Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Vatican reform note: Anyone got a better plan?

My friend Steve – who really should be writing this blog instead of me – had this to say about the Pontifical Commission’s note:

What I take as one of the points of the document is that the world economy is largely controlled by, and at the mercy of, private financial institutions who do not have anyone’s interests at heart but their own. In an ideal world there would be a beneficent central authority managing the economy in a fair and just matter, with the interests of all in mind.
An hopelessly idealistic dream and totally impractical? Sure, but that’s nothing new, is it? The Church also dreams of a world free of war, hunger, suffering, cruelty, and other (often self-inflicted) plagues on mankind. Their solutions to those problems are not always very practical either, but they are ends worth talking about and working toward.
I concede that I have not read or watched the entirety of these folks’ comments [i.e., the comments I linked in yesterday’s post], but what would they suggest would bring greater economic opportunity and fairness? Just letting the markets work unfettered, which will eventually result in a trickle down to the underprivileged among us? Show me when that has worked. We had a little laboratory to test how laissez faire works during the Industrial Revolution, and it was a mixed bag. Great advances in technology and overall wealth, no doubt, but it also exposed the ugly underbelly of unfettered capitalism and necessitated all sorts of laws and regulations to protect workers, children, public health, etc. To argue against these would be difficult, even for the most hardened Randian.

In other words, do Catholic conservatives have any better ideas?

I once read somewhere – forgive me for not sourcing the quote – that the early scientists and engineers of NACA and NASA weren’t convinced that escaping Earth orbit to reach the moon was feasible: “Given that it’s impossible, how do we make it happen?” And reading the story of the “space race” is like reading an example of “eating the elephant”.[*] If you don’t concern yourself with the immensity of the task and simply concentrate on achieving the smaller, more fundamental goals, you go a lot further to accomplishing your end goal than you do if you just wail in despair over its impossibility. Better to light a single candle and all that.

Now, I ordinarily don’t cotton to the rhetorical question “Have you got a better idea?” The response implies that a bad plan certain to fail or make things worse is better than no plan at all. But here it should be interpreted as a challenge rather than a riposte. Okay, a centralized world bank and single global currency is a bad idea? Come up with a better one, do!

For instance, Jeffrey Tucker recommends we return to the gold standard, let the “too big to fail” corporations and financiers liquidate, and devolve the financial industry into smaller chunks more easily supervised by smaller, more local governments. It’s not the worst suggestion ever made; although it asks us to break our credit addiction by going “cold turkey” in principle, in theory it could be done through a step-down process.

Steve’s point – and my point here – is not that path to social justice recommended by the PCJP is good, let alone the best available. Rather, the point is that the note, for all its weaknesses, does successfully condemn the current “economic liberalism that spurns rules and controls”. Both Tucker and Samuel Gregg shows that the PCJP’s analysis wasn’t as deep as it could have been. However, the furor over the recommendations overshadows what should have been the central point of interest … the indictment of the present system.

But having specifically said that technical issues were outside of the Commission’s ambit, you ask, why did the bishops offer any recommendations at all?

Answer: To get the ball rolling.

Usually the first ideas thrown out into a discussion forum aren’t the best ideas available, but they do get people working on better ideas or improving the mediocre suggestions. The protesters on Wall Street are stamping their feet and saying, “Something has to be done,” but they’re not really contributing to the solution, are they? By contrast, the PCJP has at least offered someplace to start.

For here’s another fact: none of the Catholic critics of the PCJP note dispute the fact that the present system does not, will not and cannot lead to an economically just society. It remains to be seen whether the present system can even continue to “work” on its own terms, whether patches and jury-rigs will allow it to sputter on for a couple more decades or so, let alone whether it can be restructured to provide more equitable social benefits.

So why are we fixated on criticizing the solutions offered rather than on offering better solutions? This is a particularly good time for distributists to start making their case, to start pushing for worker ownership of the means of production. This would also be a good time to introduce disincentives for stock and commodity speculation and encourage real investment, as well as to gradually tie currency back in to precious metals and end the addictive reign of fiat money.

So come on, critics, let’s hear some ideas. For instance, how do we strip away the buffer of moral hazard and take away the capitalist incentive to “privatize gains and socialize losses”? What barriers to long-term deficit spending can we put on governments that the governments won’t be able to abrogate at will? Can we create a global monetary authority that can’t be used as a tool for interfering with cultural mores, an authority with powers both overriding and limited in scope?

Most importantly, can we articulate the Catholic vision of social justice in a way that a non-Catholic, even a non-Christian, can accept as authentic and necessary social goals?

Criticizing a bad idea is easy. Coming up with a better idea — now that’s hard.

[*] Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One bite at a time.