a statement by John Paul II: "When a firm makes a profit, this means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been justly satisfied." Society's real devils, he thinks, are at work in government, which has been "a fertile source of tyranny, corruption, the abuse of rights, and plain arrogance of power."

It is an irony lost on Novak, Olive comments, that all of these faults could have been ascribed to commercial graspers, past and present. "Novak's bracing tonic," he concludes, "will be welcomed by guilt-allergic tycoons who share his dismay that academics and religious authorities too often are `uncritically anticapitalistic' and `think of business as vulgar, philistine and morally suspect.' " He finds it curious that a lay theologian such as Novak can offer his unquestioning endorsement of the businessperson's unexamined moral life.

The biblical year of Jubilee

The approach of the year 2000 obliges all of us to ask where society's real devils are actually to be found, and what economic ills we should seek to remedy. "The entire life and ministry of Jesus," wrote Bishop Tonnos of Hamilton in a pastoral letter on the approach of the new millenium, "was a fulfilment of the great Old Testament tradition of the Jubilee. The Jubilee is a time for the relief of poverty, the liberation of captives, the forgiveness of debts, asserting the basic equality of all human beings, whereby we are reminded that all creation belongs ultimately to God." Concern for the poor, therefore, is fundamental to the concept of jubilee.

Exodus 23: 10-11 lays down that "for six years you may sow your land and gather in its produce. But the seventh year you shall let the land lie untilled and unharvested, that the poor among you may eat of it and the beasts of the field may eat what the poor leave." Chapter 25 of Leviticus also dictated that every seventh year should be a sabbatical year, in which the land would be given a rest, and every fiftieth year should be a year of jubilee, which "you shall make sacred by proclaiming liberty in the land for all of its inhabitants." So the notion of a jubilee encompasses specific directives about the requirements of social justice. Deuteronomy does likewise; when you give to someone in need, it says in chapter 15, "give freely and not with ill will; for the Lord, your God, will bless you for this in all your works and undertakings."

John Paul II's Apostolic Letter on The Jubilee of the Year 2000 (1995) puts the forthcoming jubilee in the context of the Old Testament tradition. The jubilee is "a year of the Lord's favour." All jubilees refer to the Messianic mission of Christ, he explains, who came to proclaim the good news to the poor, to bring liberty to those deprived of it, to free the oppressed and give back sight to the blind. In section 12, the Holy Father writes that the words and deeds of Jesus represent the fulfilment of the whole tradition of Jubilees in the Old Testament. One of the most significant events of that year was the emancipation of all the dwellers on the land: every Israelite regained possession of his ancestral holding, if he happened to have lost it. He could never be completely deprived of the land, because it belonged to God. The jubilee year was meant to restore equality, to provide protection for the weak, and to emphasise that the riches of creation were to be considered as a common good for the whole of humanity. So the concept of jubilee provides a basis for the social doctrine of the Church, particularly as it is expressed in Rerum Novarum (1891).

Obligations of charity: preferential option for the poor

Near the end of his Apostolic Exhortation, the Pope returns to the obligations of charity, which he calls the summing up of the moral life of the believer. In number 51 he asks, "If we recall that Jesus came to `preach the good news to the poor' (Mt 2:5, Lk 7:22), how can we fail to lay greater emphasis on the Church's preferential option for the poor and the outcast?" Christians will have to raise their voice, he continues, on behalf of all the poor of the world. The crisis of civilization "must be countered by the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice and liberty, which find their full attainment in Christ."

Consequently, The Jubilee of the Year 2000 provides us with a guide to what has to be done in preparation for the Great Jubilee, as the Holy Father terms it. What does the preferential option for the poor mean in our society?

What does it mean?

It certainly does not mean following the counsel of Diane Francis, editor of the Financial Post, who maintains that Canada's leaders need a large dose of 21st-century "religion" - which turns out to be the religion of greed. Her first commandment is "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wealth." Her second is "Thou Shalt Worship at the Altar of Competitiveness." Her sixth is "Thou Shalt Not Worship Graven Images" - which turn out to be dead "religions" such as the notion of interventionist industrial strategies, central planning, unionism, Crown corporations, and economic nationalism. Her 21st-century religion turns out to be nothing more than that mean-spirited individualism which Angus Reid complained about.

Toronto is booming - but one of its growth industries is the provision of emergency help for the poor. The largest of one category of these services, the Daily Bread Food Bank, has a hard time keeping up with the demands being placed upon it. Many Toronto churches also provide soup kitchens and distribute groceries; for example, St. Philip's Pantry, in the basement of Holy Family Church (which burned down recently), was feeding approximately 125 families every week. It has become a commonplace to say that the disparity between rich and poor is growing. Throughout most of the 20th century, wrote Greg Ip in the Globe and Mail (October 1996), household incomes rose rapidly and the gap between rich and poor narrowed. Technological change and increased international trade have altered the picture: Ip quotes two McMaster University economists as pointing out that between 1977 and 1991, the richest 10 per cent of men saw their real yearly incomes rise 2 per cent, while the poorest 10 per cent saw it plunge 28 per cent.

We have got used to an unemployment rate of over 9%, and probably few of us realize the human tragedies this entails. We speak blithely of "outsourcing," meaning reducing the work force of a company by buying supplies from other firms which can make them more cheaply because they pay lower wages, and of "downsizing," meaning firing people. Headlines like "Jobless ghosts at Liberal banquet," "Face of Metro lined with poverty," and "Poverty haunts many of Canada's children" do not shock us any more. It is true that childhood poverty in Canada is not on the same scale as that in Haiti, Calcutta, or Peru, but we still have to heed the Holy Father's admonition that our voices should be raised for all the poor of the world, including the poor in our own country.

Third World

Sadly, the gap between First World and Third World countries has not narrowed either. The latter still need all the help they can get; and it is not likely to be given to them by the United Nations or by governmental agencies, or by well-known organisations with very large budgets--and very large administrative expenses. Charities with a religious basis, on the whole, are exempt from this criticism. From a very large list of possibilities, we might single out three which deserve support--Father Werenfried van Straaten's Aid to the Church in Need, Father Abraham's Saint Alphonsus Social and Agricultural Centre in Kurseong, India, and Dr. Andrew Simone's Canadian Food for Children. In a recent newsletter Dr. Simone quotes an article by Catholic Register writer Cathy Majtenyi asking, "Were Disney's dogs treated better than workers?" The dogs in 101 Dalmatians were given the best of treatment; they were housed in "Doggie Condos"; fed a balanced diet of beef, chicken, and so forth; and had a veterinarian on call for twenty-four hours a day. Haitian women producing hand-made Disney products, on the other hand, lived in shacks with no running water and one toilet available for ten families, were paid fifty cents an hour, and could not afford private medical care. Has our society got its priorities right? How can it have?

Preferential option for the poor, once more

An excellent article by Father J. T.Forestell, C.S.B., in the Canadian Catholic Review for January 1986 entitled "The preferential option for the poor" makes us look at this expression familiar to Catholics in a new way. Christ's mission, as rooted in biblical revelation and expressed in such texts as Luke 4:18-19, was in harmony with such an option:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me; therefore he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and release to prisoners, to announce the year of favour from the Lord.

Yet Jesus also said, "The poor you shall have always with you," and there is no evidence that he healed the ills of the economically poor. He ate with the rich Pharisees and the tax collectors; he received support from women of means. What he did do, Father Forestell writes, was give dignity, value, and hope to all those whom the rich and powerful of his day -- including the religious authorities -- rejected for any reason whatever. By his actions as well as his teaching he offered reconciliation to all those who were excluded in any way. This is one answer to the question of what it means to preach the good news to the poor.

Continuing this line of argument, Father Forestell writes that the preaching of the Kingdom of God was designed to open the hearts of men and women to the grace of the Holy Spirit, and thus bring about that conversion of heart which would lead to the destruction of sin and its consequences in human society. Men and women might learn to live as children of their Father in heaven, loving their enemies, showing compassion to those in need, offering help to the disadvantaged. Christ challenged the world's values in the name of a radical understanding of God's love and will, striking at the root of social ills by attacking sin -- which was the source of greed. To imitate him is not to follow one of the more obvious forms of social action, though we are supposed to use our intelligences and not neglect the study of economics and political science. But the essential thing is personal conversion and perseverance in prayer, "for it must be seen to flow from God's love for the well-being of all creatures and not simply from self-righteous indignation."

Just as the Holy Father does, Father Forestell asks us to examine our own lives. Are we perhaps equally the victims of the consumerism which destroys the possibility of real love? Are we not inclined to make gods of our food, drink, clothing, sports, art, culture, even books and college degrees? Or do we show by our lives and by our use of all created goods, including those of the mind, that we have here no lasting city?

Following a classical maxim, the nineteenth century English writer Matthew Arnold advised his Victorian contemporaries to "choose equality and flee greed." The approach to the jubilee of the year 2000 is clearly an opportunity for us to get our priorities straight. As the Pope says in his Apostolic Letter, we must ensure that the great challenge of the jubilee is not overlooked, "for this challenge certainly involves a special grace of the Lord for the Church and for the whole of humanity."

Dr. David Dooley, professor emeritus of English at St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, ON., is an associate editor of Catholic Insight and author of books on satire and Canadian literature.
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Author:Dooley, David
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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