Monday, October 24, 2005

Making Poverty History - An Analysis, Part VII

[This series begins here.]

I have floundered about for several posts now gripping for some handhold on the slopes of poverty and wealth. What is poverty and what is wealth? Why do those on the political and economic left who fear a Christian theocracy (on the right) nevertheless invoke religion to inspire state-run poverty relief programs? What are the secular, non-theistic reasons anyone should care about the poor? Why do so many critics of wealth appear to root their critiques, not in justice, but in envy and resentment?

These are some of the questions so far addressed. But we've not asked, "How do we care for the poor?"

Last year the Wall Street Journal ran a massive report on poverty and hunger relief programs. Most if not all of the Journal's report was based on information gathered by the United Nations. One startling fact was that the earth has never seen so many hungry people; simultaneously the earth has never produced so much food. India, for example, now the world's leading producer of wheat, watched helplessly as billions of tons of grain rotted away, unable to distribute that grain to its hungry neighbors. The reasons for this problem are complex, but almost always have to do with the need for infrastructure and laborers (i.e. jobs) to make distribution possible. For years, or so the UN and Journal reported, the mantra heard from relief and governmental agencies dealing with crises of poverty and famine has been, "Send us food! Send us money!" And the noble-spirited who heard that cry did in fact produce food and money for those in need. But the reality is that most of the aid did not reach its intended goal, stalled as it was in red-tape, beauracratic corruption and, most importantly, the dearth of facilities to deliver those goods. The new mantra, again according to the WSJ and the UN, is "Send jobs, send jobs."

You see, it is not possible to bring long term change, or even effective aid, to peoples who do not have the means to distribute what is given them. If there are no roads, and no vehicles for roads (or the equipment and know-how to build roads), there is no distribution industry. If there is no distribution, there is no relief. Hence, the need for developing these poor regions with viable economic programs, not solely for distribution of aid but for the nurturing of industries that generate local wealth, food and resources, is the most pressing need in alleviating hunger and poverty. Merely redistributing wealth does not help; economies need to be born in order to build locally sustainable wealth.

What's the old adage, "Give a man a fish and he'll have food for a day; teach a man to fish and he'll have food for a lifetime"? Well, it's something like that we're talking about.

But too often it is believed that free markets are the easy answer to world economic problems. While I admit that I am over-simplifying, there is nonetheless an almost idolatrous trust that "the market" will bring relief and justice to all. But we all know that the market, based on the idea that only what consumers consume will succeed in the marketplace, leads to all sorts of corruptions, the monopoly being one of them. Of course, there are others. The market currently sustains profits in human slave trade, particularly sex slaves, in various parts of the world. One can't rationalize this immoral reality merely by arguing that certain commodities won't sell if people don't want those commodities: some commodities should never be market commodities at all. In Oregon, the state supreme court has legalized public sex acts (presumably on view at certain bars and bookstores). Again, the rationale is dubiously offered that such acts will disappear if enough people refuse to buy that product. Or there is the exploitation of addiction in the sex, drug, tobacco, alcohol and gambling industries. Each of these, it could be argued, was never meant to be a marketable commodity in the first place, irrespective of how the beloved market flourishes or dies as such commodities are traded. Some things, it seems, should be off limits.

Hence, the role of government, not merely to protect against monopolies and price-gougings, is necessary to contol markets from running pell-mell into the trading of human flesh. Laissez-faire economics are not really desirable.

Of course, the apotheosis of free market power is found in corporations, viewed as demonic forces generally by those on the left of the political spectrum. Corporations embody the very loathsome value of concentrating wealth and power that leftists consider utterly deplorable. That corporations often do great good, like WalMart performed during hurricane Katrina, for example, rarely earns them much favor among their critics.

Curiously, leftists, in conflict with most if not all corporations and critical of concentrations of private wealth and ownership, nontheless support corporations of labor. Unions are after all incorporations of power and means themselves, and they do in fact wield massive power not only over ownership, but over the labor pool as well. And unions are not above corruption; unions also exploit worker and manager. Unions do want money, after all; they are not even above lusting after it. That is why, for just one example, legislation is now on the table in California to give union members the right to decline giving their union dues if those monies are to be used for political purposes contrary to members' personal political convictions.

My point in venturing here is simple: Poverty is not merely solved by distributing wealth, nor is it solved merely by unfettered free markets (which would be undesirable) or the unfettered power of labor-control. Wealth is only generated when ownership and labor dance together in a healthy, balanced and profit-seeking manner, all within the confines of fair and moral (ambiguous terms, I know) rules set by a state which favors the production of private wealth.

Anyone thinking that the solution to either poverty or the imbalance between the poor and the not poor is a simple solution is not paying attention.


Next in this series: Government spending and the care industry.

1 comment:

Jonah said...

Jesus said the poor will always be with us, as it has been since time immemorial. Attempting a solution to this conundrum will leave you with nothing but sleepless nights.

Then again, attempting to minimize the problem is certainly a noble goal. Certainly, how best to battle poverty is a political cash cow for some.

Some grapple the issue merely to show they are concerned for the poor (gaining votes) without actually tackling the issue. Others really do attempt to find ways to resolve the issue, only to find their "tough love" is credited to them as heartlessness or bigotry.

Ahhh. The wonder of politics.