Matt Salisbury is a writer, designer and entrepreneur living in San Diego, CA.  He's interested in ways the Catholic Church's rich social teaching impacts political questions, society, and culture.

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The Good, The Bad, and The Destitute

By Matt Salisbury

Income inequality is a moral evil. Or is it?

The underlying problem in liberal and libertarian philosophies alike is an overdependence on monetary values and financial worth to determine a thing’s dignity. For instance, Paul Krugman is determined that work which pays minimum wage -- or at least, work which pays an order of magnitude less than other work -- is somehow lacking in dignity. Rand Paul has seen fit to equate Medicare with Soviet Russia. Neither approach is defensible, because neither understands the inherent worth and dignity of the PERSON at the center: the individual who draws dignity from their low-paying job or who benefits from affordable healthcare (which is, indeed, a fundamental human right).


When a worldview replaces the person it’s meant to serve as its focus, that worldview is already broken.

Income inequality is not necessarily an evil, unless the inequality is so extreme that it drives destitution. In his excellent (but dense) 1940 text, Scholasticism and Politics, Jacques Maritain differentiates between Poverty, embraced by many saints, and Destitution, an all-consuming state that makes impossible a pursuit of higher goods:

“The problem of destitution, for example, of misery, is certainly a temporal problem; but it is also a problem of eternal life. St. Thomas teaches, and it is evident, that a certain minimum of well-being is necessary for the development of the properly human life and of virtue. Destitution...is a hell on earth, it cuts men off from the communion of the living, it drives him to despair. The problem of destitution is a problem of eternal life for him who suffers it and who...breathes the air of damnation.”

Inequality is a fact of life and no great evil itself. The evil springs from inequality extreme enough to birth and perpetuate destitution. Costs of living and a considered difference between destitution and poverty exist internationally and even in this nation; housing, food, and transport are exponentially smaller in rural Ohio than in urban California. We should look past the easy numbers and labels within systems to supply chains and unexplored consequences of any economic ease.

Investing for the Poor

By Matt Salisbury

Earlier this month, the Vatican hosted a 2-day symposium called “Investing for the Poor.” The conference was co-hosted by Catholic Relief Services and The University of Notre Dame. Pope Francis spoke to the participants about so-called “impact investing.” News.va reported on the event; here are excerpts of the Holy Father’s address:

Impact investors are those who are conscious of the existence of serious unjust situations, instances of profound social inequality and unacceptable conditions of poverty affecting communities and entire peoples.  These investors turn to financial institutes which will use their resources to promote the economic and social development of these groups through investment funds aimed at satisfying basic needs associated with agriculture, access to water, adequate housing and reasonable prices, as well as with primary health care and educational services.

(...)

It is important that ethics once again play its due part in the world of finance and that markets serve the interests of peoples and the common good of humanity.  It is increasingly intolerable that financial markets are shaping the destiny of peoples rather than serving their needs, or that the few derive immense wealth from financial speculation while the many are deeply burdened by the consequences.

The Pope also said, “The logic underlying these innovative forms of intervention is one which “acknowledges the ultimate connection between profit and solidarity, the virtuous circle existing between profit and gift…” What is the connection between solidarity and profit? The two clearly aren’t mutually exclusive, or the Vatican would have placed emphasis on charity over impact investing. Socially-conscious investment is not a “lesser evil”; it is itself a good.

Vicki Francis/Department for International Development. A woman in southern Pakistan shows off a solar light, which gives light for 10 hours per charge, lasts five years, and costs about $15.
All this talk of “connection between profit and solidarity” is reminiscent of the interesting moment a few years ago when Pope Benedict XVI and Starbucks topper Howard Schultz made substantially similar claims about the impact of moral, solidarity-driven business practices on the bottom line. Schultz was writing in Fortune; the Pope wrote in an encyclical. The transnational coffee giant's goal isn’t mere charity when it starts paying for college tuition or healthcare; it wants a better business capable of driving more profit for its owners.

Virtue and a preferential option for the poor hardly have to be a one-way street to fiscally painful charity. Tithing is crucial, but good, smart business rises beyond the tithe. Impact investing still anticipates a return. Effective management for the greater good can drive intangible benefits, social goods, and yes, even fatter profits.

SHOCKER: Paul Krugman Doesn't Understand Dignity

By Matt Salisbury

Paul Krugman is a mouthy liberal pundit, but he has a beard and an economics degree, so we’ve collectively decided to call him an “economist.” He wrote a column in Friday’s New York Times in which he riffs on a recent Paul Ryan quote about a pillar of Catholic social teaching, the Dignity of Work. Ryan was speaking about the recent CBO report that the Affordable Care Act would eliminate a substantial number of jobs. The Congressman argued the plan would lead fewer “to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising their incomes, joining the middle class.”

I’ve talked before about how I admire Ryan for his attempts to combine Catholic Social Teaching with his politics. Like just about every politician, the man has his flaws, but his application of our rich social teaching to his politics makes him really interesting. Setting aside (as Krugman did) the congressman’s other points, I want to focus on the “Dignity of Work” that he refers to.

The dignity of work comes from the dignity of the person. “In fact there is no doubt that human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a person” (Laborem Exercens, 6). It also has a valuable social dimension -- it is “with others and for others” as JPII wrote in Centesimus Annus. Stripping work of its human and social dimensions and reducing all value to that granted by the almighty dollar makes work a farce.

In his piece, Krugman wrote:

“It’s all very well to talk in the abstract about the dignity of work, but to suggest that workers can have equal dignity despite huge inequality in pay is just silly. In 2012, the top 40 hedge fund managers and traders were paid a combined $16.7 billion, equivalent to the wages of 400,000 ordinary workers. Given that kind of disparity, can anyone really believe in the equal dignity of work?

Well, yes, one can. By reducing work to simple financial gain, Krugman displays a surprisingly utilitarian (purely Capitalist?) view of workers. No, compensation for all workers is not equal. Yes, the dignity of good work done well is absolutely equal. This is because work’s dignity isn’t a manmade construct. It is not a number on a paycheck. If it were and Krugman were right, janitors and crossing guards and nuns would have far less dignity than liberal economists. And we know the opposite is almost always true.

This larger point -- that there’s a commonly accepted utilitarian worldview which reduces people to numbers and output -- is the bigger problem here. It’s at the root of errors on both the Right and the Left. No, the poor can’t always pull themselves up by the bootstraps and join The One Percent. Sometimes they really do need the state’s help. Yes, there is inherent dignity in work, and no, everyone shouldn’t be pursuing the same work. Absolutely, dramatic wealth inequality that keeps the poorest poor is an endemic problem.

But our dignity doesn’t come from our money. Only an economist would think it did.