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Will we look the other way as nations drown in debt?



omewhere along the line I’ve heard it said that there is no such thing as a coincidence. I’m beginning to believe it. Several weeks ago I saw some proof of it, in fact. What happened was this: First, I spent a morning at a White House breakfast for religious leaders. Then I spent that afternoon at the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum about a mile from the West Wing.

I have never really been able to get over the fact that one of the most heinous events of human history happened in my lifetime and people claim that no one knew about it. So, with a few hours to spare between the breakfast meeting in the State Dining Room and the flight back to Pittsburgh, I decided to go to the museum on the way to the airport.

As ashamed as I am to acknowledge it now, I did not then see more than the remotest connection between the White House breakfast and the Holocaust Museum. By the end of the day, I saw nothing but the connection.

The White House breakfast with President Clinton and Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Native American and Hindu clergy, program administrators and theologians focused on Congressional approval of legislation designed to deal with Third World debt relief, world health issues and educational development of underdeveloped nations. The United States, “sitting on the largest mountain of wealth in American history,” Clinton said, “has a moral obligation to make debt reduction possible for Third World countries.” If Congress passes the proposed debt relief legislation, he told us, the United States would be a major factor in what could be one of the greatest revolutions within the other two world-changing revolutions of our time: globalization and information technology. He wanted the help of the religious community in moving the legislation through Congress.

With only three months left to his two-term presidency, Clinton was as intense about the issue as any political figure I’d ever seen. Here, I thought, is a man going full tilt to the very end of his term. He intends to keep up a full-court press all the way. “After all,” he said, “I’m the only one left up here who’s not running for something. I don’t care if Congress ever gets home this time,” he said with a wry reference to his pre-recess vetoes of previous budget recommendations from Congress.

What would drive a man like that? I wondered. And on the subject of international debt, of all things. After all, those countries borrowed the money, didn’t they? After years of working with the issue, I could hear all the counter-arguments loud and clear. Shouldn’t they have to pay it back? What about the economists who argue that “the moral hazard” of allowing people to default on debt will only jeopardize global financial systems for decades to come? How can anyone justify wholesale debt-reduction in a world where the rich get richer and the poor deserve to be poor because they don’t work hard enough? My Depression-era parents would have understood them all.

Then the president outlined three premises that have been at the heart of the debt-relief movement for years and have, to the eternal credit of the democratic process, finally risen to the top of the political pyramid. They all revolve around a simple question: If you buy a refrigerator for $100 at 10 percent interest and pay only the $10 interest charge every year for 20 years -- or $200 -- have you paid for the refrigerator or not? Third World nations, he explained, have been pouring their national resources into simply servicing the debt for years. As a result, there is no way they can develop beyond subsistence economies. And that, he argued, is hurting us, too.

It is politically sound, he reasoned, to forgive the debt of well-governed nations that agree to use the money saved on debt payments for their own educational, medical and social needs. Debt relief, he explained, is really an investment in mutual development for the whole global village.

In the second place, he argued, you can’t sell American goods to people who can’t pay for them or don’t need them. It is, it seems, in our economic best interest to build up as trading partners nations that in turn will build up U.S. businesses.

Finally, he went on, the United States must begin to give more social assistance to those nations struggling under the burdens of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. We must give more, he said, than the Cold War military support that has formed the bulk of our foreign aid in recent years. Otherwise, our own next enemy in the West will not be military destruction. It will be the deadly diseases that are seeping silently through every national border in the world.

The case was clear: The world is a global village; the situation is serious; the crisis is universal, not simply local, ours as well as theirs. We really should, I thought as I got into the cab in front of the White House, be doing something to get debt relief legislation passed now.

But, oh yes. I almost forgot to tell you about the connection: There was something I found to be even more convincing. You see, one entire wall of the Holocaust Museum is dedicated to framed copies of the front pages of The New York Times from 1933 to 1939. All of them scream in three-inch headlines exactly what was happening to German Jews. We did know what was going on there. And we did nothing.

Now we stand on the brink of a slower, more insidious, even wider-reaching kind of human decimation. We know about this one, too. Given a second chance, what will you and I and Congress do this time? n

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister writes from Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2000