Pope Francis Needs New Friends

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World expenditures on arms reached an impressive $1 trillion in 2012. That same year, however, the global economy was $85 trillion, meaning arms sales accounted for a little over 1 percent of all expenditures. That’s still a lot. But the “right” level of defense spending – like the right budget for police or firemen – cannot be determined in abstract mathematical terms. It has to be related to the nature and scope of the threats – of which there are dozens globally at any moment.

The U.S. military budget in recent years has been about $800 billion, just under 5 percent of the whole U.S. economy ($17 trillion/year). And U.S. arms sales abroad were $80 billion, half a percent of GDP. Big numbers, but relative to everything else in the economy, a significant but not unreasonable amount, especially for the nation that often has had to step in when others won’t or can’t, sometimes in humanitarian missions. By comparison, Apple alone has over $100 billion in reserves it can’t decide where to invest in an uncertain global economy – more than America’s arms sales per year.

I rehearse these figures because a few weeks ago in an interview with a Spanish magazine, the pope said something quite bizarre. All popes deplore war and all rational human beings oppose arms sales when they stoke pointless conflicts. But Francis went beyond that, saying that the world capitalist economy is a failure and “they” know it could only be made to work if “they” could start World War III. But “they” can’t, so that’s why there are regional wars.

One doesn’t know where to start with such an assertion. As one of the largest arms dealers, the United States would certainly have to count among “they.” But is America driving the main conflicts today in Syria, Ukraine, Africa – even Iraq and Afghanistan – for economic reasons? No economist or political analyst who wants to be taken seriously would assert such a thing. And that’s why the pope’s remarks have largely been ignored, even in places like The New York Times or MSNBC, where they have the greatest likelihood of getting a hearing.

            The only plausible explanation for the pope’s words is that he’s in a bit of a peace-and-social-justice bubble, and needs new friends, candid friends. “People tell me” he said in the same interview, that youth unemployment in Europe is high, maybe 50 percent in places. Indeed it is high there. In America, too. But to connect that – and global poverty – with a kind of conspiracy theory about arms sales and wars is simply bizarre. Francis is getting that from somewhere, somewhere not very reliable.

He’s clearly in a bubble, which he’s tried to escape in other realms. That’s why he needs some new friends – if nothing else to help him appreciate that there are other explanations, indeed explanations that really explain.

Who among his current friends may be maintaining the bubble? Honduran Cardinal Maradiaga, head of Francis’ “G-8” governing body of cardinals, must be among them. He’s the one who said, to great fanfare, at a conference on libertarianism sponsored by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America just a few weeks ago: “This economy kills.” Maybe, but no economy since the Fall has succeeded in bringing everyone into the benefits of its activity. More accurately, the globalized economy has rescued hundreds of millions of people from poverty: The Economist, a liberal-leaning magazine, has reported that extreme poverty was cut in half between 1990 and 2010:

How did this happen? Presidents and prime ministers in the West have made grandiloquent speeches about making poverty history for fifty years. In 2000 the United Nations announced a series of eight Millenium Development Goals to reduce poverty, improve health and so on. The impact of such initiatives has been marginal at best.
What’s the answer? “Almost all of the fall in the poverty rate should be attributed to economic growth.”

There’s large moral grandstanding in remarks to the contrary. It wasn’t international institutions, relief agencies, or income transfers that produced that miraculous, if incomplete, result. When you denounce a person or a system as murderous, others have the right, the obligation, to ask: where’s your proof? And in this instance, what makes you think your scheme (redistribution) would do better, not worse?

There are environmental threats, uneven advances, social disruptions associated with globalization, to be sure. But those are different, if related, problems.

Francis lived and worked among the poor and earned the right to keep them in view. Others may be just talking. When churchmen address economics, they almost always show a lack of basic understanding. They imply there are known means to relieve poverty and all that’s standing in the way is the greed of business people or the inaction of politicians.

There aren’t such known means – outside economic growth. Some businessmen are greedy and some corporations exploitative, but it’s in the absence of business activity that the people perish. And it takes blind faith to believe that politicians, as we typically find them in all ages and climes, are better at solving economic problems than pandering to voters.

There’s no shame in priests, bishops, even popes not understanding economics, just as there’s no shame in a lay man or woman knowing little theology. But we all need to make a sincere effort to understand what we know and don’t know. That’s simple honesty and humility.

John Paul II took the trouble to listen to people who actually knew something about economics and that’s why, even after his warnings about certain types of capitalism in Centesimus Annus [42], the following analysis [43-62] remains the best overall commentary on the complexities – and occasional paradoxes – of modern economies.

Read that. If you do, you’ll hope Francis seeks out some new friends. He has sincere concern about the poor. He needs to hear from those who can show what’s demonstrably helped so many in need.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.