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Anthony Annett applies Catholic social teaching to the economics of rich and poor

Dr. Anthony Annett often refers to the teachings of popes, including Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. (Image credit: Twitter)

Virtue and economy go hand in hand in the work of Anthony Annett. In an era that has not outgrown neoliberal economics and the skyrocketing inequality of recent years, this is radical thinking. Annett recently published Cathonomic: how the Catholic tradition can create a fairer economy. The book is the fruit of his Catholic faith, his studies in philosophy and his work in the field of economics. This will be the impetus for future posts.

Annett makes references throughout the book to Catholic teaching, but, he says, in a quote from America Magazine:

You don’t have to be Catholic or you don’t have to be really religious to [appreciate] principles such as the universal destination of goods or the preferential option for the poor or the common good or integral human development.

Annett also says in an article he wrote for Commonweal:

Something has gone wrong over the past four decades. Despite record global prosperity, the common good is threatened by increasingly extreme economic and social dysfunction.

Anthony Annett in a world of neo-liberal economies

Anthony Annett’s background suits him to write about the currently dominant economic system. He studied economics at Trinity College Dublin and Columbia University in New York. As an economist, Annett held positions of global significance. The Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California lists the following:

  • 1998-2009, International Monetary Fund, Senior Economist,
  • 2009-2014, Speechwriter for IMF Managing Directors Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Christine Lagarde,
  • 2016 Assistant Professor at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs,
  • Currently, Climate Change and Sustainable Development Advisor, Earth Institute at Columbia University. Annett led the institute’s project to “strengthen the engagement of faith communities around the world in the climate change and sustainable development agenda.” (Sustainable Development Goals Academy webpage on Anthony Annett)
  • He is a member of the Board of Directors of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
  • Annett periodically lectures at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology.

Anthony Annett introduces himself on a Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology YouTube video, “Meet DSPT Fellow, Anthony Annett”. Here he says he has always been interested in Catholic teaching on social justice. About the financial crisis of 2007-2008, he says:

I really understood that this crisis was not just a financial crisis. It was an ethical crisis. It led to a lot of soul-searching.

Annett’s work for international institutions began the day after this revival. He also began an in-depth study of Catholic social teaching and moral philosophers like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. In partnership with the Vatican, he participated in the creation of Ethics in Action, dealing with ethics, economy and sustainable development. The ethical perspective in economics, he says in the video, “is really too lacking.”

Annett, a convert to Catholicism, was the director of a Catholic charities program for homeless men and a volunteer prison chaplain.

Economic Neoliberalism

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 marked a monumental shift in the American economy. Reagan took the economic theory of neoliberalism from the halls of educational institutions like the University of Chicago and put it into practice. Taxes went down and became less progressive. Government regulations have fallen. Corporations have found new freedoms to operate in their own interests and those of shareholders. These freedoms eventually included, under the business-one-person theory, the right to spend virtually unlimited amounts of money to influence elections and elected officials.

In neoliberalism, government was no longer thought to solve economic problems. In Reagan’s words, the government was the problem. People should be free to make their own choices about their money without government interference. Economists have touted the “invisible hand of the market”. Buyers and sellers, whether of goods, services, or labor, would make their own economic choices for their own benefit. The market, through the impersonal laws of supply and demand, would direct all these individual decisions towards the common good. It was a faith that amounted to a kind of idolatry.

The outcome in the US economy only seemingly validated wishful thinking. Growth followed the implementation of neoliberal theory. But the economic pie had grown bigger before that point. Annett shows that the era before neoliberalism, from the 1930s to the 1970s, actually developed more rapidly. (p. 117) More importantly, economic growth between the Great Depression years and 1980 favored the lower half of the economic scale. The wealth gap between rich and poor was narrowing. And government programs like the GI Bill and housing assistance plus high taxes on the wealthy – with no tax revolt that I’ve noticed – helped make this happen. In the years after 1980, growth moved in the opposite direction.

Virtue in economy, Catholic style

Anthony Annett wrote Cathonomic with a view to introducing into the economy, or in some way restoring what once existed, a sense of virtue. Neoliberal economists like Milton Friedman had opposed any orientation of economic activity towards moral goals. In contrast, Annett begins her analysis explicitly from two great moral teachers of the past, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. The Catholic teaching of social justice that began with Pope Leo XIII grew from and added to these. The Pope was responding to the upheavals in society and the suffering of the poor during the Industrial Revolution. Annett finds in this long tradition of social justice a valuable prescription for a hopeful future path for American and global economies.

I have written about the influence of two rival but complementary currents, progressive and centrist, of Catholic thought on the economy in the last century. (See a series of articles on James Chappel’s modern catholic.) Catholic thinkers and politicians paved the way for the rise of Christian Democratic politics and economics in Europe. In the United States, Msgr. John A. Ryan had a major intellectual influence on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Annett calls the period from the Great Depression to about the 1970s the “social democratic moment.” (p.112)

The moral agenda of a different era now includes environmental issues, globalization, and the inclusion of marginalized groups in decision-making processes. Yet even with a new global agenda, Annett sees value for economic issues in the once abandoned wisdom of the Catholic Church. Future articles will explore Anthony Annett’s thinking in more detail.

Praise for Cathonomics: how the Catholic tradition can create a fairer economy

Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank:

Economic policy can only be effective if it rests on the solid foundations of a system of shared values. Cathonomics provides an excellent account of how Catholic social teaching can help inform sustainable development and sound policies. This book should be read widely by policy makers on all sides.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ:

How does Pope Francis see the future of humanity? Here is the rich, expansive, and well-developed response from a thoughtful economist inspired by Catholic social thought.

Richard L. Trumka, AFL-CIO President, 2009-21:

In Cathonomics, former IMF economist Anthony Annett explains how the Catholic traditions of economic and social justice championed by Pope Francis offer a fundamental alternative to neoliberalism. Annett raises what working people have always known – that good individual lives are built on relationships with others, and that good and stable human societies are based on solidarity, not greed. Anyone looking for a humane way out of the current global crisis of neoliberalism should read this book.