Monday, March 22, 2004

Dispatches from the Religious Left

Being a first-hand report on a recent meeting to address world poverty

‘The truth of God trumps economics’

In need of both intellectual and spiritual sustenance, I ventured out yesterday under the threatening skies to my local Quaker meeting (what? there are Quakers in Brooklyn? Yes, Virginia, there truly are.) for a bit of silence, community, food and weighty discussion.

The event that attracted me this particular Sunday was a special presentation and discussion on the topic of world poverty and economic justice. About 30 people assembled in the meetinghouse to hear Mark Myers of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting give his perspective on addressing the substantial problem of world poverty. The presentation was sobering and thought provoking, to say the least.

Myers began with painting a picture of the issue. I haven’t had a chance to verify these statistics, but I’ll take Myers’ account as authoritative. He referred us to such sources as the United Nations millennium goals and the Oxfam report: ‘Rigged rules and double standards: trade, globalisation and the fight against poverty.’

Here are some of the facts: 24% of the world’s people lives on less than 1 US dollar (or equivalent) per day. Yes, indeedy, folks, you read that correctly.

One-third of the global work force is un- or under-employed.

Obviously, many millions of these poor and un/underemployed are in the developing nations. But the U.S. does not entirely escape the problem. In the U.S. approximately 11% (around 33 million people) are at or below the poverty line. Over one-half of these poor work full-time. So, that’s about 16.5 million people who work their butts off and still can’t make ends meet.

Around 42 million people in the U.S. do not have health insurance.

Now here’s an interesting stat I have a hard time getting my head around: Wal-Mart, the world’s largest corporation, employs 1 out of every 5 Americans. I’d really like to verify this statistic. It boggles the mind.

Are you, dear reader, working at Wal-Mart right now?

Ok, I think you get the picture. Things are pretty bad out there. Is there a way to make them better?

Friend Myers sees it as his mission to end poverty as we know it. It was suggested that the elimination of poverty could be seen as analogous to the ending of slavery, at least in terms of its moral gravity. But how could such a project be realized? After all, it’s an old saw among some Christians that ‘we’ll always have the poor with us.’

For himself, Myers wishes to work, more or less, within the confines of free-market capitalism to accomplish his goal. His challenge to the free-marketeers: end world poverty. Not that he believes capitalism is inevitable, or the only possible economic system, but it’s what we have now, and it’s unlikely to change soon.

One way to address this is through eliminating barriers to truly fair trade (see that Oxfam report, mentioned above). The U.S., and other developed nations, pursue a number of policies that make world trade inherently unfair. For example, the U.S. has a cheap food policy (aha! See my commentary on the perils of cheap food), it subsidizes the cost of petroleum, cotton and even subsidizes the tobacco industry (for export). (Many Quaker pens wagged furiously at this last-mentioned bit of corporate welfare.)

Everyone present had a lot of concerns, and we didn’t really have time to address them all. Many were incensed and concerned about the uneven distribution of wealth in the world. Even if economic growth through the Market were realized, how could we insure that the income would go to those who really need it? The fact that wealthy corporate execs and others make something on the order of 400 times the minimum wage was brought up. There was a strong sense in the room that these fortunate wealthy few owe something to society as a whole. Myers pointed out that universal healthcare, good schools and a living wage could be got for just 2 to 3 percent of the United States’ Gross Domestic Product. That’s about 300 billion dollars, or around 600 bunker-busting bombs.

Of course, being unabashed pacifists, the Quakers present made the easy connection between war and poverty. It seemed clear that without peace, poverty cannot be eliminated, but I think it’s also safe to say that without ending poverty – or radical economic inequality – peace won’t have much of a chance either. They are intricately bound up together.

In the end, this small group of religious liberals didn’t come to many hard and fast conclusions, other than the necessity of working down to the root moral issues facing our world today. More questions than answers arose. I, like many others, worry about how economic growth can be achieved without irreparably damaging the environment. And there is the seeming necessity of consumption, even over-consumption, to drive the engine of economic progress.

I think the one thing this group of earnest Friends could stand together on is the idea that the ‘truth of God trumps economics.’ Economics is a means to an end, not an end unto itself.

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