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Building a just economy means connecting people with dollars


Most Americans insist that they are glad to take care of the poor in their own backyards but don’t see any reason to care about the poor elsewhere.

The myth of the backyard is that our paychecks come from someone we know and that our mortgages, car payments and insurance are going to someone who looks a lot like Mr. Rogers. These myths are convenient, widely accepted and completely false. They are economic fiction, not fact.

Neither the source nor the destination of our money is local. Banks and mortgages are national, if not global. Insurance companies conglomerate at a rate close to that of banks. Wal-Mart has replaced locally owned hardware, grocery and drug stores by using cheap labor from India, Indonesia, China, Mexico and beyond.

My friend shops the world for the cheapest, cutest baskets and then sells them to Wal-Mart. I buy them. The maker of those baskets is more likely to have a Chinese surname than an English one; he is also likely to be the mother of 12. Or 14 years old. If you look at the labels on your clothes, you will quickly take a tour of the world.

Indonesia, a recent victim of the global economy, is as close as our children’s feet. Indonesian children receive a pittance for making Nike sneakers for which I pay $50 a pair.

The Indonesian currency has sunk to a quarter of its former value. A year ago there were 2,400 rupiah to a dollar; today there are 10,250. Combined with terrible droughts and political rumblings, this currency devaluation has busted the balloon of the Indonesian economic miracle. Rice costs three times what it did a year ago, and middle-class Indonesians are aggravating their own problem by hoarding. The “export” economy has gone belly up; even the palm oil that Indonesia has exported successfully does not bring its former price.

If a can of Iowa corn cost $3 one day and $12 the next, most Americans would be upset. But we cling to the fantasy that the rupiah has nothing to do with the dollar, as though an Iowa farmer had just driven corn to our driveway and dropped it off, fresh-picked. We are nostalgically localistic while the economy is increasingly global. We are making a fatal, undemocratic mistake. Truth will come to corn, just as it has come to rice. We, like Indonesians, have a stake in what happens to currency. And corn. And oil.

The larger and more global the economy becomes, the less chance ordinary people have of taking care of their own poor, much less themselves. If we refocused investment in local agriculture and local sneakers, we would be taking care of ourselves and our poor. By restricting exports and encouraging nations to feed their own people, as we could do quite well ourselves, we might have a chance at our decent fantasy of backyard justice. That chance depends on a dollar with a face and a rupiah with a face. A just currency backed up by a just economy is one that doesn’t travel the globe but stays put where we can control it and watch it and care for it.

Who benefits from a global economy? Not the Indonesians. We really don’t either. Those cheap baskets I get at Wal-Mart don’t really help me. They employ my distant neighbor at wages much less than she could get in an American-size economy. Those baskets create a system I can neither manage democratically nor touch: They buy me off for a few dollars at the price of starving other people’s children.

From within this economic impotence, I swear allegiance to “my own backyard,” which, unfortunately doesn’t exist.

A more realistic picture of economic reality comes from Sam and Katie, the children of United Church of Christ missionaries to Indonesia: They join Indonesia children in hating to wear shoes. Why should Indonesian children make shoes for American children? Why don’t they make something they need? Like rice. Or bananas. Or carrots.

The International Monetary Fund panicked when Indonesian President Suharto suggested linking the fate of the rupiah to the fate of the dollar. As though it were not already linked!

Who are the stakeholders in the new international economy? Not you and not me. But Sam and Kate join my children and Indonesian children in needing a better arrangement.The Dow is not the Tao. Globalizing the economy is not inevitable -- it is, however, very, very real. And it is harming my backyard.

Donna Schaper is the author of The Sense In Sabbath (Innisfree) and a contributor to Celebration, a worship resource published by NCR Publishing Company.

National Catholic Reporter, October 2, 1998