19.2.07

Money Doesn’t End Poverty

While not synonymous, poverty and starvation are plights of common origin; that is, where you find one, you will usually find the other. Contrary to many posited views, however, the simple solution to poverty is not wealth any more than the simple solution to starvation is food. US social welfare programs have demonstrated that fact over its 61 year history (from conception in 1935 to reform in 1996). In short, Roosevelt’s New Deal (under which the US welfare program was born) proved a major impetus in the perpetuation of trans-generational poverty.

In the same vein, fiscal meddling by the IMF and World Bank have shipwrecked nations through their policies, usually anti-capitalistic: the presence of money doesn’t end poverty. In fact, quite the opposite, as seen in the case of Argentina. For those unfamiliar with the IMF and World Bank both serve as the world’s largest lenders to nations with “short-term credit crunches.” Recipients of these loans must adhere to the policies of these lending institutions—policies which historically have caused as much harm as good, environmentally as well as socially and economically.

Enter the biotech age of Genetically Engineered Organisms (read “crops). First introduced in 1996, GEOs accounted for approximately 1.09 million acres worldwide, largely in the US. That number has increased to nearly 200 million acres today. In 2006, it is estimated that “in the US…89% of the planted area of soybeans, 83% of cotton, and 61% maize was genetically modified varieties.” Ignoring for a moment issues of intellectual property—such as surrounded Monsanto’s Roundup Ready ® corn—the economic ramifications of GEO crops are massive. Higher resistance to certain pesticides, blights, or temperature swings do in fact allow crops to produce higher yields, upwards of 10% in most cases and as high as a 50% increase in yield in others.

The immediate response of most westerners when they hear such staggering reports is amazingly optimistic, assuming that such a pronouncement of higher yields is a declaration on the end of starvation. Such a response is truthy at best, and often completely incorrect.

This is where the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization’s talks comes in to play. In a recent article titled “Peter Mandelson says that a global trade deal is doomed unless the American President backs it today,” The Times reporters David Charter and Tom Baldwin suggest that the global impact of the WTO proposal is $287 billion by 2015. Frankly, that’s not much. Assuming (the huge assumption) of inflation rates at a meager 2-3% globally together with current population growth models, there will be 7.5 billion people in the world by 2015, of which 3.5 billion or more will be impoverished (living on less than US $2-3 per day).

Initially one might suppose that $287 billion divided by 3.5 billion is still an increase of $82 per year, per individual. If only such were the case. Unfortunately, it is at this point that GEO crops, government farm subsidies, international tariffs, population increase, poverty and starvation merge into a nexus of counteraction. Many western countries—the US included—offer tax subsidies to homeland farmers. This allows for a nation to ensure continued food production while maintaining a normalized (and affordable) level of commodity pricing. Governments internally purchase excess production of crops at set levels, only then to sell them off to other nations at discounted rates (discounted to national prices as well as international prices). In response to cheap crop imports, a government may add steep tariffs to these goods. In a country of relative size, such tariffs offset most of the economic impact these cheapened goods have on gross domestic production (GDP).

Not so impoverished countries. Even steep tariffs allow for the flooding of a market with goods from western countries, with negative impacts on already-fragile national economies of these second- and third-world countries. Remember, the presence of food doesn’t end starvation. In this case, quite the opposite: the flooding of small nations with surplus commodities actually bankrupts farmers who otherwise would depend upon the sale of their own crops. This ultimately drives them into further poverty and, eventually, death by starvation.

The removal of tariffs and subsidies has ramifications on socialized nations—whether that socialization is greater or lesser. In short, while the removal of tariffs and subsidies may grant some poorer nations a more-even footing, developed countries have so far structured the agricultural industry upon the presence of these monies. But this still does not take into consideration that while GEOs are increasing yield internationally, they are also increasing yield locally, creating a wash effect.

Case in point: Brazil increases produce of corn nationally, accomplished in large part to GEO. In order to capitalize on this surplus, Brazil depends upon the removal of subsidies in the US. Removal of those subsidies in the US—and other developed nations where large GEO crops are grown, producing internal surplus—results in a downward pricing structure of corn in the US. This in turn drives down the demand and value of Brazilian corn. Such a process could happen for one country or several or a conglomeration of countries without much economic impact, but never worldwide. Somewhere, the excess of corn would utterly impoverish local production in another country—actually creating poverty leading to starvation instead of eradicating it. Or to borrow the twisted adage, “Man does not live by Cornbread alone.” The issue becomes more complex when one realizes that subsidies and tariffs are actually two sides of the same issue, neither of which ultimately solves the issue of overproduction; therefore, the removal of either or both does not end surplus (and all its ramifications).

Consider now the brash supposition put forth by Peter Mandelson, that an embrace from President Bush is all that stands between global poverty and global peace, and one begins to see that such a un-thoughtful supposition is not only truthly and lofty but deadly and destructive. Even if Bush agreed to the $8 billion cut in subsidies, the EU does not have a track record of agreement—for those who remember the intramural dissention within the EU over this very issue several years back.

Far and beyond a simplistic removal of subsidies and tariffs, broad reform—slowly implemented—would have to take place: Reform which undercuts the driving engines of modern capitalism, marked by its rampant consumerism. Western and First-World countries are known for their high-cost of labor and low cost of goods. In Second- and Third-World countries, quite the opposite. Until the cost of labor and goods is more normalized, the increase of goods—even in the form of crops—cannot have the desired effect of eradicating poverty and starvation. Until the US and other First-World countries recant their compulsive consumerism, Second- and Third-World countries cannot bear the economic fruit of higher production. And until these and/or other solutions to national imbalances are taken into consideration, the current motions by the IMF and World Bank on the matter of poverty should not only be viewed with a wary eye by all nations alike, but dismissed in kind as policies that undermine stability.

5.2.07

Child of Grace

I’ve drunk the tears of sleepless dreams,
with longing thoughts as company
and made believe—a shadow seems
a dancing child! But no; a tree…

While friends abound in infant joy—
their laughter turns in me to tears—
a brown-haired girl or sun-kissed boy.
O Lord, thou knowest what I fear:

the always longing not fulfilled;
to hold a child and call him mine
and adding him—our family build—
three separate hearts will intertwine.

Then suddenly—like morning’s light—
a child is giv’n, and warmly I embrace
the one adopted with my feeble might,
and praise You for the bounty of Your grace:

that to this longing heart You grant
a child—so dear, so tender sweet!
Thus fruit is borne of faith You plant
in every heart You deign to meet.

1.2.07

Immovability and Irrelevance

To the observant driver, two phenomena play out on the Midwestern landscape. I call them immovability and irrelevance. The miles pass, on seventy going seventy, and field gives way to field and that to wood until the eye falls upon a line stretched between two trees. That line is an old bridge, the once only-way from here to there, wherever one went: Once the bridge that all would take, before the road moved. That old road is gone, and why one would leave the bridge standing there, between two trees—like a prisoner being guarded and ushered to death row—I can’t know. So I guess. I guess that the digging hands that pulled up old blacktop and stone came upon the bridge and stopped. Perhaps the sun hung hot and high in the sky. Perhaps night set on. Perhaps rain fell upon them. And in the sun-maybe-rain-almost-night someone said, “Let’s let it stand. Leave it be until it is surrounded by grass and tree and fallen leaves, as a joke, a gag, something to make the passerby think or, at least, laugh. Better yet, let it stand awhile and testify to the fact that the road always moves,” because the road always moves.

So it stands: that old line of a bridge of stone, grown over with vine and weed. Irrelevance. I doubt many notice it. Whether they do or not, certainly none come to it or go from it. Where once it was the way, the only way, no more. Irrelevance. Where once two friends might pass upon its trusses and greet with a wave as they pass, no longer. Where once a boy might kiss a girl and mark that moment engraved upon the stone, never again. Irrelevance: the road always moves.

Ominously, beyond the tree-guarded bridge that comes and goes nowhere—against the pale of the sky—a church stands. Here I am on a Sunday evening, driving through the wilds of Indiana and a church stands lighted from steeple to gilt like a light upon a hill. And yet, her windows are dark, empty. From the expanse of gravestones marked all around, she was clearly once a loved and attended church. Perhaps no longer. Perhaps none come to her and none go out. Perhaps she too has become irrelevant, lighted only on whimsy, as one saying to another, “Let her stand awhile and testify to the fact that the road always moves.” Perhaps…irrelevance.

But even irrelevance eventually meets immovability. Mile upon mile, the two sides of the interstate traverse the unbroken landscape, separated by a ditch of tall grass. Once can almost see the brutal hands of the woodcutters who made no end of sawdust and limbs and felled trees, whose bloodthirsty lust could not be satisfied till every last tree fell. Hands blistered as longsaws and hacksaws moved to and fro, as axes and hatches swung. Flames engulfed the carnage behind. One can almost hear the old tune: feed it and it lives, water it and it dies.

But then the insatiate met the immovable, and there rose a tree to defy the saws and axes and blistered hands. Sawdust stuck to sweat as the singing stopped; the fires died, and the men stood to face a massive oak some two hundred years and more. The ancient tree spread its boughs like arms and would not yield. “You shall not pass,” the tree seemed to say, like Gandolf upon the bridge in Kazadoom. “You shall not pass.” Immovability.

I imagine the blood-lusty men dropping weapons of destruction and falling to their knees in repentance. I imagine them turning back from their path crying, “No more. The roads need not run so close together. Let the tree stand. Let it be.” I can find no other justification for why, after endless miles of northwest running, the lanes would separate. Immovability.

So the road always moves and every bridge, every church, risks irrelevance; risks becoming a byway, a byword. Meanwhile, the road of culture, of bloodthirsty men, always turns from the way laid out before it—always abandons the invitation to come, find rest and easy of burden—and sets upon a path of its own choosing; that is, until it meets immovability. And whether it be some ancient oak or the imaginary Gandolf, or the man of God, when immovability meets the changing road and declares, “You shall not pass!” something happens. Men change. The road turns back. Axes and fires are abandoned as the once-futile take up farming and shepherding and bringing crops and life to the barren places of life.

So what will we be in the coming years: my family and I, the Seminary, the PCA? Will we be the symbol of irrelevance, the bridge to which none ever come and go, and only the passing eye occasionally glimpses in the setting sun? Or will we be known as the symbol of immovability, taking a stand against the ever changing road to say—with kindness and love, with compassion and grace, and the knowledge that today is the culmination of redemptive history—“You shall not pass!”? God only knows, though I am left to wonder—to wonder and to pray, and to wander in and out of the endless possibilities—as night falls, consuming all. Work while it is day.