Today, Pope Francis formally issued an encyclical -- much of which leaked a couple days ago -- that largely concerns man's relationship with nature, setting forth a responsibility to curb global warming. But the lengthy missive, which is considered an official statement of Church doctrine, also has a lot to say about the labor market.
First of all, while addressing the need to protect the environment, Pope Francis cautious that it's necessary to preserve employment as well. Work, he says, is spiritually essential (quotes in the original):
We need to remember that men and women have “the capacity to improve their lot, to further their moral growth and to develop their spiritual endowments.” Work should be the setting for this rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God. It follows that, in the reality of today’s global society, it is essential that “we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone” no matter the limited interests of business and dubious economic reasoning.
That business reasoning, he continues, can work at cross purposes with the most socially beneficial outcomes -- especially when it comes to labor-saving technologies that reduce the number of employment opportunities available.
Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always to be to allow them a dignified life through work. Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves. The loss of jobs also has a negative impact on the economy “through the progressive erosion of social capital: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence." In other words, “human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs." To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short term financial gain, is bad business for society.
Of course, businesses can't be trusted not to give all our jobs to robots on their own. That requires regulation on behalf of small enterprises, which he argues allow for greater economic opportunity:
In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity. For example, there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. ... Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power. To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute.
The Pope even has strong opinions on financial regulation, and the failure to fully restructure the banking system in the wake of the crisis of 2008.
Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly, and only apparent recovery. The financial crisis of 2007-08 provided an opportunity to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth. But the response to the crisis did not include rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world.
What's the problem with that? Well, Pope Francis agrees with the Roosevelt Institute and others who have argued that the ascendance of Wall Street has kept capital from being invested in real businesses that employ people and address the needs of society.
Production is not always rational, and is usually tied to economic variables which assign to products a value that does not necessarily correspond to their real worth. This frequently leads to an overproduction of some commodities, with unnecessary impact on the environment and with negative results on regional economies. The financial bubble also tends to be a productive bubble. The problem of the real economy is not confronted with vigor, yet it is the real economy which makes diversification and improvement in production possible, helps companies to function well, and enables small and medium businesses to develop and create employment.
That's some strong stuff! These are also issues that unions have emphasized for years, and the encyclical comes as the Catholic church is rebuilding bridges to the labor movement. The AFL-CIO held an event in Washington D.C. earlier this week to highlight those bonds of solidarity in advance of the Pope's visit this fall. His encyclical only gives labor a stronger reason to support the Vatican.
“The American labor movement is at the disposal of the Pope,” said AFL-CIO president Trumka. “We will do anything that he needs to be done to make his visit a total success.”
Here's the full document: