Saturday, September 23, 2006

money corrupts

Hi everyone,

My husband Tom got here a few days ago, and it's been really wonderful
to have him around—he'll be here until mid-October. While he's here,
though, he's not exactly on one long vacation. We set up an exchange
for him with the nice doctor who helped me when I was sick a couple of
weeks ago. The doctor lets Tom follow him around and teaches Tom
medicine, and Tom talks with the doctor in English and corrects his
pronounciation. It seems to be working out satisfactorily all around.

As happened the last time he visited, I have been doing a lot of
talking with Tom and not so much soliloquizing on this blog, but I
have just realized something interesting that I want to share here.

I have generally emphasized differences between Nicaraguans' and
Unitedstateseans' cultural understandings of morality, charity and
market… but today I'm going to talk about one thing they have in
common. Both in Nicaragua and in the United States, people feel that
money corrupts. The only reason I know the Spanish word for "camel"
is because people here have quoted the bible verse to me that says
approximately "it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a
needle than for a rich man to get into heaven". In both places,
people feel that the desire for profit and wealth leads people to
commit immoral acts… maybe the desire for money is one of the few ways
that ordinary people can explain to themselves why some
incomprehensibly bad things happen. For example, many people in the
U.S. lost their jobs and retirement savings when Enron collapsed. Was
this attributed to random bad luck? No, it happened because of the
actions of some very arrogant and greedy people.

In the last two weeks in Nicaragua, some 200 people have been
poisoned, over 40 died and a bunch more blinded by drinking what had
been sold to them as liquor, but which was actually a high percentage
of methanol, or rubbing alcohol. Before the culprits were arrested, I
heard a number of theories about how this could have happened,
including attempts to drive a local brewing company out of business by
a rival company. And it turns out that the methanol was deliberately
stolen from an industrial chemical company and re-packaged as
drinkable alcohol. This is only comprehensible to anybody here as the
action of somebody who was so driven by the desire for money that he
didn't care about the people he knew would be hurt.

Interestingly, both in the U.S. and in Nicaragua, the evil of the
profit motive is seen to be only occurring "here", whereever "here"
is. In Nicaragua, people have a sense that since this is a poor
country, the desire for money often overwhelms people here. They
often say things to me like "of course this sort of thing never
happens where you come from". People have a keen sense that they live
in an "underdeveloped" country, and "underdeveloped" implies both
poverty and a generalized sense of educational, cultural and moral
inferiority. I feel like I constantly am telling people that yes,
there is crime in the U.S., yes, there is poverty, yes, there is
corruption. (People here generally assume that I have no experience
with protecting myself against burglars and pickpockets, despite the
fact that I've lived in not-the-swankiest parts of New York City for
the last 5 years!)

In the U.S., on the other hand, ordinary people in poor countries are
often described in ways that make them seem innocent of the corruption
of the profit motive. There have been a number of times I've seen in
fair trade literature, for example, a description of coffee farming as
a job which is done by artisans, using techniques which have been
passed down through generations, for the sheer pleasure that an
artisan takes in creating a high-quality craft. Readers are told that
we ought to support these craftspeople in their art, because if we
don't, sordid economic realities may force them to quit. We are also
frequently told that farmers are trying to support their families—a
euphemism for making money which emphasizes moral and cultural values
rather than anything associated with morally dubious profit.

Of course, there are also contradictory tendencies in both worldviews.
In the U.S., while "small farmers" may be viewed as morally pure and
innocent of greed, governments and high officials are often portrayed
as irredeemably corrupt and undemocratic. And in Nicaragua, while
ordinary Unitedstateseans are portrayed as benevolent and innocent of
both politics and greed, the heavy-handed intervention of the U.S.
government (and the governments of other rich countries) and foreign
corporations and organizations are widely resented.

There is one important difference I can see between these narratives
(except, of course, for the power inequities which shape the
narratives). In Nicaragua, there is a stronger idea of wealth as a
limited good. A couple of months ago there was an expose in one of
the newspapers describing the lifestyle of a Nicaraguan baseball
player, Vicente Padilla, who is pitching in the major leagues for the
Texas Rangers. I was hanging out in the office of the cooperative,
and a number of people were discussing his multiple sports cars, his
expensive houses, his boat. Like there would probably have been in a
similar conversation in the U.S., there was a certain amount of
disgust and a certain amount of envy mixed in with people's reactions.
But people also commented on the contrast between this pitcher's
salary and the salaries of people in the Matagalpa area. Several
people commented on how many people that salary could feed, how many
poor people could be helped with that salary. Would these comments
have been made very often in the U.S.? My feeling is that they would
be made less often, that people do not feel that when one person is
rich there is less money to go around for everybody else.

But, as always, I'm open to being corrected on these points.


P.S. Speaking of baseball, I would like to hereby apologize to all
Red Sox fans—I feel responsible for their poor finish this season,
since I haven't been doing my part to root them. ;-) I'll do much
better next year, I promise! (And hopefully the new Nicaraguan
pitcher Devorn Hansack will help, too!)

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