Today begins the penitential season of Lent in the Christian church. The concept of humans as sinners in need of redemption is as countercultural as it gets in American society.
The Roman Catholic Church (in which I was raised) contains the unusual (for this country) combination of social conservatism (opposition to abortion rights and divorce) and economic liberalism. The latter is a mistake if the church wants to improve the lives of people, according to convert Arthur Brooks:
I fancied myself a social justice warrior and regarded capitalism with a moderately hostile predisposition. I “knew” what everyone knows: Capitalism is great for the rich but terrible for the poor. The natural progression of free enterprise is that the rich and powerful accumulate more and more of the world’s resources while the poor are exploited. That state of affairs might be fine for a follower of Ayn Rand, but it is hardly consistent for a devotee of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Right?
As with most people of my generation, for me the symbol of world poverty was a starving child in Africa. I remember a picture from my childhood—I think it was from National Geographic—of an African boy about my own age. He had a distended belly and flies on his face, and he became for me the human face of true deprivation. As I grew up, I assumed, as do most Americans, that the tragic conditions facing the starving African boy had gotten worse. Today, more than two-thirds of Americans think global poverty has worsened over the past three decades.
This assumption and the attendant beliefs about capitalism hit a snag when I studied economics for the first time. In reality, I learned, humanity has starvation-level poverty on the run. Since 1970, the fraction of the global population that survives on one dollar or less a day (adjusted for inflation) has shrunk by 80 percent. Since 1990, the number of children who die before their fifth birthday has collapsed by more than 50 percent. Life expectancy and literacy rates have steadily climbed.
When faced with suffering, we often ask a conventional question: “Why are some people poor?” But grinding material poverty was the norm for the vast majority of people through the vast majority of human history. Our ancestors had no concept that mass poverty was an acute social problem that cried out for remedies. Deprivation was simply the background condition for everyone.
In just the last few hundred years, that all changed for a few billion people. So the right question today is: “Why did whole parts of the world cease to be poor for the first time in history?” And further: “What can we do to share this ahistorical prosperity with more people?” Economics taught me that two billion of my brothers and sisters had escaped poverty in my own lifetime. This was a modern-day miracle. I had to find its source.
My search for the “why” of this miracle required almost no detective work. Virtually all development economists, across the mainstream political spectrum, agreed on the core explanation. It was not the success of international organizations like the United Nations (as important as they are) nor benevolent foreign aid that pulled billions back from the brink of starvation. Rather, the responsibility lay with five interrelated forces that were in the midst of reshaping the worldwide economy: globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law and the culture of entrepreneurship. In short, it was the American free enterprise system, spreading around the world, that had effected this anti-poverty miracle.
Again, this is a mainstream scholarly finding, not some political cliché. Informed people from left to right agree on these basic points. As no less an avowed progressive than President Barack Obama put it in a 2015 public conversation we had together at Georgetown University, the “free market is the greatest producer of wealth in history—it has lifted billions of people out of poverty.”
None of this is to assert that free enterprise is a perfect system—but more on that in a moment. Nor is it to claim that free enterprise is all we need as people. But it has unambiguously improved the lives of billions. It became my view that if I was truly to be a “Matthew 25 Catholic” and live the Lord’s teaching that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” then my vocation was to defend and improve the system that was achieving this miraculous result.
That is how an unlikely Catholic became an even more unlikely warrior for free enterprise.
My new mission gave meaning to my growing disenchantment with music. I was hungry for work that served vulnerable people more directly. Now I had a roadmap to point me toward that future. I graduated from correspondence college shortly before my 30th birthday. Traditional graduate work in economics followed, and I left music for good to pursue a Ph.D. in policy analysis. That sparked a career as a university professor, teaching economics and social entrepreneurship.
As I taught about the anti-poverty properties of free enterprise, a common objection—especially among my Catholic friends—remained. “Okay,” many said, “I see that markets have pulled up the living standards of billions, and that’s great. But they haven’t pulled people up equally. In fact, capitalism has created more inequality than we have ever seen.” This spawns ancillary concerns about the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor, and the rising inequality of opportunity. My challenge as a Catholic economist was to answer these questions in good faith.
The evidence on income inequality seems to be all around us and irrefutable, particularly in the United States. From 1979 to today, the income won by the “top 1 percent” of Americans has surged by roughly 200 percent, while the bottom four-fifths have seen income growth of only about 40 percent. Today, the share of income that flows to the top 10 percent is higher than it has been since at any point since 1928, the peak of the bubble in the Roaring Twenties. And our lackluster “recovery” following the Great Recession likely amplified these long-run trends. Emmanuel Saez, a University of California economist, estimates that 95 percent of all the country’s income growth from 2009 to 2012 wound up in the hands of the top 1 percent.
Taking this evidence on its face, it is easy to conclude that our capitalist system is hopelessly flawed. Digging deeper, however, produces a more textured story.
To begin with, we should remember that inequality is not necessarily a bad thing when the alternative is the equality of grinding poverty, which was the case in previous centuries. Few would prefer a nation of equal paupers to modern-day America. But in any case, the notion that global income inequality has been rising inexorably is incorrect. From 1988 to 2008, a key era in the continued worldwide spread of market systems, economists have shown that the worldwide Gini index—a common measure of inequality—at worst has stayed level and has most likely fallen.