Can “cathonomics” produce a just and sustainable world?
The common good is an old idea that Pope Francis insisted on repeatedly bringing up after arriving at the Vatican in 2013, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Echoing Francis, the former Fund economist’s new book international monetary Tony Annett, Cathonomic, argues that our economy has become deadly for many people precisely because it so often works against our efforts to work for the common good. It also offers an alternative framework, based on the spiritual principles of Catholic social teaching.
During a recent interview for Shareable, Annett sat down with Elias Crim of Ownership Matters to discuss the main focus of the book.
Some questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
Elias Crim: You are a professional economist. Tell us your idea of the state of your profession right now and how your view of it has evolved over the years.
Tony Annet: I earned my doctorate in economics from Columbia University in 1998 and spent a lot of time studying neoclassical economics. I had very little exposure to Catholic social teaching at the time.
A Jesuit priest gave me a book on the subject. I took a look at it and my first reaction was, this seems very well intentioned, but it’s a bit naive. It was the 90s, after all, then the neoliberal 90s, as they are called, and then in 1998 I went to work at the IMF. In 2009, I became the CEO’s speechwriter.
The trajectory changed for me after the global financial crisis of 2008-2009. While most economists were trying to understand the financial interconnections of the economy and come up with technical solutions, for me it was fundamentally a moral and ethical crisis, a crisis of greed and complete disregard for the impact of decisions individualists on society as a whole.
Elias Crim: Many non-Catholics, even many Catholics, are not aware that there is Catholic social thought. How would you define it?
Tony Annet: Catholic social teaching is a series of papal encyclicals. Those with a social (rather than merely theological) focus began in 1891 with a document titled Rerum Novarum (“New Things”) of Pope Leo XIII. He was looking at the economic and social upheavals of the industrial revolution, which was something new in the world.
In the Catholic tradition, there are timeless moral principles that can be applied to economics, going back to the Hebrew Scriptures, to the teachings of Jesus. — Cathonomic author, Anthony Annett
Catholic moral principles go back in a different direction to Aristotle’s virtue ethics, and Thomas Aquinas’s high synthesis of Christianity and ethics.
So the groundwork was there, but what wasn’t there was applying those kinds of principles to the modern circumstances of the economy at the time. Pope Leo was concerned about the upheaval as workers left the land and crowded into the factories, with very unfair conditions for low wages, long working hours and other injustices.
Since then, other encyclicals address issues leading us through the Great Depression, the post-World War II period of decolonization and up to the global financial crisis of 2008, with the pope’s famous encyclical Benedict XVI Caritas in Truththen in 2015, the document of Pope Francis, Laudato Si’speaking of the greatest challenge we face today, namely the environmental crisis, which undermines the very conditions for human flourishing.
Elias Crim: I thought we could quickly touch on some of your 10 key principles of CST, putting them into everyday terms. I begin with the great, the common good.
Tony Annet: The common good goes back to Aristotle. And in a nutshell, in a sentence, the common good is the good of our shared social endeavors that transcends the good of each individual and cannot be divided into the individual goods that compose it. It’s basically the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We are linked together and community, linked to each other intimately. And that includes the economic sphere.
Elias Crim: What about this concept of integral human development?
Tony Annet: It is simply the good of the whole person and of each person. Thus, each person means that you cannot exclude anyone from the common good. But the whole person means you want the development of all people across all dimensions of human flourishing.
This therefore includes the economy, the social, the political, but also the emotional, the aesthetic, the religious. I would say you need the material basis of that, which includes food, clean water, sanitation, healthcare, education, clean energy, housing, all of those things, those rights economic fundamentals. If you don’t have them, you are prevented from realizing who you are meant to become.
Elias Crim: And integral ecology?
Tony Annet: This is the most recent principle of Catholic social teaching, coming from Pope Francis. It teaches that the way we treat the environment and the way we treat our fellow human beings are intimately linked to each other. This is what Francis calls the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.
If we mistreat the planet, through pollution or by ignoring climate change, we are hurting the poor, because the poor are on the front lines of climate change. And it also goes the other way. If you hurt the poor, you end up hurting the environment, because you show a kind of disdain and great disdain for the panoply and beauty of the natural world.
Elias Crim: OK, here’s one of the big ones: solidarity.
Tony Annet: I would say that Pope John Paul II gave the best definition with the idea that we are all responsible for all, that we are connected together as a human family. And in a globalized world, this extends to every human person in every corner of the world. It recognizes our interdependence, it calls for a moral response to that in interdependence.
Elias Crim: How about reciprocity and gratuity.
Tony Annet: This means that you can both give and seek benefits for yourself. In the tradition of Adam Smith, there is the idea that if everyone acts out of self-interest, you will achieve the common good. Catholic social teaching says that is not the case.
But if you actively seek to give the other person a social benefit, expecting nothing in return, you might receive something in return, such as the donation process. It is therefore reciprocity in gratuity. In a nutshell, these are human-level principles, integrating ideas of brotherhood and friendship into every economic transaction.
Elias Crim: OK, here is one that is sometimes a hot potato, the universal destination of goods.
Tony Annet: The universal destination of goods is an overriding principle of Catholic social teaching, as it relates to economic ethics, and basically says that the goods of the Earth belong to everyone, without exclusion, without exception, not just the wealthy. . It goes back to the very beginning of the Hebrew scriptures where you have principles like the Sabbath, like leaving the gleaning of your field for the poor. And debt relief, every seven years. And in the early church, Saint Ambrose saying that the goods of the Earth belong to the poor, not to the rich. And if you hoard goods, you hoard goods that belong to the poor.
Some people say it looks like communism. What I would say no to, it’s not communism, it’s Christianity. That’s what we are Christians. As Pope John Paul II said, private property always comes with a social mortgage.
Elias Crim: What about the preferential option for the poor?
Tony Annet: This is really linked to the universal destination of goods and to the principle that God is particularly close to the poor. We say that as Christians we are called to see the face of Christ in the poor. And as Matthew 25 says, not only that, but our eternal salvation depends on how we treat the poor.
Do we feed the hungry? Do we give drink to those who are thirsty? Do we visit prisoners? Do we wear nudes? Thus, the preferential option of the poor says that any economic decision-making must first and foremost consider how it affects the poorest people in society.
Elias Crim: Finally, Tony, what do you think of how the principles of CSE – whether officially declared or not – are in fact already committed to the public domain and have been for some time. I am thinking in particular of the context of the UN’s sustainable development goals.
Tony Annet: When Pope Francis visited the United States in 2015, he addressed the UN the morning they endorsed the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and not by accident. These goals resonate deeply with Catholic social teaching. They align with the common aspiration for things like zero poverty and hunger, a right to education for all up to secondary level, a right to health care for all, gender equity, drinking water and sanitation, clean energy, reducing inequalities, protecting biodiversity and land and water, sustainable consumption and production.
If you go back to earlier history, it’s a similar story with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 1940s.
I would also like to acknowledge here that the principles of CST are not so well known, even among Catholics, so there is a lot of work to be done, both with Catholics and non-Catholics. You don’t have to be Catholic, you don’t have to accept the theology and beliefs of the Catholic Church to accept principles like the common good and solidarity and the universal destination of goods. But I think there is a need for a new social democratic moment that can be informed by these principles.
Cathonomic is out now. Learn more and find a copy here.