The pope and Steve Jobs

By Frank Wessling

What do Steve Jobs, the recently deceased American genius of electronic merchandising, and Pope Benedict XVI have in common? They both understood the meaning of no more national boundaries for business and saw the implications clearly.

Jobs was a model of the new-age entrepreneur as he built Apple Corporation and its well- integrated products. First, he oversaw the development of sleek, small machines that met the desires for sensual beauty, music and human connection in all of us. Their names – Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, iPad – all became synonyms for excellence.

Second, but just as importantly, Jobs invested the money needed to produce these machines without regard for nonmonetary issues such as national borders. In this, he acted much as many other American business people did and do: efficiency above all. The factories building Apple products went up in China, for the most part.

Virtually nothing established and overseen by Steve Jobs is in the United States.


That was not done simply for lower cost of labor. A New York Times investigation found that the ability to use that labor as a production and supply element without regard for human need was just as important. Jobs insisted on extremely quick startup times and delivery for new products. To do this, his factories required that workers live close and unencumbered, generally in large dormitories, and be available at all times to work up to 60 or 70 hours a week.

If this sounds like the worst of worker exploitation early in the industrial revolution, it is. Few Americans have seen firsthand how the cheaper labor we depend on in other countries is used. Inhumane and anti-family conditions are possible because we don’t see them, and the workers are desperate enough to let themselves be used strictly as cogs in a machine.

How is all of this connected to the pope? In his position he has the eyes and ears to know what goes on in the world and sees what Steve Jobs – along with others of today’s entrepreneurs – saw and did. He knows how money now flows easily over the lines we draw on a map. He sees the power of money overwhelming cultures and languages, ignoring the basic needs and variety of human flourishing, and growing as an idol worshipped everywhere.

In short, Pope Benedict notices what goes on in the world and thinks there should be better human management of this leviathon. His 2009 encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” or “Charity in Truth,” calls for a “true world political authority” to do that for the sake of a universal common good.

To emphasize that Benedict is serious about this, his Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a “note” just last October repeating and amplifying the point. That document reviewed the changed nature of international business and finance and outlined a vision of “free and stable markets overseen by a suitable legal framework … set up gradually … with a global reach that cannot be imposed by force, coercion or violence, but be the outcome of a free and shared agreement … ariz(ing) from a … progressive maturation of consciences and … awareness of growing responsibilities.” The ellipses in that quote cut through hyper-cautious document language but do not change the meaning.

This pope, along with virtually every one of his predecessors over the past century, wants us to see with a catholic/Catholic eye as unifying forces in history open new opportunities to emerge from tribal cocoons and be brothers and sisters on Earth. Steve Jobs assisted in the prophetic task by pushing reality in our faces.

Something to think about during Lent.

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