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Reflections

I called this section "reflections" for lack of a better term. Later on it will be filled with a variety of different topical entries.

What is Happening in my Country?November 7, 2008

When I was home for awhile in August and September, I didn’t expect probably the worst financial crisis since 1929 to occur. I wonder what his happening to my home country and what to expect for the future. When you are gone, you can come back looking at your country in a different light.

I still think the wide expanse of Iowa’s rolling hills of fields is beautiful. But I see affluence and prosperity I didn’t see before in the sheer size of the fields, the conformity of endless rows of cornstalks, the large mowed lawns, and the generally large houses. The contrast of the Iowan and Honduran landscape is almost more striking when coming to the United States than the reverse. The Midwest economy appears very healthy, so it is hard to believe this prosperity could be on the brink of decadence.

What I can’t get over is that, for being one of the wealthiest and most resource-rich societies, we live a level of consumption that we can’t even afford. I don’t understand macroeconomics with great confidence, but I speak as I understand things. The US has a massive trade deficit and the government has a partially foreign-financed deficit that, after an expensive war and a bailout, begins approaching post WWII levels as a percent of the GDP. We have a culture of indebtedness—predator lenders, subprime mortgages, and racked-up credit cards.

Hondurans in my neighborhood tend to view what’s in their wallets as the money as money they can spend, and tomorrow can take care of itself. Rather than bank accounts, their saving mechanisms are things like building onto their house little by little or buying things they can sell later when the need cash. Credit is relatively tight for the poor in Honduras, who have to pay high interests, while relatively easy (at least it was) in the United States. Unfortunately, Americans seem to view whatever is within their credit limits as money in their wallets. Large banking institutions in their own way have also to their ruin operated on this principle, miscalculating what the economy would do.

I begin to see the United States like a wobbly tower, and, because of the contingency of the world economy, the rest of world needs it standing. In the wake of this crisis, fingers around the world including Latin America are pointing at the United States. “The managers of big business took huge risks out of greed,” says the president of Costa Rica

We want to build towers of Babel with no limits-- live a standard of living higher than we earn, expend whatever natural resources or foreign lives it takes to protect our own. A Honduran conversation partner on economics commented to me, “If everyone in the world consumed as much as Americans, the world would explode.” For him, the current world events demonstrate that neo-liberal economics doesn’t work.

“It is a sin to let food spoil without sharing it beforehand,” remarked my Honduran host. I think of that, when a society rich in resources has unsustainable economic practices that waste these resources, while in many countries people struggle to eat.

Health care, which I now have experience with, seems also governed by the assumption of “no limits.” I don’t dispute quality, and think in fact that most of it could be had for half of every dollar spent, but the inevitable fact is that our health care is becoming too expensive for society to afford. According to a Newsweek editorial ("Who says it's a right?”) the US spends a sixth of the GDP on health care, approaching a fourth by 2025. Something has to be done, whether a low cap on malpractice suit awards, shorter-lasting pharmaceutical patents, more investment in preventative medicine, or a change to a fresh-food diet, rather than the processed diet we allow the food industry to choose for us.

It’s like having a country where everyone drove Ferraris for transportation, except the poor who had to hitchhike. As expensive as the system would be, I imagine people would snobbishly look at other countries with their buses, trains and Corollas and say, “at least we have the best transportation.”

One of my friends commented to me that it was not fair to blame the crisis on Wall Street as many of the roots occurred on Main Street. Wall Street has always been greedy; that is what makes our economy work. While Christians and ethicists agree that greed is wrong, apparently we believe strongly enough in our economic system to excuse greed. As a Christian, I wonder what is behind the biblical verses that condemn usury, when our economic system is built on making money from money. The Bible forbade permanent selling of land (the ancient equivalent of capital) in the Jubilee laws, which if followed would have allowed no one to amass wealth. I don’t want to draw lines here and say what kind of participation in the system is right and wrong. But I think any time in history, someone needs to question one’s culture’s way of doing things, before engaging in ethical rationalization just because the system “works.”

The underlying question is if amassed wealth is wealth stolen from the poor. If one person has 5 apples, and there are 10 people and 10 apples, four must go with none. Of course it is not really that simple; human technology and innovation can create wealth that didn’t exist before. But overall, I am increasingly convinced that the answer to the question above is yes. Once wealth is amassed into the hands of the few, those few are given disproportionate power to consciously or unconsciously create systems that transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. A system that rewards having lots of capital over hard labor is evidence. While poor households in North America can scrimp and save in order to make investments, it is easier for the wealthy who have surplus over what it costs to live.

Our system has also permitted the rise of the large corporation, more powerful than many nations, which have shared monopolies on most things we buy, and have large amounts of power to influence people’s choices and cultures through advertising (I wonder how the world would be different if there were no advertising). In a system where companies must grow larger in order to be financially successful, there will only be more mergers, larger corporations, and more shared monopolies. When large corporations do exceedingly well or operate in poor countries like Honduras, wealth is transferred from the on-average poor/middle class consumers to the on-average wealthy shareholders. Certainly a corporation can provide valuable things, but ethical checks and balances break down; When ethical business conflicts with the bottom-line, individual employees, shareholders, or consumers have little voice or knowledge, and the CEO and board will say their duty to the shareholders is to think only of the bottom-line. We may have a political democracy, but economic decisions that affect the well-being of the country or the world are not made democratically. The larger the corporations, the more a full democracy is at stake.

In Honduras and in different ways in the United States, the wealthy can afford to pay bribes, lobby, or launch campaigns to steer laws in ways that benefit them. I just heard about a case in Honduras of three community worker’s being murdered because of their work in trying to have land correctly titled that had been illegally sold by illegitimate landowners (www.ajs-us.org/speakout.htm). As far as I can tell, the exploitation of most of Honduran’s resources like cash crops or minerals, is done by the elite or foreign companies. Honduras’ true resource then becomes labor—whether immigrants in the States or maquila factory workers. Historically under the shadow of US imperialism, and thrust into modern global capitalism, it struggles to carve out an adequate piece of the pie.

A Honduran neighbor was relating to me his plans to take off for the north for the third time, by hopping freight trains. He only had naďve praise for the United States, “Some of my friends curse the US, because they were caught by immigration police, but I think it is the country that helps us the most—where is the working Honduran? Not in Spain, in the United States.” The reality is that we can’t escape being either a boon or a major bane for other countries. We bear responsibility. With this election we have come to a turning point; hopefully we realize caring for the well-being of the poor and the “least” is where true greatness comes from.

The Sharing ChurchJune 1, 2008

PovertyNovember 15, 2007

Regionalisms in HondurasSeptember 16, 2007

ImmigrationJuly 9, 2007

The Blessing of GodJune 3, 2007

Questions not all Frequently AskedMay 18, 2007

El MuditoMay, 2007

QuotesFeb 12, 2007

The Mencía familyMarch, 2007

Updated June 22, 2008