Posted by: edsohn | October 11, 2007

Coffee Beans, Inequality and Capitalistic Idolatry

Preface: Well, I’m the attorney of the bunch, and my posts will often smack of the policy-oriented whirlyballs that occupy the largely empty space in my skull.  But I’m not ashamed of it, because my hope is that my life will be far more than an American lawyer, but rather, a defender and advocate for the helpless and weak.  To that end, I put my fingers to the keyboard and begin the first of what I hope to be many neurotic rants meaningful contributions to this blog.

My girlfriend, a coffee fiend like myself, committed a nefarious act nothing short of giving crack to an addict: she introduced me to caffe vita.  Is it good?  I’m convinced that it is the galaxy’s greatest coffee roaster and the fact that it has not won an award to that effect is yet another demonstration of the terrible injustices in human society.  So, yeah, it’s pretty good.

But then I read this article about international trade justice, and was blown away.  I had always heard about “fair trade” and known that it was somehow good for some farmers somewhere, but it seemed like a completely isolated phenomenon.  Let me give you a glimpse into the article, putting you in the shoes of a Mexican corn farmer in 1994:

Hundreds of miles north, impelled by market forces, U.S. farmers are using petroleum- and pesticide-intensive farming methods that produce large yields but pass on environmental costs to future generations. Because of this, and also because they receive massive government subsidies (most of which wind up going to agribusiness), their corn sells for a much lower price than yours. For decades, your government, like that of many low-income countries, has protected its farmers with tariffs on imported corn, which makes it easier for your corn to compete in Mexico. Now NAFTA will end the tariffs that protect you, without affecting the production model or subsidies that make U.S. corn so cheap. To ease the impact, the Mexican government had negotiated a 15-year transition period on corn tariffs—but large-scale Mexican cattle growers, who want cheap feed and have more political pull than you do, will talk the government into getting rid of tariffs in a mere 30 months. The price you get for your corn will plummet nearly 50 percent.

About a year ago, at a profoundly influential speech given at the Call to Renewal Conference sponsored by Sojourners, Barack Obama used the phrase “idolatry of the free market” when describing one doctor’s distaste for the Republican agenda.  Due to the polarization of modern American politics (and therefore, policies), I’ve spent much of the last decade as a “moderate conservative” identifying myself with the supposedly “values-oriented” conservative regime as well as the fiscally conservative outlook on the world.  After all, we’ve been indoctrinated with the glorification of the American Dream.  American revolutionaries shed blood to defend the right to “free enterprise”, no? 

But when the playing field is not level, the “free market” creates the capacity for rampant exploitation of the poor and the economic strongarming of impoverished nations. 

And that’s just not right.

I once had an opportunity to ask former President Jimmy Carter his opinion on the biggest problem in the world today.  I wanted to discover how he prioritized the AIDS pandemic against the tsunami relief efforts, the threat of global terrorism or the genocide in Darfur.  He instantly replied, “It is the gap between the rich and the poor,” and directed me to read Jeffrey Sachs’s book, The End of Poverty.  While I’ve gotten into just a glance at the text, I’m shocked to discover that we’re living in the most disparate socioeconomic climate in the history of humanity.

As I consider the pervasive effect this poverty gap has, I consider the American attitude on capitalism that leads to the propogation of this trend.  The U.S. is rich.  The rest of the world is poor.  The U.S. should continue to get richer, even if it’s at the poor’s expense, because in the grand scheme of this planet, the U.S. must simply be reaping what they are sowing.  Other countries will get their chance in a few centuries or so.

I’m running long in this post already, so I’ll save the discussion of international trade for another time.  But consider that the unconscious decisions we make daily (what cup of coffee to buy, where to shop for clothes, even buying corn at the grocery store) are all contained in a system that seeks to exploit and marginalize the people who are least able to bear the economic burden created by our wealth.  Regard fair trade coffee not as a “save the whales” statement of hopeless activism in the face of inevitability.  Should we not consider, with each sip of coffee or use of a consumer product, the principles of equality and humanity that weigh heavily?  Is poverty not a MORAL issue?  Every act that imposes oppression on the right for other human beings to simply LIVE… is that not a deeply human and spiritually-significant consideration?

Because even as unwilling participants of the American economy, what’s happening right now is just not right.



  1. anakainosis — Thanks for these passionate and important words. In our churches, it is so easy and convenient to equate following Christ with sin management (to borrow a phrase from John Ortberg, who might have borrowed it from someone else!). However, the Gospel tells a much larger story than that, and God’s Kingdom is much bigger than the scope of our individual lives.

    I appreciate your nuanced take on “free” markets. When our lifestyle contributes to a system of injustice and oppression, can we really say that we are living for God’s glory? It is absolutely sinful to crush others simply for the sake of maintaining our comfortable, luxurious lifestyle. Ezekiel identifies the ultimate sin of Sodom in the root attitude of being “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” about the poor.

    Yes, it’s a hassle to think about where our food is coming from and it is burdensome to pay a couple of dollars extra for our everyday goods & services, but Jesus never said that servanthood would be easy. And, in the big picture of the Gospel, these are very small sacrifices to make — especially if it leads to hope for people, all of whom are made in God’s image.

  2. And that is the problem that we as Americans face. Not wanting to owe up to the fact that, consciously, or subconsciously, we perpetuate the problem in the small decisions that we choose not to make, as Daniel remarked above.

    On the political tip, I wonder how Ron Paul would deal with your entry, as opposed to Barack Obama. He argues, if i’m not mistaken, for a free market in the midst of a small government so that people work harder thus driving a need to have a concern for others behalf (libertarianism). But social government (or the democratic ideals) taken to an extreme definitely does not work, as has been historically revealed by Socialism and Communism.

    Are Christians, then, to live in a third way (i.e. Render unto Caesar?)

  3. It’s the interconnectivity of people to others in this world that is startling. About a century or so ago, imperialism was the oppressive device used by the British and its navies to more visibly suppress the development of nations by sapping them of their liberties and wealth (but the British exportation of culture, ugly as it had been, did reap some benefits for some of its colony nations later on). At least it was easy to see: there was a redcoat, a British magistrate or governor right in your face.

    Trade injustice has existed for a long time, there’s no doubt, but now the responsibility reaches far beyond the import/export tradespeople. It reaches every single American consumer, as the comments have been reflecting, in every single small way.

    With the globalization of the world economy and the explosion of trade in the last 100 years, we are now affecting other people in severe ways, but we are faceless and unaware of it. It’s a unique problem, a new one, faced by the Western world today. And it will be interesting how people whose faith informs their values will respond to this relatively new, unwitting connection to the marginalized poor whose suffering enables the luxury of the relatively rich (lower-middle class Americans are utterly wealthy by global standards).

    What must we do? How does this touch us individually? These are the questions that require serious paradigm shifts and a new sensitivity. To ethically enjoy the power and influence we wield, the people must embrace a new consciousness and responsibility to others.

  4. What a great, but challenging post. The idolatry of free market capitalism has been the impetus for all manner of injustice from slavery to the support of brutal unjust regimes throughout the world. Unfortunately much of the disparity that used to be plainly visible to us is now hidden. In much the same way that production and some services have been outsourced, so too has poverty. It is a matter of out of sight, out of mind.

    I am reminded though of Psalm 62 – when riches increase, do not set your heart on them. Yet that is what we do and the church is as complicit in her participation in this ostentatious untrammeled consumerism as anyone else.

  5. i’m not really understanding what you’re saying… but i guess i’ll start with what you have in bold. you say the playing field is not level, and therefore free trade has the capacity to be really bad. i don’t really think that’s true. if trade is truly free, then it has the capacity to be very helpful for impoverished nations. that’s kind of the whole point of trade, that two nations, given different “technology” (or size, or wealth) can both benefit from trade. i understand that there are problems with the current world market, but to bash free trade is counterproductive.

    the quote that you put up from that sojo article illustrates the importance of free trade… if we assume that american subsidies are trade distorting, then what we have is not free trade. so, when i read that quote, the bottom line is that trade need not be “less free”, but instead more free! it’s not the ideal of free trade that’s messing it up, it’s the protectionism of the united states that, in this example, seem to be driving mexican farmers off the land (although, the wage of farmers in mexico had a downward trend long before nafta, and there’s no substantial evidence that US subsidies caused the whole mess). *sidenote – US ag subsidies are hypocritical and i am against them. a few agribusiness, lobbyists and politicians benefit while domestic consumers and foreign producers (the vast majority) lose out.

    the passing comment on the dangers of “petroleum- and pesticide-intensive farming methods” can be easily misconstrued. this quote was from 1994, 13 years ago. farming technology has developed at a fantastic rate, and we now have safer pesticides and genetically modified crops. i hope the movement against GM ag products (especially in the EU) will be better informed about this next step in ag development. there is no scientific proof that the GM products we produce and eat, and the pesticides we use to yield higher production, is harmful to us. a quick and simple proof is the fact that we don’t have thee arms or three legs. we (americans) all eat GM food, protected from bugs by pesticides. and if it’s going to mess up the soil and ruin future production… that’s great! overproduction is a reason our ag industry is so messed up and so protected. anyway. GM crops can potentially help a lot of developing nations (especially sub-saharan africa) without ruining the cultivated land.

    it scares me to think that US politicians – even republicans by a majority – are against free trade. that means more US protectionism, which leads to unfair trade, since there is worldwide pressure for everyone to liberalize their markets. i think if we really cared about other nations, we would stop giving our industries unfair advantages, starting with our ag subsidies and ag import tariffs. but try telling that to a hawaiian sugar farmer or florida citrus farmer. and then try telling that to their senator.

    i don’t really see the connection between the unfairness of free trade and the poverty gap. in america, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer (relative to the rate of the rich getting richer). is that because poor people in america are being treated unfairly due to import tariffs and corn subsidies? or, are “poor nations” getting poorer relatively, based on GDP? or do you mean that poor people in poor nations are not getting rich as quickly as rich people anywhere? wouldn’t a problem like corruption in poor african nations be more definitively helpful to solve? a decentralized, privatized, free market economy works against corrupted, centralized governments. there’s a whole series of literature on the externalities of free trade. and there are tons of reasons why the poverty gap is getting larger… unfair trade may be one of them, but i doubt free trade is a culprit.

    lastly, i don’t understand what we as consumers could do to fix this unfair trade problem. i really can’t fathom the responsibility i hold as an individual consumer. what could i do? boycott subsidized ag products and instead go foreign? buy fair trade coffee at a price markup? the world market, and the world system of exploitation that you describe, which does model some aspects of the world, is far too complex for us to describe, let alone topple. i think just being a good, wisely generous person would make a much bigger difference than being a thrifty shopper.

  6. that’s a whole lot of stuff. i’m not at all qualified to respond.

    but what i’ll say is this:

    1. you’re right in terms of semantics. when i read up on free trade, they elaborate ways to use “true” free trade to build up the impoverished nations. but i’m using free trade in the sense of the “free trade” agreements we enter, which have largely incorporated protectionist measures. I’ll grant, however, that the recent trade agreements pending with Latin American nations and South Korea have been more fair than FTA’s in the past (especially NAFTA).

    2. a lot of the literature criticizing the “fair trade” movement holds an extremely colored view from the media. it’s a really strange phenomenon and sojourners has an article about that as well:

    “When it comes to the supposed benefits of “free trade,” virtually all of the mainstream media have, for the past 15 years, shed their customary skepticism, embraced corporate economic orthodoxy, and brooked absolutely no dissent.”

    Lots of studies support “free trade” but the interests are purely American. I suppose it’s a bit “liberal” to consider how to be a global neighbor.

    3. The poverty gap connection ties in because the United States leverages their already hefty financial power to strongarm nations into compromising on their own protections without almost EVER lifting their own. So your criticisms to protectionisms, I agree with, but that’s exactly what modern “free trade agreements” look like. The dialogue in the United States is extremely skewed, simply because they are used to totally exploiting developing nations.

    4. I think this portion from your comment: “we (americans) all eat GM food, protected from bugs by pesticides. and if it’s going to mess up the soil and ruin future production… that’s great! overproduction is a reason our ag industry is so messed up and so protected. anyway.”

    I think that’s what they were getting at. It’s not about us getting sick from pesticides. It’s about overharvesting on the land, and that IS a problem. But it was sort of a side comment anyway.

    5. Consumers can always make an impact with their wallets. While most approach this somewhat grassrootsy method with skepticism, movements to protest poor corporate behaviors have been successful in many venues. Divestment in Darfur, for instance, has been fairly successful.

    There are a host of studies that show that consumers would be interested in a fair trade alternative if corporations would take independent initiative (instead of waiting for compliance regulations to be forced on them) to provide fair trade products. The studies show that consumers think fairly positively towards fair trade and that it has influenced supermarkets, Starbucks, etc. to at least provide a fair trade option.

    I think that as far as I can tell, Chris, your comments are very well-informed. We’re mostly using different terms. I’m using “free trade” vs. “fair trade” in the discussion regarding the currently passed so-called “free trade agreements”, which have been radically unilateral and keep the heavily protected and subsidized products. Maybe true “fair trade” is the truest theoretical “free trade”, but in either event, that’s not what’s happening right now.

    The reason why poverty plays in is because the fta’s of today are totally skewed compared to trade agreements in the past. The playing field is not level because of the severe imbalance of negotiating power. And to continue engaging in what we relatively brand as “free trade” with the idea that it’s fair for other nations is a mistake.

    I’ll say that for some nations, I’m not very concerned. South Korea, for instance, is essentially trying to establish FTA’s with everyone. They’re aiming to continue their trend with niche technology markets, etc. They are sort of intentionally disregarding some of their beef farmers (well, not totally, but I think in the end it won’t be a deal breaker)

    But for developing countries, I can’t imagine that they bring much bargaining leverage to the table. They will always need the FTA more than the U.S. But just because some sectors would benefit (just like the Mexican cattle farmers did in the Sojo article), it doesn’t mean it’s a positive thing for that economy’s growth.

    FINALLY… most importantly, I think that if you look not at the huge picture but at each transaction, it doesn’t make sense for middlemen to keep 80% of the money that coffee farmers in Indonesia might have gotten because they arbitrage the discounted economy of the coffee grower. If we lock in this trend, we are not allowing them to participate in a global economy, but rather just exploiting our wealth.

    Right? Even if modern economics and the “free market” tells us that such is the correct result, doesn’t there seem to be something inherently incorrect, and if I can be Christian, unbiblical? Doesn’t that seem a lot like graft and exploitation, a practice totally condemned all over the Scripture? From a perspective of personal responsibility, while we can’t certainly boycott every single product that’s in the market, the simple truth is that while consumers don’t care, there is absolutely no incentive to desubsidize our own crops. Until we make a statement that hurts the profits of the big agribusiness, we will not see change.

    As for inaction because of the “complexity” of the problem, I don’t disagree that the problem is complex, but I don’t think this precludes us from making a statement with our spending habits. Such “fair trade” movements have already picked up a ton of steam in the UK and have significantly increased the fair trade consciousness of the corporations there.

    After all, didn’t Burke say that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”?

    That’s why I think at the least, being conscientious matters. However each person’s convictions should lead them, I believe that protest must manifest in some form or another.

  7. […] of our inner sin Are we challengers, or bargaining peace? Politics to theology, Economics made idolatry, The list of topics will never […]

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