Friday, July 20, 2012

Thinking about Justice

It’s a brilliant day in the middle of summer vacation, and third book of The Hunger Games trilogy is sitting on my coffee table, so what am I doing reading The Moral Ecology of Markets? I could not even have told you what the juxtaposition of those five words meant before getting to chapter 6. 
  1. There is a really good reason for this picture.
  2. The book was a lot easier to understand on July mornings after my first cup of coffee than when I first tried it on February evenings after a day of reading 10th grade English papers.
The really good reason goes back two summers to when I read Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom by Linda Christensen, published by Rethinking Schools. I loved the book--it was even better than the title! I recommended it to colleagues, re-read it, used ideas in my classroom, spent time on the organization’s web page, and drooled over other titles they offered. Finally I decided on Rethinking Globalization by the author’s husband, Bill Bigelow, (1) because even though it is a social studies book, it uses a humanities approach, and I hoped to glean some literary sources for my World Lit class and (2) because having just added social studies chair responsibilities to my English chair responsibilities, I thought it wouldn’t be all bad to learn a little about the discipline. 
Halfway through the book, I realized that it has a definite agenda, and that I didn’t know enough about economics to do my own thinking on the issues. I can tell a zeugma from a metonym, but International Monetary Fund? World Bank? I know they exist, and they’re important, and they’re in the news a lot these days with the economic crisis, but what they really DO and whether it’s good or bad, I have no clue.
In my own little crisis, I contacted my brother-in-law, who is a economics professor. He gave me a Nicholas Wolterstorff article and recommended this book. 
And I’m so glad. It took a lot of concentration and time. But when I’d read a paragraph for the 3rd time and it would all suddenly come clear, I’d wonder why it had taken me so long. It’s not the kind of reading I usually do, but the writing is very clear, well organized, with examples and charts and just enough repetition. 
Dr. Finn never promises to tell the reader what to think about what particular laws make markets just, but he insists that (1) all people who talk about markets have a moral component to their argument, even if it is only implicit and (2) if we had a common language for the problems of economics and the forces interacting with markets, we could possibly have productive discussions rather than hurling divisive epithets at each other. 
The problems of economics are production (he calls it “allocation” which I found confusing, but maybe an economist out there will set me straight--this is traditionally the biggest focus of economics), distribution (also included in traditional economics), scale (becoming increasingly important--things like avoiding deforestation or depletion of the ozone), and human relations (which isn’t traditionally emphasized in the discipline, but you only have to survey the titles of the latest business best sellers to know that the quality of relationships affects production).
While we usually talk about a market as being “free” or “planned,” Finn proposes that it is more helpful to abandon such dichotomies. The market itself always has fences constructed around it by the government to limit abusive behavior. In the freest of free markets, you are restricted from knocking off your competitors, and in the most planned of planned economies, you are free to stand in the bread line or the gas line with your state allotted wages. The problems we generally debate are which behaviors are abusive enough to fence out.
The forces interacting with markets (their “ecology” or their context) are the provision of essential goods and services (whether you limit “essential” to police or expand it to medical care, etc.), the morality of individuals and groups (organized crime, corruption, lack of trust, etc.), and the presence of civil society (ways people come together to influence all the other things).
I still don’t know about the IMF and the World Bank. But even before I’d finished the book, I was seeing the structure in issues I was reading about in other places--from an article about the current election to one about women’s rights in China. Now I’m looking forward to going back to Rethinking Globalization. At least now I’ll be able to identify the problems being addressed, the moral assumptions being made, and ask about what other forces are at play in the situation.
And I’m looking at other books by Finn on the back cover--Just Trading: On the Economics and Ethics of International Trade and Toward a Christian Economic Ethic: Stewardship and Social Power--I’m almost tempted to order them. But I think I’m tapped out for this summer--those can go in the pipeline for 2013 and 2014. 

Now I’m ready for Mockingjay.
Finn, Daniel K. The Moral Ecology of Markets: Assessing Claims about Markets and Justice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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