Monday, June 20, 2011

Defying Peace & Justice

We are wasting tax dollars and throwing money at a problem without even knowing what we are getting in return. It's become increasingly clear that our efforts to rein in the narcotics trade in Latin America, especially as it relates to the government's use of contractors, have largely failed.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)

The War on Drugs fails—-and is doomed to perpetual failure—-because it is directed not against the root causes of drug addiction or of the international black market in drugs, but only against some drug producers, traffickers, and users. More fundamentally, the war is doomed because neither the methods of war nor the war metaphor itself is appropriate to a complex social problem that calls for compassion, self-searching insight, and factually researched scientific understanding.
Gabor Mate

A quick list of recent events and issues that continue to be obstacles to the hard and holy work of releasing peace and justice on earth:

1. President Obama: that's right, as the GOP Congress demands that he comply with the War Powers Act in regards to Libya, he's digging in his heals with the claim that the situation in Libya (US as an accomplice to NATO operation) does not apply. The WPA places a 60 day ceiling on foreign interventions without congressional approval. It's been 90 days...and counting. Obama is apparently going up against his top lawyers including Attorney General Eric Holderman who reportedly says this situation has everything to do with the War Powers Act. As Obama advances the "imperial presidency" on this front, we ask why he doesn't use his executive muscle to protect and support illegal immigrants who came to the US with their families when they were very young (the DREAM Act) and to bring marriage equality to the LGBT brothers and sisters (overriding DOMA).

2. US Weapons Manufacturers: as the wars in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan rage on, a few American companies are cashing in. And, on top of that, countries like Saudi Arabia and India have accelerated their purchases of military weaponry. Demand from foreign countries has jumped 50% in one year. And the U.S. government even supports some of these purchases with cash prizes (like $2.78 billion to Israel last year). The only problem with all of this is that these weapons are purchased and then used on these people and these people. And this is just the start of a long conversation about civilians dying from U.S. manufactured weapons all over the world:

Egypt is one of the largest customers for U.S. arms. But questions about its purchases were raised by critics in recent months when a column of American-made Abrams tanks rolled into Tahrir Square as protesters rallied against President Hosni Mubarak's regime. And both Bahrain and Tunisia bought U.S.-manufactured guns before their security forces fired on protesting crowds this spring. (LA Times)

3. The Pentagon: in order to hit military recruitment goals, the U.S. Defense Department has ramped up an enticing ad campaign reaching out to our children. I see this a lot this time of year. 18-year-old guys, ready to graduate from high school, are staring at higher college tuition and unemployment rates. They see exciting commercials that resemble a blend of shoot-em-up video game and Lord of the Rings adventure and enlist.

4. The War on Drugs: two government studies and outside experts are reporting that the US government is failing miserably to contain the drug trade in Latin America despite spending $6 billion in the last 5 years. Specifically, the government has contracted the work (training local law enforcement officials, providing logistical support for intelligence and flying airplanes that spray herbicides to kill coca crops) to 5 companies: DynCorp, Lockheed, Martin, Raytheon, ITT and ARINC. Just like the War on Terrorism, these American companies profit greatly on a project that is throwing money at the wrong strategy. Globalization means that "effectiveness" in counter-narcotics in Columbia simply pushes the problem to Peru and "effectiveness" in combating drug cartels in Mexico simply pushes the problem to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

5. Corporations & Banks: Did you know that when you make a purchase with a debit card, the retailer has to pay a so-called swipe fee of 1% to 3% on the transaction? The fee goes to banks to cover "processing fees." This adds up to $20 billion in swipe fees annually for banks. And remember, this is a capitalist system so the costs are always passed along to the consumer in the form of higher prices for goods and services at businesses that accept debit cards (basically everywhere). Under the new financial protection law, starting on July 21, banks will charge a flat-rate of 12 cents per swipe which is an improvement on the 44-cent average that it has been (the Fed determined that average processing fees for banks are about 4 cents per swipe). For years, Visa and Mastercard (a credit card duopoly) set the prices so banks did not even need to compete against each other (thanks to Gus West, the president of the Hispanic Institute for this research).

Michael Hiltzik reminded readers yesterday what President Franklin Roosevelt's convictions were back in 1934:

Government, FDR countered, involved itself with "people who want to keep themselves free from starvation, keep a roof over their heads, lead decent lives, have proper educational standards" ... and who needed protection from those determined to "enrich and advance themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens."

Today, it seems that a democraticly elected government will only stand in the gap of economic justice if the people demand it. That should start with people of faith. Unfortunately, it isn't. A friend of mine told me this weekend that everyone is just out for their own economic interest and that, if he were a Wall Street banker, there's no doubt about it, he'd be a Republican too. Shouldn't our faith commitments transcend our economic interest? If our faith commitments do not transcend our economic interest, is it really faith?

Let me conclude with a quote from the first sentence of conservative Evangelical pastor Rick Warren's uber-best-seller Purpose Driven Life: "It's not about you." Indeed, I couldn't think of a better litmus test for our political and economic convictions. But Christianity must be animated in such a way that both personal lifestyle and public policy privilege the poor, oppressed, disadvantaged, marginalized and afflicted. Only if narrated as such will it ever have a chance to produce outcomes that are worthy of being called "Christ-like."


  1. Thanks for the great article. This question you ask is so key, "Shouldn't our faith commitments transcend our economic interest?" If people want to talk about being patriotic and serving their country and fellow citizens, this should be the measure.

    The problem is, somehow many of us have been taught or raised to believe that being American means pursuing our own self-interests with reckless abandon, because the free market and unfettered capitalism is American and can't fail. This is absurdity.

    Many of us are seeing the absurdity as corporations exploit our people, ship jobs over seas, destroy our environment, buy off our political system with bribes, and avoid their tax responsibilities after raping their country. We've seen unregulated financial systems in Wall Street collapse in 2008, and the people who lost most were middle and lower class Americans. In fact, people at the top 2% keep getting richer while the rest of America barely hangs on.

    All the while, we have ignored our responsibility to anything that does not benefit the super rich, including working wage jobs, national infrastructure, affordable health care, reliable public transportation, public parks, and quality public education.

    It is so obvious that we can no longer view living, working, and voting according to one's self-interest as American. These people to me are the least patriotic and least Christ-like. As a nation that claims to be Christian, this stuff is embarrassing. Personal integrity, faith, compassion, and brotherhood must come before self-interest if we want to live in a thriving, peaceful, and sustainable country and world.


  2. GFabe - Does your definition of self-interest exclude "personal integrity, faith, compassion, and brotherhood"? I.e., if a person values personal integrity, faith, compassion, and brotherhood and acts in accordance with these values, are they not self-interested?

  3. Easy Yolk - I have a few questions about 5. Corporations & Banks:

    1. What does a capitalist system have to do with costs being passed on to consumers? Would costs not be passed on to consumers in other, non-capitalist systems?

    2. Is there any reason to think that a legally-mandated flat rate per swipe will not have perverse unintended consequences? Can you think of any government sponsored price ceiling that didn't ultimately screw consumers worse than the problem the price ceiling attempted to fix?