Sunday, August 23, 2015

Neither god nor capitalism works in mysterious ways!

The hippie, er, Pope, is on a tear talking up the environment and criticizing capitalism, which will certainly make the right-wing Catholics wonder if Francis is some kind of a Manchurian Candidate ;)  One of the problems I have with the faith-based people, which includes not only the religious but also those who make religions of their favorite causes, is that they often tend to obfuscate facts or even try to hide them.  Ricardo Hausman goes after the Pope with facts.  But, first, what was the Holy See's problem with capitalism?
Pope Francis said in a recent speech in Bolivia: “This system is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable. The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.”
Typically, this is what happens when preaching to the choir--there is no dissent. The audience, in fact, leaves even more strengthened in their "faith," which in this case is that all the problems of this world can be attributed to capitalism.

Except for an inconvenient truth--our lives have become way more tolerable than conditions have ever been only thanks to capitalism.  If the Industrial Revolution marks as an easy to reference starting point for the economic system that we now practice, all one has to do is think about life as it was prior to that time period.  How many among us would want to live in the conditions that existed, say, 300 years ago?  (The Pope would, I am sure, because the Vatican was immensely more powerful and influential back then!)

Hausman writes:
In poverty-stricken Bolivia, Francis criticized “the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature,” along with “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”...
Francis is right to focus attention on the plight of the world’s poorest. Their misery, however, is not the consequence of unbridled capitalism, but of a capitalism that has been bridled in just the wrong way. 
I am no rah-rah fan of capitalism, as the regular readers know all too well.  But then there is no way I will engage in a rhetorical wholesale condemnation either.  Because, there are far too many nuances to think about.  Consider one of the many sweeping accusations of "profit at any price."  Of course, there are atrocious practices like pollution or ill-treatment of the workers, primarily thanks to how those with money are able to rope the government in and get away with such crimes.  But, there is also the other side of the same system that encourages investments even when they do not generate big time profits at all.

You are perhaps thinking that it is so un-capitalistic for the system to voluntarily support when we think it is always "profit at any price."  James Surowiecki writes about " two common but ultimately questionable assumptions":
 The first is that corporate decision-makers care only about the short term. The second is that it’s the stock market that makes them think this way.
Quick. Can you think about capitalistic behavior that has resulted in strong support for companies that don't seem to generate profits?  Stumped?
Of course, there’s no shortage of investors who are myopic. But the market, for the most part, isn’t. That’s why companies like Amazon and Tesla and Netflix, whose profits in the present have typically been a tiny fraction of their market caps, have been able to command colossal valuations. It’s why there’s a steady flow of I.P.O.s for companies with small revenues and nonexistent earnings. And it’s why the biotech industry is now valued at more than a trillion dollars, even though many of the firms have yet to bring a single drug to market. None of these things are what you’d expect from a market dominated by short-term considerations.
Back when the Pope ruled the world, freedom was not known to most of the world, except for a tiny few who were the rich and the powerful.  It was a world of slavery and diseases and tortures and short-lives and poverty and starvation.  We have a lot more to do in order to address diseases and poverty and starvation and many more human sufferings.  But, no soaring rhetoric condemning capitalism will deliver any miracles, even if the faithful blindly believe in the power of miracles.


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