What I Learned About Economics When I Met Mother Theresa
My close encounter with Mother Teresa was a chance one, in 1979. This chance encounter taught me everything I know about good macroeconomic policy.
I, a young law student, was standing on 41st Street, by the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City, one afternoon. I was waiting to be met by my then girlfriend. I held three roses purchased for her inside the terminal.
She was late. I walked down the long, deserted, New York City block looking for her. And then I walked back. Walking in the opposite direction was a small party: a priest, a monk, a nun dressed in white, and a tiny old woman, her face weather-beaten and lined, dressed in a coarse brown robe. I thought to myself, “the tiny woman sure looked like Mother Teresa.”
It did not immediately click. I was under the impression that Mother Teresa was far away in Calcutta. It never occurred to me that she traveled. She having been on the cover of Time Magazine, a few years before, under the headline “Living Saints,” I assumed her an international celebrity always thronged by crowds. Destined for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Now beatified.) I thought, based on the Time cover illustration, her to be 6 feet tall. So far away…
A priest, a monk, a nun, and … who else could it be?
They had passed by. I mentally kicked myself. This was one of three personal heroes whom I had yearned to meet — and thought, because of distance, it never would be. I turned around, wistfully, to look … to discover that their little party had stopped. I began to walk, just short of a run, toward them, arriving at a surprising scene.
I had walked by a homeless man (or, as then was called, bum) sleeping on the 41st Street sidewalk. People sleeping on the sidewalk were a familiar sight in the New York City of that era. I hadn’t even noticed him.
But Mother Teresa had noticed him. And she had stopped to get him to his feet.
As I approached the group, Mother Teresa was glaring up at this wobbly fellow — someone nearly two feet taller than her. She had her forefinger pointed right in his face. A cop, who had wandered over, echoed her lecture to him:
“Now you listen to the little lady. Unless you help yourself there ain’t nothin’ we can do for you.”
Macroeconomics in a nutshell. This presented an axiom apparently lost on both major political parties today.
Republicans sure seem to lack empathy (a well documented “camel-through-the-needle’s-eye-to-get-into-the-kingdom-of-heaven” problem besetting the affluent at least since Biblical times and those of the Buddha).
Although I still was a registered Democrat at that time (Ronald Reagan later effected my conversion) I exemplified Republican-style obliviousness. I walked right past the man asleep on the sidewalk, in my own way as oblivious as was he. I am not proud of this. Yet even today, while I reliably buy the Street Sense newspaper from the homeless people thus employed in DC, I do not give alms to beggars. And certainly cannot imagine stopping for a homeless person asleep on the sidewalk to awaken him. No “living saint” am I.
The Democratic Party, trending toward providing subsidies for those struggling (and then registering them to vote), presents as the more compassionate. But on closer inspection it looks more like good intentions, once again, turning into the paving stones for the road to hell. From the political side it all-too-often crosses over into cynical vote buying.
Meanwhile… Mother Teresa, out of the public eye, cared enough for this stranger — she wasn’t called Mother for nothing — to stop and give him her attention. She even cared enough to lecture, rather than coddle, him. The heart of a good mother was at work. What our politics now is lacking is a mother’s heart.
A mother’s heart is exactly what America needs … from both political parties. We would benefit from officials who are willing to care enough to stop and engage. And to care enough to demand that people help themselves. And to help them help themselves.
Jacques Rueff, the late, great, French economic policy savant, preeminent classical gold standard advocate, and philosopher, once, somewhere, wrote that a strong coupling of effort and reward was essential to a healthy economy and healthy society. Rueff taught us that decoupling effort and reward was a recipe for poverty and social degeneration. A tight coupling is needed for human flourishing.
That, according to the cop’s reiteration, was the message from Mother Teresa to the lost, sleepy, soul she had awakened. She stated this message even more pithily than had the great Rueff. The more that government decouples effort and reward — through taxing and subsidies — the more impoverished and addled society tends to grow. We must help ourselves and help each other.
That principle calls upon us to foster opportunity and live in connected, rather than callous, ways. The Democrats, by fostering dependency, demean the dignity of people and add to the burden of workers and the middle class (despite all pious progressive rhetoric about “eating the rich”). But the greater shame belongs to the GOP, which has defaulted in its commitment to create a climate of equitable prosperity and, even worse, abandoned its Lincolnesque mission of fighting for authentic equality of opportunity.
The GOP far too often is guilty of marinating itself in exalting the privileged. Success deserves to be celebrated. However, the successful have many, many rewards. The GOP’s moral imperative is in fighting for equal opportunity and equal justice for “the little guy.” It is in default.
Both of our major political parties would benefit greatly by taking a lesson in “macroeconomic policy with a moral compass” from Mother Teresa. So would America.
And, just for the sake of getting it on the record, I turned to the priest and whispered the question: “Is that Mother Teresa?” His eyes twinkled and he said yes. “I’m Jewish, but I am a huge fan of hers. I bought these roses for my girlfriend but I would like to give them to Mother Teresa.”
The priest spoke up. “Mother Teresa? This boy would like to give you some roses.” Mother Teresa whirled, facing the priest, a residual scowl still on her face and her finger still lifted and pointed, now at the face of the priest. Then she turned to me, scowl dissolving, finger dropping.
I diffidently handed the roses to her. “I will give them to Jesus,” she said, in her deep Albanian accent. I was delighted. But the priest, unnecessarily fearing some breach of ecumenical etiquette, intervened, attempting to preempt the proposed relay of my gift to Jesus. He said, “He was going to give them to his girlfriend, Mother Teresa, but he wanted you to have them.
“I will give them to Jesus for you and your girlfriend,” she huffed. The priest, well-meaningly anxious about a wholly imaginary gaffe, said “Mother Teresa… he’s Jewish!”
Mother Teresa reached out her hand to me. My expectation had been that the hand of a “living saint” would be angelically delicate. My expectation was wrong. Her big, strong, work-roughened hand — a Teamster’s hand — engulfed mine. And she pumped it vigorously three times, holding mine firmly.
I stepped away backwards, respectfully, and departed.
Hello Democrats! People can, and need to, help themselves. Therein lies self-respect, prosperity, and dignity. Hello Republicans! When regular people rise to the challenges of life, challenges much more daunting than many privileged Republicans can imagine, be there to help. Bring money, sure. But show up in person. Bring a mother’s heart.
Let’s do this as a social compact (government consistently having proven itself so very bad at it), sure. But to regain legitimacy, it is imperative that Republicans start showing up in earnest. The ancient Greeks, for example, used intense social pressure to get their wealthy not just to fund but to use their talents to manage the undertaking of major projects for the general welfare. It was called the “liturgy,” Greek for “public works.” Perhaps a “liturgical solution” beckons.
Taxing, spending, and oppressively regulating — severing effort and reward — ruins people’s lives. So does copping an attitude of “I’ve got mine, good luck Charlie.” Democrats and Republicans both would do well to inject Teresanomics into their policy prescriptions: Now you listen to the little lady. Unless you help yourself there ain’t nothin’ we can do for you.
Originally posted on Forbes.