Ethical Dimensions of a Flattened World

By Ed Cohen | Winter 2011

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If this year’s Notre Dame Forum on the Global Marketplace and the Common Good has taught us anything—and it has—it’s that today’s bigger, more interconnected world economy is …

BENEVOLENT because it’s lifted billions of people out of desperate poverty;
DANGEROUS because it’s led to millions of tons more carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere from coal-burning factories working overtime in developing countries;
A BARGAIN because it’s yielded better products at lower prices;
DISCOURAGING because if an employer can find someone to do your job cheaper on the other side of the planet, you can kiss your livelihood goodbye;
ENCOURAGING because if you can do a job cheaper than someone on the other side of the planet, you can kiss a livelihood hello;
VEXING because no consensus has emerged over:

• What should steer the global marketplace (Laws? Trade agreements? Universal values?) or
• Whether the marketplace should be steered (Invisible market forces?) or
• If it even can be steered.

The uncertainty remains after heartfelt, thoughtful input from scholars, best-selling authors, politicians and even the pope – all of whom have been represented (or had their views represented) on campus this year. And the year is only half over.

Established in 2005 by President John Jenkins, C.S.C., the annual Notre Dame Forum brings leading authorities to campus to discuss substantive issues of the day. This year it consists of a yearlong “conversation” on the role of ethics, values and morals in rebuilding and reshaping the global economy.

The topic was inspired by Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”). In the 27,000 plus-word teaching, the pope emphasizes the need to temper the profit motive with a “people-centered” ethics.

One of the lead organizers of this year’s Forum is Edward J. Conlon, associate dean for Graduate Studies of the Mendoza College of Business and Sorin Professor of Management. To him, the encyclical is about how economics, technology and, to some extent, government combine to either enhance or hinder authentic human development. The church defines that concept as “improving the state of mankind with a particular focus on people who are less privileged,” he said.

“The interesting thing about Caritas in Veritate,” Conlon said, “is that it puts the burden of change on people” – every individual, as opposed to simply governments or businesses.

At the first event of the forum, Notre Dame faculty from theology, economics and public policy analyzed the mandate of the encyclical.

The theologian, Margaret R. Pfeil, assistant professor of moral theology, agreed with the pope. Change has to come from personal ethics: people searching their hearts, rejecting the status quo and taking specific actions. She reminded listeners that the earth’s resources are finite and of the Gospels’ imperative to help the poor.

“The goods of the earth are given in common, and no one is justified in keeping what he does not need when others lack necessities,” she said.

The economist, Bill Evans, the Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Economics, said free markets are the only reliable route to prosperity and human development. Since 1980, he pointed out, the growth of world trade has lifted billions of people out of poverty; 780 million in China alone.

“Economic growth is considered by some to be a ‘dirty word,’ but for millions of people it is the difference between going hungry or not,” he said.

The public-policy expert, Douglass Cassel, a professor of law and director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights in the Notre Dame Law School, said market forces are not enough. Governments in developed countries have to step in and require that multinationals operating businesses in weak, developing countries adhere to fair labor and environmental standards.

Then came New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In his forum-sponsored appearance on campus in early November, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century and Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America discussed the economic playing field leveled by globalization. But he spent as least as much time lamenting what he called “unsustainable” economic and environmental policies and ethics. 

When historians look back at the financial crisis of 2007-08, Friedman said, they won’t view the period as merely a financial crisis.

“They’re going to say this was the moment when the market and Mother Nature said, ‘This is your warning heart attack. You are growing in an unsustainable way. Turn back now.’”

The crisis, he said, was the inevitable result of a business cycle that consisted of Americans “building more and more houses and more and more stores so we could buy more and more stuff to be made in more and more Chinese factories powered by more and more coal so they could earn more and more dollars to buy more and more T-bills to be re-circulated back to America, so we could build more and more houses and more and more stores …” ad infinitum. 

That loop was not sustainable, he said. And neither is society’s abandonment of traditional values like long-term thinking in favor of “situational values” by which people ignore future consequences of their actions for immediate gain—especially if at that future date “IBG” (I’ll Be Gone) or “YBG” (You’ll Be Gone). 

He gave the example of home mortgages during the housing bubble. Banks approved loans well beyond buyers’ means. Buyers took advantage of no-money-down, no-payments mortgages, only to walk away when the freebies expired. The investment industry packaged these mortgages into dubious financial instruments. Everyone made out in the short-term, he said, but it led to a painful day of reckoning.

The same dynamic applies to those who ignore the future perils of climate change, he said.

He also said he’d like to see an Earth Race akin to the Space Race of the 1950s and ’60s with the United States again taking the lead. He mentioned that Chinese friends sometimes accuse him of exaggerating China’s accomplishments and prospects. His response: “You’re my Sputnik.”

Just as the launch of the Soviet satellite scared the United States into developing a space program, Friedman hopes China’s economic explosion rouses America out of its complacency and into the collective action needed to develop clean-energy technologies. 

Speaking to an audience made up mostly of college students, he said it would be up to the generation now coming of age to become the “Re-Generation” and restore sustainable values.

“[I]f we don’t do this, friends, we are really in trouble.”