Friday, April 17, 2009

Let Them Eat Mud

As one of the four people who still read print media, I was going through the WaPo yesterday, and stumbled across an article on Haiti.

Haiti is and has seemingly always been a total mess. As a kid, my church maintained a partnership with Haiti, sending relief supplies and other support. A good friend recently came back from a medical mission there, and the delightful pictures of suppurating wounds and skin ailments he put up confirmed that things are pretty intensely unpleasant there still. It's a little slice of intractably abject poverty, right there in our own backyard.

What particularly struck me in the article were two things. First, that Haitians have been so impacted by the recent economic downturn that they can no longer afford "mud cookies." Those are a delightful baked confection in which the most significant ingredient is clay. People increasingly can't even buy baked dirt in Haiti.

The second item was a little snippet of "hope" being offered up by our Secretary of State as she toured a garment factory in Port au Prince, the capital.

She marveled at the factory, and hailed it as a model for progress in Haiti. Workers there were making between two and three times the average Haitian's daily salary...which means they were making between $4 and $6 a day. Marvelous! Wonderful! They're being given the opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty!

So here we have jobs that used to pay American garment industry workers $6 an hour...and Haitian workers are being paid almost a factor of 10 less to do the same work. Unless you own the factories, how is this a triumph? Six bucks a day isn't going to turn things around. Sure, you can have all the mud cookies you can eat. Haitians can continue to struggle, and be only very slightly better fed, until they get sick and can't do it any more.

What I marvel at as I look at this sort of thing is how perfectly it mirrors the worst elements of late 19th and early 20th century capitalism. Back then, it was Americans who labored for negligible pay and for backbreaking hours. They mostly came from rural backgrounds, and were lured to urban industrial centers with the promise of consistent work. Within most democratic nations, though, the fact that folks could vote and freely organize and associate (more or less) ultimately counterbalanced the worst practices of profit-driven enterprise.

But I struggle to see how this works with globalized capitalism. If those who...ahem...control the means of production are able to circumvent democratic counterbalances, I'm just not sure how the intense imbalances in wealth that the market generates are ever going to be resolved. All one has to do is move industry to places where government is either weak or does not represent it's people.

For some reason, this sort of thing always makes me think of the prophet Amos:

This is what the LORD says:
"For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not turn back {my wrath}.
They sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.

They trample on the heads of the poor
as upon the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
and so profane my holy name.

They lie down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge.
In the house of their god
they drink wine taken as fines.