Ah, the economics of disaster. While there has been much hand-wringing and accusation about the stinginess of American giving (bunk, of course), there is a correct place for accusation against American policy in one area: trade. Sri Lanka is a poor country. American policy on trade coming from Sri Lanka hasn't helped. From Dr. Eric Schansberg, and the Libertarian Writer's Bureau:
Worse Than Tsunami, Trade Protectionism Hurts Third World Citizens
by Dr. Eric Schansberg
Libertarian Writers' Bureau
Last Thursday, I was heartened to read the news that my church, Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY, had collected $732,000 from its members (beyond its weekly giving) for tsunami relief in Southeast Asia. That partially offset the news I had read the previous Thursday-- as reported in the Wall Street Journal-- that tariffs imposed on Sri Lanka were nearly $250,000,000 in 2003.
Nearly all of that amount was taxes imposed on the Sri Lankan textile industry. And the amount imposed on that one foreign industry exceeded all of the tariffs imposed on all trade with all six Scandinavian countries-- despite the fact that those countries export nearly 12 times more to the U.S., have about 10 times more GDP thanSri Lanka's, and have people whose per capita incomes are far higher than those in Sri Lanka.
Why does this occur?
The textile industry in this country is one of many special interest groups that benefits from having their competition restricted. They and their politicians find it favorable to impose discriminatory taxes on foreign producers and American consumers.
In contrast to the obvious benefits for politicians and the protected industry, the costs imposed are subtle. How many consumers know that they pay significantly higher prices for clothing because of these laws? How many voters care that foreign workers and investors in poor countries are impeded in their ability to sell product within the wealthiest market in the world?
Because Christians tend to pay almost exclusive attention to relatively few (albeit important) issues, they often ignore other important policies. The passions of the Religious Right flair on issues of social morality and abortion, but they rarely think about issues of economic justice. The Scriptures, especially through theprophets, give a more balanced picture. The interests of the Religious Left are centered more tightly around the fate of the poor.
But their policy attentions in that realm are relatively narrow, focusing mostly on welfare and foreign aid. Pragmatism would seem to warrant discussion of a wider set of issues. Christian Libertarians are excited about voluntary displays of charity, but saddened that political shenanigans can so easily swamp the efforts of compassionate people.
All that said, care for the poor and oppressed is not a strictly Christian exercise. And very few people-Christian or not-are informed about the primary and secondary consequences of significant policy issues. Although Southeast Christian Church can be pleased and honored to pay part of Uncle Sam's tax bill for the Sri Lankans,perhaps all of us should pay more attention to the larger issues of trade protectionism and the mechanics of economic justice.
Professor of Economics
Indiana University Southeast
author of Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left: A Thinking Christian's Guide to Politics and Public Policy