Obama and the redistribution of wealth

President Barack Obama arrives to speak at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Feb. 7, … Continued

President Barack Obama arrives to speak at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Feb. 7, 2011. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Whatever one thinks of President Obama’s speech to the U. S. Chamber of Commerce on February 7, 2011, there is no denying that the presentation included policy (paths to goals) and politics (getting votes). Time will tell which aspect will be more lasting, but Obama’s policy statements deserve attention for the way they resonate with basic Catholic teaching on social justice. Specifically, the president framed economic cooperation between government and business in the moral terms of what we “should do” for the common good. This core of Catholic teaching is admired even by commentators like Michael Gerson who don’t necessarily agree with all of it.

Of course, some in public and political leadership positions adopt a decided opposition to the basic Catholic principles. The sound of the president’s voice had scarcely faded into the rafters when one CEO told ABC radio news that while he welcomed Obama’s intention to simplify regulations, he recoiled against suggesting that economics carried any moral obligations. By reducing religion to a narrow set of inner-directed strictures regulating (mostly) sexual conduct, non-Catholic thinking eliminates moral concern from the secular world of making money.

The church-state wall of separation is erected between profitable business decisions on the one side and on the other, the effect of such decisions on real people. As caricatured by Charles Dickens in his fictional Ebenezer Scrooge, there is no moral obligation to address the poor who go hungry because, as Scrooge asserts, their deaths would help “reduce the surplus population.” This view considers that profits are the only measure of economic efficiency. Moreover it interprets government regulations as unwarranted intrusions on individual freedom. Catholicism, in contrast, judges economic systems on the basis of how they affect real people and makes the common good a more important measure than individual wealth.

At Brooklyn College where I taught when Bernie Madoff-style economics was the rage, the professors in that department instituted a course on ethics, arguing from the scriptures of both Mt. Sinai and Mount Calvary that being moral was “good for business” even from a purely utilitarian point of view. Catholicism goes much further into the concept of moral obligation. Social justice must be the goal even if it reduces corporate profits. In fact, in certain circumstances the common good must override the profit motive. As the U.S. Bishops put it (#17), “People before profits.”

Key to Catholic social justice teaching is the notion of “distributive justice.” It matters to society that the fruits of the earth and the goods of industry are shared by all God’s children. Since the world economy has been so badly distorted by those seeking advantage of one class over the other, Catholic social justice demands a redistribution of wealth. Among the paths to such goals are private charity, collective bargaining by workers’ unions and government policies of taxation. So while it is perfectly OK for Catholics to disagree about how much redistribution should be directed by government or unions or private charities, there can be no disagreement about the need for redistribution of wealth.

The facts bear out this Catholic commitment. Since 1979 real wages adjusted for inflation have not grown for most Americans. Costs of living have increased, however, meaning that the middle-class is slipping into poverty. Meanwhile, the richest have become spectacularly richer. Today, the average CEO makes 242 times the wage of his worker and a third of the national GNP goes into the pockets of 1% of the population. Private charity or business interests have failed miserably to stop this trend that concentrates money into the hands of the few. In light of growing problems of health and hunger, the Catholic position on redistribution of wealth is not only possible, but also necessary.

Incredibly, many in corporation-controlled media mouth the words, “redistribution of wealth” only with total scorn. They not only reject, they also ridicule this concept, often characterizing it as somehow “un-American.” That rant goes too far for Catholic America. Even Catholics who disagree with Obama’s politics need to fight for his policy for redistribution of wealth, because it is ours too.

  • WmarkW

    I must say that I am extremely surprised that there hasn’t been more of a political push this decade to regulate business on the basis of moral values. From Enron, to subprimes, to Madoff, to the blatant speculation in the petroleum markets, to Delaware’s libertarian credit card practices, to the implementation of Ayn Rand through Alan Greenspan, to the need for bailouts; nothing could be more clear than that business is NOT self-regulating.




    Oooopss. Meant “

  • areyousaying

    Finally a DA with some balls:Philly DA charges priests, teacher with assaultPHILADELPHIA — Two Roman Catholic priests, a former priest and a Catholic school teacher were charged Thursday with raping young boys, while a former high-ranking church official was accused of transferring problem priests to new parishes without warning anyone of prior sex-abuse complaints.

  • davivman

    Finding an economic system that promotes strong growth and doesn’t lead to severe consentrations of wealth is difficult to do. Socialism is good at creating parity, but not very good at creating strong economic growth. Conversly, capitalism is good at creating strong growth but struggles with parity. Does the answer lie somewhere in the middle? Are other systems such as distributism viable alternatives? I wish I knew the answer.

  • WmarkW

    ONE of the reasons for America’s increased income disparity is illegal immigration, which encourages the creation of the lowest-wage jobs and depresses wages among the least skilled. Illegal immigration doesn’t come from a vacuum — it’s primarily caused by the socio-economic conditions in Mexico, and to a lesser extent other Latin nations.Latin America itself has an income disparity worthy of a much poorer region. Mexcio’s Gini Coefficient (a measure of income disparity) is higher (worse) than India, Indonesia or Egypt, about the same as China and Madagascar. And there are other Latin nations that are worse.If we want get into Catholicism and wealth distribution, let’s begin with the world’s most staunchly Catholic region.

  • davivman

    Illeagal immigration is not really that important of a factor when talking about wealth inequality. The addition of a few million predominantly poor individuals does change the numbers somewhat. However a bigger factor than a minority of individuals where the wealth isn’t, is the even smaller minority of individuals where the wealth is. When a third of the GNP is concentrated in the hands of 1% of the population, then perhaps that group should be the focus when addressing wealth inequality.

  • usapdx

    Would it not change the tone if we could see the balance sheets of these religions? To spread the wealth, why not start by congress to repeal the tax exempt law to get our national 14 TRILLION DOLLAR debt down. Also to enforce federal laws on the ILLEGAL’s employers and renters which would end the plus 12,000,000 ILLEGALS in our country taking jobs from Americans for scab wages as the tax payers pick up the balance of the ILLEGALS tab. The only country without homeless or ILLEGALS is the VATICAN and they are not hurting by economics but their own P.R.. Yes, we need to help our fellow Americans and our country.

  • habibbarri

    The necessity for a periodic leveling of wealth is not only a Roman Catholic teaching, (by the way I object to the RC Church calling itself Catholic. The Catholic Church includes Protestant Churches as well as RC.) It’s an Old Testament teaching and the Apostle Paul also taught it.Churches of the Reformation have taught it since the 16th century. An alternative to Capitalism and Socialism is needed. GK Chesterton said that the trouble with Capitalism is not that there are too many capitalists but that there are not enough capitalists. Chesterton prompted an economic system, Distributism, which seems to me to retain regulated private enterprise of a modified capitalism while adopting a moderate economic egalitarianism.

  • davivman

    habibbarri, I see that you picked up on my distributism reference. It would be interesting to see if any society could actually implement it. As for your comment on the word catholic, I’m sure you are aware that the word means universal. This generally refers to its universal scope, not a universal membership. The Roman Catholic Church does not call itself catholic because it is ignoring the fact that a variety of other christian churches have broken away from it or have independently developed over the centuries. It calls itself catholic because its message is universal and applies to all aspects of existance.

  • MarkfromPA

    This was a very interesting article. I think social justice is an important part of the Church. It seems that a lot of bishops today are not as interested in social justice. Some seem to be aligning themselves with wealthy conservatives and fundamentalist protestants. Where does this leave more moderate middle class Catholics in the pews?