Who Is More Fallible on Economics: Paul Ryan or Pope Francis?

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"The guy is from Argentina, they haven't had real capitalism in Argentina," Rep. Paul Ryan said last week about Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church. With a wave of Ryan's hand, the tension between the congressman's party and his faith is swept away: the conduit of an omniscient God simply doesn't know what real capitalism looks like.

As Politico points out, Pope Francis keeps saying things that step outside of the Republican Party's economic worldview. In November, we figured that Francis's critique of capitalism might bring him into tension with Ryan; after all, saying that trickle-down economics "expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system," is essentially calling out Ryan's non-religious orthodoxy.

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel — somewhat amusingly focused on Ryan's support for a casino in the state — Ryan offered his response. "The guy is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina. They have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don’t have a true free enterprise system." And one certainly can't critique another country's economic system without having lived there for an extended period of time, as Paul Ryan suggests.

This is not a small problem for American conservatives. Earlier this month, NBC and The Wall Street Journal polled Americans on their views about the new pope. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats approved of the job he's doing; fewer than half of conservatives did. (See data at right.) Religion is central to much of American conservative philosophy. Having the leader of one particularly influential religion directly critiquing the party's economic plans is causing people to be a bit unsettled.

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For Ryan, it's particularly bad. As 2016 approaches, he's trying to reposition himself as a champion of the poor, even earning a laudatory profile in BuzzFeed for his efforts. As Jonathan Chait points out at New York, Ryan's born-again commitment to the poor isn't a new talking point. Or, in Chait's words, "It might seem odd that Ryan’s determination to keep his love of the poor quiet would nevertheless leak out in the media, over and over again."

[I]t’s impossible to disprove the suggestion that Ryan has grown obsessed with helping the poor. But what exactly does this mean? His entire career has been devoted to policies that would, as first-order effects, increase the incomes of the rich and decrease the incomes of the poor. Ryan has always argued that the first-order effects are less important than the deeper incentives he would unleash — cutting taxes for the rich and reducing subsidies for the poor will make both of them work harder.

Those are the sorts of policies Pope Francis was explicitly critiquing. To which Ryan feebly responds: "Yeah, well, Argentina's lame." As he puts together his presidential campaign team, expect to see a staff member whose only job is to keep an eye out for white smoke coming from a chimney in St. Peter's Square.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.