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Shields and Brooks on the pope’s critique of capitalism, Thanksgiving gratitude

November 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the week's top news, including the short-term Iran nuclear agreement, the pope's writings on capitalism, proposed changes to campaign finance rules and things to be grateful for.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

So, while you were out last weekend, there was some news. The Iran deal happened. We did cover it on the NewsHour Weekend, but you didn’t have a chance to weigh in.

So, let’s get to it. Is this a good deal?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a better deal than where we were, in the sense that six months, and there’s a — I think it’s confidence-building on both sides, in a place where there was little to no confidence on either side. And I think the inspections are positive, and the alternate is unspeakable.

DAVID BROOKS: I have got ambivalence of mountain — mountain-size proportion about this thing.

I think, on balance, it’s probably worth an attempt, because I really think thought they were heading towards nuclear weapons. And I think still think that is probably the likely outcome. Nonetheless, this is a shot. But it all depends on how tough we are in following up.

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This is a six-month thing that is up to lead up to a bigger thing. But do we actually — and the administration has begun to do this, in part through a column that David Ignatius wrote, laying out exactly what they consider criteria for a good final deal. And if they stick to that criteria, rather than folding, then — then you really could get there somewhere.

And the second thing we really have to be tough on, the Iranians are counting on us, or the entire world, that the sanction regimes will begin to dissolve, that once companies get the chance to make some money in Iran, it will all fall apart. Somehow, if the Western alliance can really hold the sanctions together, then this is a worth — a risk worth taking.

Both those are big ifs, though.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What do you — what — do you think the alliance can hold it together there?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it can.

I think that the president is obviously all in on this. And I think one of the problems he does face is that the Congress is going to try and push harder for sanctions. He’s got to stop those in the short-term, and at least get his six months. And I think they have been doing a good job so far in trying to tamp down the understandable criticism and opposition.

But I just think that we — we — there’s been an overreaction on the opposition’s side. The idea of comparing this to Munich 1938 is beyond overblown. Iran in 2013, whatever it is, and it’s not a very pleasant place, is not Nazi Germany in 1938. And I — so I think this is — I think it’s worth it, and I’m just hoping.


The Saudis — though, to be fair, the Saudis are really upset. The Gulf states are really upset. The Israelis are really upset. The people who are most vulnerable to an Iranian nuclear weapon are really upset. And that, to me, is to be trusted. It seems unlikely that a regime that went so far to get a nuclear weapon is suddenly going to pull back and give it up.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What about the congressional variable here? What if Congress decides to slap on new sanctions that really makes this…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think this is a real test of the president’s political leadership in the country, as well as with the Congress.

And it obviously is tougher now that his numbers are down. But I think only the president can lay out the stakes, and that is a six-month period. What — and it comes down to what the alternative is. I mean, if we think that, in isolation, they weren’t developing, if the people who were convinced of that, and I don’t understand their skepticism — I can understand their skepticism. I don’t understand their opposition to an attempt now to freeze it and with total inspection every day.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, sanctions are working. And if sanctions are working, maybe more sanctions are good.

I happen to think the confluence of events of sort of the deal, the offer from the Obama administration, which is the carrot, and the stick from the Congress, is a pretty good balance. So, if they want to be tough while Obama is being open, that sends the right signal to the Iranians.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. Let’s shift gears.

The pope came out with — I want to get this correct — his first apostolic exhortation. It was his first major work, big report. In there, he takes quite a few very specific jabs at capitalism, calling it a new tyranny. I mean, popes in the past have had these concerns before, but really he’s laying this out. And some of the sort of pope watchers, experts are saying that this is the agenda for how to reform the Christian church.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, I — I actually have a lot of sympathy.

I’m a fan of capitalism, but I have a lot of sympathy for it. And it should be remembered that Benedict and John Paul II issued some extremely critical statements on capitalism. That is the job of the Catholic Church, to be a balance to the materialistic drives of our culture and of economy.

I guess I would wish he would emphasize two things, first, that capitalism over the last 25 years has been an incredible moral good. It has reduced poverty more in the last 25 years than ever before in human history, mostly in Asia. But that’s been a phenomenal good. That’s relieved suffering. And that has been a product of capitalism.

The second thing I would say is sometimes I think the analysis and some of the language used this time was too narrowly economic. One of the things capitalism does is, it does enhance and exacerbate the sin of pride, making yourself, the material world the center of your universe, instead of God’s will.

But the doesn’t only happen in capitalism. That can happen in faculty clubs. It can happen at NGOs. And so that is a spiritual sin. And to talk about some of the spiritual sins that capitalism encourages in a broader scale seems to me the right way to do it. To focus on a certain sort of economic theory, that seems to me a little out of the pope’s lane.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s very much in the pope’s lane.

And I think that survival of the fittest has never been a tenet of either Judeo-Christian values or Christian — our culture. And I think the pope has confronted us with a fundamental question: What are we first? Are we a free market system, that we have confidence that, untrammeled and unfettered, it will eventually provide good for more people?

Or are we a community, a community of human beings of equal dignity, and that a capitalist system, a free enterprise system, under regulation and required regulation — and that’s what he — that’s the difference he makes more than any to me in the economic sphere, which is not private charity and private generosity, which have always been important, but that we have a collective responsibility to make that sure all of us, the least among us, through our collective instrument of government, have education, have health care, have shelter, have food, that that’s not just a matter of individual kindness or compassion.

And I — to me, that was it. And David’s right. It’s not a deviation from John Paul II or Benedict or past popes, but the emphasis that he brings to it, the passion he brings to it, that Pope Francis does, as well as the sense of engaging the world, I mean, it’s an optimistic, upbeat, and passionate pope that we are seeing right now who drives a Ford Focus.


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, he doesn’t — he doesn’t drive around in an armored limo. That’s a big difference.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, if I could just say one thing, capitalism tells you, be ambitious, be self-interested.

All of us from all political persuasions understand that is not enough and that there should be countercultures telling you that that is not enough. And there used to be a ton. Religion was a counterculture, but our intellects — there were a lot of countercultures that said, being self-interested, being interested in your own achievement, that is not a happy life.

And — but I’m afraid that sometimes when the pope does it in the way he did this time, he is introducing a political divide where there doesn’t need to be one, where he makes it into an argument about economic philosophy, when it could be the core message of Catholicism, that self-interest shouldn’t really be the center of your life.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Does it punctuate a conversation about inequality that has been happening…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, that to me is what the fundamental premise of what the pope’s — and that is not simply the inequality, economic inequality, which David has talked about in the past, and income inequality, and wealth inequality, but that that leads to an inequality of opportunity.

And we have seen it in this country with a widening divide, where people who are born poor, whether they’re white or black, in the South, in the Midwest, they have a better chance — I mean a worse chance, actually, of growing up to be poor adults, whether white or black, and that this has been a problem, and that income inequality and economic inequality are — quite frankly, have a social cost.

DAVID BROOKS: So, I literally am being more Catholic than the pope.


DAVID BROOKS: So, what Catholicism, what Christianity tells us — and Judaism as well — tells us that we’re all equal shows. What do the Beatitudes say?

It’s about — it’s about how we are all fundamentally equal souls, and if you make a zillion dollars, you’re not any better than anybody else spiritually. You’re still an equal soul. In fact, it’s probably going to be a little tougher for you because of the sins that go along with that.

I would love to see the pope emphasize the equality of souls and the fact that your success is problematic to your salvation, and instead of a much more narrowly political — I’m all in favor of talking about inequality. We do it all the time. I just want the pope to be the pope.

MARK SHIELDS: The pope said, David, if you did read it…



He said, I love the — I love the rich. As well, I love the poor, that that is — but that the responsibility we have — I mean, the rich are getting by pretty damn well. And, as we have cut taxes, the inequality has grown wider. And so, you know, I think the pope deserves a listen-to.


DAVID BROOKS: A listen-to.

MARK SHIELDS: A shout-out.

DAVID BROOKS: Very controversial.



MARK SHIELDS: No, I do. I do.


So there was — in sort of domestic political news, we almost started to look at campaign finance reform through the Treasury. We are looking at these — quote, unquote — “social welfare organizations” that have been very, very active in the entire political process now, 501(c)(4)s.

So, first of all, for someone who might not have paid attention, what are the structural changes and why are they so important?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, some of them, it’s like the David Koch organizations, some of the Tea Party organizations, as well as some environmental groups.

And their giving has been ramping up from — if you took total giving from these groups, it was in the single millions a few generations — or a few elections ago, very recently.


DAVID BROOKS: And now it’s something like $300 million. It’s just become an explosion.

And so there’s — and this has all become fuzzy. Remember, the Tea Party thought they were being targeted. And it has just become fuzzy regulation. So, the administration’s position is, we just wanted to tighten up the regulation and make it harder so they — for these supposedly nonpartisan groups to give, put some limits on what they can say.

The groups themselves says, we’re mostly Republican-leaning. You’re clamping down on us. You’re not clamping down on unions. This is unfair. That’s the essential argument.

MARK SHIELDS: We had 32 years, from 1976 to 2008, in which we had elections.

As somebody who spent his early year in politics, before I turned to journalism, by default, I can tell you, they were clean. Ronald Reagan three times ran for president. He accepted the limits on contributions, the limits on what you could spend, and he ran on public financing in the fall elections, when he won 49 states one time and 44 the next, George H.W. Bush twice, Bill Clinton twice, George W. Bush.

And it changed in 2008. President Obama was the first president not to abide by the limits in the general election. And then along comes the Citizens United case decision at the Supreme Court, which took off all limits on spending.

We had in the last election $470 million contributed by 100 individuals. And we don’t know through these 501(c)(4)s, which are — list themselves as social welfare organizations, charitable organizations, we don’t know who is contributing. They can hide behind that.

So, we have gone from total disclosure and limitations to no disclosure and no limits. And anybody who thinks that is good for politics in the long run, you know, I just wish anybody on the Supreme Court who voted that way had ever run for sheriff, because they would know, people who give money in large amount in politics are basically not altruistic.

They have some issue. They have some interest. And it’s — you know, it may be world peace. It may be preserving carried interest. But it’s not altruistic.


MARK SHIELDS: And that has changed our democracy.


And I would say this is — may be one of those issues where moderation is not the answer; the middle way is the worst possible way. So, I think there are two basic approaches you can use for campaign finance. One is complete openness, everybody knows absolutely everything, but no limits. But you let people decide.

The other is just have a national public system. What we have is a hybrid, which is the worst of both worlds. And so to that — to this — to the extent that it’s going to crack down on some of these charitable giving groups, which, let’s face it, they’re very polarizing — they tend to drive candidates to extremes.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s probably a good thing.

It’s tough to do it from Treasury, which looks — it looks a little political.


MARK SHIELDS: David’s point about their giving and the limitations as to what people can give, the reality is this, Hari, that when there are no limits, candidates then just seek a wealthy individual.

I mean, and that’s all you are pleasing. And that — there was a time when political support was reflected in financial support, if you won New Hampshire or you did well in the Iowa caucuses. Now all you have to do is court two or three major benefactors, and they will keep you alive, and keep you alive even on a single issue that they care about.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Last pressing question — about a minute left — what are you thankful for?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m thankful — and Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal reminded me of this today in her piece — that certain employers like Nordstrom and Costco and others to let their employees have Thanksgiving…


MARK SHIELDS: … and didn’t open their stores on Thursday.


I’m thankful that we live in a crassly commercial, polarized culture, so media…


DAVID BROOKS: … jackals like me have a lot of work to do.



I have actually made more personal friends this year than I have maybe since I was in high school, so that’s…



HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. All right, including Mark Shields. All right.

DAVID BROOKS: I knew him before.


HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, you can hear Mark Shields and David Brooks weigh in on their opinion on college football’s biggest day, rivalry Saturday. That will be on The Doubleheader that will be posted online.