January 11, 2021

Katie Rumer (SFS'13, L'20)

Feature Series: The Economy of Francesco

Katie Rumer (SFS'13, L'20) is an international development practitioner and is a part of the Policies and Happiness working group for the "Economy of Francesco" international conference

Katie Rumer
Katie Rumer

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.

Does Happiness Have a Place in the Economy?

During the lead up to the inaugural “Economy of Francesco” conference, the Policies and Happiness working group has contemplated the role of happiness in economics. In this year that feels unprecedented, this question and its implications seem more relevant than ever. What ends should economic policies facilitate, and by what means? Is the pursuit of happiness, as envisioned by the forefathers of the United States, merely the pursuit of gains? How are measures of quality of life correlated to self-reported happiness? Can measures of social welfare that account for communities, and not just the individual, comprise the new methodology for happiness economics? What socioeconomic policies can further a wholistic conception of happiness?

To spark our brainstorming, our working group met in June with economist and sustainable development expert Jeffrey Sachs for a seminar titled, “The pursuit of happiness… and beyond.” Mr. Sachs reminded us that philosophical discussions on happiness and its relation to functioning societies stretch back thousands of years. Aristotle posited that happiness was the center of ethics and the highest good. Happiness, according to Aristotle, was achieved through the pursuit of living a good life. To do this, he argued, one must choose well over the course of one’s life and cultivate virtue over time. The cultivation of virtues like practical wisdom, bravery, temperance, and justice allows someone to chart a meaningful course in life, which is the real happiness. 

Aristotle’s focus on virtue, excellence, and meaning contrast with the modern view of happiness espoused by modern capitalism, which was born of Hobbes and Locke. Their view saw happiness as obtaining what was sought, or accumulation of utility, generally. Sachs believes that this focus on accumulation has driven commercialism and economic inequality. It also, notably, has not led to happiness. 

The unsustainably unequal world in which we live has been highlighted and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While many high-income employees are able to work from home, our essential workers—which are often lower-earning positions—must continue to work in-person and potentially expose themselves to the virus or lose their jobs. In the United States, the virus has disproportionately affected the poor as well as people of color, worsening historic inequality. Sachs reminds us that Aristotle believed that the middle class was the keystone to maintaining a virtuous society. In highly unequal societies, the wealthy lose self-control, which in turn breeds the loss of virtue, the loss of happiness, and the decay of society.

We are not, however, without hope. The events of 2020 have shone a light on the problems in our society, and there are paths for change. For example, corporations have begun to see that the age of the shareholder’s bottom line may be evolving to allow corporations to consider the needs of the communities in which they exist, including the effects of climate change. In the Policies and Happiness working group, we will continue to share ideas and develop plans to make the world’s economy more inclusive and bring these ideas back to our universities and places of work. The “Economy of Francesco” could not come at a better time.

The Secret to a Better Economy: Empathy

Throughout the “Economy of Francesco” event, I noticed that one common thread ran throughout each working group’s proposals: empathy. The event posed the question of how to create a more sustainable and just economy, with the world’s poor and the environment particularly in mind. Time and again, no matter the subject matter of the proposals being made, it became clear that empathy and our relationships with others are central to any reforms to be made. 

During one presentation that the Business and Peace working group held, a professor of economics at Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, Juan Camilo Cárdenas, focused on the link between nature and peace. He began his talk by quoting the encyclical Laudato Si, in which Pope Francis writes that peace, justice, and the preservation of the environment are three indelibly interconnected themes. Separating the three, Pope Francis argues, cannot be done without falling into reductionism. The pope has since said that stated that the fragility of world’s economic system in the face of the pandemic has made it clear that not everything can be resolved by economic freedom. Instead, we need to promote diversity and creativity in production to prevent jobs from being lost like this in the future.

Professor Cárdenas built on these ideas by arguing that peace is a universal good in that the benefits to one person beget benefits to others, as well. In this sense, the more that someone benefits from peace, the more utility another person derives. In the context of peacebuilding and climate change, an improved social contract in the economy and with nature can be a vehicle for peace, as they are interconnected. Professor Cárdenas used the example of Colombia’s paramilitaries and their relationship with the environment and local communities to demonstrate his point. Where peace is merely the absence of violence, as was the case in some communities that received protection from a paramilitary group, the community members benefitted, while outsiders did not. However, where peace is not merely understood as the absence of violence, but as tranquility, the focus is holistic, and therefore the benefit to the protected community members is nullified by the violence done to the environment and other communities that the paramilitary groups inflicted in order to protect one community.

Violence often breeds harm to the environment. A paradox exists in which biodiversity is positively correlated with conflict, perhaps due to wealth in nature. Therefore, nature could be used as a tool to beget peace. We also need to recognize, Professor Cárdenas stated, that humans are emotional beings and not static individuals unaffected by their surroundings—behavior is very affected by context, and therefore the environment.

In a new economic paradigm, relationships should be given more weight than the individual, which will lead to both peace and care for the environment. The idea of considering others and focusing on relationships instead of solely the individual also arose often in the Policies and Happiness working group, in which I took part. Consideration of others and the ability to understand them, in this way, was central to the outcomes proposed during the “Economy of Francesco” event. In order to progress and truly flourish as a society, we must not focus only on ourselves and on the needs of the individual, or even on independent nation-states, but on the needs of the other, our relationships, and collective action.

Katie Rumer (SFS'13, L'20) is a graduate of Georgetown Law and the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Between her two stints at Georgetown, Katie’s career focused on international development, and she plans to continue this path in the future from a legal perspective.