Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi

IN EXILE

August 28, 2000

Time magazine has a column called Numbers. Its purpose is to startle you by throwing out curious statistics that you could never have imagined. Reading these, I often find myself precisely surprised, not always happily so.

Recently, there and elsewhere, I have seen statistics that are indeed startling. They have to do with how globalization is widening the gap between rich and poor. Here's a sample:

  • Eight million. The number of millionaires in the United States. This has quadrupled in the last 10 years and that number now represents more than one-quarter of the population of Canada.
  • 10,000. The number of millionaires in Seattle, Wash., alone.
  • 1.3 million. The number of people who will find themselves homeless this year in the U.S.
  • Thirty million. The number of people who will experience "food scarcity" (more commonly called "hunger") this year in the U.S.
  • 22.4 per cent. The percentage of American children living in poverty, second highest (after Mexico) in a survey of industrialized nations.
  • 2.6 per cent. The per centage of Swedish children living in poverty, the lowest among all countries surveyed.
  • One out of five. The number of children who live in poverty in North America even as this continent undergoes a record economic boom.
  • 100 per cent. The percentage that size of an average house in North America has increased in the last 10 years.
  • 100 per cent. The percentage that homelessness has increased in North America in the last 10 years.

These contrasts speak loudly about the differing effect of globalization of the economy on various groups in society. While the present economic boom has been wonderful for some, it has been less wonderful for others. Our present prosperity has left too many people behind. What's to be said of this?

One must be careful not to make a simplistic moral judgment. Some things that are happening are in fact good, even as some others are cause for considerable concern. However as Jim Wallis, in a recent editorial in Sojourners states: "To put it in the plainest moral terms, this just isn't right. Something is terribly wrong with this picture."

What's wrong is pretty obvious at one level, the gap between rich and poor is widening and it is simplistic to suggest, as many do, that those who are left behind are themselves to blame since the rules, after all, are the same for everyone. This would be true if everyone was lined up in the same way and at the same starting gate.

But that's not the case. Some of us participate in the new world economy from a position of privilege; be that historical, national, ethnic, gender, intellectual or physical. We may well play fairly, but the rules favour us and we have started from a place far ahead of many others.

An appeal to fair play is a dubious moral argument when we are playing on a field that is not level. Right now the economy grossly favours those who already have wealth or some other exceptional endowment. This is a good time, if you are even a little privileged, to get obscenely rich.

What is less obvious is the root of this thing, namely, a shift in moral thinking that is leaving us comfortable again with the most brutal of all evolutionary laws, the survival of the fittest. Initially this was true for our species biologically; now it's becoming true economically.

Good arguments can be made of course to extol globalization's other virtues, to extol the amount of employment and wealth the present economy has generated, and to extol the virtue inherent in initiative and hard work; but, at the end of day, there is a brutal Darwinism at work too in all this.

As Hank Zyp, Western Canada's moral maverick, put it in a recent column: "Those who drop out of the race are written off as `genetically challenged', unfit to participate in the booming economy. `They are dealt an unlucky intellectual or physical allocation from the roulette wheel of genetic inheritance,' according to Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute. `That's life,' the new realists say."

It may well be life. Nature has this brutality in it. The fittest survive so as to make for ever-stronger seed and progeny.

But moral evolution, as both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures assure us, works exactly the opposite. We evolve morally not by the survival of the fittest but through the survival of the weakest. This is what makes for an evolved moral offspring. The biblical gauge for morality in any culture is always how its weakest members fare. Lately that hasn't been very well.

(Website: www.ronrolheiser.com)