President Obama and Pope Francis preach on inequality — is anybody listening?


Two of the world's biggest pulpits — the presidency of the United States and the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church — were used for common purpose last week as President Obama and Pope Francis both preached about the immorality of inequality.

But there is evidence that the sermon’s message is being lost, and not simply because the wealthy are unmoved by the growing socioeconomic divide accelerated by the global economic crisis. A successful dialogue between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is becoming more difficult as they move farther apart, both socially and physically.

"No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world," Francis told an adoring crowd in the Rio de Janeiro favela called Varginha as part of World Youth Day, actually a week-long event hosted by the Catholic Church. "No amount of peace building will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself."

Often considered a rising economy driving the so-called "BRICS" while reducing its profound income inequality, Brazil's widespread protests last month demonstrated that millions of Brazilians — like those living in Varginha and other slums — have been left behind by the growth.

And in the United States, where unemployment at 7.6 percent surpasses Brazil's 6 percent, national mythology about a society that empowered even the poorest, hardworking Americans to climb the socioeconomic ladder has begun to dissolve. The wealthiest fraction of Americans has successfully turned the economic crisis and partial rebound into an opportunity to increase its wealth. Populist, youth-driven movements like Occupy Wall Street, Los Indignados and to some extent Anonymous have so far been largely unsuccessful in quests to show causes of inequality and disrupt them.

"This growing inequality isn't just morally wrong," President Obama said in remarks at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois last week. "It's bad economics… When wealth concentrates at the very top, it can inflate unstable bubbles that threaten the economy. When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America."

Obama, like Francis, appealed to the better nature of his audience, undoubtedly numbering in the millions. But the very nature of growing global inequality, as explored in GlobalPost's Special Report "The Great Divide", means the wealthy few are steadily in charge of more of the world's wealth. And both men are in many respects a part of the global elite that seems to be pulling away from the rest of the planet’s inhabitants — though both have a common touch and natural charisma.

There is irony in the fact that Obama has been blamed for overseeing the uneven recovery he is now promising to reform, and that he and First Lady Michelle Obama made more than $600,000 last year.

That Francis is the head of possibly the richest organization in the world, currently mired in a banking scandal, irrespective of his reputation for years of work in the slums of Argentina. The Catholic Church has also earned legions of passionate skeptics for its involvement in the child sex abuse scandal, reproductive rights controversies and stance on homosexuality among other incendiary issues, weakening the pope’s words for many ears.

And Obama is reportedly considering naming Larry Summers, widely criticized for helping to create the conditions that led to the financial crisis, as chairman of the Federal Reserve — an organization accused of fiscal policy that is more concerned about the welfare of bank executives than about restoring economic viability for those devastated by the collapse.

So it should be no surprise that many critics see daylight between the leaders’ words and their deeds — whether on the progressive or the conservative end of the political spectrum. It may, however, be a surprise that a majority of people worldwide consider income inequality much less important in itself than unemployment.

In a Pew Research Center poll taken earlier this year in 39 countries, most publics overwhelmingly agreed that the gap between rich and poor was increasing and that the system tilted in favor of the wealthy. But in most countries, fewer than a quarter of respondents wanted their governments to make reducing inequality the top priority. Instead, job creation was the top choice across the board.

It may well be the case that income inequality and unemployment are two faces of the same specter haunting today’s global economy, driven by trade liberalization, privatization, technological automation and the breakdown of social safety nets — a convergence of forces that has been called “anarchic capitalism.”

For Americans, this convergence means what the Associated Press reported Sunday: “Four out of 5 US adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.”

In Brazil and other developing economies, it means a hope for greater future prosperity tempered by the reality that most of the prosperity will go to those who already have it.

For most of the world, as a recent World Bank report warned, without significant policy shifts it means "political instability, reduced outside investment, an inability to raise prices on basic goods and services (because destitute people tend to riot when grain, cooking oil or electricity get more expensive) and the disintegration of trust in a society."

Kind of like what Francis and Obama said.