In moral accounting, First World’s the debtor

By Robert Jensen

Published in Houston Chronicle · April, 2000

[This article appeared in the Houston Chronicle, April 16, 2000, p. 5-C.]

As the protests in the streets of Washington, DC, unfold on Sunday at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank meeting, the focus will be on complex fiscal and monetary policy questions. But the underlying struggle is over more basic questions:

What is an economy for, and what does it mean to be a human being in the modern world?

Is an economy simply a system and set of institutions to maximize production no matter what the cost to people and the planet? Or should the goal of an economy be to create conditions under which free human beings can tap their creative potential and work collectively to fashion a sustainable world?

Is money the only measure of value, or does real wealth come from the living capital of the planet?

Do we judge an economy solely on market values? Or do solidarity, compassion and love have a place — not just in our families and intimate lives, but in public as well, in the way we collectively define ourselves?

These issues arose when a political colleague and I recently debated two business school professors on the question of corporate responsibility. During the discussion, I talked about the sadness that I so often feel living in a society in which such human values are not only marginalized but mocked because they are inconsistent with the demands of the economy. The most vulnerable — the poor, children, the aged, the sick — suffer most from this state of affairs. But we all suffer because the conception of human nature inherent in our economy is so debased.

Make no mistake: The view of human nature that underlies corporate capitalism is inhumane and anti-human. We are told that people will respond only to crass self-interest and greed, and hence our economic institutions are built on that notion. Then, when people often do act on self-interest and greed in a system that rewards such behavior, we are told, “See, look at how greedy people are.”

It is our task not to accept such facile logic, to reject former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictate “There is no alternative.” There are, of course, alternatives. There is nothing natural or inevitable about capitalism and its underlying assertions about human nature.

We all have experienced situations in which we put aside crass calculations about self-interest and acted out of a sense of solidarity, an understanding that to be fully human means meaningful connection with others. We also all have been, at some time, selfish and greedy. Both are part of human nature. The question is, do we build institutions that encourage our capacity for kindness or for cruelty?

An economy is the product of human choices. By definition, we can choose differently. For example, we can choose to eliminate IMF and World Bank lending policies that undercut education, health and social services in the developing world in order to maximize profits in the developed world. We can simply abandon these “structural adjustment” policies, which adjust the lives of ordinary people downward.

We can realize that a minimal sense of justice means the First World must forgive the debt it has imposed on the Third World and begin to talk about a real moral accounting for colonialism through the First World paying reparations.

And, when our collective moral imagination has developed enough, we can begin to design a world in which corporations are not allowed to trample over people in pursuit of profits.

That world may not be as far away as we think. After our business school debate, an MBA student came up to me and thanked us for being willing to speak before a group that was so hostile to our message.

“I don’t agree with everything you said, and I am going to go into business,” he told me. Then his voice wavered a bit, and he said, “But what you said touched me.”

That moment — a connection between two people, standing in a building constructed to teach people to honor greed — touched me as well. It was a reminder of those other values, of the possibility of alternatives. The only question is whether together we have the courage to create them.