Economics

Limits to Compassion

With deference to Alexia Salvatierra (“Sacred Refuge,” September-October 2007), I do not believe that our current laws regarding “illegal aliens” (securing our borders, penalizing businesses that knowingly hire illegal aliens, and the deportation of illegal aliens) are inherently unjust. Moreover, though existing laws may need some reforms, they were written to justly serve the most basic human needs, like security and stability. Indeed, if our inept federal government was enforcing existing laws, we would not have 12 to 20 million illegal aliens in our nation.

I also wish her article reflected more balance. Nowhere, for example, does she mention the enormous economic cost of providing health care, education, and other social services to illegal aliens. There is no mention of the social cost when thousands of illegal aliens smuggle drugs into our nation. What about the environmental impact on limited natural resources by the addition of 12 to 20 million people? While mentioning the responsibilities of religious communities, why not also mention the responsibilities of individuals who place their children at risk by immigrating illegally into our nation and the responsibilities of the government of Mexico to care for its poor?

Like Salvatierra, I do believe in compassion. Perhaps we differ on the context in which compassion takes place. I believe that compassion needs to be sensitive to reasonable and morally justifiable laws. I also believe that compassion has limits: economic and environmental.

Bob Blackburn
Berlin, Wisconsin

Patty Kupfer responds:

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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A Crumbling Infrastructure

Between 1950 and 1970, the U.S. spent 3 percent of its gross domestic product maintaining America’s infrastructure; since 1980, the country has spent “well less than 2 percent,” according to a report by the New America Foundation. As the August collapse of Minneapolis’ Interstate 35W bridge reminds us, this backlog can have fatal consequences. While Iraq war appropriations exceed $456 billion, America’s highways, bridges, waste and water facilities, harbors, and airports are poorly maintained (and public education and affordable housing are seriously underfunded)—and predicted to become significantly more so by 2015.

3.5 million public housing units could be built with $456 billion.

27.1 percent of U.S. bridges are listed as structurally deficient or obsolete.

30 percent of annual highway fatalities result from inadequate roadway maintenance.

45,800 elementary schools could be built with $456 billion.

1 percent: amount that annual expenditures to maintain the U.S. power grid have decreased since 1992.

8 million public school teachers could be hired for one year with $456 billion.

Sources: “Ten Big Ideas for a New America” (New America Foundation, 2007); “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure 2005,” (American Society of Civil Engineers); the National Priorities Project; “The Bucks Never Stop: Iraq and Afghanistan War Costs Continue To Soar” (The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation).

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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A Shelter for the Soul

El Centro Episcopal is located in Sampson County, a sparsely populated region of southeast North Carolina where farming is still the dominant industry. This small community organization, run by Episcopal Farmworker Ministry (EFM), serves the “invisible” laborers who earn the lowest annual income of all U.S. workers—workers who hand-harvest 85 percent of the produce we eat. Accessible only by a rural road, the facility provides services to more than 6,000 migrant and year-round farm workers each year. Seventeen acres of cotton, bell pepper, soybean, and strawberry fields surround a health clinic, a Head Start day-care facility, a community services building, and a church, La Iglesia de la Sagrada Familia.

It’s not a place you’d expect to find innovative design, but two unique building projects are underway: a community garden and a flea market. With the help of Design Corps, a Raleigh-based architecture organization whose stated mission is “creating positive change in communities through design,” EFM has developed a 20-year plan to respond to the immediate and future needs of the people it serves. The garden will offer workers extra food while the flea market will help bring in extra income. Using research from Wake Forest University about how to address “food insecurity” within the migrant farm worker population, Design Corps’ partnership with EFM provides a design solution to an economic and social justice issue.

Architecture and design experts have traditionally served the needs and interests of those able to foot expensive bills. Bryan Bell, executive director of Design Corps, recalls trying to talk with other architecture professionals about individual design for low-income families during the era of multi-family complexes in urban centers. “They thought I was serving lobster and caviar at a food bank. They just didn’t understand what designers could do to help.”

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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Don't Scurry, Be Happy

Economists are telling us that people are not spending enough money this Holiday time and thus our economy will suffer. I am reminded of the president's urging after 9/11, to go out and spend money, buy things as the way to make things better. I can't believe we fall for this false assumption of economic well-being: buying things, or things themselves, will bring happiness.

A consultant in community building was invited by the South Korean government, saying, "We have money and [...]

Don't Scurry, Be Happy

Economists are telling us that people are not spending enough money this Holiday time and thus our economy will suffer. I am reminded of the president's urging after 9/11, to go out and spend money, buy things as the way to make things better. I can't believe we fall for this false assumption of economic well-being: buying things, or things themselves, will bring happiness.

A consultant in community building was invited by the South Korean government, saying, "We have money and [...]

Don't Scurry, Be Happy

Economists are telling us that people are not spending enough money this Holiday time and thus our economy will suffer. I am reminded of the president's urging after 9/11, to go out and spend money, buy things as the way to make things better. I can't believe we fall for this false assumption of economic well-being: buying things, or things themselves, will bring happiness.

A consultant in community building was invited by the South Korean government, saying, "We have money and [...]

Corruption: Everybody's Problem

Corruption is a problem in Kenya and many countries. Where corruption is intractable, trust funds can be used to ensure that money freed by debt cancellation is used to benefit the poor. In Uganda, for example, money has been channeled through a Poverty Action Fund, which is overseen by representatives from government, national and international nongovernmental organizations, churches, and unions.

It's important to understand how the international debt system fuels corruption. IMF conditions have forced governments to cut jobs and lower salaries, leading workers to demand bribes. And, in the past, international creditors lent country executives money without their legislatures approving, or even knowing the amount of, the loans. Civil society groups in countries scarred by the debt crisis, such as Zambia and the Philippines, have been advocating for parliamentary oversight of new debts and want greater transparency of information to be able to hold their governments accountable.

Christina Cobourn Herman was an associate director of the Oblate Justice and Peace/Integrity of Creation Office in Washington, D.C., when this article appeared.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2007
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Lenders and Illegitimate Debt

Asserting that "it takes two to tango," the Jubilee movement argues that it is high time lenders assume their share of responsibility for the debt crisis. Many projects benefited creditor country firms, but not the people who now have to pay.

The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant in the Philippines is a prime example. Built on an earthquake fault line at the foot of a volcano, the nuclear plant is unsafe and has never been used, but it costs the Philippines $155,000 a day in debt payments to U.S., Swiss, and Japanese banks. Like much of the Philippines' foreign debt, this debt was incurred during the 24-year dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who was supported by successive U.S. administrations eager to maintain two key military bases on Philippine soil.

As a U.S. ally, Marcos was favored with loans from commercial and multilateral lenders, despite clear knowledge of rampant corruption. For instance, Marcos and his close associate Herminio Disini together are said to have personally taken some $80 million from the Bataan nuclear project; Westinghouse, the U.S. firm that won the contract, admitted to having paid Disini $17.3 million in cash as a commission. Today, although the Philippines is considered a middle-income country, 40 percent of Filipinos live in poverty. Like many other countries, it struggles to develop while shouldering the heavy yoke of illegitimate debt.

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Growth Run Amok

Bill McKibben has long been sounding alarm bells about the perils of unlimited economic growth. In his latest book, Deep Economy, he argues persuasively that the mantra of growth, combined with "hyper individualism," has eroded communities and created extremes of wealth and poverty.

While economic growth has produced obvious benefits, such as a reliable food supply, there are costs. One is that an average bite of food in the United States travels 1,500 miles before it is consumed, resulting in enormous energy waste. Shipping a head of lettuce from California to the East Coast requires 36 times as many calories of fossil energy as the lettuce contains. It's a system that also eliminates family farms, McKibben writes. One company, Cargill, now controls 45 percent of the world's grain trade.

A reader could easily become depressed reading McKibben's litany of environmental and economic woes, but threaded throughout the book are positive stories. One is the increasing interest in community-supported agriculture, in which consumers pay a farmer a few hundred dollars in winter and then receive a weekly bin of vegetables throughout the growing season and into the fall. Another is farmers' markets—the fastest-growing part of the U.S. food economy.

McKibben also tackles the extreme individualism, social isolation, and resultant loss of community in the United States. Three-quarters of Americans say they do not know their neighbors. But McKibben tells the story of the "co-housing" movement, such as EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York, in which people have their own homes but share a common kitchen, guest rooms, a laundry room, and tool sheds.

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Rising Green Tide Could Lift All Boats

Promoting "green industry" can foster an economy that benefits all Americans and is strong enough to lift people out of poverty, according to "Community Jobs in the Green Economy," a new report from the Apollo Alliance and Urban Habitat. The report's researchers call on the government to offer subsidies to businesses that produce, buy, sell, or distribute energy-efficient or clean-energy products. "Cities must proactively and explicitly prioritize and encourage the development of local jobs across all skill sets in order for green economic development to achieve equitable outcomes for residents," the report states.

Renewable energy alone was a $40 billion industry in 2005 and is projected to quadruple in the next 10 years. "Urban youth, too often fodder for prisons, could instead be trained to create zero-pollution products, heal the land, and harvest the sun," said Van Jones, president of the California-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, in the report. "Those communities that were locked out of the last century's pollution-based economy must be locked into the new, clean, and green economy."

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