Vanity Press

This is a little ditty I wrote several weeks ago and submitted to an online magazine that shall remain nameless. Alas, they did not deem it worthy. So dang it, I'm going to publish it myself, right here, right now. Thanks for being my audience.


As both new parents and new residents of Hong Kong, the China milk scandal caught our attention and sent us scurrying through our kitchen, reading ingredient labels and looking for the words “product of China.” Trying not to be paranoid expats, we watched as grocery store shelves were stripped of Chinese dairy products and worked to ward off the growing panic. Because our child is still breastfed, we weren't worried about tainted formula, but we did find the dreaded Chinese milk powder lurking in the instant coffee beverage my husband drinks (and that product has since been recalled).

Whenever a news story becomes our story, it's frightening, of course, and often sends us to the phone, reassuring distant relatives that “we are indeed fine, that tornado was across town, thank you for asking.” These times, though, also remind us of our connectedness, of how our fates and fortunes (and even health) rise and fall together. The milk scandal in China isn't the only recent example of this—people all over the world are feeling the aftershocks of the Wall Street upheavals and wondering what the outcome will be for their retirement accounts, their investments, their homes. And both debacles can trace their roots back to corporate greed—what Ghandi describes as one of seven deadly social sins: “commerce without morality.” 

Most Americans wouldn't accept a comparison between their capitalist free market and China's emerging socialist economy, but recent events prove that wherever there is money to be made, the markets are capable of being corrupted, regardless of the system.

I'm no economist, and I don't pretend to know the best solution to either of these problems. But in addition to the systemic, regulatory changes needed, I propose a shift in our understanding of work  as simply a way to make money. Daniel Erlander, Lutheran pastor and writer, defines work as “the dignified activity of helping God meet the needs of all people.” Whether you are a mortgage broker in New York or a dairy farmer in Mongolia, this understanding not only lends purpose to the daily grind, but imbues it with a greater sense of mutual accountability. 

I know this is a simplistic solution to complex problems, especially for those who have little or no choice in their work or who work in dehumanizing conditions. The Chinese dairy farmers who doctored their milk with melamine aren't evil or uncaring—they have been hit by rising feed and fuel costs, like all farmers. But still, to put the lives of more than 50,000 infants at risk is unconscionable.

The Book of Common Prayer offers all of us this collect: O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other's toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” 

May it be so for us.


fairlen said...

I'm no economist either, but I think you've hit at the very root of the problem. It is what is in a person's heart that makes them who they are. If all people could be so full of love and compassion that there is no room for greed, almost all the problems in the world would eventually go away.

ya-hsuan said...

Great article, Monte - I wholeheartedly agree. Morality is inherent in economics (from Smith to Taylor to Marx - and even Warren Buffett and Walmart). The basis of any action is a value, and the world would be a far far better place if that base value were humanity, life and compassion. Sadly, our 'free-market' (which I believe is as rigged as any Chinese economic model) values greed and money at all costs (as exposed during this global financial crisis), not the ideals of free enterprise, exchange and the common good. How can we build a positive-values economy? Small steps, it seems. At least for plebians like me.

PS: i had really logged-in to comment on the melamine contamination and to share this link: http://fooddeclaration.org/, but got sidetracked. It happens.