Confessions of a former fat cat who saw the same poverty Francis did—and knows what the pope can teach Obama.
Photo Credit: Giulio Napolitano/Shutterstock.com
March 28, 2014
In the 1990s, I was part of a wave of investment bankers that
invaded Argentina, evangelizing the mantra of the unregulated free
market, which had made us millions. Free markets had become the religion
of politics, and simple economic numbers like gross domestic product,
Our days were spent lecturing Very Important People,
our nights at fancy restaurants with tango dancers to entertain us.
During one trip from my five-star hotel, which was in Buenos Aires but
looked like Manhattan, my cab got caught in a swarm of banners and
megaphones: political protestors from the neighboring slum.
the taxi stopped, the shacks clustered next to the road were no longer
just a dark blur of concrete and reflective tin. They were homes. Sheets
operated as doors. Bare bulbs dangled from live wires, illuminating a
few choice items discarded by the wealthy and the faces of slight
children. A mother of Mary statue sat in a corner.
carved into the lands of Buenos Aires that others don’t want: directly
under an airport’s flight path or huddled next to busy train tracks and
highways. They are anathema to most Argentinians. As the local bankers
who dared not visit would say, slums are “dangerous places filled with
squatters who have no respect for the rule of law”.
It was in
these places, in those times and for much of his life, where the
auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, became a
Now he’s the pope, and they call him Francis. He has used
that larger platform to focus on the ugly side of the free markets, the
side he saw all those years in the slums. He has called the free markets
“a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power”.
the United States, since the election of Ronald Reagan some 33 years
ago, the bulk of policy has been written primarily for the benefit of
the wealthy. Taxes have been made more regressive, labor laws relaxed,
markets deregulated. The shift changed this country and the world,
profoundly and yet simply, giving more power to those with capital at
the expense of those who labor. Voters were sold the idea that growth,
no matter how it was generated, would eventually lift all boats.
of course, the financial crisis that began some seven years ago exposed
the economic costs behind growth at all cost. The crisis enabled the
election to this nation’s highest office a community organizer with Catholic roots
who had spent his fair share of time looking at the ugly side of unregulated free markets.
two men, President Obama and the pope, know what a recovering i-banker
like me has learned: that income inequality is one of the most morally
corrosive issues facing the world today – “the defining challenge of our
time”, as the president says
. Except that when they met today for the first time at the Vatican, when the president told the pontifex he was "a great admirer"
, Francis had the upper hand because of what he knows that Obama and the bankers do not.
Obama is not Pope Francis, and not just because the slums of Buenos
Aires are so much worse than the South Side of Chicago. Pope Francis
knows, in a visceral way, that the income equality we have in the US and
Europe will get much worse if nothing changes. More importantly, he
knows that these first-world problems are embryonic relative to those
back home in Argentina.
The pope knows that the US
is moving toward a Latin America-style economy, one wherein the Koch
brothers get multiplied many times over – one wherein the wealthy don’t
just want more money or opportunity, they want power. The problem with
Francis’ Argentina writ large is a 1% that wants a political system run
with the intent to guarantee that their wealth is never threatened. The
problem with that is a wealthy class that wants the working class to be
disposable, voiceless and immobilized.
This is the real issue
President Obama faces: he needs to stare down, as Pope Francis has, the
morally and intellectually corrupt philosophy that unregulated free
markets help everyone.
It is a philosophy at the heart of the
American conservative movement.When needed, conservatives drag out a
gaggle of economists to argue their position. These economists, always a
thoughtful lot when it comes to human behavior, know the wealthy will
benefit far more. Yet the GOP’s sham philosophers argue that growth,
even if unevenly distributed, will be a net benefit – because the
winners will win more than the losers lose. We will then all share the
winnings, goes this bankrupt economic philosophy, either by way of
investments that boost jobs, or else from politically forced
redistribution by way of taxes.
The sharing-the-winnings part
never happens. It certainly didn't happen prior to the crisis, and it
didn't happen even as the American economy collapsed. The winners kept
using their new wealth to further empower themselves. They did this by
flooding the political system with money to stack the deck. Rather than
invest in job-friendly projects, they moved production to places with
the cheapest labor and the fewest regulations.
When you bend the rules to favor the wealthy, they never give back.
knows all of this because it is how Argentina, and much of Latin
America, has been run for centuries. The result: corrupt oligarchs
intent on maintaining their outsize wealth, and a calcified social
structure wherein a percentage of the population is entirely
disenfranchised and many millions live in tin-shack slums.
too, is a community organizer – indeed, that is all a pope really needs
to be. “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty,” he wrote in his mission statement
November, “because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church
which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own
Francis has been out on the streets. For the last five
years Obama has been performing triage, attempting to arrest the damage
done by the collapse of the free-market philosophy, only now attempting
to focus on its most pernicious result.
When they met behind Vatican closed doors at that desk in the papal library this morning
I hope President Obama took his audience with Pope Francis to discuss
that to which Bishop Bergoglio bore witness: the tin shacks and the mud
streets, the details that give you real-world authority along with the
moral and political kind. I hope the saintly man from Buenos Aires,
who’s spent a life giving voice to the voiceless, can still teach the
man from Chicago what he should have been trying to fix all along.
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