Friday, February 27, 2009

Are we responsible?

Last weekend I enjoyed a visit from my parents and, as often happens, my dad and I got into a socio-economic slash political debate. As a backdrop for his viewpoint, he's a highly conservative military officer that places enormous value on one's own hard work and determination in the pursuit of making a living for one's self. So when I made the assertion that it is our system of production, consumption, and trade that is largely responsible for starving farmers previously able to provide for themselves, he was skeptical, to say the least. In many ways his arguments embodied the standard view of the Bretton Woods organizations that move economies today.

First off: "Farmers that drown themselves in debt are financially irresponsible and are to blame for their own burgeoning landlessness." This one was fairly easy--in our class discussions we've talked about the pressures developing nations' farmers face to bring their farms to modern standards and practices. In a globalized economy where U.S. crops are so productive and heavily subsidized, to compete farmers have to try to adopt the same mechanisms that make American farms so competitive. Our way of agriculture is highly capital intensive, whereas traditional means of farming used labor much more intensively. Capital costs money, so farmers go into debt. This has worked out for some farmers, but as soon as a poor harvest comes along or prices drop, indebted farmers have no means to repay loans and so lose their land, which is constantly being aggregated into larger and larger holdings by fewer and fewer entities. It is no wonder that Raj Patel found such high incidence of suicide among debt-stricken farmers.

This argument was met with the standard economic line that 'entry into a globalized market will hurt for a while, but once comparitive advantages are established, the system as a whole will function efficiently.' This is the whole reason behind the liberalization of markets and the WTO's restrictions on protecting industry. In the aggregate, it is true that competitive markets allocate resources most efficiently and maximize total social benefits. We run into problems when we consider the distribution of those social benefits. As a country the U.S. has gotten what is called the first-mover advantage: we revolutionized the agricultural industry first through the Green Revolution, and so we are far ahead of just about any other economy in the production of food. To expect developing nations to enter globalized markets without protections on their own less competitive agricultural sectors is a direct cause of the economic distress traditonal farmers around the world face. Consumers pay less for the imported food from the U.S. and Europe, but the detriment of that value flowing out of the country instead of to domestic farmers outweighs, in my opinion, the benefit gained by purchasing food at a lower price. There is a net gain in efficiency in such a system, but the benefits are not distributed equally.

This brought us to the pinnacle question of our debate: do we as the American society hold responsibility for the poverty of billions of people around the world? My father argued that we do not: the people of sovereign nations choose to be part of a the world economy, and harsh competition is the consequence of globalization; if a people feel taken advantage of or oppressed by a system it is their responsibility to take control of their circumstances and change the way their nation is run. This argument is the embodiment of the American way; I mean, after all, didn't we rise up against the British and take control of our own collective destiny? I believe this to be a blind view of the realities of the world. Peasant farmers made destitute by the rising tide of globalization are in a poor position to take control of the governments that strike the trade agreements--peasant movements in South America have been active for over a century, yet conditions seem to be getting worse for landless farmers. Organizers are assassinated, and populist leaders are corrupted or deposed. Why does this happen? Corporations like Dole have a history of greasing the palms of government officials to get favorable trade conditions, few taxes and fewer labor regulations. It is easy to blame corporations for the depravity billions of people suffer around the world, and to a large extent they are responsible. The ultimate responsibility, however, lies with us as a society, and the West in general. Our habits of consumption drive corporations to meet our demands, to cut costs at every corner, and to do everything in their power to increase profits because we have made it their legal obligation to do so. It is easy to dismiss the problems of other nations as simply that, their problems, but the fact that our consumption and demand is a root cause gives us the responsibility to address them.

I don't usually win debates with my dad--he's an amazing debater that often somehow turns my own words and arguments on me--but this time he conceded that he'd 'need to think about it some more.' I'll take that as a W.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! As a piece of writing, the use of the dialogue structure--showing both sides of the argument--is very effective.