Politics Reappears to Challenge Economics

The dive in the financial markets has some members of Investors Without Borders wondering about the cant, hype and lies that have made up their sacred text for the better part of this decade. Meanwhile, on the streets of the nation’s capital, those citizens forced to live with the consequences of the free-floating craps game that is global economics once again are making their presence known. When demonstrators protested the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle a few months ago, your devoted correspondent wondered if politics was about to reassert its primacy over economics after two decades. Now such a question seems too obvious to ask.

Whether the issue is China or trade, guns or third-world debt, Americans-once thought to be too content and prosperous to care about dollar-a-day laborers in some God-forsaken tropic or mass murders in the Midwest-seem a tad ornery these days. And this is not the talk-show-fueled outrage that has inspired the paranoid right to burn their census forms. No, this is authentic concern that our prosperity has come at the expense of child laborers abroad and our own fellow citizens-the factory workers who saw their jobs disappear in the 1980′s, the 1990′s-style “freelancers” who lack health care and other “perks.”

The recent demonstrations by Jubilee 2000 (for third-world debt cancellation), labor unions (against permanent normal trade relations with China) and various and sundry groups protesting the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund will be followed, next month, by the Million Mom March against gun violence. Disdainers of politics, beware: Your time may be over. Though many will try, few will succeed in portraying this fledgling activism as the work of loony liberals, pseudosocialists or lugubrious Luddites. Among the most passionate advocates of third-world debt cancellation is Pope John Paul II, and because of his advocacy, Roman Catholic parishes like mine regularly invite the faithful to join Jubilee 2000′s efforts. Of course, doing so would put the faithful in contact with certain proud secularists who would otherwise condemn the commingling of religion and politics, or those who have had great sport making fun of the pope’s recent apologies. Perhaps religion-hating lefties will learn something from their recent encounters with that most exotic of species, the churchgoer.

What the Washington demonstrators in all their diversity have going for them is the collective sneer of the practiced skeptics in the opinion-making classes. Folks on the right generally are quick to dismiss any sign of activity beyond the making of money as the work of earnest losers and professional anarchists. On the left, no doubt there will be the usual enlightening discussion of whether the demonstrators were and are too white or middle class or moderate or straight or fill in the blank. Thus will the protests be casually dismissed, and so will the threat to the status quo.

In demanding debt relief, in insisting on the notion that communities are not mere commodities, and by arousing themselves out of a money-induced stupor, the Americans who marched in Washington in recent days were challenging the market-driven ethic of the last 20 years. That such demonstrations took place at all, and were not simply the work of professional agitators, suggests that many prosperous Americans have begun to calculate the cost of their prosperity.

Since the 1980′s, we have bought into the idea that a community is nothing more than a trading post. Commentators like James Glassman and various contributors to The Wall Street Journal told us that we could no longer afford to pay decent wages to economic losers. Americans, we were told, had to compete with the world’s work forces, so whether you made sneakers or steel, you either adjusted your expectations downward or, well, you lost. No harm done, though. The consumer benefited by paying lower prices for sneakers and steel, and nothing else mattered in the new trading-post society.

Now, as great piles of money continue to be made and, as so many market-celebrating commentators remind us, more than 50 percent of American workers are invested in the stock market, voices are beginning to ask hard and basic questions about American economic hegemony. When John Sweeney, head of that nefarious institution known as the A.F.L.-C.I.O., tells us that 100,000 children in Ethiopia die of dysentery every year because their country is so saddled with debt that it can’t pay for medicine, decent Americans pause for reflection. The rock-ribbed free-marketeers tell us that this should and can be of no concern for us, for those third-world countries are run so poorly that all the debt relief in the world won’t get medicine to sick children.

Perhaps not, but surely it is worth a try, and surely it must be now. /