By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Both the Democrats and the Republicans put economic issues in the opening pages of their respective parties’ platforms — an indication of how seriously they take economic policy in its potential appeal to voters.
The U.S. bishops did so 30 years ago in their pastoral letter "Economic Justice for All," outlining a series of "urgent problems of today" that still resonate more than a generation later.
"The mobility of capital and technology makes wages the main variable in the cost of production," the bishops said in 1986. "Overseas competitors with the same technology but with wage rates as low as one-tenth of ours put enormous pressure on U.S. firms to cut wages, relocate abroad, or close. U.S. workers and their communities should not be expected to bear these burdens alone."
"The United States is still the world’s economic giant," they added. "Decisions made here have immediate effects in other countries; decisions made abroad have immediate consequences for steelworkers in Pittsburgh, oil company employees in Houston, and farmers in Iowa."
They also noted environmental issues well before Pope Francis’ encyclical "Laudato Si’": "The resources of the earth have been created by God for the benefit of all, and we who are alive today hold them in trust. This is a challenge to develop a new ecological ethic which will help shape a future that is both just and sustainable."
Even though it’s located deeper in the document, the U.S. bishops’ current version of "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" declares: "Economic decisions and institutions should be assessed according to whether they protect or undermine the dignity of the human person. Social and economic policies should foster the creation of jobs for all who can work with decent working conditions and just wages. Barriers to equal pay and employment for women and those facing unjust discrimination must be overcome."
The GOP platform states, "Republicans consider the establishment of a pro-growth tax code a moral imperative." It adds, "Government cannot create prosperity, though government can limit or destroy it."
The Democrats, as might be expected, have a different view, especially on government’s role. "We will fight to secure equal pay for women, which will benefit all women and their families, particularly women of color who are disproportionately impacted by discriminatory pay practices, and against other factors that contribute to the wage gap," the Democratic platform says. "We will incentivize companies to share profits with their employees on top of wages and pay increases, while targeting the workers and businesses that need profit-sharing the most."
While Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has proposed a substantial investment in U.S. infrastructure, her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, in a seeming break with Republican economic orthodoxy, has proposed an infrastructure investment twice as big, to be paid with bonds.
"As with all things with both of them, I would have to see more specifics," said Joe Fahey, an economics professor at Manhattan College and chair of Catholic Scholars for Social Justice. "But from a Catholic theological perspective, there is clear Catholic teaching that holds that government plays a very positive role in the economy."
The key economic issue not getting any play thus far in the election, according to Fahey, is poverty. "I recognize that platforms are platforms and candidates are candidates," he said, although he lauded the Democrats’ plank on poverty, which "reads like something out of the Catholic bishops. It’s quite good. It talks about working families and raising up the middle class. That’s great from a Catholic perspective; society is measured by how we treat the most vulnerable among us." The Republican platform, Fahey added, "doesn’t even mention it."
One of the issues that’s gone missing in action is "lack of equality from an economic standpoint," said Tammy Leonard, an associate professor of economics at the University of Dallas.
How to address it is "not an easy question, that’s for sure," Leonard said. "We can look at the minimum wage, and there are those who say raise it to $15 an hour across the board for the United States.
"Most economists agree it’s going to have negative effect at least in the short term and maybe in the long term," Leonard continued. But "if you put your Catholic social justice hat on … if you believe in a just wage, as Catholic social teaching says, we should support a just wage."
Leonard said, "The poor and the marginalized are not in a fair negotiating position when it comes to wages. … The poor are making less money every year, they’re losing money every year" because of inflation.
The GOP platform chides President Barack Obama for not having a single year in his presidency with an economic growth rate of 3 percent. "Oh, gee, how slow the recovery has been," is a common refrain that Richard Stock, an economics professor at the University of Dayton, says he’s heard.
"But one of the more remarkable aspects is that the U.S. has recovered at a far more rapid rate than other of the advanced industrial countries" since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, Stock told Catholic News Service. "The other countries followed the wrong set of economic policies post-recession. The United States went ahead and enacted fiscal and monetary policies that were appropriately expansionary."
As a result of the European Union’s stringent monetary policies, Greek nearly defaulted on its debts and threatened a "Grexit," and Great Britain’s voters authorized a "Brexit." The reason the U.S. economy hasn’t snapped back more, Stock said, is because Republicans in control of Congress, in their own quest for debt reduction, haven’t approved further stimulus funds since the Democratic-led Congress authorized $787 billion in 2009.
Leonard asked, "How to do we allow for globalization?" Both Clinton and Trump have come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty, which requires congressional approval. Trump, in promoting an "America first" agenda, said he also would rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994.
"Pulling away from the world is not to the benefit of the majority of people in the world," Leonard told CNS. "Yes, globalization is good, trade is good, but not without balance. … Catholic social teaching tells us to care about the human dignity of everyone. There are people who are hurting and they’re compelled to maintain a good life for themselves and their family."
Leonard said uncertainty gives business jitters. "Uncertainty is bad," she noted. "We have uncertainty in the Middle East. We have uncertainty with Brexit," and in the political process itself; "Trump is the most erratic of the candidates."
Stock focused on unequal tax burdens, recalling when 1968 presidential aspirant George Romney made public his tax returns dating back to when he was the president to American Motors Corp. "There was an effective tax rate at 45 percent for him," Stock said. The uppermost tax rates started falling during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The difference between (2012 GOP presidential nominee) Mitt Romney’s tax rate and his father’s tax rate is just a symbolic aspect of that. PricewaterhouseCoopers figured Mitt Romney’s tax rate between 1990 and 2009 to be 20.2 percent.
"You look at George Romney’s salary relative to his workers, how much higher his salary was than his workers, (it) wasn’t as great compared to today. And in addition, George was taxed at a much higher that than he would have today," Stock said.
Fahey said, "The one bright light I saw in the Republican platform talks about expanding employee stock ownership plans, and their purpose is so the workers can become capitalists." However, Fahey added, "Real capitalists don’t work. The capital works for them."
A similar approach. Fahey told CNS, is in the co-op movement, estimating that 130 million Americans are members of some kind of co-op, from grocery stores to rural electric utilities.
"Pope Francis has made several references to worker cooperatives in which he strongly endorses them," Fahey said, adding that Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice has a task force on the subject to prepare a statement on worker cooperatives "that we hope will find its way into Catholic teaching."
"If the employees can own enough stock, they can run the company. So that in a way it may be a back-door way of reforming capitalism in terms of worker ownership. I wonder if the Republicans have thought that through," Fahey said. "I believe in building bridges. I think there’s real fertile discussion with Republicans and conservatives. Conservative should support worker cooperatives. The workers become self-governing, you know?
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