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Economy, Jobs and Morality

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Bill Clinton wrote about jobs creation in Newsweek earlier this summer. It's a hot topic these days. Facing stubborn high unemployment numbers and the sluggish economy overall, I am as interested as the next person in jumpstarting our economy. Having been unemployed for some time this past year, I understand the distress and frustration that many people feel. Families and communities depend on gainful employment. At the same time, I believe that strength and resiliency in our economy is more important than jobs per se.

This is a deeply moral issue, which is why we must be concerned about getting it right, now and tomorrow, accounting for the complexity of factors and benefits that mark a healthy economy. In other words, there can be no quick fixes, no magic bullets and no wearisome blame games. A conversation about what constitutes an enduring economy abounding in decent paying jobs is something that we all have a vested interest in.

In this blog, I touch on four specific factors I see as critical in building long-term foundations for a healthy economy. Each demonstrates multiple benefits and systemic strength. Each reflects spiritual values, such as thoughtfulness, renewal and vitality. The last one has the added bonus of jobs stimulus on a large scale and in the short-term. There are many factors for growing an economy that is trustworthy and lasting, such as national investment in our decaying infrastructure and even extending reductions in our national payroll tax, which benefits everyone. But here are four: fair trade, bio-conscious manufacturing, whole foods and clean energy.

To begin, fair trade is not "free trade" and should never be confused. Equal Exchange Coffee was the pioneer of fair trade java in the United States in the mid-1980s. Fair trade removes from the profit chain wealth-draining intermediaries such as speculators and brokers, empowers poor coffee-producing communities in the Global South and benefits small gourmet coffee companies in the United States, as well as larger companies like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. Since the 1980s, fair trade has diversified beautifully, everything from sugar and bananas to flowers and spices. But fair trade remains a small fraction of global commodities sales.

From a policy perspective, strengthening fair trade does at least two things well. First, it improves the local economies in the developing world, thereby reducing pressures for poor populations to support an illicit drug trade or to seek citizenship in the United States. This helps solve both our immigration and drug problems. Secondly, it creates jobs in fair trade companies and stores around the United States. Equal Exchange sales and operations have grown and investment returns have remained steady since the 1980s. Among other successful fair trade organizations is Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit arts and crafts chain.

Next is bio-conscious or "cradle to cradle" manufacturing. Imagine clothing and textile factories, automobile and appliance factories, reproducing amazing goods and services while purifying the outflow of water in a "closed-loop" system, not fouling our waters. Such industries are learning to imitate the genius of living systems, wetlands for example. None of this is futuristic economics or science fiction. In Spring 2010, Newsweek reported the industrial advances in such green designs. Biologist Janine Benyus writes about this manufacturing and business revolution in her book, "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature." Global industrial leader Ray Anderson, who died this month after a long battle with cancer, successfully applied these principles at his commercial carpeting giant, Interface Inc. In our depressed economy, we need to return to American manufacturing, but now armed with 21st century eco-technology and knowledge. As with fair trade, green manufacturing addresses multiple national problems, such as jobs, water and air, with grace and depth.

Thirdly, as we have learned that the poor diet often leads to obesity, and later diabetes and heart disease, with national cost implications, the time is right to re-think the priorities and incentives of our food system. To boost local jobs, cut spending on Health Care, and improve our environment and bodies, healthy "whole foods," like fruits, vegetables and unprocessed grains, urge greater availability and competitive relative pricing to manufactured foods, especially in low income communities. How? Organic foods, local foods, farmers markets and "farms-to-schools" will grow or expand as free enterprise success stories

But this will not happen unless we end our addiction to annual subsidies for Big Agriculture, which are in the high billions. Yet, scarcely a peep from anti-government activists is voiced when it comes to corporate food welfare. It makes me wonder what industries are bankrolling certain political agendas.

Finally, clean energy. You may be getting tired of hearing this, so I'll try to keep it short and on point. It is simply where the jobs are, both now and future. Why? Knowledge zones converge: Science and Environment; Geo-politics and War and Peace; Geo-physics and Supply and Demand (although, again, without the subsidies -- this time to Oil and Coal). Hundreds or thousands of books have been written about the systemic urgency to develop clean energy, but none may be as cogent as this summer's release, "Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence" by Christian Parenti. Serious investment in wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and tidal power will create much widespread employment while enhancing National Security.

With the convergence of economic and environmental crises, political and free market solutions must demonstrate systemic intelligence. This means that most major problems are not isolated from each other. They are connected and require policy decisions that express this understanding. This is not a liberal or conservative argument, nor is it Republican or Democratic. I am making this appeal as one who believes in Saint Paul's vision of the Body of Christ. We are many parts -- global trade, manufacturing, foods, energy and more -- but one body.

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