- Aida Ramos, Ph.D., is an associate professor of economics at the University of Dallas. She returns to TSSM, in this episode recorded early in the week of January 4, 2021, to discuss Catholic perspectives on United States policy efforts to stimulate the economy.
- During the discussion, Bill recalled a class he took at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs that outlined a rigorous process of federal budget management. It included multiple annual authorization and appropriations bills covering various agencies and governmental functions. He could not remember immediately the name or previous budget-leadership role of his professor from those years as a student, but he commented in general that, over time, the discipline planned for maintaining quality control over program specifics via this legislative routine gave way to habits of less regular and detailed Congressional oversight on specifics of spending.
- Ramos noted that the Citizens United case decided by the US Supreme Court in 2010 had a major effect on campaign finance which in turn greatly increased the influence of corporate lobbyists over Congressional decision-making and thereby contributed to changes in legislative practices regarding federal budget management. The multi-trillion-dollar spending bill passed by Congress in late 2020 offers examples of how management rigors, at least as they maintain a focus on common-good and fiscal-responsibility duties, changed in ways that lessened Congressional and White House priorities integrating social justice into year-end spending plans; concerns about the primacy of addressing broad, basic needs of the population, as described by goals of solidarity and subsidiarity in Catholic social thought, have not been served by enactment of policies like tax deductions for the so-called “three-martini lunch.” That policy, which economists judged to be primarily a benefit for the wealthy, favors spending practices seen in corporate and lobbying circles, Ramos said.
- The need for responsible approaches to economic management within government is an area of profound moral concern that has arisen consistently present and past policy-making. Different policy actions, including the Covid-19 relief legislation, which is separate from the aforementioned multi-agency spending bill, represent differing approaches to deficit spending in the federal budget. Deficit spending can be justified during an economic crisis if it is limited and focused fairly on necessary remedies and investments. But the US has run up deficits in various years when they were not necessary, and the national debt has exploded. The need to pay interest on the national debt to investors squeezes out spending that could go toward meeting urgent needs such as food and poverty relief in the general population. This again raises concerns through the lens of Catholic values about human dignity and the preferential option for the poor.
- The major tax cut passed during the Trump administration had components that added hugely, unnecessarily, and unfairly to the deficit, Prof. Ramos said. A morally informed discussion about taxation has to be conducted among Americans to help influence government decision-making in legislation like this.
- An absence of responsive and responsible fiscal policy, legislated by Congress, has required more action by the Federal Reserve in recent years, taking the form of quantitative easing. This is monetary policy, whose technicalities can stir misguided fears among people. One bottom line in the different forms of policy-making is the need to serve the common good and human dignity; actions which support the economic stability and participation of families and households at the local level are an example of the Catholic call to respect subsidiarity as a means toward solidarity, Prof. Ramos said.
- Pope Francis has been outspoken about the need for populations to respect Catholic social values like these in policies and relationships widely and consistently. Certain budgetary responses to Covid-19 relief for people are in keeping with the Pope’s call. The application of a moral lens to budget management that meets public needs is nothing new; indeed, the field of political economy arose out of moral philosophy, a connection personified by Adam Smith, according to Prof. Ramos.
In this last episode of 2020, Bill and I discuss how attention, focus, and distraction are shaping us and being engineered in our media-saturated culture. We can't pay attention to everything, and in this environment, it seems that censorship is becoming a politically acceptable option for tech companies, as the Trump election corruption allegations became forbidden topics on many platforms.
- Co-hosts Paul and Bill agreed that the film—and Broadway play—called “Network” shows foresight in its reflections about human dignity and corporate values in competition on an individual and global scale.
- Pope Damasus changed the dominant language of the (Roman) Catholic Church from Greek to Latin (what would have been called the vernacular language in that time and place).
- John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty and helped to advance the authentically liberal project of freeing up human creativity and truth-seeking in the marketplace of ideas.
- Many U.S. citizens (and people in general) are reverting to tendencies toward self-centeredness in human communication and civil society—tendencies against which common-good principles of the United States have served as societal guard-rails with remarkable success during much of our history.
- The self-centeredness runs counter, too, to the zeal for connection-making which drives many messages from Pope Francis. By the way, that drive is a factor leading to the long length of the Pope’s encyclical, like his most recent document, Fratelli Tutti.
- Communication (and communities like those in social media) tend toward exclusion of unwanted information, rather than a greater spirit of inclusion.
- The Distracted Mind, recommended by Paul, is an academic book that is timely reading in what Bill calls this media world of “information inflation.” That inflation leads toward a purposeful or kneejerk limitation on attention—one cannot consume everything from today’s firehose of data!—and even what Paul described as weaponization of attentiveness.
- To the degree that a sense of exceptionalism guides us, history may justify some adoption of that in our thinking about the principles and aspirations of the United States. But it can be risky if it shuts off our thinking about, or respect for, the uniqueness and dignity that individuals around the world bring to the idea marketplace. We can’t reduce our thinking to dismissive judgments against them as merely packages of entirely good or bad ideas.
- Pope Francis writes for a present moment that needs a strong sense of right and wrong but also a realistic, holistic, transparent vision of the earthbound state of human thinking around the world. Paul notes that this can lead toward a sense of hopelessness, but both Paul and Bill say the papal messages—and the faith behind them—can offer a hope based on reliance on God’s operation in daily life. The messages include his annual teachings for World Communications Day.
- That’s a better approach than a video-game philosophy favoring destruction—and deconstruction—before a rebuilding in line with modern principles and atomistic priorities, as Paul points out. The better approach allows for fuller embrace of complex, reflective thinking, of “adulting” with a sense of moderation and responsibility to individuals and the common good, to the past as well as the future. Bill points out that the U.S. Constitution is one earthly source of insight from the past There are other such sources, too, Paul notes. GK Chesterton spoke of a population’s respect for the wisdom of its predecessors as a “democracy of the dead.”
- Our guest, economics professor Dr. Aida Ramos, returned for further conversation after Episode 114. She pointed to wisdom in papal encyclicals from the past that we still need to tap into today—for the sake of just and reasonable arrangements in society and the economy. The granddaddy of these encyclicals is Rerum Novarum, from Pope Leo XIII in 1891. Forty years later, Pope Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno.
- Words are important, we noted in our discussion. The root for the word subsidiarity, which is a key concept in Catholic Social Thought, comes from the Latin for assistance or help. The origins of the word economics trace back to the management of a household, which incorporated a sense of stewardship, seeking the good for all persons connected with a household.
- Ramos pointed out that the appeal of Catholic Social Thought is by no means limited to Catholics or the Church. This wisdom is compatible with a broader legacy of insights deep in the Western intellectual tradition. She discussed economic insights embodied in the Acts of Union of 1707 in Great Britain, as described in her book, Shifting Capital.
- Historical figures who helped to shape ideas of economic justice through their expertise and their advocacy regarding the Acts of Union included Sir James Stewart. Dr. Ramos also mentioned Adam Smith, the 18th century economist and moral philosopher whose book The Wealth of Nations argues for the wisdom of free market capitalism. Henry George, a 19th century economist, also contributed to the secular intellectual trends which ran counter to the individual-utility principles of today’s neoclassical economics.
- Echoes of the notions more inclined toward common-good thinking are expected to receive attention in a new introductory economics textbook now being written by development economist Jeffrey Sachs. This will integrate concepts of subsidiarity and common-good motivation, which have a long history in secular discussion and are outlined cogently in Catholic Social Thought.
Paul and Bill spoke with Aida Ramos, Ph.D., an associate professor of economics at the University of Dallas. Prof. Ramos’ research and teaching at that private Catholic university include topics in economic development and Catholic Social Thought and their implications for public policy. She is the author of a book (Shifting Capital: Mercantilism and the Economics of the Act of Union of 1707 ) in the “Palgrave Studies in the History of Economic Thought” series.
The Vatican’s first direct foray into issues of justice in economics and the relationship of capital and labor came from Pope Leo XIII in 1891 in his encyclical Rerum Novarum. Pope Pius XI added to the Church’s economic analysis 40 years later in the encyclical Quadragesima Anno; it focuses on the different systems of economic organization. The Vatican has spoken out about economic organization and justice in various additional ways over the years, including such encyclicals as Saint Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. In general, both capitalism and socialism have received mixed reviews in terms of their virtues and problems.
At the core of economic decision-making—discernment about the systems from which we choose and how we implement them—is the balancing of rights and responsibilities. The Church strongly proclaims a variety of economic rights held by human persons. It also insists that humans and corporations go beyond a limited notion of responsibility focused only on maximization of income and wealth. The Church asks, what is the economy for? What is my duty to God and other human beings as it is to be exercised through human economic behavior?
The universal destination of goods is a Catholic principle that the reason the economy exists is for the good of all human persons. The preferential option for the poor is a principle which states: If any action makes the poor worse off, do not pursue it. The Church also teaches that we all have a responsibility to uphold the common good. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, the totality of social and economic conditions is intended for human beings to achieve fulfillment and authentic happiness.
Pope Franics’ new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, reminds the faithful to pursue fraternal relationships of compassion and love with people all over the world, which helps the human ecology to reflect and build the common good. This taps into principles of Catholic Social Teaching including solidarity and respect for the dignity of each unique individual created by God. This global consciousness coexists with a local consciousness guided by the principle of subsidiarity—which instructs that people at the level of smaller communities should have responsibility and authority to address all issues they can address, free of intervention by higher authorities unless those greater resources must be called upon.
Catholic Social Thought, or Catholic Social Teaching, has been called the Church’s best-kept secret, partly because its principles are prospective meeting grounds for broader public consensus; they are drawn from the Gospel and Church wisdom through the ages, but they have rarely been proclaimed as a package to be consistently understood, discussed and applied in unison.
Your TSSM coverage of the 2020 US election with the unique perspective Bill and Paul provide. Be sure to let us know your ideas for the presidential hopeful cage match reality show that we clearly need to augment or replace the primary election system here in the 21st century... hit us up with your proposed names and formats using the links to the right. As always, God bless America (all of it, not just the US...).
Paul and Bill focused on the 2020 elections as a point of tragically little focus in discourse or reasoning—but a good starting point for wide-ranging conversation about humanity’s desperate search for balance, hope, and sustainability in our hearts and minds. The desire for a higher wisdom—a happy medium, a golden mean—has always been complicated by our focus on ourselves and our temptation to believe that we know best, the co-hosts pointed out. Bill pointed out that “fake news” was said to have made its first appearance in the Garden of Eden, courtesy of the serpent; that comment was made by Pope Francis in his 2018 reflections for World Communications Day.
Society is operating in a state of radical uncertainty and unsustainable indebtedness among persons, but we forget the stabilizing recognition that we share an indebtedness to God—a responsibility to Him as our source and our only reliable resource. We have forgotten a lot about this, leaving us not only lost, but facing a steep price to pay as God’s children, Paul said. He referred to the story of King Josiah’ realization that he and his people had strayed from the laws of the Torah.
People seeking personal goodness and the common good know we have made serious mistakes on our journeys and have perpetuated ignorance and poor judgment. Each successive generation has been left unprepared and unable to make difficult decisions that would point toward healing. Bill recalled G. K. Chesterton’s call for a nation’s responsibility to wisdom that whatever wisdom was being handed down via what he called “the democracy of the dead.”
But such respect for tradition is not one of humanity’s strong points. Paul pointed out that our podcast’s name points to a second millennium whose second half was marked by major departures from tradition for the sake of greater human creativity. The co-hosts discussed how any attainment of a golden mean has been lost in the pursuit of collaborative innovation—even though we fail to hone our ideas as humble learners and listeners. Meanwhile, any instinct to hold fast to the tried and true only traps us in cocoons of misguided, comfortable assumptions. The artificial “communities” we belong to through our digital culture are places not of roots which allow us to grow, but of simplified labels which mimic understanding, Bill said. He was drawing upon concerns about internet trends voiced by Pope Francis in his 2019 message for World Communications Day.
Our political system does not encourage any sustained, constructive dialogue between the old and the new or between fresh, authentic perspectives. Paul pointed out that we are not presented with real choices despite the fact that parties and partisans paint themselves as sharply different. And Bill pointed out that one are of common ground so many leaders share is the use of pessimism and fear. He recalled the presidential campaigns where candidate Biden spoke of a dark winter ahead and candidate Trump portrayed himself as the alternative to anarchy and economic despair.
When an incomplete knowledge of history leads to despair about the past and present of a society, it can seem like the structures undergirding that society are held up more by mass psychology than real accomplishments or aspirations, the co-hosts said. Our culture likes to exalt creativity in principle, but have we made it easier to see connectivity and possibilities, Paul asks. Bill, proving his fascination with papal teachings for World Communications Day, would point out that the 2020 message of Pope Francis highlights our need to pass along hopeful stories from generation to generation that begin with our dynamic, hopeful relationships with God. Paul reflected on how our childhoods do not always prepare us for the kinds of pursuits entailed in the career pursuits and panoramic interests of adulthood. In a world of limited, utilitarian perspectives, it is hard to find happy wanderers with big ideas looking for life’s happy mediums.
- Brad Stalcup joins Paul and Bill in this episode to talk about his recent entry into the world of Catholic education. He began teaching religion to high school freshmen and sophomores in this fall semester of 2020—a time that Paul describes as a “baptism of fire” because of Covid-19 and today’s unusual circumstances overall.
- The vast majority of the approximately 120 students in Brad’s various classes is learning in-person, but there are several who are “live-streamers,” participating in the courses through distance-learning. The school is located in the region around Cleveland, OH.
- It’s a labor of love, not overwhelming, and “I’ve got great students,” Brad says He has not surveyed the classes to find out which ones identify themselves as Catholic, but the vast majority are Catholic and probably 50 percent are practicing Catholics in the sense of weekly Mass attendance. There is definitely a Catholic identity in this high-powered school, “which I’m grateful for,” Brad says.
- There is an eagerness to learn, especially among the freshmen, he says. He recalls that his own freshman year was a bit of an iffy time, and he wanted to help young people not fall into the trap of a slow start in high school, perhaps accompanied by theological doubt. The bottom line for sophomores is that they try to predict and give the teacher the “right answer.”
- Two key messages to Brad’s approach to the freshmen: God does stuff. And your life matters. Because of scientific materialism, there’s a temptation to think life doesn’t matter because humans are actually reduced to a tiny bit of matter drifting through space. For the sophomores: God desires your happiness. And He invites you into relationship. Church only makes sense in the context of relationship, Brad points out. His principal goal is to rid them of “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” which already shows up in students’ papers—when they say, “God is there for you,” for example
- Brad says he likes using poetry, particularly “The Hound of Heaven.” It makes both of the two points he wants to focus on with freshmen. He adds that it’s important to present certain things as true while also leaving room for questions. Or else they will build a wall around their heart. Thomas Aquinas himself asked the question, “Does God exist?” so it’s a worthy question to think about. Ceasing to believe in God drives a wedge between science and God. Today’s focus on science is for things that happen on earth and God is for my spiritual fulfillment. When they start conflicting, our culture encourages scientistic This involves incorporating faith and reason together in a healthy way—leaving room for questions, having them think about life in non-scientific ways.
- Learning science involves asking questions just like learning religion. The tendency in students is to think they can memorize answers, in both, but there are more constructive ways to teach both.
In this episode, Paul and Bill are back together for a conversation that catches up on past episodes which pondered big problems in science, government, the economy, personal well-being, and more. The pondering focused on solutions as matters of step-by-step processes, but as our conversation starts, we’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems, their quantity and complexity. Society relies more and more on government, which has proven it does not perform long-term planning very well. And it doesn’t really have the needed resources and insights it claims to have.
Ultimately, the solutions are at the individual level and in communities and communion. Paul recommends Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. The Church does have amazing resources for building up faith and hope in ourselves and others—with insights at the local and global level. Of course, the Church too is in a vulnerable and broken position in its circumstances as a human institution. Paul and Bill wonder how the Church can exercise influence in the nature of evangelization and civic duty at a time when the world needs better problem-solving that respects but transcends our various individual differences and weaknesses. Collectively, intellectuals are a tiny minority, and God must love rednecks (literally with red necks) because these are the working people. Here’s an inspiring story about rednecks. We must aim to do much of our work, with God’s help, in small steps and initiatives that growing corporations and growing empires of power will consider small and off-the-radar. The reference to “Let’s Get Small” looks to Steve Martin and an old “Saturday Night Live” performance in which he left a message that stuck with Bill.
A big part of the answer is Catholic Social Teaching. These principles can give us approaches and motivation and starting points for conversations about a sense of purpose to unite us. Again, it entails humility, not pontification, because at the individual level we need to act in our families and communities to get involved in bringing these principles to life—perhaps by going into politics, or getting involved in a civic organization, or simply accepting responsibility to assist some kind of repair work on one of society’s obvious wounds. This may involve joining groups, like the Knights of Columbus, to fight for many causes including racial justice. If we join the Democratic Party, our role would be to push for reform and renewal—but then again, the Lord would require us to do the same thing in the Republican Party.
Hilaire Belloc said the defining feature of the self-proclaimed “practical man” is his inability to reason back to first principles or forward to final consequences. Our politics are likewise defined by politicians thrashing about myopically trying to win individual elections. We need to provide our own grass-roots strength for each other, through solidarity, that gives us confidence to approach the public square with the particular abilities we may have to help. Often, this participation is best done at the local level, through family and community and small groups where we can make a distance and experience people’s needs, strengths, and dignity. This is the principle of subsidiarity.
Overall, the solutions and principles point us toward small, not huge solutions. Paul and Bill have talked in the past about how the fields of science and government, for instance, are hobbled in handing us solutions because there is little capacity for long-term planning or even long-term thinking at those grander scales. Many gaps appear in such an entrepreneurial macro-setting: Why did we fail to plan for this or that? Why did we not see this coming? We must be thinking small but thinking big. This is the economy of God and a strength of the Catholic Church, whose purview is local and global, individualistic and cosmic.
A solo episode from Paul. These are the notes I used... the audio is balanced differently.
Insight by Bernard Lonergan and 20/20 hindsight.
What else (besides the coronavirus and similar epidemics) are we not preparing for? Can we? We can't know all the unknowns, and it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to quantify the risks even for the things we can anticipate. Yet quantification is reasonable and laudable because individual lives do matter... the 1,000,001st victim of a tragedy just as much as the first.
Education and the bureaucratic / engineering mentality "we already know everything we need to make a decision" and "let's do something to make it look like we're doing something."
Finance and the herd mentality. Bullwhip chains of overreaction in the face of unknown risks. A reacts semi-rationally to the situation, B overreacts to A's reaction, C overreacts to B, etc. Federal forgiveness, however good in itself, has the side effect of blinding banks to their own internal information channels regarding default rates, etc. Banks are looking around at employment figures and other data, guessing what to do, overreacting, looking at their peers and emulating the most extreme.
There are a lot of really tired people working in logistics right now.
Job seekers giving up due to pessimism and the difficulty in thinking statistically. It's hard for me to go ahead and spend the effort to do something when I know its individual success rate is well under 50%. Now things are worse. All that means is that more repetitions will be needed to achieve success. However, it is easy to fall into the fallacy of "it was hard before but worth trying; now it's harder and therefore not worth trying," making an all-or-nothing qualitative proposition out of something that in its nature is gradational and quantitative.
Hope really is a virtue.
Audio editing by Morgan Burkart.
or Paving Paradise and the Parking Lots
Bill and Paul discuss attitudes toward masks, and then consider why the science wasn't more settled on the subject long before Covid-19. We discuss the obsession of modern society with all things novel and consider how this plays out in science, politics, and our individual lives and families.
1. A discussion of masks as defenses against the pandemic led Paul and Bill to ponder how scientific knowledge about the functionality of these masks for the common good is not always viewed as a fundamental, enduring value. In our media, the mask discussion gets wrapped up in political and symbolic and power-struggle considerations. The methodical pursuit of knowledge based on shared values and needs has been partly replaced by a marketplace of ideas that gets bored with what we know. Support for ideas gets hijacked by pursuits of vaguely defined notions of progress which are relativistic and individualistic and not systematically carried out through time.
2. Paul pointed out that he sees in the world of science that there are some surprising gaps in knowledge about certain things that resulted partly from people seeing no particular motivation—or research grant money—to drive knowledge forward. With some important exceptions, knowledge in some fields grows more randomly than through a coordinated sense of purpose. Paul recalled an earlier discussion about “p values” that can fail to give researchers the persistence born of confidence that next stages of knowledge will give us what we need to solve problems in a meaningful way.
3. As Paul put it, a “p value” may tell you the likelihood of your data given your hypothesis, but what we’d really like is to know the likelihood of our hypothesis given our data.
4. Bill pointed out that traditional notions of the university seemed to have a more obvious commitment to nurturing, collecting, and spreading knowledge so that it could become the reliable framework for incrementally building new knowledge that brings us closer to solving problems. But there is a notion in the present-day university—and in the marketplace, as Paul agreed—that progress is gained through disruption—dismissing or dismantling or deconstructing current knowledge because it isn’t as exciting or satisfying as a march toward future knowledge can be. That knowledge is seen as inherently better, Bill said, but our eager disregard of today’s knowledge suggests we will treat tomorrow’s knowledge in the same dismissive way. So we’re moving but not really expecting to get anywhere better as a society.
5. We’re caught up in the search for novelty. We’re looking for the next revolutionary thing that makes old learning moot. Shouldn’t we be trying to build and improve upon the good parts of the status quo. Can we find a golden mean between a love for innovation and a desire for preservation (a conformism?) that values the knowledge already acquired. In some sectors, has innovation been redefined at its very roots? Are we disinterested in the long-term trajectories of our human engagements and projects? Are we only focused on doing what’s new, bigger, and better in the current moment, leaving little interest in yesterday or tomorrow?
6. We’re describing a disposable mindframe. Today’s sense of urgency amid impending crises can make us so focused on new action for its own sake that we are willing to disrupt or tear down much of our current life and the history that brought us here. There seems to be too little argument in favor of recognizing the good things we have achieved and our responsibility to conserve/preserve these things. We have so much social capital built up over time, we feel less responsibility to preserve current sources of stability and sustainability. It seems okay to tear these things down. In periods of human history where survival has been more at stake, where there has been less of a cushion of social capital, the marketplaces of ideas and capital have more doggedly pursued incremental change which values and builds upon what has come before. On a grand scale, we don’t expect to feel a pain of loss, but at the personal and spiritual level, people are feeling the pain of loss, fear for the future, dislocation and disconnection, all the time. Indeed, our overall happiness as a society has eroded.
7. People have come to see the future as so urgently problematic that they’re more willing to quickly and readily dispose of stuff from the past without allowing any grounded time or space for wise transitions. No one is coaching us to press pause.
Audio editing by Morgan Burkart.