But about six of his swipes are so highly partisan and biased that they seem outside this pope’s normal tranquillity and generosity of spirit. Exactly these partisan phrases were naturally leapt upon by media outlets such as Reuters and the Guardian. Among these are “trickle-down theories,” “invisible hand,” “idolatry of money,” “inequality,” and trust in the state “charged with vigilance for the common good.”
Why is it then, asks Mary Anastasia O’Grady, one of the shrewdest observers of Latin America today, “that most of today’s desperate poor are concentrated in places where the state has gained an outsize role in the economy specifically on just such grounds”? Ever since Max Weber, Catholic social thought has been blamed for much of the poverty in many Catholic nations. Pope Francis inadvertently adds evidence for Weber’s thesis.
Truly, we would do well to have an economic historian set each of these highly inflammable and partisan charges in context, to explain what each meant to the author who originated them, as opposed to the partisan usage of today’s media. Allow me here to focus on the flaws in only one of the pope’s too-hasty claims: his careless mention of “trickle-down theories.” Actually, the fault here seems to have been exacerbated by a poor translation, as seen in the stark differences between the Vatican’s official English version and the pope’s original Spanish. The Spanish:
En este contexto, algunos todavía defienden las teorías del “derrame,” que suponen que todo crecimiento económico, favorecido por la libertad de mercado, logra provocar por sí mismo mayor equidad e inclusión social en el mundo.
Now compare the unfortunate English version:
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.
Note first that “trickle-down” nowhere appears in the original Spanish, as it would have done if the pope had meant to invoke the battle-cry of the American Democrats against the American Republicans. Professional translators of Spanish say the correct translation of derrame is “spillover” or “overflow.” Instead, the English translation introduces both a sharply different meaning and a harsh new tone into this passage. Only those hostile to capitalism and Reagan’s successful reforms, and to the policies of Republicans in general after the downward mobility of the Carter years, use the derisive expression “trickle-down,” intended to caricature what actually happened under Reagan, namely, dramatic upward mobility. (See, for example, my article “The Rich, the Poor, & the Reagan Administration.”)
Those who emphasize capitalism’s successes in raising the poor out of poverty do not use that term. They see the defining classical movement of capitalist economies as upward for the poor: higher employment rates, higher wages, measurable outbursts of personal initiative and new enterprises, unparalleled opportunities for upward mobility among the poor, immigrants moving out of poverty in less than ten years, the working-class “proletariat” becoming solid members of the middle class who can afford to own their own homes and support the higher education of their children.
There is no empirical evidence, Evangelii Gaudium says, for trust in such economic outcomes. It is “instead a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” In Argentina and other static systems with no upward mobility, this comment might be understandable. In nations with generations of reliable upward mobility, it is not true at all.