Lest anyone think that American politics is in any danger of receding back to pre-2016 partisan boundaries, Tucker Carlson used his Fox News segment last week to go after hedge fund manager and GOP mega-donor Paul Singer… for his free-market economics. Catholics should be thrilled by this development.
Carlson condemns what he calls “vulture capitalism,” an extreme form of capitalism in which wealthy individuals and corporations increase their wealth by preying on functioning but smaller companies and communities. Singer, Carlson says, exemplifies this vulture capitalism; he has made billions of dollars by identifying struggling economies and companies, buying up their debt under the pretense of being helpful, and then hounding them for repayment at hefty interest rates.
The Fox News segment specifically targeted a deal Singer rammed through in the little town of Sydney, Nebraska, in 2015. Even as huge swathes of the Midwest are suffering from economic collapse, Sydney was thriving. This town of just over 6,200 people used to be the headquarters of Cabela’s, a hunting, fishing, and outdoors retail store with locations around the country. Before 2015, Cabela’s was the economic center of the town, offering well-paying jobs that allowed people to stay in Sydney, move up in the company, and build stable, fulfilling lives in their small community.
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Then Singer made his move. From his office in New York City, Singer bought an ownership stake in Cabela’s and pushed the company to sell out to a major competitor, Bass Pro Shops in 2016. The merger looked like a good business opportunity for stakeholders—which meant, of course, for Singer. Cabela’s stock went up, and, just days after the merger, Singer sold his stake and made $90 million dollars.
According to extreme capitalists, this is a happy ending. Value was created! Money was made! But for the residents of Sydney, Nebraska, the sale of Cabela’s was devastating. Bass Pro obviously didn’t need a national headquarters in Sydney, so many of the town’s citizens found themselves unemployed. Housing prices went into free fall. People who didn’t move immediately after the merger ended up stuck owning depreciated homes in a town with no jobs and no economic opportunities—and one of the few remaining bright spots of thriving small-town life in the economically darkening Midwest went out.
In the past few years, one of the most interesting developments in American politics has been the conservative turn against unbridled capitalism. In 2016, Paul Singer was the second-largest donor to the Republican Party. As Carlson pointed out, a number of prominent Republican politicians have benefitted greatly from Singer’s campaign donations. It seems like this should have inoculated Singer against criticism from a media outlet like Fox News—but times, they are a-changin’.
The reality is that the 2016 election forever changed the way Americans talk about economic justice. In their Cold War era fervor to avoid socialism, Republicans have drifted for decades into blind support for free market policies, even if those policies hurt American workers and communities. However, starting in 2012 when Americans roundly rejected Mitt Romney and his brand of extreme capitalism, it became clear that these policies were not working for Americans. In 2016, the presence of Donald Trump in the presidential election—regardless of what Catholics think of him as a person or candidate—led to a much-needed loosening of the chokehold extreme capitalism had on the Republican Party’s economic policies. Whatever else he has done as president, Trump’s pro-worker language and his support for tariffs as a way to protect American companies against exploitive overseas economies like China’s (which undercuts American prices by paying its employees semi-slave wages) have given conservatives space to cast a new vision of economic justice—one that is neither stridently free market nor socialist.
Catholics should be energized and motivated by this shift. There is a long tradition of Catholic leaders warning against the dangers of making capitalism into an ideology, elevating the ideal of economic freedom above all other goods—including the goods of individual flourishing, social solidarity, and thriving communities.
Pope Saint John Paul II was a stalwart defender of the free world against socialism, but nevertheless he warned Catholics that unbridled capitalism, which he called “neoliberalism,” was an assault on human dignity. He said, “based on a purely economic conception of man, this system considers profit and the law of the market as its only parameters, to the detriment of the dignity of and the respect due to individuals and peoples.”
In his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII warned that unchecked devotion to the free market leads to economic injustice on a massive scale:
By degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition… The hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.
The Catholic alternative to unbridled capitalism is not socialism, in which the government takes upon itself the responsibility of distributing wealth. Pope Leo XIII made it clear in Rerum Novarum that socialism violates the God-given human right to private property. Instead, Catholicism advocates an economics of solidarity, in which society is organized in a way that leads as naturally as possible to the equal distribution of the means of production—not, as with socialism, the results of production. This means, in practice, that in a Catholic society as many people as possible should own their own means of production—be it land or technology or shares in the factory at which they work—and those means of production should be as closely linked to their daily life as possible.
In other words, it is preferable to work for an employer located in one’s own town, whose interests are embedded in one’s own community, than for a multi-national corporation with widely scattered interests. And within an economics of solidarity, it makes sense for the government to incentivize that kind of locally-minded business model through tax cuts and other means.
With this in mind, the outrage Carlson expressed at Singer’s destruction of an entire town for personal profit should resonate with Catholics. Sure, a huge company made a lot of money, but many people were sundered from the opportunity to have meaningful work within their own community, and a town was ruined. The benefits—i.e., someone getting richer—do not outweigh the personal and social costs.
The fact that this story ran on a major conservative news network like Fox News and specifically called out rapacious business practices on the part of a GOP mega-donor indicates that perhaps the Republican Party is beginning to exorcise the demon of unbridled capitalism and to embrace an economics of solidarity—one that appreciates the value of things that do not have price tags, like social stability, meaningful work, and robust local communities.
Photo credit: YouTube.com/Fox News