The changes in the global economy in recent decades have had serious implications for the Catholic Church’s understanding of social justice. With technological advances and the ability to shift capital across international borders, multi-national firms can rapidly move money to the most favorable investment spots, and—though it can’t be done overnight—can easily relocate industrial jobs to low-wage countries. This presents a problem for authentic social justice at home, as well as abroad—and what’s more, the two goals can seem incompatible. Furthermore, neither major political party in the United States is presently equipped to fix the situation.
When an auto firm packs up and leaves the Rustbelt, Detroit might be turned into a ghost town, but there’s the possibility for increased employment in Mexico City. When technical jobs are outsourced it puts middle-class American families on the economic brink but can seem like manna from heaven in India. The Catholic Church and Karl Marx didn’t agree on much, but one area of intersection was a belief that workers around the world had a common cause in the pursuit of fair wages and working conditions—John Paul II spoke of the Solidarity that should exist globally, using the term of the labor movement that transformed Poland and helped defeat the 99 percent of Marx’s ideology that was completely off the deep end.
But what does one do when social justice in one place seems to come at the expense of another? The first thing I would argue is to emphasize the word seems. The auto company leaving Detroit or the textile mill leaving the Carolinas isn’t doing so because it’s motivated by a passionate desire to pay better wages in the Third World. Call me cynical, but I guess I don’t think the average CEO spent the night immersed in Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio or John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus—and suddenly decided they had a moral obligation to the developing countries. I think it far more likely the CEO spent the night immersed in the trade agreements of the United State, the regulations of the World Trade Organization and the wage & environmental laws of the Third World and realized they could not only set up shop abroad and get away with paying people a sub-living wage, they could also export back into the lucrative American market at no penalty.
Therefore, while the popes mentioned have called upon the wealthier nations to aid in the cause of the poorer ones, this sort of economic arrangement clearly benefits no one. The Third World worker is still living in poverty and working in unsafe conditions, while his American counterpart is now unemployed. It can be argued that once companies get a foothold in the Third World that will eventually result in higher pay and better conditions. But a basic living wage and working conditions that won’t get you killed are supposed to be basics, not something you strive for. The global economy that’s been created by a series of international trade agreements is a threat to social justice both home and abroad.
The worst of the trade agreements referenced was the 1994 ratification of the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade (GATT). GATT was passed in a lame-duck session of Congress when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich got together and pushed the deal through. The corporate side of both parties wanted no part of giving an incoming class of Republican trade hawks (so designated because of a willingness to get tougher on the terms of international trade deals) the chance to ally with pro-labor Democrats and create a bipartisan alliance to kill GATT. The result was the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) an international body granted the power to overturn a member nation’s trade laws.
I believe the WTO, because it’s perpetuates the present state of affairs, is an impediment to a lasting social justice. I should note here that John Paul II disagreed and had close relations with the organization. At this point, I’m sure the reader is sitting here thinking “Okay, John Paul II or Dan Flaherty…who’s more likely to be right?” And you’re right to be skeptical. But no pope, no matter how great, is right all the time. Every blind writer can stumble across an acorn here and there. The WTO was JPII’s misstep. And it’s my acorn. The organization needs to go if social justice is going to be achieved.
Now comes the problem. The Republican Party is controlled by a mix of corporate-types in the pocket of Wall Street and the grass-roots conservatives believe that free trade abroad is the logical extension of free enterprise at home and ignoring that such only works if the economies of the trading partners have compatible wage and environmental laws. The Democratic Party has the instincts of labor that result in some good rhetoric on the topic, but if the United States is going to get out of the WTO this invariably involves angering prominent member nations—notably in Western Europe. If there’s anything we know about the left wing of the Democratic Party it’s that the zeal to be loved in Paris, Berlin and Brussels trumps all else.
The structure of the global economy is a problem and the major parties in the United States can’t provide a solution. What is the answer then? That’s a topic we’ll keep exploring here at Catholic Vote.