Monthly Archives: January 2010

What Constitution?

What is happening to us? A Washington Post article today reveals that the Obama White House has adopted a former Bush Administration policy of keeping a secret “hit list” authorizing the assassination of American citizens living abroad, if strong evidence exists of their organizing or having organized attacks against the United States or U.S interests.

The Fifth Amendment states that “no person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Some may claim, “They’re terrorists. They belong to Al-Qaeda. This is war.” Yes, we are at war with the world, and the entire globe is our battlefield. But these “terrorists” are not killed on a battlefield; they are usually murdered in their sleep, along with their wives and children. And will someone please show me the evidence that they are indeed terrorists or Al-Qaeda operatives? Have not dozens of our foreign detainees (so-called “terrorists,” apprehended on the flimsiest of evidence, held without charge and tortured for years outside our shores) been recently released for lack of any evidence that they were terrorists? How dare we execute American citizens without due process of law? Can’t we see how dangerous this is? Hello! Is there anybody home?!

Looking at history, from ancient Greece and Rome, down to the British Empire, we see that when a democracy (or republic) becomes an empire, it cannot do so without essentially violating its own values, having one type of law or justice for its own citizens and another for the poor suckers who live under its iron boot. We saw that in our own nation’s early history. That is why we have a Bill of Rights (1st-10th Amendments. Have you read them recently? An amazing document.), without which the States would not have ratified the Constitution. They did not want to endure from a new government the violations of civil liberties that had been endured from the British Empire (unlawful searches and seizures, the quartering of troops in homes, censorship of the press, military justice instead of trial by jury for Colonists who were British subjects, etc.).

Here we have just another outgrowth of the U.S. “War on Terror” turned against its own citizens. If there is evidence, then let them be brought to trial and tried on the basis of that evidence by a jury of their peers. But do not murder U.S. citizens in their beds simply because there is “strong evidence” that they may be Al-Qaeda operatives and you can get away with it in a foreign country. For the trigger-happy, the mere suspicion of guilt may be enough to warrant liquidation. But thank God we have a Constitution to protect us from such vigilante justice. At least, we used to.


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I Know the Price, But What Does It Cost?

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

With these words scholar and activist Raj Patel begins his new book The Value of Nothing. “We’ve come to believe that the only way we can value things is by sticking them in a market,” he says. “The trouble is, as we’ve seen through this recession, that markets are a tremendously bad way of valuing things, tremendously fickle.”

We think, for example, that we know the price of a BigMac ($3.57), but do we consider the real cost? If that cheap imported meat was grown on land that used to be rainforest, what is the cost of the rainforest, the increase of greenhouse gases, the loss of biodiversity, rare animals and plants? You mean you can put a dollar value to that? Yes, you can. Furthermore, if that tomato was grown in southern Florida by workers held in slavelike conditions, what is the cost to them? Then there’s the health aspect, fast food being on the public enemy list for causing lifestyle diseases such as diabetes. What is the cost to the American economy for treating diabetes? You get the picture. When all is tallied, that BigMac could well cost hundreds of dollars. Of course, those costs aren’t passed on to you the consumer– until later.

In case you haven’t noticed, this way of thinking is not exactly part of the Western Industrial worldview. You mean, actually to consider the cost to other human beings, to creation, to the planet, of the choices we make each day, the cheap food we consume and clothing we wear? In fact, it’s based on a way of thinking and living that is as old as human culture itself: call it “community.” I know, a radical word, right?

Alan Greenspan recently admitted before a Congressional committee that he had “found a flaw” in his own fundamentalist free-market model. If that model has failed, asks Patel, what do we replace it with?

Last year’s Nobel Prize in economics was given to an American, Elinor Ostrom, for her analysis of a kind of economic governance called “the commons.” The commons are resources that are collectively owned. In her study Ostrom showed how some cultures interact with ecosystems to maintain sustainable resource yields, thus preventing ecosystem collapse. In other words, these communities hold resources, such as forests or water systems, in common and find a way to use them without destroying them.

Unregulated capitalism has brought us unbridled greed, unsustainable growth, climate instability, pollution, slavery, and a widening gap between rich and poor. It’s time we put a price on that.

For more of Raj Patel, click here, here and here.

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A New Constitution

In light of recent developments, I thought it appropriate to update the U.S. Constitution. It’s been a long time in coming, but at last now we have a document that reflects the state of our nation and our vision for the future.

“We the corporations of the United States, in order to form a more perfect oligarchy, establish injustice, insure domestic servitude, provide for the military-industrial complex, promote corporate welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and ourselves alone, do ordain and establish this new Constitution for the United States of America.…”

Actually, cynicism aside, there is something we can do. A constitutional amendment to be sent to the States is already in the works, one that will clarify what the majority of the Court seems to overlook: that in speaking of the right of free speech, the First Amendment refers to individuals, not corporations. You can petition Congress to act here or here.


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Are Free Markets Really Free?

“It [the U.S.] is yet another Civilized Power, with its banner of the Prince of Peace in one hand and its loot-basket and its butcher-knife in the other.”– Mark Twain, 1901

“For globalism to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is.…The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”— Thomas Friedman, 1999

“Free market” capitalism is the sacrosanct fetish of this nation. Few would dispute that. But how “free” is it? Let’s take Haiti as an example.

Haiti’s rich soil could once grow enough food to feed itself and other countries to boot. In fact, it once did. Rice is the staple of the Haitian diet, and up until the 1980s, the country imported little if any rice. But trade liberalization policies, demanded by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in exchange for loans, lowered the 35% tariff on imported rice to just 3%. The result? Haiti was flooded with cheap U.S. rice (an industry subsidized by our government). Unable to compete, Haitian rice production collapsed, so that today, most all of the rice consumed by Haitians is imported.

This is a scenario repeated every day in the developing world. Is that a free market? It’s free if you’re wealthy and can compete. It’s free if your government lavishes vast subsidies on your industry. If we look at the so-called “miracle economies” of Asia, such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, their growth was insured at first through a form of trade protectionism.

“Free trade” then is really just another stacked deck, stacked high against the developing world.

For an in-depth history of the Haitian rice trade and the effects of trade liberalization, click here.
For an interesting discussion on this topic, click here.

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MLK, Jr.: Civil Rights and Beyond

On this day our nation honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Most Americans remember him as a shining light beckoning on the road to racial equality in this country, a proponent of non-violent resistance, an authentically American prophet who suffered and ultimately was murdered for having the temerity to dream of a nation where children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Dr. King was all these things. But we too easily (and perhaps it is no accident) end the chapter there in 1963, forgetting particularly the last few years of his life when increasingly he began to widen his focus to other forms of injustice, the backdrop of the war in Vietnam, the bigger picture of American imperialism and an exported system of economic inequality that made racial injustice possible everywhere.

In April 1967 he spoke to a convocation of concerned clergy and laity at the Riverside Church in New York City. His words seem all the more relevant today. Let’s listen in…

…It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war….

To read or listen to the entire speech, click here.

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Loving in Truth

Back in June of last year, Pope Benedict XVI issued an encyclical, a letter to the bishops of every country. The letter is long and couched in the academic language of theologians, so it may have largely passed unmentioned beneath the media radar. But Caritas in veritate (Love in truth), as the encyclical is called, responds with clear voice to the various social, economic, and environmental crises of our day by demonstrating how love and truth are interrelated and how the church is called to show God’s love in practical ways. He states,

In Paul VI’s words, “evangelization would not be complete if it did not take account of the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and of man’s concrete life, both personal and social.” “Between evangelization and human advancement — development and liberation — there are in fact profound links”: on the basis of this insight, Paul VI clearly presented the relationship between the proclamation of Christ and the advancement of the individual in society. Testimony to Christ’s charity, through works of justice, peace and development, is part and parcel of evangelization, because Jesus Christ, who loves us, is concerned with the whole person. These important teachings form the basis for the missionary aspect of the Church’s social doctrine, which is an essential element of evangelization. The Church’s social doctrine proclaims and bears witness to faith. It is an instrument and an indispensable setting for formation in faith.

Here are more highlights from the letter:

On greed and the unequal distribution of wealth…

…The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone. All things considered, this is also required by “economic logic”. Through the systemic increase of social inequality, both within a single country and between the populations of different countries (i.e. the massive increase in relative poverty), not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of “social capital”: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence….
…Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.

The Church has always held that economic action is not to be regarded as something opposed to society. In and of itself, the market is not, and must not become, the place where the strong subdue the weak. Society does not have to protect itself from the market, as if the development of the latter were ipso facto to entail the death of authentically human relations. Admittedly, the market can be a negative force, not because it is so by nature, but because a certain ideology can make it so. It must be remembered that the market does not exist in the pure state. It is shaped by the cultural configurations which define it and give it direction. Economy and finance, as instruments, can be used badly when those at the helm are motivated by purely selfish ends. Instruments that are good in themselves can thereby be transformed into harmful ones. But it is man’s darkened reason that produces these consequences, not the instrument per se. Therefore it is not the instrument that must be called to account, but individuals, their moral conscience and their personal and social responsibility.

The Church’s social doctrine holds that authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or “after” it. The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner….

On care for God’s creation…

…This responsibility is a global one, for it is concerned not just with energy but with the whole of creation, which must not be bequeathed to future generations depleted of its resources. Human beings legitimately exercise a responsible stewardship over nature, in order to protect it, to enjoy its fruits and to cultivate it in new ways, with the assistance of advanced technologies, so that it can worthily accommodate and feed the world’s population. On this earth there is room for everyone: here the entire human family must find the resources to live with dignity, through the help of nature itself — God’s gift to his children — and through hard work and creativity. At the same time we must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it. This means being committed to making joint decisions “after pondering responsibly the road to be taken, decisions aimed at strengthening that covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying”. Let us hope that the international community and individual governments will succeed in countering harmful ways of treating the environment.

It is likewise incumbent upon the competent authorities to make every effort to ensure that the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations: the protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet. One of the greatest challenges facing the economy is to achieve the most efficient use — not abuse — of natural resources, based on a realization that the notion of “efficiency” is not value-free. The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments”.

Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society. Nature, especially in our time, is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable. Desertification and the decline in productivity in some agricultural areas are also the result of impoverishment and underdevelopment among their inhabitants. When incentives are offered for their economic and cultural development, nature itself is protected. Moreover, how many natural resources are squandered by wars! Peace in and among peoples would also provide greater protection for nature. The hoarding of resources, especially water, can generate serious conflicts among the peoples involved. Peaceful agreement about the use of resources can protect nature and, at the same time, the well-being of the societies concerned.

The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when “human ecology” is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits. Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society and its good relationship with nature. In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment and damages society.

On ethical consumerism…
…Global interconnectedness has led to the emergence of a new political power, that of consumers and their associations. This is a phenomenon that needs to be further explored, as it contains positive elements to be encouraged as well as excesses to be avoided. It is good for people to realize that purchasing is always a moral — and not simply economic — act. Hence the consumer has a specific social responsibility, which goes hand-in- hand with the social responsibility of the enterprise. Consumers should be continually educated regarding their daily role, which can be exercised with respect for moral principles without diminishing the intrinsic economic rationality of the act of purchasing. In the retail industry, particularly at times like the present when purchasing power has diminished and people must live more frugally, it is necessary to explore other paths: for example, forms of cooperative purchasing like the consumer cooperatives that have been in operation since the nineteenth century, partly through the initiative of Catholics. In addition, it can be helpful to promote new ways of marketing products from deprived areas of the world, so as to guarantee their producers a decent return. However, certain conditions need to be met: the market should be genuinely transparent; the producers, as well as increasing their profit margins, should also receive improved formation in professional skills and technology; and finally, trade of this kind must not become hostage to partisan ideologies. A more incisive role for consumers, as long as they themselves are not manipulated by associations that do not truly represent them, is a desirable element for building economic democracy.

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Haiti: Living in the Shadow

As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance. — John Dewey

The fear of democracy exists, by definitional necessity, in elite groups who monopolize economic and political power. — Patrick Bellegarde-Smith

This week in response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the Rev. Pat Robertson remarked with his customary tact that this is only one of a long string of tragedies for the impoverished country because it had “made a pact with the devil” in exchange for its independence. It’s comments like this that make one almost wish one were Muslim.

Another newscaster sighed wistfully that Haiti went from being the “most prosperous” of France’s colonies in the 18th century to one of the world’s poorest nations. She omitted mentioning the fact that Haiti’s quondam prosperity was built on the backs of African slaves, who endured savage treatment but did not share in the colony’s riches.

Tuesday’s massive earthquake was only part of the tragedy. Extreme poverty, economic stagnation and a weak government and infrastructure have only exacerbated the calamity. While it is true that voodoo still exists in Haiti, and there is a story in which slaves prayed to their god for help in their victory over the French, one can draw a direct line from the country’s ravaged economy and failed democracy to U.S. and European intervention over two centuries.

At the dawn of the 19th century, as a result of a massive slave uprising, Haiti became the world’s first independent state founded by former slaves. With the loss of such a jewel in its colonial crown, France pressured the new government for compensation for the loss of “property” (i.e., slaves). Being a slave-holding state itself, the neighboring U.S. with its high ideals of liberty felt threatened and remained far from supportive of such independence, thus continuing its creed that “all [white] men are created equal.” And so little Haiti became indebted to France for its freedom. The full amount (60 million francs, in gold) was not paid off until 1947. If Haiti is accursed, as Robertson claims, it has certainly been cursed with debt. If it made any pacts, one of the devils in the bargain was most certainly France, and as we see later, the U.S.

Fast forward a century to 1915. Political instability in Haiti prompts President Woodrow Wilson to send U.S. Marines, supposedly, to “protect U.S. interests.” In reality, we were protecting U.S. corporations and luring the impoverished nation into a net of further debt and economic dependency. By 1918 a Haitian law was passed at the point of American rifles that allowed the U.S. to turn Haiti effectively into a U.S. plantation. Haiti was under our military occupation for 19 years.

Among poor nations political turmoil, natural disasters and economic crises are often used as a pretext for the developed world to foist massive loans on a struggling government and the sale of the country’s precious resources to the highest bidder. This is one of the ugly sides of capitalism (especially when governments like ours go to bed with corporations) and it is a game repeated for centuries throughout the developing world. Native populations are forced out of rural areas, where they have lived for generations, and into cramped cities to work in manufacturing, making trinkets for the white man. This is what happened to Haiti, as well as much of Africa.

In addition, capitalist nations force the weaker governments to lower tariffs on imports, especially on commodities that the poor countries grow themselves, thus further crippling their agriculture. This too is Haiti’s history, and we only have to go back to 1994, when President Aristide was returned to power under the “kindly’ auspices of the very country who helped topple him in a CIA-backed coup. Then President Bill Clinton (now ironically U.N. special envoy to Haiti) exacted a high price for Aristide’s return, including lowering tariffs so that the U.S. could dump its excess rice on a population that grew its own. Haitian rice growers could not compete with the heavily subsidized U.S. commodity and so never recovered.

Like so many darker-skinned nations, Haiti’s greatest sin in the eyes of the West has ever been her desire to be free. An unpardonable crime. It’s enormous debts have from its foundation rendered its government ineffectual, causing some leaders to focus on merely pillaging rather than rebuilding its economy.

The United States is not the sole cause of Haiti’s ills (France, Germany, the World Bank and IMF have also done more than their share of damage) , but it cannot be denied that had the island had the good fortune to be located in some other hemisphere, away from the shadow of this “bastion of democracy” we call America, the people of Haiti would have fared far better. With friends like us who needs enemies?

To read more about the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915-1934).

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