Morality and trade

March 11, 2004|By Ira Rifkin

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS may be out of the running for the Democratic presidential nomination, but the issue he brought forth remains in the race. Because of his prodding, offshore outsourcing -- the transferring abroad of jobs that Americans once naively presumed were theirs in perpetuity -- has become a major presidential campaign issue. It's about time.

Jobs are the barometer most voters use to track their economic straits, regardless of what Wall Street or the White House tells them about the nation's economic recovery. It's also about time because talking about offshore outsourcing could help Americans finally appreciate that globalization involves more than joyfully munching Chilean raspberries on a winter's day while earning big bucks teleconferencing from your cozy bedroom with business associates in Tokyo.

Mr. Edwards was correct when he called U.S. trade policy "a moral issue." What needs to be further stated is that globalization, the force generating the outsourcing wave, is itself a moral issue -- that the economic and cultural changes implicit in globalization are by no means values-less.

Globalization's values are those of the marketplace, which places competition, individual gain and the acquisition of economic wealth above all else -- including ensuring the stability of families and communities and respecting the psychological security that comes from living in a stable setting. In religious terms, globalization represents a rejection of salvation, if, stripped of all theology, salvation is understood to mean cultural insights into which human behavior is best for the long-term benefit of the individual and society.

Globalization's most egregious shortcoming is its rejection of this core human understanding, and need. Globalization favors the short term. The human psyche dwells on the long term.

It's no wonder that religious believers, both liberal and conservative, find great fault with globalization. From Pope John Paul II to the Dalai Lama, from liberal Protestant ministers to anti-modernist Muslim imams, globalization has been condemned as a perversion of the concept of prosperity that "leaves very little space for values such as solidarity and altruism," to quote the pontiff.

That is not to say that to be religious is to be automatically anti-globalization. Christianity and Islam, to cite just two traditions, view themselves as global systems. So rather than being anti-globalization, religious critics of globalization are better described as alter-globalization; that is, they favor a deeply interconnected world in which the needs of people and the environment come before the needs of multinational corporations.

In short, they teach an inversion of the current model.

It's the difference between pushing for fair trade, a term already in this season's political lexicon, rather than settling for so-called free trade, a classic misnomer because of the protectionist nature of the world's economic players, both major and minor. Fair trade is just and sustainable. Free trade protectionism is about political chicanery.

For years, American jobs have been shipped to developing nations, where pay scales are considerably lower and governments are far less stringent about levying appropriate taxes and enforcing safe working conditions and environmental standards. Since the losers were mostly small farmers and those working on manufacturing's lower rungs -- groups lacking major political clout -- outsourcing remained a backburner issue.

Today, the jobs of American high-tech, medical analysis and financial services workers, among others, are threatened. Suddenly, outsourcing is a major campaign issue because the politically potent middle class is at risk.

A teachable moment is at hand. But whether Democratic Sen. John Kerry and Republican President Bush can move the issue beyond narrowly focused political rhetoric mired in economic self-interest is by no means assured. Reflecting on the personal religious values that they insist guide them would help. Nor would it hurt voters who likewise profess to be rooted in religious beliefs to follow suit. The Sermon on the Mount did not say, "Blessed are the greedy."

All politics is local, but so does all politics involve moral choice.

Ira Rifkin is the author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization (SkyLight Paths, 2003). He lives in Annapolis.

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