In November 2020 Pope Francis convened “Economy of Francesco," a global online gathering of young people determined to make the economy fair, sustainable, and inclusive. Georgetown University asked participating students and alumni to reflect on their experiences in two essays: the first considers their pre-conference working groups and the second offers personal takeaways after the gathering.
How I Learned to Listen at the “Economy of Francesco” Conference
When I signed up for the “Economy of Francesco” conference, I joined the CO2 of Inequality village because I felt it complimented my background in energy and environmental studies as a science, technology, and international affairs major at Georgetown. I had also hoped to discuss the ways in which the legal field could promote a healthier environment and a more just economy. However, my experience with the conference so far has turned my assumptions on their head. My biggest takeaway from the conference is how a just economy can help make a better legal field, not the other way around as I had assumed.
One of the surprising silver linings of the derailing of the in-person conference in Assisi, Italy, was that I gained the ability to join in the lectures and conferences of other villages outside of the one I committed to. One lecture in particular given by the Work and Care village had a strong impact on me. It was hosted by Jenefer Nedelsky, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, on the importance of a re-evaluation of the balance between work and care in our economy and in our daily lives. Professor Nedelksy pointed out how society creates an unhealthy dichotomy between paid “work” and unpaid “care,” and that it valorizes the former while stigmatizing the latter. Care, which she describes as the maintenance of communal relationships, providing for dependents, and protecting the environment, is often seen as less valuable than paid work and is often delegated to marginalized groups: women, immigrants, racial minorities, etc. She pointed out that the sidelining of care as a vocation and the exclusion of caregivers from decision-making positions (and the concurrent emancipation of decision-makers from care responsibilities) has led to significant dysfunction in our communities, our families, and our own lives.
The solution that Professor Nedelsky suggested was radical: that no one does paid work for more than 30 hours a week on average and that everyone does care work for about 20 hours a week. Such a proposition is radical, especially to a lawyer like me who is going into a field where 50-hour work weeks are the norm and 70-hour work weeks are not unheard of. At first I rejected the idea outright as utopian and disconnected from reality. But then as I did more research I found just how plausible it could be. Over the past few years, and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic started, many companies have begun to experiment with reduced work hours, and some of these companies have been rewarded with dramatic increases in worker productivity. Additionally, I discovered that the vast majority of associate attorneys at major law firms, individuals who are easily making six-figure salaries, would happily accept a 20% cut in their pay in exchange for a 20% reduction in their work hours. There seems to be a growing consensus that long hours are bad for lawyers and consequently for law firms. Suddenly a legal field that is not dominated by a culture of workaholism seems to be more than just a utopian ideal.
Professor Nedelsky’s lecture not only opened my eyes to the possibility of a better life for lawyers like myself, but also the ways in which such changes would lead to a healthier society and economy. She talked about how research shows that people who are burdened with long work hours and who are largely separated from care responsibilities are more likely to make poor moral decisions and often act in ways that are environmentally and socially destructive. They feel more individualistic, bitter, and alienated from others. This sounds like an apt description of the “soulless” legal field that I have often had described to me. A world in which lawyers were expected to work fewer hours in the office but spend more hours with their families and in their communities would be a much healthier one.
I came to the “Economy of Francesco” conference thinking that I would be able to use my knowledge of the law to help others find a way to build a better economy. Instead, I was humbled and reminded of how much I, and my field of work, can learn from others.
The Coronavirus Pandemic: Crisis and Opportunity.
“What punishments of God are not also gifts?” This quote by J.R.R. Tolkien repeatedly came to my mind during the “Economy of Francesco” conference this year, and I think it aptly described my experience of the global gathering of young Catholic thinkers. The conference was marred by the coronavirus pandemic, but it was also clarified by it and made all the more important and timely. The fact that I was not able to gather along with the other participants in beautiful Assisi certainly felt like a punishment of a sort, but the sense of urgency and import that the pandemic brought to the conference also lent clarity and purpose to everyone involved—including myself.
My overwhelming takeaway from the conference was that things cannot be allowed to go back to the “normal” that existed prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic, despite delivering a horrible wound to the global community, has also presented us with a gift, an opportunity to break through the old sureties and ways of doing things and to bring about real change. Regardless of the topics discussed during the conference, the resounding consensus was that this pandemic presents us with unprecedented challenges, but also the great potential for improvement.
One of the biggest issues discussed during the conference was how many of the negative economic trends drifting towards more poverty and greater inequality around the world have been dramatically accelerated due to the coronavirus pandemic. Because of this it is even more important to reframe our efforts to build a new economy in ways that are centered on the poor and the marginalized. This necessity was highlighted in concrete ways by several of the “villages” (the conference’s term for working groups) that presented during the conference, including my own CO2 of Inequality village.
In the Poverty, Energy, and Integral Development group’s presentation they stressed the importance of working with the poor and marginalized, and not just for them, in order to build a more robust and sustainable economy. They talked about how poor communities often possess a wealth of social capital and practical knowledge of how to build resilient systems from the ground up which wealthier communities could cooperate with and learn from. They also discussed how distributed forms of energy generation like micro, or even pico (household), solar and wind generators could help to economically empower poor communities. This in particular inspired me because it reminded me of my work as a law student with a start-up company in Uganda that uses solar-powered micro-grids to (both literally and metaphorically) power poor communities in Uganda. It was great to see models like the one that I saw be so successful in Uganda get more widespread notice at the conference.
The Vocation and Profit group’s presentation discussed the necessity of changing corporate culture in a way that both empowers employees and puts the role of profit in business in its proper place. Towards this end they floated several different models of the corporation that are currently in use today that they felt should be more widely adopted, including: the worker-owned cooperative, the benefit corporation, and the stakeholder-governed corporation. What was encouraging about this discussion was all of the practical examples they provided of companies that follow one of these three models that are both financially successful and societally beneficial. I came away strengthened in my belief that a company that puts its own employees and the general social welfare at the forefront of its business model can still be wildly successful and profitable.
Lastly, the CO2 of Inequality group that I was a member of presented the need for us to develop a better concept of development that takes into account social and environmental factors in addition to simple wealth. Towards this end the group took inspiration from the economic sustainability doughnut, which statistically represents a golden mean between economic minimum requirements and ecological maximum limits based on the nine planetary boundaries needed to sustain life. What was scary about this presentation was that every single country in the world was either over the ideal doughnut band by engaging in practices that unsustainably harmed the environment, or under the ideal band by failing to meet fundamental economic and societal needs, or both. What this reiterated is that all countries, even rich ones, are still developing into sustainable economies, and that they have much to still learn from one another.
Although these presentations all touched on different subjects of economics, ethics, and ecology, they all were presented with renewed urgency against the backdrop to the pandemic, which was an ever-present and unavoidable specter during the conference. Empowering poor communities, building companies that protect workers’ jobs, and focusing on an economy that balances social needs and environmental constraints no longer seem like abstract concepts in the midst of a pandemic that has devastated poor communities, led to unprecedented unemployment, and has greatly upset the balance between humanity and the natural world. Fortunately, I have come away from the conference armed with practical solutions to many of these problems, and the conviction that this year will be an important turning point for the global economy—if we take advantage of the opportunity it has presented to us.
Joshua Raftis (SFS’16) graduated magna cum laude from the Walsh School of Foreign Service and cum laude from the University of Michigan Law School in May 2020. He works as an attorney at Mayer Brown LLP in Washington, DC.