Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

December 4, 2006

Social Justice: The Other Side

Robert Miller presents an economic perspective too frequently absent in discussions within the Church of social justice and global poverty: the inequitable production of goods that comes prior to their inequitable consumption. One stunning statistic comes from his brief discussion that highlights the importance of growth, "According to the United Nations Statistics Division (from which all the statistics below are taken), the aggregate gross domestic product of all countries in the world—that is, the total value of all goods and services produced in the world—has increased from about $3.26 trillion in 1970 to about $40 trillion in 2004 (all measured in current U.S. dollars)." That is almost unbelievable. The combined work of all the people of the world today produces almost thirteen times the value in goods as was produced less than forty years ago. Meanwhile, the population of the earth grew only seventy-five percent, meaning between all of us, we now have roughly seven times as many goods available for consumption and use on a yearly basis.

The problem is that this line of thinking can easily be taken too far that avoids the tough moral realities and tragic physical realities. And the same post that makes a neglected point exhibits the associated vice, when Mr. Miller explains the current poverty of Zimbabwe and remarkable success of South Korea after nearly identical GDP per person starting points thirty-five years ago:

The world economy is not rigged in favor of the rich nations. South Korea did not get rich, and Zimbabwe did not stay poor, because the captains of industry and the Wall Street bankers met in a smoke-filled room and decided that they loved South Korea but hated Zimbabwe. The South Koreans got rich because they earned their riches and continue to do so, year in and year out. Zimbabweans are poor because they produce little—and less now than twenty years ago.

This is too easy, and too satisfied. We are rich because we are virtuous and work harder, they are poor because they are more vicious and don't work hard enough. The moral math is simple, but simply not Christian and not honest.

As a complete sidenote, in the department of ironic coincidences, just as Robert Miller was writing about how the world economy is not rigged in favor of rich nations, a blatant instance of the world economy being rigged in favor of rich Americans occurred. (A trenchant, if somewhat dated, marshalling of the evidence here.) If you want some fascinating visual demonstrations of the growing wealth of the world over the past thirty years (and where growth has occurred, and where it hasn't), I highly recommend Google's Gapminder. If anyone has an interesting lesson plan idea with all this info, feel free to share it either via comments or e-mail. I'll post the results.

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