The Dignity of the Individual in 21st Century Economies

A spate of recent economics books confronts the deleterious role contemporary political economies have on the dignity of the individual. The term “dignity” here is being used in the same Catholic social teaching uses it. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the inherent dignity of each individual requires an economy to treat each individual as “ends to be served by the institutions that make up the economy, not means to be exploited for more narrowly defined goals.” These recent books by Mariana Mazzuacato, Quinn Slobodian, and Shoshanna Zuboff all paint a picture of economies that exploit individuals for personal profit. As such, each analysis in its own way contributes to a discussion that must be broadened quickly. Specifically, which goals should twenty-first-century political economies aim for that do not simultaneously deny the agency of individuals and their inherent dignity? Which current problems in contemporary political economies were created and advanced by these “narrowly defined goals”? To what extent do these authors offer prescriptions for dealing with these problems?

My purposes in this particular post will not be to begin answering those questions. Nor is my purpose yet to review each author’s contribution to this discussion. Instead, allow me here to contextualize the historical environment from which these texts emerge, and to sketch a broad framework within which I will review the relationship between these works and the questions posed above.

Many recent critiques on the relationship between Western political systems and their economies have largely been advanced by the faults in economic theory that the Great Recession revealed. One such critique is the continued presence of and increases in inequality. Of these critiques, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is perhaps the most obvious example. Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality also offered insight into the contemporary reality of inequality. Other substantial contributions would include those by Branko Milanovic, Timothy Noah, and Jared Berenstein among many others. The topic of inequality has been one of the most popular topics on the intellectual clearing house Project Syndicate, and is a consistent object of research attention at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), The World Bank, and The United Nations (UN). Inequality also remains popular on the left of American politics, garnering policy proposals from Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden. The progressive publication The Nation even published an article on the “inequality industry.” Lastly, the existence and experience of inequality among America’s middle-class is often posited as one of the most significant contributing factors to Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency. Understanding the effect of inequality on societies and their individuals, and solutions to address its growth, are thus entrenched discourse on political economy.

Central Banking is another faultline in the critique discourse on Western political economy. The Great Recession’s onset inspired a wave of debate on the appropriate reactions to it by central banks. Traditional Keynesian policy commanded at the time to cut interest rates in order to stimulate demand that had fallen in the Great Recession’s wake. Keynesian policy also commanded policymakers to fill in the fall in private demand with public spending in spite of any deficits that spending created or increased. For many conservative thinkers and policymakers, such fiscal and monetary policy responses were interpreted as more threatening to a failing economy than they were helpful: cutting interest rates would debase the dollar and lead to a Weimar-like cycle of hyper-inflation some asserted; increased deficits will slow growth and crowd-out private investment demand. The ideological left, however, held fast to its Keynesian philosophy, often asserting that even more stimulus was needed than was otherwise given. The Keynesians ultimately won and their central banking ideology was vindicated by staving off another depression while undermining the veracity of much conservative economic orthodoxy in its wake. The natural experiments to proceed between the EU and America proved that government spending during times of crisis does not cause growth to slow, but it instead saves it from falling further. Conservative monetary policy orthodoxy was also disproven: cutting interest rates did not lead to hyperinflation or otherwise debase the dollar. From this experience, several debates about the role of monetary policy and central banking in a depressed or reseccion-experiencing political economy generally have emerged. these new debates include renewed attention to heterodox monetary theories such as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and orthodox regulation such as antitrust.

One way to interpret the source of these critiques is as being a concern for the dignity of the individual. Most criticisms of the advance of inequality today, however, are usually only implicitly about the inherent unfairness of the economy for the individual. Yet the objective measures of inequality speak to its deleterious effects on individual dignity. The speed and reality of the disproportionate increase in wealth accumulation amongst the wealthiest people come at the expense of its non-accumulation amidst the non-wealthy. In turn, the denial of wealth to the non-wealthy supermajority creates a material and moral crisis; the non-accumulation of wealth and dispossession of other resources (education, healthcare, access to banking services, civic institutions, etc.)  entrenches social class position across generations that further denies opportunities for social mobility. In countenancing an economic system that oversees such non-accumulation and dispossession when it does not have to, our society implicitly accepts a system that explicitly denies agency and dignity to individuals.

An advance in wealth and income inequality similarly implies the use of individuals as means and not ends. The resistance to Keynesian policy during the onset and reaction to the Great Recession, and the continued insistence on such policy ideology to this day in spite of the obvious undermining of these ideas that the reality of the crisis provided and  described above, may largely be interpreted as a resistance to offering dignity to the most affected individuals of the crisis. Cutting interest rates, for example, are intended to increase the demand for loans by individuals and small businesses in order to invest, spend, and make ends meet as may be needed. Resisting interest-rate cuts for fear of non-existent inflation, therefore, constitutes a denial of resources to individuals for their self-realization. The same could be said for the deficit cries one observed when others argue for increases in the federal minimum wage (which would benefit workers over owners), or extensions of unemployment or other forms of federal aid (e.g., the programs for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF], the Supplemental Nutritional Assitance Program [SNAP], and fears of the insolvency of social security). Each of these programs offers essential resources to those acutely experiencing the worst effects of economic downturns and inequality. The insistence on the validity of these proposals and their continued deference to them further the implication that the individuals who benefit from these problems are not important; that there are others in the economy more worthy of aid, help, and attention.

It is thus that the Great Recession has compelled some valuable and warranted introspection of today’s political economy. From the Great Recession the faults in macroeconomic theory were made manifest; the political system’s deliberate choice of who benefits from the system and who doesn’t obvious; the disregard for the dignity of the people apparent. To many observers of Catholic social teaching, these outcomes are not wholly unexpected. The church’s seven themes on of Catholic Social Teaching all address elements of the human experience that are inextricably framed by the political system of a nation and its economy. Since the recession, the USCCB has produced much material on topics such as the Dignity of Work, Labor, and the importance of Solidarity in the face of a political economy ostensibly benefiting from the advance of individualism. It is such calls for awareness by the USCCB and other groups religiously affiliated and secular that have emerged as the most forceful challengers to an entrenched paradigm seemingly unfit or uninterested in human fulfillment for the majority.

The works by Mazzucato, Slobodian, and Zuboff emerge form this paradigm. Each author contributes an important element to this new discourse. To what extent does each author contribute to a more complete awareness of how and why this harmful paradigm has emerged? What kinds of solutions are offered, or which solutions are appropriate to interpret from their work if no such prescription is made available by them? If each is making public topics normally reserved for the confines of academic and jargon-laced journals inaccessible to general reading audiences, what might we predict about the future ethical clashes that will emerge in the public discourse if we can predict at all?

In the coming weeks, I hope to slowly draw these lines of inquiry together in a way that makes sense. I propose to do this using the social teaching of the Catholic church as my guide. Identifying the complementarity between these authors and those social teachings, as well as where they diverge, will ideally aid in framing a reader’s engagement with the ethical dimension of economics that I believe is emerging and important to elevate in the teaching and discussion of contemporary problems in any political economy.

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