What would Francis do?
To many in the U.S., including conservatives who embrace the pope as one of their own on social issues, that question is akin to asking what would Jesus do, only with fresher answers.
The pontiff used his first, personally authored apostolic exhortation last week to provide guidance on what he would do about the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Two days later, President Barack Obama weighed in on the same subject in his third speech about growing income inequality in the U.S.
The pope was more dramatic, prescriptive and moral. The president had to couch his analysis in self-interest, this being America governed by a Congress unmoved by the poor being blessed and inheriting the earth.
“The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed,” the president said Dec. 4, and it is “this generation’s task” to repair it. This duty has been largely ignored by this generation and this administration, caught up as it had to be in rescuing the financial titans who got us into the worst recession since World War II. The slow recovery that followed worked to the detriment of just about everyone else.
Obama tried to link the fate of the richest 1 percent, who earn a larger share of income now than at any time since the Gilded Age, to the well-being of those at the opposite end of the spectrum. Who is going to buy their products and be trusted to clean their houses if the working poor don’t have a chance of achieving the American Dream?
The pope took a different tack: He urged governments to stop letting the powerful “feed upon the powerless.” Add, he says, another commandment -- “thou shalt not” have an economy of exclusion and inequality, because “such an economy kills.”
On the heels of the pope and the president came a powerful front-page series in the New York Times about an 11-year-old girl named Dasani, one of the 22,000 desperately poor children in New York who live in the shadow of the incredibly wealthy. In his speech, Obama described the lot of such a child: Born into the bottom 20 percent, she has less than a 5 percent chance of making it to the top, and she is 10 times more likely to be stuck in place.
Dasani has spunk and intelligence, and she runs like the wind, but she doesn’t have a life outside school. She lives with eight people amid rats, roaches, mold, a mop bucket for a toilet, filthy showers and with no place to call her own but a corner of a falling-apart mattress on the floor. At first, her classmates didn’t know that she is one of only six homeless kids in their midst, but it became more obvious as her clothes got dirty and there was no place to wash them. As the oldest, Dasani tries to protect her siblings from the worst degradation: being labeled as “shelter boogies” because they have neither tissues nor someone who cares enough to wipe their noses.
The pope warns that the poor could rise up if we don’t fix the chasm between living like Dasani and living, relatively, like a king.
Francis has shed some of the luxurious trappings of the papacy. He lives in a modest guest house rather than the Apostolic Palace, travels in a Ford Focus, and goes out incognito at night to minister to the poor. He wants a church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets.” He suspended a bishop for spending millions of euros on a luxurious residence in Germany.
The president can’t make such gestures. He occasionally visits a shelter or a food bank. He gave his income-equality speech at a community center in a blighted neighborhood not far from the White House. His ministering is largely confined to recalcitrant members of Congress who claim they might do something if only he would wine and dine them. Irrationally hated for something as mildly redistributionist as the health-care law, he must tiptoe around poverty (he rarely says the word) or be labeled a Kenyan socialist, or be called a man with “Marxism coming out of his mouth,” as the pope was last week by Rush Limbaugh.
The pope warned of the smug rich who blame the poor for their plight. “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” he asked.
Good thing the Vatican doesn’t get cable. Last week, the pope would have choked watching anchors dismiss the notion of a boost in the minimum wage, as if protesting fast-food workers were asking for more welfare, not catching the early bus to stand on their feet eight hours doing unforgiving, repetitive labor. Where would a wage increase end? they asked on every channel, apparently all equipped with the same talking points. Why stop at $15? Why not go to $35, $100,000 an hour? The absurd is the last refuge of a pundit without an argument.
While the well-off blame the working poor for remaining poor, they cut miles of slack to the 1 percent. At the end of October, the chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., Jamie Dimon, had to pay another $13 billion in fines on top of billions for misdeeds such as the London Whale debacle. The thought that he should be fired or his outsized pay cut was treated as if you’d asked him to shine his own shoes.
The pope begged for leaders who are disturbed by the “lives of the poor,” and Obama showed that he shared some of that outrage, shaming the House into extending unemployment insurance on Monday.
It would be so satisfying to take Limbaugh, the editors at the American Spectator and National Review, the hosts of every financial news show and Senator Ted Cruz to Dasani’s one-room home and ask if it would be Marxism to save her. We are a better country than the one that ignores her.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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