So Home Depot founder Ken Langone, a Catholic, was on shaky theological ground when, on Monday, he complained to CNBC that the Pope is being mean to rich Americans because unlike rich people in other countries, American rich people are benefactors. Langone, who is worth an estimated $2.1 billion, says there is a “vast difference between the pope’s experience in Argentina and how we are in America.” CNBC even helpfully cites the right wing American Enterprise Institute to say that “In places like Argentina, what they call free enterprise is a combination of socialism and crony capitalism.”
I’m not sure which is worse: CNBC citing the AEI or failing to point out that the AEI is a conservative think tank and therefore disinclined to say anything negative about American capitalism.
Langone’s lament is born of this same denialism: that the Pope’s focus on economic inequality and the poor is off-putting to what he calls “capitalist benefactors,” and he cites the case of a “potential seven-figure donor” for the restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, who has been made hesitant by, as CNBC puts it, “statements from the pope criticizing market economies as ‘exclusionary,’ urging the rich to give more to the poor and criticizing a ‘culture of prosperity’ that leads some to become ‘incapable of feeling compassion for the poor.'”
Langone took his concerns to Cardinal Timothy Dolan:
“I’ve told the Cardinal, “Your Eminence, this is one more hurdle I hope we don’t have to deal with. You want to be careful about generalities. Rich people in one country don’t act the same as rich people in another country.'”
Dolan assured Langone that the pope loves rich people too.
Watch courtesy of CNBC:
One of us might look at this and say, “so Langone doesn’t want Pope Francis to tell the truth about capitalism.” Not only that, but how this comes across is as a sort of economic blackmail: you continue saying irresponsible things about the sincerity of rich people’s Christianity, then those rich people will show you exactly how they feel about turning the other cheek by withholding the funds to rebuild cathedrals. In other words, if you want our money, lie about capitalism, or, at the very least, stop telling the truth.
Oh wait…economic blackmail was not part of Jesus’ message, was it? No, and it is doubtful Jesus would have had anything positive to say about such tactics, which seem only to reinforce his criticisms of worldly wealth.
In fact, for some 2,000 years the biggest problem facing rich people has been how to “be” Christians without BEING Christians, if you know what I mean. The Republican Party has solved this problem in the simplest possible way: by restructuring Jesus’ gospel and turning his teachings about rich and poor on their head. Now rather than blessing the poor, Jesus is a capitalist’s capitalist who blesses the rich. Naturally, many capitalists are less than enthusiastic about the emergence of a Pope who seems to actually know what Jesus’ original message was, and not only takes it seriously, but is busily repeating it to all and sundry.
We should inquire here if American capitalism a net plus for people, say, in comparison to the Argentinean variety. Sure, as CNBC points out, “The United States ranks No. 1 in the Charities Aid Foundation’s most recent World Giving Index, with proportionally more Americans giving than the population of any other country.” But rich people donating to charities is not in itself a defense of American capitalism, especially when donations to charities are tax deductible.
It takes nothing away from Langone’s own well-attested philanthropy to point out that, for example, Robert Nardelli, former CEO of Home Depot received an obscene $131.2 million in 2006, including a $20 million severance payment in what Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch observed in 2007 “has been called the poster child of excessive executive pay and has prompted legislative steps toward reining in compensation.” That such compensation is not a thing of the past is demonstrated (as reported here in 2011) by Ford Motor CEO Alan Mulally’s pay package of $54.5 million. At the same time it was being reported that, “The owner of USA Today increased its CEO’s pay package by 80 percent to $7.9 million last year amid cutbacks in the struggling newspaper industry.”
Meanwhile, any increase AT ALL in minimum wage has been vigorously opposed. It should also be noted in this context that Home Depot was one of those corporations opposing, with Walmart, Washington D.C.’s Large Retailer Accountability Act, which would have required retailers to pay employees a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour, hardly a princely sum or even, as it is often called, a “living wage,” particularly when stood alongside a its CEO’s hundred million plus.
As Barney Frank said this fall on Meet the Press,
I do want to add one thing though to your question about those poor beleaguered bankers who have been forced to do so much to keep from not being able to pay their debts, that they can’t lend money. If they really are running businesses that are so stressed that they can’t do their basic work, why are they paying themselves so much money?
Or perhaps excessive CEO pay in the corporate world and on Wall Street is just another form of philanthropy that should be blessed by the pope, even as these same people advocate paying the average American worker starvation wages, not to mention their resistance to offering female executives equal pay?
These facts provide a clearer picture of American capitalism, a system in which crony capitalism plays no small part, whatever the AEI might pretend to the contrary (look at Wall Street). In America, as in Argentina, crony capitalism is how things get done.
I am not going too far out on a limb to say that if Langone wants us to believe that capitalism, as practiced in America, is benign, he is being hopelessly naive, or he thinks we are.
All these criticisms of Pope Francis and economics come back to Jesus. As Geza Vermes writes of Jesus’ message,
The pious Jew wanted to find out how to inherit eternal life, or in other words, the Kingdom of God (see Mark 9:43-47; Matt. 18:8-9). Jesus’ succinct answer was a summary appeal to the Decalogue, the religious and moral kernal of the Jewish religion (Mark 10:18; Matt. 19:17; Luke 18:20). Its observance was to be followed by the surrender of worldly good and entry into the company of those who were working under the leadership of Jesus for the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:21; Matt. 19:21; Luke 18:22).
The principle elucidated here, says Vermes, “is [the] absolute priority to be granted to the search for God, and the necessity to sever oneself from every attachment to wealth and all other secular values (Mark 10:23, 25; Matt. 19:23-24; Luke 18:24-25).” It is safe to say from observations of American capitalism in action, if not every rich person, that these principles are not being followed. Offshore bank accounts, tax dodging and the quest for tax loopholes – not to mention CEO compensation – do not demonstrate a detachment from wealth and secular values, but rather a pursuit of wealth and secular values.
Langone’s anonymous benefactor might be able to coerce the Catholic Church through his behavior but his withholding of funds does not improve the reputation of the rich or of capitalism, and more critically, economic blackmail is hardly an activity in which “benefactors” can be said to engage. If anything, Langone’s benefactor is proving the Pope’s point.
 Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (Penguin Books, 2003), 287.