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Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Headshot

The Marx Brothers? Pope Francis and Thomas Piketty Both Want to Redistribute Wealth

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What does it mean when the world hears the same message from the Catholic Pontiff and a French economist? Both Pope Francis and Thomas Piketty are saying, in different ways, that the trajectory of unchecked modern capitalism is toward greater and greater wealth inequality, and the nations of the world need to tackle this with much greater wealth redistribution.

One thing it doesn't mean is that they are both Marxists despite what their bloviating conservative critics say.

On April 28, Pope Francis tweeted, "Inequality is the root of social evil." A few days later the Pope expanded on that point in a speech to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the heads of major U.N. agencies who were meeting in Rome. The Pope made it clear that economic injustice, what he calls the "economy of exclusion," is not just a failure of charity, but a systemic fail that must be comprehensively addressed. He called for the U.N. to act to tackle "structural causes of poverty and hunger, attain more substantial results in protecting the environment, ensure dignified and productive labor for all, and provide appropriate protection for the family."

But what made the headlines, of course, was that the Pope specifically called for "the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State."

So immediately Rush Limbaugh pounced, "That's Marxism, that's socialism."

No, Mr. Limbaugh. That's Christianity.

It is very interesting to me that sound Christianity and sound economics can start to converge.

Economist Thomas Piketty, in his much-lauded book Capital in the Twenty-First Century also calls for wealth redistribution through taxation as a way to deal with capitalism's inevitable increase of economic inequality.

Yes, inevitable.

According to Piketty, a primary reason for rising income disparity is the integral relationship between capitalism and inequality, captured in his r > g, that is, the rate of return on investment is shown to be greater than economic growth. Given how well-known Piketty and the clarity of his economic theory are becoming, r > g may soon be as famous as Einstein's E=mc2.

Clarity about the reasons for our disastrous rise in income inequality, an inequality Piketty compares to the vastly inegalitarian "Gilded Age" of the 19th century, is the last thing political and religious conservatives want.

So, naturally, according to conservatives, this clear economic analysis must be Marxism.

Ross Douthat astonishingly used Easter and the resurrection to warn that "Karl Marx is back from the dead."

Actually, Piketty is caustic about Marx, whose "apocalyptic end to capitalism" (239) never came true, though he thinks Marx asked "an important question" concerning "the unprecedented concentration of wealth during the Industrial Revolution" (255).

"Hey, why all this inequality?" is a crucial question today. It's a question Pope Francis is raising, and it is a question Thomas Piketty is raising. But the answer is not Marxist.

The answer, in both cases, is theological. That's right. In my view (and not Piketty's, I would assume) where this economist's book is truly revolutionary, and a theological resource, is that Piketty believes this rising income inequality is not economic determinism, about which we should be "wary," but instead deeply political. Thus, he writes, "The resurgence of inequality after 1980 is due largely to the political shifts of the past several decades, especially in regard to taxation and finance" (455).

This is a theological resource because what human beings created, human beings can change. Capitalism is not natural, it is made up of thousands upon thousands of the ethical or unethical choices human beings make.

Pope Francis also thinks contemporary economic inequality is politically created, not 'natural," and he calls on governments to reverse its devastating, even lethal effects. In his earlier "apostolic exhortation," Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope wrote,"[T]oday we have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills." Because of such an economy, "masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized." He adds,"I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor."

In that document, the Pope was very critical of free market economics and dismissive of its defenders. "In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world." The Pope sharply critiqued such theories "which have never been confirmed by facts," and which express "a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system."

And now along comes Thomas Piketty with some facts, and suddenly we can see where these two critics of modern capitalism and its worst effects startlingly agree.

We can also see how they recommend a similar remedy: wealth redistribution. Piketty recommends that nations significantly increase the progressivity of both income and wealth taxation. Pope Francis recommends "the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State." That sounds like income and wealth taxation to me.

Can this current system change? The Pope thinks so.

In his speech to the U.N. delegates, Pope Francis reminded them of the encounter between "between Jesus Christ and the rich tax collector Zacchaeus, as a result of which Zacchaeus made a radical decision of sharing and justice, because his conscience had been awakened by the gaze of Jesus." (Luke 19:1-10)

It will take a lot of "radical" decisions by a lot of people to change this system, but change we must. And it must be a conversion not both mind and heart.