Monday, March 05, 2007

The Price of Progress: Are We Still Willing to Pay it?

The other day in class at my very liberal seminary, I committed a cardinal sin: not only did I defend capitalism in the face of Christian theologians citing it as the world’s principle moral evil, I suggested that short-term hardships were often (get ready, here it comes!) “the price of progress.” It went down like this: a member of the class mentioned that NAFTA has “forced” a local plant to shut down and move its jobs to Mexico. I mentioned that this could be considered a good thing for Mexico, to which she responded, “But at the cost of losing indigenous jobs.” I said, “Well, that’s the price of progress.” The collective gasp in the room was surprisingly intense. The teacher struggled to regain control of the classroom, and practically had to save me from the tar-and-feather brigade. What a mistake I had made!

The incident reminded me of two facts: too many in our culture have lost the ability to grapple with complex processes, and too many have lost the willingness to sacrifice. This conversation is the perfect example: in the same breath, a woman who I generally regard as intelligent, bemoaned the ill-effects of NAFTA (a loss of “indigenous jobs”) as well as the fact that her local church didn’t do enough “advocacy” on behalf of the poor. Do you see the contradiction? If you want to “advocate”, support NAFTA! It just gave a lot of good jobs to Mexicans. She wrote off NAFTA based on a soundbyte: “We lost American jobs,” never even attempting to consider the net benefits of free trade. Second, even though she says that she wants to see the lives of the poor improve, she apparently doesn’t think it should cost her or her community anything. Others will have to pay the cost for the lives of the poor to improve: classic NIMBYism (not in my backyard).

Something else has left these sorts of discussions: the ability to be coldly objective. I have written before about the reality that justice is a cold-hearted venture. Similarly, in the world of ideas, to argue a point without emotion has always appeared to me to be an asset. Apparently it’s not. I had to spend a good couple of minutes defending the fact that I, as a pastor, wouldn’t throw parishioners to the curb if they came to the church needing help because they had just lost their job. How I might help someone personally with someone who was unemployed and what I believe objectively about free trade need not intersect; this apparent contradiction was too much for others to take. For me to imply that America and Mexico are both better off in the long run if America stops manufacturing was seen as cruel. While I was stating an objective fact – the loss of jobs is historically the “price of progress” (ask IBM’s typewriter manufacturers) – a roomful of my opponents made personal judgments about my character.

Of course, it’s not just economics. We se it in our foreign policy: we want peace in the Middle East at no cost to anyone (except Israel). We see it in liberal theology: we can’t risk saying to any moral behavior lest it portray us as hypocrites. So what happens, then, when the majority of a country will not sacrifice? Two things come to mind: it must learn to abhor progress, which demands sacrifice. And it also must despise those who promote progress, since they are the harbingers of change. This may explain why leadership in general is a more precarious place to be than before: to lead people towards progress that involves sacrifice disrupts the inertia they have grown to love. So leaders that maintain the status quo (the Clintons come to mind) are heralded while leaders that promote change (Bush) are hated. Until we can accept that there is a price to progress, I will ignore the cries of those who wonder why we never make any.

A final thought: one of the prevailing myths about capitalism is that for one person to get rich, another must get poor. This is not true. Free trade generally ensures that two parties can both be better off by letting the other do what they do best (aka, the comparative advantage). While there is always a price of progress, the beauty of the market is that it minimizes the price, and disperses it fairly.

5 comments:

Mohamed Ali said...

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