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Fighting Poverty to Build Peace?

13 January AD 2009
Octave of the Epiphany
Baptis, of our Lord

Fighting Poverty to Build Peace (January 1 AD 2009)

To the Diplomatic Corps (January 8 AD 2009)

    As is customary, the Holy Father issued a pastoral message on New Year's Day, observed since January 1, 1968 during the reign of Pope Paul VI as the World Day of Peace; and an address to the diplomatic corps on January 8th of this year (AD 2009).  For the most part, the emphasis in both documents was secular, but nonetheless Pope Benedict XVI had some things to say that are well worth repeating.  Numbers in brackets [#] refer to the paragraph numbers in the Pope's message on New Year's Day.

    In “Fighting Poverty ...”  the Pope reminds us that human beings are assets rather than liabilities.  The crime of abortion—in addition, of course, to being a crime against God that cries out for vengeance—is both an attack on “the poorest of human beings” and an attack on the development of nations:

    The extermination of millions of unborn children, in the name of the fight against poverty, actually constitutes the destruction of the poorest of all human beings. And yet it remains the case that in 1981, around 40% of the world's population was below the threshold of absolute poverty, while today that percentage has been reduced by as much as a half, and whole peoples have escaped from poverty despite experiencing substantial demographic growth. This goes to show that resources to solve the problem of poverty do exist, even in the face of an increasing population. Nor must it be forgotten that, since the end of the Second World War, the world's population has grown by four billion, largely because of certain countries that have recently emerged on the international scene as new economic powers, and have experienced rapid development specifically because of the large number of their inhabitants. Moreover, among the most developed nations, those with higher birth-rates enjoy better opportunities for development. In other words, population is proving to be an asset, not a factor that contributes to poverty.[3]

A refreshing change from Pope John Paul's emphasis on NFP—“responsible parenthood . . .  the principal activity and primary commitment of these programs is to foster human love” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pp. 208-209).

    We used to have men and women dedicated to raising the level of the poor, the ignorant, and the heathen;  ready even to journey to the ends of the earth at the word of a superior.  Many left to work in prisons and police departments when they learned in the 1960s that such work was not “socially relevant,” that it constituted “cultural imperialism,” or wasn't “ecumenical.” Could it be that Pope Benedict is calling for a revival of the religious orders:

    What the fight against poverty really needs are men and women who live in a profoundly fraternal way and are able to accompany individuals, families and communities on journeys of authentic human development.[13]

    Another refreshing change is found in Pope Benedict's realistic understanding of the dangers of foreign aid, and of governments where bribery, redistribution of income, and other illegal activities are part of the culture:

    Incentives are needed for establishing efficient participatory institutions, and support is needed in fighting crime and fostering a culture of legality. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that policies which place too much emphasis on assistance underlie many of the failures in providing aid to poor countries. Investing in the formation of people and developing a specific and well-integrated culture of enterprise would seem at present to be the right approach in the medium and long term. If economic activities require a favourable context in order to develop, this must not distract attention from the need to generate revenue. While it has been rightly emphasized that increasing per capita income cannot be the ultimate goal of political and economic activity, it is still an important means of attaining the objective of the fight against hunger and absolute poverty. Hence, the illusion that a policy of mere redistribution of existing wealth can definitively resolve the problem must be set aside. In a modern economy, the value of assets is utterly dependent on the capacity to generate revenue in the present and the future. Wealth creation therefore becomes an inescapable duty, which must be kept in mind if the fight against material poverty is to be effective in the long term.[11]

The realization that “you can't redistribute what doesn't exist” is a good way to begin economic wisdom.

    A “common code of ethics” is also needed—here Pope Benedict quotes John Paul II, but puts a refreshingly Thomistic spin on where that  “common code of ethics” will be found:   “A ‘common code of ethics’ is also needed consisting of norms based not upon mere consensus, but rooted in the natural law inscribed by the Creator on the conscience of every human being (cf. Rom 2:14-15).”[8]  Yet, the concept of a natural law imposed by God is alien to the “Progressive” mind, and will very likely be dismissed as a quaint figure of speech by most of those who move in the circles to which both messages seem to be directed.  The U.N., the “global solidarity” people,  the “common good” people, the “global warming” people, and others like them generally do not even admit that there is a “Creator,” let alone a “natural law” inscribed by Him.  The very people in whom Pope Benedict places his trust are Utilitarians who govern precisely by a consensus of  what will bring the “greatest good for the greatest number”—or, rather a consensus of what the elite feel is best for themselves and the masses.  This consensus generally calls for increased governmental bureaucracy and a greater public cartelization of business and finance.  This is the stuff of which economic depressions are made and exacerbated until they end in war.  Roosevelt and Mussolini would understand and approve—we certainly don't want to implement this with a global government and world wide cartels.

    I would like to propose a reflection on the theme: Fighting Poverty to Build Peace. Back in 1993, my venerable Predecessor Pope John Paul II, in his Message for the World Day of Peace that year, drew attention to the negative repercussions for peace when entire populations live in poverty. Poverty is often a contributory factor or a compounding element in conflicts, including armed ones. In turn, these conflicts fuel further tragic situations of poverty. “Our world”, he wrote, “shows increasing evidence of another grave threat to peace: many individuals and indeed whole peoples are living today in conditions of extreme poverty....”[1]

    While no Catholic can be a fan of poverty, the reality is that most of the wars we have experienced in the past couple of centuries have not been fought over poverty.  Most modern wars have been fought because of the ambitions of wealthy and powerful nations—desire for naval superiority, for colonies, to annex ethnically similar peoples in neighboring nations, to protect the investments of influential citizens, to force trade upon the unwilling, and sometimes even outright conquest.  While the poverty due to hyperinflation in Weimar Germany may have been a cause of World War II, it was not the poverty of underdevelopment, but poverty produced as revenge.  Nor can one view the Communist revolutions in Europe and Asia as uprisings of the poor, for they were all well financed from outside of the countries in which they took place—and they reduced the “proletariat” to poverty if not to the starvation and death met by those who refused atheism or collectivization.  Affluence, rather than poverty, ought to be looked at as a catalyst of war.  Not the affluence of individuals, for individuals do not make war—but the affluent combination of government, business, and finance, able to use its combined might to grow in size and to profit more in war than in peace.

    In the field of international commerce and finance, there are processes at work today which permit a positive integration of economies, leading to an overall improvement in conditions....

    Perhaps the Pope has in mind the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and a number of the agencies of the United Nations Organization—all devoutly religious and moral people!

... but there are also processes tending in the opposite direction, dividing and marginalizing peoples, and creating dangerous situations that can erupt into wars and conflicts. Since the Second World War, international trade in goods and services has grown extraordinarily fast, with a momentum unprecedented in history. Much of this global trade has involved countries that were industrialized early, with the significant addition of many newly- emerging countries which have now entered onto the world stage. Yet there are other low-income countries which are still seriously marginalized in terms of trade. Their growth has been negatively influenced by the rapid decline, seen in recent decades, in the prices of commodities, which constitute practically the whole of their exports. In these countries, which are mostly in Africa, dependence on the exportation of commodities continues to constitute a potent risk factor. Here I should like to renew an appeal for all countries to be given equal opportunities of access to the world market, without exclusion or marginalization.[9]

    Pope Paul VI tried to make the same case in Populorum Progressio (#57).  In economic terms both Popes are saying that the newly emerging countries face “deteriorating terms of trade.”  But neither provides any statistics or cites any studies.  The matter is extremely complex and very much subject to ideological bias.  Milorad M. Drachkovitch and Sidney Hook dealt with the problem in Marxist Ideology in the Contemporary World- Its Appeals and Paradoxes, where they cited a very detailed study, Price and Quantity Trends in the Foreign Trade of the United States by Robert E. Lipsey.  No study seems to exist on the terms of trade between every country with every other country—the Lipsey study is for the U.S. with all others.  Its major conclusion is that terms of trade move back and forth:

    Two widely held beliefs regarding net barter terms of trade found no confirmation in the data for the United States. One is that there has been a substantial long-term improvement in the terms of trade of developed countries, including the United States; the other, that there has been a significant long-term deterioration in the terms of trade of primary as compared to manufactured products.
Although there have been very large swings in U.S. terms of trade since 1879, no long-run trend has emerged. The average level of U.S. terms of trade since World War II has been almost the same as before World War I. However, the terms of trade have been improving quite steadily since 1951.
    The preponderance of our data appeared to be contrary to the accepted view regarding the terms of trade between primary and manufactured products. Manufactured products in U.S. trade became cheaper relative to primary products, particularly before World War I. The purchasing power of U.S. manufactured exports fell with respect to both exports and imports of primary products; export prices of primary products rose com- pared with those of imported manufactures.
    Neither of these findings prove that less developed or primary producing countries have experienced favorable shifts in their terms of trade. Like most of the original evidence on this question, ours is indirect. A regional or country breakdown of trade would be required to ascertain the course of U.S. terms of trade vis-à-vis particular areas or countries. [Citation]

The terms of trade argument is further complicated by trade volumes, inflation, interest rates, foreign exchange rates, and the possibility of excluding or including commodities like oil, gold, uranium, or diamonds to make an ideological point.  Anecdotal evidence over the past few years suggests that the commodity exporting countries are not doing badly. A great deal of the production formerly done in developed countries has moved “off shore”— to China, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and so forth.  There has been a great cry—a “food crisis”—that would certainly favor commodity producers over industrial producers.  A pound of bananas or coconuts is real wealth to the hungry, not so a plasma TV or a VCR.  Likewise the demand for ethanol, so fresh in our minds, stands to be met by commodity producers.  And if the industrialized countries and their central banks continue to debase their currencies at the current rate, holding one's wealth in coconuts and and bananas (not to mention gold or diamonds) may soon become far more popular than holding it in dollars or euros.

    Many modern day Catholics in the developed countries have difficulty comprehending just how spiritually grinding real poverty can be—they tend to confuse abject poverty with the poverty one lives in a monastery or religious community governed by the evangelical counsels, or perhaps with the austere life of a Spartan-like culture.  But abject poverty is like nothing else.  “It is not uncommon,” wrote the economist Adam Smith of the pre-industrial, “Highlands of Scotland for a mother who has borne twenty children not to have two alive.”  The poverty in which parents must watch their children die for lack of minimal nutrition or simple medicines crushes the spirit every bit as much as it crushes the body—it is not the poverty “for the sake of the Kingdom,” but rather the poverty that saps man's Faith.

    Pope Benedict's heart is obviously in the right place, but greater government intervention will not contribute to the production needed to feed and clothe the world's poor.  Capital formation and production take place where one can start a business without filling our yards of forms, without having to bribe the officials, without being subject to intrusive or anti-competitive regulation, where there is no history of recent revolution or nationalization, where the currency value is stable, and where one doesn't have to pay high taxes merely for the privilege of existence.  But, such a production friendly environment is not where the new globalization is at.


in XTO,
Fr. Brusca
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