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This is a talk I gave at "The Austrian Scholars Conference" in Auburn, AL on March 15, 2007. It was for the 2007 Lou Church Memorial Lecture in Religious and Economics. In this talk, I address the subject of the crisis of Catholic social teaching on economics. It's 52 minutes in length.
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Many Catholic economists have wondered why so many Catholics are so ready to have the government take care of the neediest in society, while not stressing their own responsibilities. So many Catholics are supporting pro-abortion candidates, not necessarily because those Catholics are pro-abortion, but because they see abortion as just one issue in a panoply of issues, the most important of which have to do with helping the homeless, poor and underprivileged.
The fact that Catholics are notoriously stingy in giving to private charities is revealing. They would rather have the state take everyone’s money and redistribute it (frequently ineffectively as countless studies have shown), rather than exercise their responsibilities and give to charitable organizations, or, God forbid, actually help the poor directly.
This attitude is encouraged by a 2004 video and publication of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled In the Footsteps of Jesus. The program lists the following seven themes of Catholic social teaching:
1. The life and dignity of the human person;
2. call to family, community and participation;
3. rights and responsibilities;
4. option for and with the poor and vulnerable;
5. the dignity of work and the rights of workers;
7. care for God’s creation.
The problem is not with the list itself. The problem is with the glaring omission—subsidiarity. This principle, which has always been part of much Catholic political thought, was first stated by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, and then formally defined by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno. Pius wrote, that as it is wrong to withdraw from the individuals and commit to the community at large [i.e., the state] what private enterprise and industry can accomplish, so, too, it is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a larger and higher organization to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller bodies.”
While the USCCB document, in the section "Call to Family, Community and Participation", does quote Pius XII saying: “The State must not absorb the individual or the family . . . .”, the rest of that section focuses on the sacredness of the family and the duty of the Catholic citizen to be active in politics. In the section of Rights and Responsibilities, where one might think that the document might stress the duty of private action first, prior to state action in helping others, there is only one sentence on duties: “The Church recognizes that with rights come responsibilities. We each have duties to one another and to our families, to respect the rights of others and to work for the common good.” There is nothing further on the subject, and I think that the reader would agree that this sentence is much too vague to mean anything to anyone, while the list of rights given is almost endless.
So what this booklet and film say is true, but the glaring omission of subsidiarity and its explanation, is productive of the status quo regarding Catholics supporting state action in every field, supporting political candidates who tend to agree with that, even thought they are anti-life, yet not lifting a finger to help those in need personally.
In Luke 21: 1-3 we read: “As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘I tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’”
Two economists were witnessing two women arguing across a courtyard of an apartment house from their different second floor windows. The first economist said, "They'll never reach an agreement." The second replied, "Why not?" The first responded, "They're agruing from different premises!"
This is an article I published in the Fall 2002 issue of "Markets and Morality", which you can find on the Acton Institute's website (click here to view it). I am posting it here in its entirety, except for the footnotes, which can be found in the original article linked above.
Theologian John Courtney Murray was the primary motivator behind the Vatican II document, The Declaration on Religious Liberty. Murray and that document held that man had an inherent dignity that does not allow coercion in religious belief by public or private groups or institutions. Only religious actions detrimental to public order were to be subject to State regulation. Despite his insistence on human dignity and freedom in religious matters, Murray seems to accept the pre-Centesimus Annus Catholic view that the free economy, while a good thing in essence, is a dangerous entity requiring heavy governmental supervision. Various authors, some with approval, some with dismay, use this view to prove that Murray, and the older Catholic view as well, are Socialist. This paper argues that Murray, who admitted that he was not an economist and who used the views of another noneconomist, Adolph Berle, as his starting point, is inconsistent with his own views. This means that if Murray followed his own teaching on religious liberty, and if he was instructed in the discipline of economics in order to correct badly understood concepts, he would have accepted the free market without the qualifications he added.
Introduction: Catholicism and Socialism
In his book Socialism, originally published in 1922, Ludwig von Mises discusses the prevailing attitude of the major religions of Europe toward the free market and pays special attention to Catholicism. The main question seems to be whether either Christianity or private property should reach a point in its evolution that renders the compatibility of the two impossible supposing that it had ever existed. He finds a dichotomy between the way that the Scriptures and the early church approached political and economic systems and the later writers and practitioners of the Faith. Jesus himself, while not hesitating to criticize the current state of affairs, especially the hypocrisy of the ruling elites, abstains from suggesting any alternative political or economic system. This prescinding from political and economic systemic recommendations held through the early centuries of Christianity. Even the communism of chapter 4 of the Acts of the Apostles, Mises points out, is a communism only of consumer goods, not of production or ownership of the means of production, much less an ideological principle. This was true of the exhortation of Saint John Chrysostom (d. 407) to restore a type of Christian communism. Mises points out that even monastic communism is still that same type of consumer communism; after all, the religious orders owned the land and the monastery in the same way that the nobles of the Middle Ages owned their land and that the religious orders employed peasants on that land as did the nobles.
What, then, accounts, according to Mises, for the sudden (in the late 1800s) interest of the Church in private property? His explanation centers around the situation in which the Church found itself in the dynamic world of the sixteenth century: The roots of Christian socialism are found neither in the primitive nor in the medieval Church. It was the Christianity that emerged revitalized from the tremendous struggles of faith in the sixteenth century that first adopted it, though only gradually and in the face of strong opposition. The struggle for orthodoxy with Protestantism, as well as the struggle with the reborn classical forms in art, literature, and philosophy, of which some churchmen were in the forefront, caused the Church to fall back and regroup, so to speak. From the Catholic counterreformation onward, according to Mises, the Church has been fighting not merely to reassert the time-honored doctrinal and spiritual teachings of Christianity but to recoup its position of world dominance lost since the waning of the Middle Ages:
Now the Church condemns socialism only in its atheistic forms but suggests its own version: That the Church, generally speaking, takes up a negative attitude to Socialist ideas does not disprove the truth of these arguments. It opposes any socialism, which is to be effected on any other basis than its own. It is against socialism as conceived by atheists, for this would strike at its very roots; but it has no hesitation in approaching Socialist ideals, provided this menace is resumed.
While a full discussion of Mises's analysis is the subject of another paper, it does lead into the topic of this paper. Many religious thinkers in this century, both Catholic and Protestant, have endeavored to show the compatibility of Christianity with capitalism. Edmund Opitz's Religion and Capitalism: Allies Not Enemies, Michael Novak's The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Marvin Olasky's The Tragedy of American Compassion, and Ronald Nash's Poverty and Wealth: The Christian Debate Over Capitalism, and interfaith work such as the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, have provoked new discussions in this area.
Even the Vatican itself has shown some movement in this direction. A (by now) famous section of Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Centesimus Annus, speaks approvingly of a capitalism that means a system which recognizes the positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as the free human creativity in the economic sector. The same document recognized the legitimate role of profit, a focus on the person, and a recognition of the legitimate authority of the democratic order.
Nevertheless, a statist trend in Catholic thought about economics remains. German Archbishop Emmanuel von Ketteler, who was greatly influenced by the writings of Socialist Ferdinand Lasalle,19 and who is said to have influenced Leo XIII, is still held in veneration in conservative Catholic circles. The American Bishops' recent pastoral on Catholic Social Teaching and the United States Economy echoes familiar Catholic themes critical of a fuller version of a free market. Mises, at the time of the writing of Socialism, saw little hope of a reconciliation of Christianity and socialism:
If the Roman Church is to find any way out of the crisis into which nationalism has brought it, then it must be thoroughly transformed. It may be that this transformation and reformation will lead to its unconditional acceptance of the indispensability of private ownership in the means of production. At present it is still far from this, as witness the recent encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.
Recent Developments in Catholic Teaching
That this transformation might be under way is possible. Since the 1960s, there have been many changes in the Church; for example, liturgy, sacred music, the role of lay people, and an emphasis on evangelization, just to mention a few. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), became the focal point and, in many ways, the initiator, of many of these developments.
Immediately prior to the opening of the Council, there was much excitement among Catholics and non-Catholics as to what Pope John XXIII's ultimate goals behind his stated purpose in calling the Council were, but arguably, the Council went far beyond this modest intention. It took what could be called a proactive approach to spreading the Faith. It emphasized that all the faithful and not just the clergy, by virtue of their baptismal character, which conferred on them a sharing in the priesthood of Christ, had the responsibility of spreading the Faith. In addition, the Church, laity and clergy alike, were to pay more attention to the plight of the unfortunate of this world, and to take an active part in solving social problems. But, at least for our purposes, the most significant document that came out of Vatican II, and the most controversial, was Dignitatis Humani, the Declaration on Religious Freedom. While not prescinding from the Church teaching that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic faith, this decree states the following:
This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus, it is to become a civil right.
In practical terms, this decree meant that the days of official State religion were over if, by "official State religion" was meant the prohibition of the public or private practice of other faiths, or even, one would suppose, the supporting of any religion by taxing those who do not adhere to its tenets.
John Courtney Murray
The man whose thought was the catalyst behind this reorientation of Church teaching was John Courtney Murray of the Society of Jesus. Born in 1903, Murray received bachelor's and master's degrees at Boston College. After joining the Jesuit order, he received the Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Jesuit theologiate at Woodstock College and attended the Gregorian University in Rome, where he received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology in 1943.
One main thrust of Murray's writings is the need of believers to unite to defeat the onslaught of atheism that he saw coming to the United States from the continent, where he witnessed it while studying there. He believed that Nazism and Fascism were not merely the accession to power by force and cunning of a small minority of totalitarian ideologues. Successful totalitarianism was made possible by the wholesale European abandonment of Christianity. This naturally led him to concentrate on questions or problems that applied to everyone as human beings, not just Catholics. While many of his writings are on theology or ecclesiology, and despite the fact that he was a professor of dogmatic theology, much of his scholarship is in the area of political philosophy, and, following that, the nature of man and the nature of man's freedom. What this meant was purely and simply natural law. Natural law, the impress of the divine reason upon all of his creation, is accessible to human reason. Hence, in discussing things in political life, which, after all, have only natural ends, reason can be used to develop truths that may have been obscured by historical practice.
Murray and Leo XIII
It is here that Murray's greatest contribution lies. In point of fact, Murray seems consciously continuing the project of Leo XIII to reintroduce the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas into the modern world. That project began with Leo's encyclical Aeterni Patris in 1879. Leo praises the philosophic thought of Saint Thomas saying that "The Angelic Doctor" pushed his philosophic inquiry into the reasons and principles of things, which, because they are most comprehensive and contain in their bosom, so to say, the seeds of almost infinite truths, were to be unfolded in good time by later masters and with a goodly yield. This project explains Leo's insistence that the Church does not require any of the particular classical forms of government, provided that the content of the rule be just. It implies a final rejection of the theory of papal monarchy and the "two swords"  theory that holds that governments, to be legitimate, get their authority from the Church a position that Saint Thomas did not hold. This view, Murray terms political Augustinianism because Augustine, the authority for most of the Middle Ages, viewed the State as only a necessary evil unless it is taking direction from Church leaders. With the rejection of "political Augustinianism" comes the acceptance of Aquinas's more natural-law view of temporal matters. This also means that there is a certain natural autonomy to human beings, and even though no one is morally permitted to be culpably wrong in his or her beliefs, politically human beings are to be secure in their conscience from coercion in the natural realm.
Murray's Stated Views on Economics
John C. Cort is enthusiastic to place Murray in the Socialist camp based on his expressed views in economics. But Cort seems more interested in showing with approval (as did Mises with disapproval) that Catholic teaching on economics is socialistic. Cort correctly relies on one of Murray's articles for his more extensive views on economics, Leo XIII: Two Concepts of Government, which appeared in Theological Studies.
Published in 1953, it would make sense that, Murray, a noneconomist, even in sections where he is not explaining Leo XIII's views, would support a strong governmental role in the economy. After all, this period was the height of Keynesianism, and ideas of "market failure" abounded. Economists holding the opposite view were mostly of the Austrian School. Hence, Murray writes:
Leo XIII boldly took from the Enemy the truth that he had the principle that government, under the conditions of modern society, must take an active role in economic life. In grasping this problem, the United States, in the person of Andrew Jackson, was nearly six decades ahead of Rerum Novarum. Industrialism had wrought a progressive depersonalization of economic life. And the impersonality of the employer-employee relationship had, in turn, bred moral irresponsibility. A new "master" had appeared the corporation. And, as the American aphorism had it, Corporations have neither bodies to be kicked nor souls to be damned. They were seemingly immune from the restraints that conscience had imposed on the old master, the individual, in an age where economic relationships were generally personal. The private conscience had ceased to be an affective means of social control. Therefore, the only alternative to the tyranny of socialism or the anarchy of economic liberalism was the growth of the public conscience and its expression through the medium of law and governmental act a medium whose impersonality matched the impersonality of the economic life into which it was thrust as a principle of order. On these grounds Leo took his stand for interventionism.
But Murray is quick to demonstrate that Leo, in opting for interventionism, took the sting out of the Socialist version of it, basing his view on what, later, Pius XI would term subsidiarity. Subsidiarity holds that nothing should be done by a higher social organization that can be done satisfactorily by a lower level of organization, and nothing should be done by public authorities that can be done adequately by private authorities. This principle explains why Leo insisted that State intervention has to be used only to remedy serious wrongs and has to be a last resort: Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or is threatened with harm, which can in no other way be met or prevented, the public authority must step in to deal with it.
The question naturally arises regarding why it is that a corporation might have no check of conscience, but the government, a corporate body in the medieval sense, does. Murray's perspective is provided by the other lengthy discussion of economics in Natural Law and the Public Consensus. Here Murray sees the industrial system as a system of power, and he asks how this system of economic power can be made legitimate, since, unlike the Socialists, he does not want it destroyed. Murray does not mention that government is also a system of power and, in addition, coercion.
Since Murray admits that he has no economic expertise, he turns for the answer to the writings of Adolph Berle. It is interesting that he turns to Berle. Berle was a corporate lawyer and professor of law at Columbia before being tapped as an official in the Roosevelt administration. Note that neither Berle nor Murray, both noneconomists, appear to have any knowledge of the feedback mechanism of the market, and they attribute "democratic" control of the market, not to the sovereign consumers but to the people working through democratic (i.e., governmental) institutions. Berle writes that he had a debate with Friedrich Hayek where he, Berle, was trying to forecast the corporation as a neutral but powerful instrument of society twenty-five years hence: The real questions being philosophy and the ultimate control lying outside corporations that would become instruments like a government agency. So, Murray, in agreement with Berle, writes that the native tendency of an individual economy is toward oligarchical organization and to an independence of all political, not to say, popular control. The decision for economic democracy is not an economic decision. It is political. More profoundly, since the issue affects the substance of society, the decision is ultimately moral  and lies in the idea of a public consensus based on widely accepted values that energize political action when necessary.
The term native tendency is interesting here. Does Murray mean that this tendency is natural, inevitable? The meaning of native might indicate so, but in Leo XIII: Two Concepts of Government, Murray clearly praises Leo XIII's policy of governmental intervention precisely because it is applied according to specific situations, and is not necessarily a permanent feature of social life:
In returning to his political concept of government, the next thing to be noted is the way he effectively dethroned the principle which he took from the Enemy on the left the principle of interventionism from the status it had in the Enemy's camp, the status of an absolute. Government intervention is not an absolute, any more than free enterprise (as the Enemy on the right understood the term) is an absolute. Intervention is relative to the proved social damage or danger consequent on social imbalance and disorder.
Murray, again, commends Leo's ideas on government because they reveal a healthy distrust of government when it begins to infringe upon the freedom of society and its natural and free associational forms. But Leo's theory also has a respect for government when it acts within the limits of social necessities created by irresponsible uses or abuses of freedom. Hence, Leo is not recommending a paternalistic attitude, as if government were somehow to become the Father of the Poor. Hence, for Leo (and Murray), the phrase that describes the proper parameters of government is, as much freedom as possible, as much government as necessary. The proper role of government is not intervention but the promotion, protection, and vindication of a truly free, self-governing, and ordered economic life.
Of course, ordered is a vague term. If an economy is free and self-governing, it is also ordered spontaneously. If Murray means that the role of government is to preserve the ability of that economy to order itself spontaneously, then an Austrian economist may not be able to find a serious objection. If Murray is siding with what Virginia Postrel calls technocrats, with their static views of reality and their fears of the onrush of capitalism with its disruptive consequences, than an Austrian will have serious disagreements with Murray.
The answer seems to center around the dates of the articles. The article Leo XIII: Two Concepts of Government, was published in 1953. The clearly more statist, Natural Law and Modern Society was published in 1961. Hence, sometime between the two, Murray accepted a view of the market more in line with a Keynesian-Galbraithian approach.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that despite the use of the term native tendency in the 1961 article, it appears that Murray's criticism of a free economy is based not on its essence but on its accidents. In praising free, self-governing, and ordered economic life, whatever his ultimate meaning is, he is saying that a free economy is good per se, but that it has biases toward power accumulation per accidens, requiring governmental adjustment and remedy.
When looked at in this perspective, a solution suggests itself. If one could have shown to Murray, who died in 1968, that the idea that concentrations of economic power was actually quite temporary and beneficial (as in natural monopolies), or government sponsored (as in the electric companies or my local cable company), Murray might have been persuaded that his acceptance of the Berlian-interventionist model was an error. Accidents do not change the essence of a thing but merely modify it.
Murray's Idea of Man
In an essay, Religious Freedom, contained in the book that Murray edited, entitled Freedom and Man, and in the foreword to the same volume, Murray thoroughly sets out his views of man's nature and the role of freedom in that nature.
For Murray, freedom is central to human nature. Referring to Saint Thomas, Murray wrote that man is made in the image of God, and by this is meant that man is, by nature, intelligent, free in his power of choice, and of himself the master of himself the active source of what he does. Freedom is not to be seen as some utopian royal way, since it leads through all the density of the human, all the limitations of the finite, all the contingency of the historical moment, whose demands are ever unique, to be met by personal judgment and choice. But there is no other way.
Certainly, much of this is not incompatible with the Austrian understanding of the context of human action. As Karen Vaughn summarizes some common themes in Austrian economics:
The first is that a social science should devise explanations about social phenomena that are traceable to the ideas and actions of individual human beings. The second implication is that since individuals only experience the world through the filter of their own subjective intelligence, economics must explain human action as the responses that people make to their subjective interpretations of their internal and external environment. Austrians also agree that all human action takes place in time and always under conditions of limited knowledge; this requires that economics not abstract from either time or ignorance in developing its theories. Austrians infer that economics should be about how humans pursue their projects and plans over time, and with limited knowledge of present conditions and with pervasive uncertainty about the future.
For Murray, freedom is founded on humanity's great dignity:
I myself, in taking up the subject of religious freedom, touch one sector of the larger problem of preserving about the human person in society a certain zone or sphere of freedom, within which man must be immune for coercive restraint in the pursuit of the highest values of the person as such, who transcends society in virtue of his direct relatedness to the truth and to God who is truth.
Although the above quotation refers primarily to religious freedom, Murray places this in the context of pursuit of man's (highest) values as a person as such. While we could agree that a person's religious beliefs are the most important of his existence, because how persons see themselves in relation to the transcendent goes to the very core of their existence, human action, the specific actions that people will take, presuppose the cluster of beliefs ultimately referenced back to these more core values. This is the foundation of Austrian subjectivism. For each individual, ultimate ends are ultimately given, they are purely subjective, they differ with various people and with the same people at various moments in their lives.
But Austrian subjectivism is a philosophical-economic principle. We cannot look into the intentions of people when they act, but only reason in reverse from the signals given by market prices. This is not to deny that there are objectively good and true principles but only that our science takes for granted the acceptance of one set or another of these in the acting subject. Murray, a theologian, places more emphasis on the objective, God-given value of man, and by doing so, arrives at a divine origin of human dignity and, hence, a theological argument for freedom. In The Construction of a Christian Culture, Murray attacks American culture as being radically bankrupt because of its rampant materialism. He attacks the idea (poorly understood) of man as merely homo economicus, and attacks the (straw man) notion of radical individualism. But, despite the particulars or accidents of any particular culture, the redemption of Christ, who came down in human flesh and died as the ransom for all of our souls, raised man to an immeasurable dignity, so that the primary cultural significance of this theology is that it is in this light that man, as Saint Thomas said, now dares to think worthily of himself. The Incarnation answered the spiritual desire that, in spite of thwartings, man has always cherished, namely, the dream of becoming master of the world of nature and master, too, of the dark powers of evil whose presence in the world he has never ceased to feel. The Incarnation teaches man his proper dignity. If man has dignity, as Vatican II and Murray affirmed, then man must have freedom. Therefore, says Murray,
An exigence for immunity from coercion is resident in the human person as such. It is an exigence of his dignity as a moral subject. This exigence is the source of the fundamental rights of the person those political-civil rights concerning the search for truth, artistic creation, scientific discovery, and the development of man's political views, moral convictions, and religious beliefs.
And, to be consistent material betterment.
This paper has attempted to develop a possible foundation for the approval of free-market economics from the thought of a dogmatic theologian, who had much to say about politics, human dignity, and human freedom, and very little to say about economics, most of it interventionist. But it appears that, had Murray not merely engrafted onto his thinking common statist, technocratic notions of economics, rampant during his time, his theory would have allowed for the human freedom consistent with a free market. His foundation for allowing religious freedom provides that basis for market freedom, and his earlier writings stress a free market more than his later, explicit though sparse, economic writings. In addition, even his criticisms of a market economy are centered on what he sees as accidental components of our market system and not on the essence of the system.
Murray had a tremendous output, much of which has become available only recently. This provides economic philosophers with much fertile ground for future work. His recently available writings, as well as the work of Pope John Paul II, may actually have begun the process of finding common ground between Catholicism and the free market that Mises suspected may never be forthcoming.
Dear Dr. Luckey, I am a well educated Catholic down in the economic trenches as it were, working for nearly twenty years in accounting. I received my BA from Thomas Aquinas College where I was first introduced to Catholic Social teaching on Economics. I have read a decently large scope on the subject over the last several years from Capitalism to Communism to Distributism. For the last several years I have been in Healthcare at a for-profit hospital that is part of a large hospital chain as one of the head bean counters, and I have been trying to figure out just how to solve the growing economic disaster that is looming in healthcare. What do you think could be done to improve the healthcare system in this country along the lines of Catholic social teaching?
You ask an interesting question about how to prevent the looming economic disaster in healthcare in the United States. However, your question is much too vague. What I can do is to give some aspects of the financial problem.
Is there a Catholic social teaching side to the financial aspect of healthcare? As followers of Jesus Christ, we all want to see people get “adequate” health care. But the first problem we encounter is, “How much is adequate?” The United States has the best health care system in the world. Medical care is much more available and of more high quality than when I was young. In those days, a diagnosis of “cancer” was a death sentence for most people. Not so today. Preventive medicine is much more widely practiced than ever before. On-site trauma care, as well as emergency room procedures, is absolutely astounding. Lastly, the law in most jurisdictions requires that patients, who call an ambulance and insist on being taken to the emergency room, must be taken and treated as least until they are stable. This has given rise to what paramedics call “frequent flyers,” those without health insurance who go to the hospital for colds, headaches and the like.
Unfortunately, as one famous economist said, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” Every bit of service must be paid for by someone. The “frequent flyer” trips to the emergency room are paid for by the paying patients of the hospital and their insurance companies (meaning higher premiums passed on to the consumer). Like every other thing, the price of a medical service is auctioned off to those who want it most, i. e., to those willing to pay the most. This is because medical care is a scarce good—scarcity meaning that our desire for it would never be satisfied, not because there is not really enough. Since it is scarce, it needs to be economized.
But more and more people claim the right to get the best, high-tech treatment the system can offer. If you have insurance or can pay out of pocket, you can have it. If not, you have to do without. This is not much different than a poor man who would like to drive to work in a nice, reliable BMW, but keeps a 1970’s AMC Gremlin alive because he has little money. How much health care is he entitled to if he cannot afford the higher level stuff? How much health care is he entitled to if his medical conditions are caused by his lifestyle choices, like smoking, too much liquor, fattening foods and no exercise, or his failure to take his $6.00 per month high blood pressure pills which then results in renal failure.
The question is, then, how do we help those at the bottom? The first thing is that Catholics, who are notoriously stingy, need to open their pockets to support clinics which give poor people medical care. Secondly, there are already government programs in place which pay for some care, like Medicare and Medicaid. The poor need to be aware of these. Medical savings plans are a new and interesting development. If when you are young and healthy, you get one of these and save up, when you are older, you will have money socked away for the bigger expenses. Physicians need to get back into the habit of volunteering some time at clinics, and the trend to more low level health care providers, such as physicians assistants and nurse practitioners need to be expanded. More medical schools would lower the physicians’ income through competition, and therefore the cost of treatment. Lastly, tort reform (don’t get me started).
These are some things that point to a solution. Socialized medicine is a false solution, but I’ll have to save that for another day. Meanwhile, there is no quick fix. Maybe we should focus on really desperate areas like Africa, where in some places there is no health care at all?
After showing in the last article that the “greedy oil company executives” do not set oil prices, and to say they do is not only ignorant but calumnious, it is left to demonstrate that so-called speculators do not set the prices either.
To understand the whole thing we must examine what’s called the futures market. If you needed 1000 “pork bellies” today, you would have to pay what is called the spot price. That is the current, going price for pork bellies needed right away. Today one would have to pay 66.4 cents per pound of pork bellies. But supposed you needed the same amount of pork bellies in three months. You could purchase them now for delivery in three months using the futures price--63.5 cents per pound. The delivery might be for 10,00 pounds. Holding supply of pork bellies constant, i. e., there are no biblical plagues or miraculous increase in farm animals, you would pay a lower price for those future pork bellies, because it is a guaranteed sale for a pig farmer. So he would let these go at a discount. This is done by a contract, which means when the contract time is up, you get the pork bellies, which, if you are a butcher, you are glad to get.
One may, however, purchase pork bellies in the futures market without ever intending to actually receive them. One can contract for the same amount of pork bellies at the futures price, set to deliver to the holder of the contract in three months. In this case, the contract purchaser wants to hold the contract, but sell it to someone else prior to delivery, hopefully at a price closer to the higher, spot price, thus making a profit. Holding supply constant, those who need pork bellies now will look to you to sell them your contract. If demand increases, they will be willing to pay more for your contract, than they otherwise would. If the supply is greater than expected, they can get a better deal elsewhere, and if you sell, it might be below the futures price you paid originally.
It’s the same with petroleum, but the market is in a situation where the demand is increasing and the supply is more or less constant. If I buy a futures contract for 1 million barrels of petroleum for a three month delivery, which I do not want, the likelihood that the spot price offered prior to the delivery date will be higher than the futures price I paid today—due to the increased demand and constant supply. As a speculator, I will make a profit, not because I cause the price to increase, but because I correctly guessed that petroleum demand would be outstripping supply in the future. (This is not rocket science) Again, it is supply and demand, and the speculators are merely gamblers, although, for the time being, higher petroleum prices are almost a sure thing.
So, our Catholic television commentator and the Congress are completely wrong headed in wanting to control speculators. They do not control the price of petroleum. If, suddenly, the supply increased noticeably, the speculators would lose money because the price would go down due to drastically increased supply.
What some people won’t say to get viewership, or do to get votes.
The church defines calumny as the imputation of false defects to another. It is considered a grave sin ex genere suo, which means it it is grave depending on the damage done to a person’s reputation. While we may not every consider committing such a sin against one we know, although, in truth, we may all have been victims of it at one time or another, in public discussion, it is done all the time.
A case in point is the recent example of a Catholic television pundit who is desperately trying to blame someone for the high gasoline prices we are currently experiencing. At first, he railed against the “greedy oil company executives.” I e mailed him a few times and explained the reason for the high oil prices. He did not air my e mails, nor did he discuss the articles I sent him, but he changed his tactics and turned his wrath on “speculators.” He had an economist on his show who tried to explain the truth to him, but he shouted the mild-mannered man down and ridiculed his viewpoint. But this TV personality is not the only one who does this. People frequently attribute evil intentions to people whom they do not know. That attitude enters public debate and turns the country into a Petri dish of cynicism. Catholics should know better. Not only can we not, and should not, attribute evil intentions to others, not to mention make public those views of ours, but this is especially true in technical fields in which we have no real competence. So, I am now going to explain the complicated economics of petroleum prices in as short a space as possible and put an end to the calumny against the oil executives.
There are three components of economics: supply, demand and price. In a competitive market, price is set, not by anyone, but by the coincidence of supply and demand for the item at the point of sale. World demand for petroleum has skyrocketed over the past decades, not only for the United States, but for countries like China and India, which are growing technologically. In addition, the governments of China and India subsidize many companies that demand petroleum, so that the companies can buy more than they would normally—at taxpayers expense.
Supply is controlled in a number of ways. The oil producing countries of the Middle East are not in a competitive market, because their oil producing is by government owned companies. The government, not the market, decides how much they are going to produce and sell on the world market. In places like Saudi Arabia, I have heard that gasoline costs a few cents a gallon. This means that supply to the rest of the world is tight, while the supply to locals is flowing like water. Included in this mix is the fact that petroleum is used in more products than cars. Plastics, for instance, have a petroleum component.
Next, even if the United States had a larger supply of petroleum, it still has to be refined. This takes refineries. We have not built a refinery since the 1960’s, and this is mostly because of government regulations and the fact that no one wants a smelly refinery in their neighborhood.
Lastly, the value of the American dollar is shrinking, primarily due to the massive creation of money by the Federal Reserve and the gigantic amounts of dollars poured into the currency markets to fund the Iraq war. Even the president of Iran (whose name I will not try to spell) said, “We [Iran] send you [the US] the fluid of life [petroleum], and you give us worthless pieces of paper [dollars].” This means that the purchase of foreign currency, which we must do to buy petroleum, costs more.
So these are complex matters, and no one can be said to have evil intentions. We have different political, economic, social and political situations, and the complex mix results in higher gas prices. This does not mean that there are no solutions; but it does mean that there are no quick fixes.
Next time I shall discuss “speculators.”
I received news recently of the death of a very nice woman who lived across the street from us when we first moved to the town we now live in, over twenty years ago. Her name was Karen. She was very nice, attractive, young, single mother with two children the same age as some of mine. She worked very hard cleaning houses.
Unfortunately, Karen had many problems. It became obvious from facts revealed after we moved to another neighborhood, that Karen had been a victim of some kind of abuse in her youth, whether physical or psychological or both. She could not get herself to look into your eyes when she spoke to you, and would blink continuously on these occasions to cover up this inability at eye contact. She also was in the habit of beating her children severely for the slightest things, (which one of my children told me later) again, another sign that she might have been abused. Her original husband was a deadbeat dad, and she had the habit of bringing home “stray cats,” i. e., young drunks/ne’re-do-wells, who would abuse her. I remember that there was one guy who liked me for some strange reason, but one night in a drunken rage he was arrested and then convicted of chasing her down the street with a chain saw. Thankfully, Karen ran faster than he.
Her children did not turn out well, as can be expected under the circumstances. Her daughter became pregnant out of wedlock almost as soon as she reached puberty, and her son became involved in Satanism.
One night, one her “stray cats” strangled her so severely that it broke a bone in her throat. That was her final undoing. One night, Karen was outside, drunk. She vomited and the broken part of her throat allowed the vomit to pass into her wind pipe suffocating her. Karen was basically a very nice person who lived a tragic life, from beginning to end.
It’s not just that her death (and life) was a tragedy. It is the fact that I knew her and never lifted a finger to help her in some way. In fact, to my knowledge, no one ever helped her. As for me, I was always concerned about doctrine, as are so many with whom I come into contact in the circles I frequent. Not that doctrinal issues are not important, but I and so many others whom I know, ignore the very children God created and loves, for mere doctrine. While I have learned this lesson over the years, Karen’s death shocked me into realizing that even though I no longer ignore God’s other children in favor of doctrinal questions alone, I still never thought of helping Karen whom I knew!
And it is not just me. Our clergy can be like this as well. This was brought home to me, confirming my instincts, in a book by the famous Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M., CAP, official theologian of the papal household:
Presenting people today, who often lack any personal knowledge of Christ, with the entire range of doctrine is like putting one of those heavy broached mantels worn at one time by the clergy on the shoulders of a baby. We are more prepared by our past to be “shepherds” than to be “fishers” of men; that is, we are better prepared to nourish people who come to church than to bring new people into the church or to bring back home those home who have drifted away and live on its margins. (my emphasis)
How can anyone who has prayerfully read the Epistle of St. James neglect on of these “little ones”:
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep; warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)
But this seems to be fault of so many “conservative Catholics” who pride themselves about their doctrinal soundness and their love of the Holy Father, but would not lift a finger to care for another poor soul. And the only reason that I have the nerve to write this is that I am as guilty as any! May God forgive us!
A mathematician, an accountant and an economist apply for the same job.
The interviewer calls in the mathematician and asks "What do two plus two equal?" The mathematician replies "Four." The interviewer asks "Four, exactly?" The mathematician looks at the interviewer incredulously and says "Yes, four, exactly."
Then the interviewer calls in the accountant and asks the same question "What do two plus two equal?" The accountant says "On average, four - give or take ten percent, but on average, four."
Then the interviewer calls in the economist and poses the same question "What do two plus two equal?" The economist gets up, locks the door, closes the shade, sits down next to the interviewer and says, "What do you want it to equal"?