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    • Rob Sheffield Pays Tribute to the “Peaceful and Stormy at the Same Time” Songs of Christine McVie December 6, 2022
      Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone magazine has written a heartfelt and insightful appreciation of the life and music of Christine McVie.Following, with added images and links, are excerpts from Sheffield’s tribute that particularly caught my attention.Christine McVie always came on like the grown-up in the room, which admittedly might not be hard to do when the […]
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A Catholic Right Double Standard — Koch Style

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, DC recently set off a firestorm by accepting a $1 million grant for its new School of Business and Economics from the Charles Koch Foundation.  Progressive minded organizations such as Faith in Public Life called on CUA to return the money, noting how Charles Koch’s extreme libertarianism is far out of step with Catholic social teaching on economics.

Many on the Catholic Right responded by slamming Faith in Public Life  for being funded in part by philanthropist George Soros, who they point out is an atheist. But if George Soros’ belief (or in his case, non-belief) is in play, why isn’t the same standard applied to Charles Koch?

Movement conservatives — especially those on the Religious Right, are often quick to point out that the famous philanthropist, George Soros, is an atheist. It is as if that automatically renders him evil or has anything much to do with his social and political views. Soros is not evangelical about his atheism. Indeed, he was active in supporting movements that brought down the Soviet Union’s Eastern European empire – which was founded upon an overt hostility toward religion. The goal of ending Soviet hegemony was one Soros shared with conservatives including the late Pope John Paul II. I suspect that there are reasons other than atheism why conservatives hate Soros (more on that later).

So when Faith in Public Life organized a protest letter signed by Catholic educators that eloquently pointed out the hypocrisy of the Catholic University of America taking money from the Charles Koch Foundation, supporters of the new School of Business and Economics immediately changed the subject to the atheism of George Soros.

Consider this Bill Donohue excerpt from a December 18, 2013 Catholic League press release:

George Soros is an atheist billionaire who is no friend of the Catholic community. In fact, he funds causes that the Catholic Church works hard to oppose: abortion, euthanasia, drug legalization, and many other radical initiatives.

Those who signed the letter against Catholic University of America are the ones who need to explain why they would align themselves with the likes of George Soros. And if they like what he funds, they should have the guts to say so.

Another conservative web site, The Blaze, was more direct, asking in its title story, “Why Is Atheist George Soros Giving Money to a Faith Group?”. And as if to top himself, in a letter to the website LifeNews, Donohue described Faith in Public Life as an organization “…that lives off the bounty of the left-wing atheist billionaire, Mr. Soros.”

But if the Catholic Right is going to use George Soros’ atheism – as well as some of the causes he funds — as the barometer of his morality then the very same standard needs to be applied to another politically active billionaire, Charles Koch.

A thorough search of Charles Koch fails to turn up anything clear about his religious beliefs. Indeed, there is no record of a religious affiliation or of him publicly discussing faith at all. For all we know, he too may be an atheist. More importantly, like Soros, his religious views do not necessarily determine his overall morality. And yet a double standard is in play.

Let’s begin with Bill Donohue’s complaint that Soros funds causes “the Catholic Church works hard to oppose,” such as drug legalization. A simple Google search reveals that when it comes to drug legalization Charles Koch and George Soros appear be on the same page. When it comes to same-sex marriage – vehemently opposed by the Catholic Right — the Koch-funded Cato Institute has openly supported the idea. (Charles Koch was a founder of Cato).

And yet there is not a peep of protest from Donohue or LifeNews; there is no one on the Right calling into question Koch’s religious beliefs, let alone his inconsistencies with conservative Catholic dogma.

But when it comes to business and economics it is clear that Soros is the one more in line with Catholic social teaching. Indeed, his views overlap with those of Pope Francis more than those of Andrew Abela, the dean of the CUA business school.  Abela has ties to the very libertarian Acton Institute think tank. He is also a member of the Thomas Monaghan founded Legatus, an organization whose membership is limited to very conservative Catholic chief executives. It should be noted that Legatus lists five “non-negotiables” for voters; opposition to marriage equality was one of the five listed items.

So why is it that movement conservatives so dislike George Soros? I suspect it has less to do with religion and more with economics.

Soros is a proponent of regulating financial markets.  He is also a Keynesian who has made lots of money using the British economist’s theories. His concept of Reflexivity draws much from Keynes’s  belief that financial markets often act more irrationally than rationally.  This is heresy to libertarians like Charles Koch and his acolytes.

It is libertarian gospel that markets are rational and efficient and that regulation is counterproductive. They devoutly believe this in spite of the fact that science is proving them wrong and Keynes (and by extension, Soros) was correct. Soros is living proof against their claim that Keynesian capitalism does not work. That, in their view makes him a traitor to his class.

I have long contended that what truly concerns many in the Catholic Right is not religious morality, per se. Instead, inconsistencies such as I have described above points in a different direction: how their own faith can be bent to better serve the laissez-faire principles of economics that lead to inequality.

Indeed, all of the noise about George Soros is really just a distraction.

Soros does not require his grantees to be or to become atheists. Nor is there any evidence that the good people from a variety of religious traditions who work at Faith in Public Life (including Catholics) would have accepted the funds if they came with that string attached.  I’m sure the same is true of the recipients of grants from Charles Koch.  

What is important here is that Faith in Public Life is encouraging the broad tradition of Catholic social teaching on economics that Charles Koch and apparently the business school at CUA oppose.  If Donohue were a consistent defender of the Church he would join with Soros and Faith in Public Life, not denounce them.

The Meaning of Wealth

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

I based the title of my last post, The Miserly Society upon a term used by the economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946). In this post I want to further explain what the revolutionary thinker meant by “miserly”; how it ran contrary to what wealth meant to him as well as his contemporary, the Catholic economist Monsignor John A. Ryan (1869-1945); and how their often similar views matter now more than ever — especially in responding to the economic agenda of the modern American Religious Right.

Keynes’ and Ryan help us to answer such questions as “what is the meaning of wealth?” And “what is its purpose and how much is necessary?” These are fundamental questions that need to be answered afresh in every age. And for liberals in America, we also need to answer “what is the relationship between wealth creation and liberty? Our answers to these questions have everything to do with the political viability of the Left – religious or otherwise.

Both economists – one a British atheist and the other, an Irish-American Catholic priest – understood the elements of economic justice. And although Keynes arrived at his views from different experiences and beliefs, he defined it in a way Ryan would approve: the balancing of economic efficiency, individual rights, and yes, social justice. As I pointed out in my last post, the gathering of wealth has a purpose beyond simply becoming rich; it was a means to live an agreeable, reasonable life, free of the privations of poverty.

Author Robert Skidelksy summarized Keynes’ take on wealth in Keynes: The Return of the Master :

By ‘love of money’ Keynes means two things, between which he did not always distinguish. The first was the objectless pursuit of wealth. The second was a specific subset of the first, which was the disposition to ‘board’ or not spend money-the psychology of the miser. The first was the engine which drove our capitalism; the second was the brake on its progress, which related particularly to uncertainty.

As well as:

Briefly stated, his conclusion was that the pursuit of money – what he called ‘love of money’- was justified only to the extent that it led to a ‘good life.’ And a good life was not what made people better off: it was what made them good. To make the world ethically better was the only justifiable purpose of economic striving.

Keynes’s contemporary, the distributive justice advocate Monsignor Ryan arrived at a similar conclusion. Ryan biographer Harlan Beckley wrote in Passion for Justice: Retrieving the Legacies of Walter Rauschenbusch, John A. Ryan, and Reinhold Niebuhr:

All persons have a right to whatever they need to achieve the proximate end of their rational nature. Satisfying this aspect of the canon of needs demands near equality in the distribution of a minimal level of “external goods, because all people have equal needs for a decent livelihood, rational liberties, education, and so forth.”

Keynes and Ryan both rose to prominence in the first half of the twentieth century when economics was viewed as a moral science, and both men did so through an Aristotelian lens. We may define this approach as seeking to engage in endeavors in a just, virtuous manner, eschewing extreme behavior for moderation. It also incorporates the idea that there is an undeniable connection between contribution and receipt and the individual and society. Ryan came to such thinking through his Thomistic training; Keynes via his studies under the philosopher G.E. Moore.

Their view about the role of taxes and the economy run contrary to what we usually hear from the contemporary Religious Right: That progressive taxation is either confiscatory (Michael Novak) or must remain low for moral reasons (Robert P. George). It perfectly echoes the conservative claim that higher tax rates on the wealthy constitutes “a penalty for success.”

This idea has gained more traction than many of us would like to believe. But just this week alone I had two friends claim that taxes are a penalty for success when I suggested that the well-to-do could handle a modest increase on their federal tax rate – especially those corporate CEOs who either hoard their companies’ profits, and pay themselves exorbitant salaries, bonuses and dividends instead of investing in new equipment or better yet, workers’ salaries.

But such notions as “confiscation” and “penalizing success.” have little to do with the realities we face. “The goal of progressive taxes,” as Beckley observed about Ryan, “for example, was to equalize sacrifices, not to achieve equality. Taxes should never be so progressive as to discourage socially useful activity or deny rewards for productive efficiency.” To put into a contemporary context, imposing a 40% tax rate upon an unmarried CEO earning seven figures a years is a bit more just than a rate of 35% — especially when a married laborer earning $35,000 a year pays a federal tax rate of 25%.

As I discussed in my last post, taxation is an important tool for creating wealth for an entire society. Those who espouse the evisceration of such useful taxation are frankly arguing on behalf of an oligarchic few. The complaint about the cost of nannies and elite private schools for their children not withstanding, taxation can alleviate burdensome national debt, finance job-creating infrastructure construction, control inflation and prevent the concentration of economic power in the hands of the few. Indeed, the dogmatic opposition to progressive taxation is the economic mindset that creates the fertile ground for sub-prime mortgages and the buccaneer financial instruments upon which they are predicated.

And yet, Novak has claimed that progressive taxation is a denial of liberty, an unwarranted intrusion on the successful to their right to wealth. When Novak and his ilk raise the issue of liberty in this way, they do not mention how their unwillingness to part company with an extra 4% of their bountiful income so that the greater part of society can achieve a measure of financial independence may well violate a key component of liberty itself, the harm principle. According to philosopher John Stuart Mill, this is the concept that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

What the laissez-faire apostles of the Religious Right are advocating is not liberty, but a form of harm; i.e., reliance upon those who provide credit. When wages are kept low, credit becomes the only viable option to provide for food, clothing and shelter. Such behavior does not define ethical behavior or religiosity let alone liberty, but instead, the attributes of the miser.

Novak and George are attempting to equate taxation with sin in the eyes of religious Americans. This effort to cloak laissez-faire economics with holiness, and to elevate miserliness as inherently moral, is at odds with historic Christian principles.

Keynes and Ryan lived in a time when the well-being of the individual being inextricably linked to the betterment of the whole society was an ascendent idea. In that period, free-thinking people understood that miserliness and an open-ended definition of economic liberty both caused and prolonged the Great Depression. Certainly Keynes and Ryan understood that true economic freedom was tied to reasonableness, self-discipline and yes, social justice. And while they were imperfect in their applications of social justice, they were central players in pointing us in a better direction; a trend that lasted until the coming of a late twentieth century conservatism.

Now, a different set of thinkers seems to have America’s ear. That set includes neo-conservatives such as Robert P. George and Michael Novak who, their Catholicism notwithstanding, make the perverse case for the wealthy miser and call it liberty.

Opposition to the judicious use of taxation is not the Religious Right’s only economic poison pill. In the next post we shall examine how Robert P. George would have real prosperity crucified upon a cross of gold.

Related Posts:

The Miserly Society

Catholic Tea Party Economics

Catholic Right: Are the Neo-Cons Out and the Tea-Partiers In?

Catholic Neocons Distort Church Teachings on Economics