Lester Holt of NBC News opened up the first of three presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with a segment he called “Achieving Prosperity,” and its purpose was to clarify each candidate’s plans to close the wealth gap between rich and poor in American society today:
“We’re calling this opening segment “Achieving Prosperity.” And central to that is jobs. There are two economic realities in America today. There’s been a record six straight years of job growth, and new census numbers show incomes have increased at a record rate after years of stagnation. However, income inequality remains significant, and nearly half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.”
First, Clinton responded by stating that she planned on investing in an economy of the future—technology, clean and renewable energy—and also argued she would fight to make the economy fairer, for example, for struggling families, women, and the working poor. On the other hand, Trump argued that he would stop other countries from stealing American jobs by renegotiating fairer trade deals. He also argued for a major tax cut for small and big businesses in order that they could use those profits to create more jobs. Trump explained his tax cut this way:
“Under my plan, I’ll be reducing taxes tremendously, from 35 percent to 15 percent for companies, small and big businesses. That’s going to be a job creator like we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan. It’s going to be a beautiful thing to watch. Companies will come. They will build. They will expand. New companies will start. And I look very, very much forward to doing it.”
Holt asked Clinton to respond:
“Well, I think that trade is an important issue. Of course, we are 5 percent of the world’s population; we have to trade with the other 95 percent. And we need to have smart, fair trade deals. We also, though, need to have a tax system that rewards work and not just financial transactions. And the kind of plan that Donald has put forth would be trickle-down economics all over again. In fact, it would be the most extreme version, the biggest tax cuts for the top percent of the people in this country than we’ve ever had. I call it trumped-up trickle-down, because that’s exactly what it would be. That is not how we grow the economy. We just have a different view about what’s best for growing the economy, how we make investments that will actually produce jobs and rising incomes.
I think we come at it from somewhat different perspectives. I understand that. You know, Donald was very fortunate in his life, and that’s all to his benefit. He started his business with $14 million, borrowed from his father, and he really believes that the more you help wealthy people, the better off we’ll be and that everything will work out from there. I don’t buy that.”
Clinton and Trump argued against the others’ solution to the income inequality gap for a period of time. Holt took a moment to clear the air and then clearly pointed out their policy disagreement: “The fundamental difference between the two of you concerns the wealthy. Secretary Clinton, you’re calling for a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans. I’d like you to further defend that. And, Mr. Trump, you’re calling for tax cuts for the wealthy. I’d like you to defend that.”
Trump: “Well, I’m really calling for major jobs, because the wealthy are going [to] create tremendous jobs. They’re going to expand their companies. They’re going to do a tremendous job.”
Clinton: “… as I said, trumped-up trickle-down. Trickle-down did not work. It got us into the mess we were in, in 2008 and 2009. Slashing taxes on the wealthy hasn’t worked. And a lot of really smart, wealthy people know that. And they are saying, hey, we need to do more to make the contributions we should be making to rebuild the middle class. I don’t think top-down works in America.
I think building the middle class, investing in the middle class, making college debt-free so more young people can get their education, helping people refinance their–their debt from college at a lower rate. Those are the kinds of things that will really boost the economy. Broad-based, inclusive growth is what we need in America, not more advantages for people at the very top.”
Clinton’s and Trump’s plans on how to “achieve prosperity” for American society as a whole couldn’t have been more stark. Clinton’s political-economy puts the American worker and his or her family at the center of our society, and Trump puts the wealthy and elite at the center.
A public policy that puts the wealthy and elite at the center of society is what Pope Francis calls, “an economy of exclusion.” An economy of exclusion is a consequence of the misguided logic of trickle-down economics that Trump defended in the first presidential debate. Pope Francis specifically attacked this kind of free market ideology in his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World).
Pope Francis argued that we as Catholics and all people of good will must say “no to an economy of exclusion”:
“Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers.” 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. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us (Evangelii Gaudium, pars. 53 – 54).”
Donald Trump’s trickle-down economics should be of concern to American Catholics. As Hillary Clinton pointed out, it’s not only trickle-down economics he’s advocating, it’s trickle-down on steroids.
Pope Francis is not alone in speaking out against a free market ideology that degrades human dignity and participation in society; so have the Popes that came before him. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict criticized American capitalism for putting profits and greed before the dignity of the human person and the theology of work.
In fact, there is a tradition of Catholic social teaching that argues we must use the “preferential option for the poor” as our organizing principle. Trump, however, argues that the preferential option should be for the rich.
Trump’s concern is not for the poor, much less the universal dignity of us all. Trump’s concern is but for himself, and for those wealthy and elite persons who believe only they are worthy—based on the worth of their wealth—to decide who gets to participate in our economy and who does not.
Trump’s economy, from the perspective of Catholic social teaching, is an economy of exclusion, and it competes in human degradation, particularly the degradation of the poor, the unemployed, and those whom are most marginalized in our economy today.
And as Catholics, we must say no.