Bernardo M. Villegas
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Loving the Poor This Christmas (Part 2)

          I know of Christian families who have the practice of bringing their very young children to regular visits to the poor.  This is a very effective means of educating children in the preferential option for the poor.  As early as possible, Christians should learn “to appreciate the poor in their goodness, in their experience in life, in their culture, and in their ways of living the faith.  True love is always contemplative and permits us to serve the other not out of necessity or vanity, but rather because he or she is beautiful above and beyond mere appearances. …Only on the basis of this real and sincere closeness can we properly accompany the poor on their path of liberation.  Only this will ensure that ‘in every Christian community the poor feel at home.”  (Pope Francis).  When the children of these families grow up, they will look at the poor with great respect and affection.  This is the reason why Vatican II exhorted parents to teach their children from their earliest education to be solicitous for the material and spiritual needs of their neighbor.  Children should especially realize that, as Pope Francis wrote “the greatest gift we can give to the poor is our friendship, our concern, our tenderness, our love for Jesus.  To receive Jesus is to have everything; to give him is to give the greatest gift of all.”  

    I would like to make special mention of Christians who can most directly address the structural roots of poverty.  As a professional economist, I must admit that in general our profession has been remiss in responding to the following plea of Pope Francis in “The Joy of the Gospel”:  “The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises.”  Indeed, there will always be need for the corporal works of mercy because it is difficult to avoid people being impoverished by natural calamities, wars, pandemics (as the whole world is experiencing today),  and economic and financial crises. That is why, as Pope Francis admits, “welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses.  A temporary response that is urgently needed in these times of the pandemic, when tens of millions of people all over the world have joined those with inadequate food, is to have civil society partner with the business sector to address the scandal cited by Pope Francis in which millions of people all over the world go to bed hungry everyday while literally billions of tons of food are being thrown away.  He called this as the “throw away culture.”  In Manila, as in many other cities of the world, there are initiatives of concerned citizens who are recycling the soon-to-expire and other surplus products of food manufacturing firms and restaurants in order to distribute them to those suffering from hunger in such institutions as orphanages, prisons, schools where the children of the poor study and require supplementary nutrition and other feeding clinics attached to public institutions. This is a laudable response to the very first corporal work of mercy.

   Pope Francis  points out, however, that  “as long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problem.  Inequality is the root of social ills.”  Indeed, the majority of economists (there were exceptions) gave both politicians and business leaders the excuse to propound the absolute autonomy of markets by spreading a distorted figure of the business man.  Forgetting that someone in business is also a human being who by his very nature is obliged to contribute to the common good in his work or occupation, microeconomic theory presented a caricature of the businessman or entrepreneur as someone exclusively engaged in the maximization of profit, to the exclusion of any other social objective.  This started with the reference to Adam Smith’s famous saying that it was not the benevolence of the baker that moves him to sell bread but to make a profit in doing so.  Then this reason for the invisible hand of the market given by Adam Smith took an even more dogmatic form with the saying of Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman who insisted that the only purpose of business is to make a profit. This reigning theory behind the Western form of free market capitalism became Gospel truth that led to the creation of capitalist monsters symbolized by Gordon Gekko of the Hollywood film “Wall Street” that made famous the aphorism “Greed is good.”  To sanitize this extreme theory of free market capitalism, some tried to make it more socially palatable by inventing the “trickle down” theory:  that economic growth resulting from the pursuit of maximum profit by business people will lead to a “trickle” down of material benefits to the poor.   This trickle down to the poorest for the poor never happened although there was some lifting of other boats by the rising tide.  It cannot be denied that especially in China, the move towards more freedom of economic enterprise by the liberalization of markets helped hundreds of millions to rise from mass poverty.  There are, however, still hundreds of millions in China and rest of the world who are still waiting for the benefits to trickle down to them.  There is no substitute to political and economic leaders applying policies and solutions that directly address the marginalization of the poor without having to wait for free markets to trickle down their benefits.  There is irreparable harm done to generations who go hungry and are denied the most basic needs of the body.

         Pope Francis, especially having seen at very close range  the failure of trickle-down economics in the whole of Latin America, cannot be clearer in his message to economic and political leaders who truly want to be followers of Christ:  “We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market:  Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth:  it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.  I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism (as occurred recently in Venezuela), but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.”  (To be continued).