For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.

–Jesus, Matthew 26:11

Eradicating poverty is possible – with political will and moral courage

World Council of Churches

The World Council of Churches is not content, of course, merely to rewrite the New Testament or the words of our Lord. In the pursuit of its political goals, the WCC seeks to rewrite human nature, economics, and logic. That much is evident from its “Statement on the occasion of the United Nations’ General Assembly Hearing with Civil Society on the Millennium Development Goals.”

The WCC remains profoundly concerned that the global financial and economic crisis – which continues to wreak havoc on economies including in the Euro zone – has thrown tens of millions more people into poverty, swelling the ranks of the disempowered, hungry, thirsty, unemployed, sick and homeless, and further derailing the achievement of the MDGs. At this stage of the crisis, many countries are being forced to adopt stringent fiscal policies that imperil economic recovery as well as social and ecological protection – at a time when such protection is needed most.

The concern about people effected by the global economic crisis are well-founded, of course. But the first clue that the WCC doesn’t have a clue what’s going on is the reference to “stringent fiscal policies.” More than anything else, what the world is facing today is a problem of debt–government debt, personal debt, corporate debt. The world as a whole, and the West in particular, has lived way beyond its means for far too long. That chicken was eventually going to come home to roost, and when the bursting bubble of the American housing market–a bubble built up by unsustainable debt–plunged the world into recession, all the other bubbles of debt burst, too. But the WCC thinks the problem lies elsewhere.

If anything, the global economic turmoil has called into serious question the previously widely accepted role of deregulated and liberalised global financial and trade structures in reducing poverty: current evidence points to the opposite. Yet the international community appears not to have adequately absorbed these sobering lessons. Prevailing financial and trade paradigms are still driven, at core, by the pursuit of ever-higher growth rates and short-term returns at the expense of people’s economic, social and cultural rights and the health of our increasingly fragile ecosystems. Mere economic growth, however, has already been shown to be an unsustainable, inefficient – and in some cases, ineffective – way of addressing the global poverty crisis.

Actually, economic growth–fueled by the opening of markets and booming international trade–has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty throughout Asia and Latin America. That doesn’t mean that regulation isn’t needed. Sin is as much a reality in private enterprise as any other human endeavor. Acting on self-interest may be the engine that drives an economy that benefits the most people, but that’s not reason to allow the self-interest of the strong to trample on the weak. But the direction the WCC is headed with this is profoundly wrong-headed.

Against this light, the WCC reiterates its calls for governments and international institutions – with the democratic participation of all peoples – to pursue economic policies as well as build economic frameworks that move away from the current paradigm that is focused on unlimited growth and based on structural greed towards models founded on pro-poor, redistributive growth; universal provisioning of common social goods; sustainable consumption and production; and investments in small-holder agriculture (which continues to be the main source of livelihood for people and women in poverty), social reproduction and ecological protection.

This paragraph is positively bizarre. First, there is no such thing as “redistributive growth”; redistributing wealth by definition has to do with cutting the pie up in a different way rather than trying to make more pie. In fact, a redistributist economic regime discourages growth by telling people that no matter how hard they work, no matter how creative or innovative they are, they aren’t going to be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor, because someone who thinks he has a more finely honed moral sense is going to swoop in and take much of it and give it to those he thinks are more deserving.

Second, the expression “universal provisioning of common social goods” sounds nice, but what does it mean? Universal provisioning of what, exactly? Clean water, food, and shelter? Anyone who thinks that’s as far as this goes doesn’t know the WCC. Chances are their list of “common social goods” includes pretty much anything they think everybody should have, up to and including six weeks paid vacation every year and retirement with full pension at 55 (it is based in Geneva, after all).

Third, the presence of the word “sustainable” with regard to consumption and production is a giveaway that environmental concerns, not concern for the poor, is what is driving a lot of this. Care for the environment is important, for sure, but when the WCC talks this way, it generally means that the poor will have to wait to get their share of the non-growing pie until church bureaucrats feel like they have enough parkland in which to enjoy their non-genetically modified organic strawberries for lunch.

Finally, I have got to ask what it means to invest in “social reproduction”? I mean, most people are still able to do this on their own without any outside investment at all…

Emphasising the pivotal role of MDG 8 (global partnerships for development) in meeting the rest of the MDGs, governments and international institutions must seriously respond to widening inequalities among and within nations and the global financial and trade structures that propagate and deepen these inequalities.  Much more attention ought to be placed on developing policies and structures that enable wealth-sharing among and within countries.

As far as I’m concerned, this really gives away the game. When people like the bureaucrats at the WCC start talking about inequalities, what they really mean is “get the rich!” Once again, we’re talking about a static pie that has to be recut, rather than a growing pie that allows more and more people to take bigger and bigger pieces. In other words, the WCC sees wealth in zero-sum terms, so that if some people have what they consider to be “too much,” then other people by necessity have too little. But here’s the question: if everyone has at least a minimally sufficient piece of the pie, what difference does it make whether anyone else has more, even a lot more? The problem of poverty is not that the rich have too much, but that the poor don’t have enough. The answer to that is not to penalize the rich–whose wealth, after all, is generally not laying around the house in piles of gold that they can roll around in and laugh maniacally over, but is being used in productive ways that create jobs or finances others in doing so–but to elevate the poor. As the last half century has demonstrated, by far the best way to do that is not through redistribution, but growth, which is to say not through the state (which for the most part doesn’t produce anything, and therefore can’t grow the pie except at the margins) but the private sector.

We believe that mobilising the financial resources needed for poverty eradication and the achievement of the MDGs – particularly through creative forms of taxation inasmuch as taxes are the only sustainable source of development finance – is a matter of political will, yes, and also of moral courage.

And this shows just how tunnel-visioned the WCC is. The state and its ability to extract wealth by force is the only “sustainable source of development finance”? Maybe in the European Union that’s the case, which would explain a lot about the growing crises in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, etc. But in the rest of the world, development takes a wide variety of forms, with a wide variety of financial options.

The statement goes on to make a variety of specific proposals, most of which are based not on economic understanding but ideological predisposition. (One of them is especially revealing: “Supporting regional initiatives that decentralise finance and empower people in the global South to exercise control over their own development through bodies such as…the Bank of the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América,” i.e., the Bolivarian Alliance, which is a joint venture between Hugo Chavez and the Castro Brothers and their pals in Bolivia and Ecuador.) But I think I’ve made the point: the more the WCC bloviates on economics, the more it makes clear that it knows no more about the dismal science that it knows about the New Testament.