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“Iniquitas Radix Malorum”

Only the Pope tweets in Latin! Since Vatican II the audience for Latin has dwindled, to say the least. I suspect most of his tweets are actually translated into multiple languages so that they can be read by more than Tridentine traditionalists. This particular tweet struck a nerve, however, regardless of translation: “Inequality is the root of social evil” reads the English version of the Pope Francis’ April message. Needless to say, it irked the more conservative members of his flock. “What a foolish thing for [Francis] to write,” commented one reader. “I would not mind at all if he kept quiet and stayed off social media for the next year.”

One is tempted to respond with Jesus in Luke’s Gospel: “If these were silent the very stones would cry out!” These days it’s not just radical clerics crying out. The economists have joined the chorus. In his magisterial work on economic inequality, On Capital, Thomas Piketty demonstrates that free market capitalism does not, as previously asserted, inevitably narrow the income gap toward greater and greater equality between the very rich and the not rich. Documenting his thesis with centuries of historical data from England, France, Germany, and the United States, Piketty shows that the relative equality of the mid-twentieth century was, in fact, an aberration, primarily caused by the shocks of the Depression and the two world wars. Piketty goes on to demonstrate through the collection and analysis of a massive amount of historical data that free market capitalism in fact leads inexorably toward inequality. Since we shouldn’t wish for another financial collapse or a cataclysmic global conflict, significant policy decisions by governments are our only tool if, in fact, we want to address the widening gaps.

In this regard the United States has proven itself largely unwilling. Instead, since the 1980’s government policy has encouraged the gap to grow. As economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it,

Corporate welfare increases as we curtail welfare for the poor. Congress maintains subsidies for rich farmers as we cut back on nutritional support for the needy. Drug companies have been given hundreds of billions of dollars as we limit Medicaid benefits. The banks that brought on the global financial crisis got billions while a pittance went to the homeowners and victims of the same banks’ predatory lending practices.

While Piketty doesn’t put it quite this way, a decent paraphrase is that if enriching the wealthiest fifth of the population at the expense of the other four fifths is our goal, we can simply rely on unfettered free markets. Those market forces really don’t need our help in order to achieve greater and greater inequality. And yet help them along is precisely what we are doing.

A recent study by the United States Conference of Mayors concluded that between 2005 and 2012 the top twenty percent of households in major metropolitan areas received 60% of all U.S. income gains while the bottom forty percent received just 6.6%. Clearly the economic recovery, and federal policies that were intended to encourage it, created benefits disproportionately weighted toward the top of the income scale. This is demonstrated even more dramatically by an analysis of the losses and gains of jobs during and after the recession. The average wage in the sectors that lost the most jobs in 2008 and 2009 was $61,637. The average wage in the sectors that gained jobs during the recovery through 2014 was $47,171.

To advocate for governmental social and tax policies that counteract market forces tending toward inequality is hardly to be in favor of collectivist economies in the mold of the collapsed Soviet bloc with its attendant assaults on human freedom. It is to suggest that some levels of economic inequality are more acceptable than others and that right now we are well into the grossly unacceptable range. That our current policies have become cheerleaders for this growth is “social evil” writ large. Stiglitz goes on to say,

The true test of an economy is not how much wealth its princes can accumulate in tax havens, but how well off the typical citizen is – even more so in America where our self-image is rooted in our claim to be the great middle-class society.

Or, as he puts it in more “tweetable” form, “We are not embracing a politics of envy if we reverse a politics of greed.”

Meanwhile, Francis’ tweet rings out and rings true: “Iniquitas radix malorum.” Amen.

John H. Thomas
August 21, 2014

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