President Obama recently delivered his second State of the Union address and in it he tackled a number of pertinent issues and challenges that our nation faces. I was pleased to notice the efforts that both parties made to create a more collegial atmosphere in light if the recent tragedy in Arizona. For his part President Obama offered a more moderate approach in this year’s speech and in the spirit of bipartisanship I welcomed it. My concern is that he rally’s Americans in a spirit of global competitiveness. In the spirit of the 2009 Catholic encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” I would have liked to hear President Obama rally us as a nation towards a spirit of charity with the global community instead.
He starts off by addressing the number one issue that brought many Americans to the voting booth this past fall, the economic crisis and deficit. As anticipated he offered us a hopeful message along with a dynamic rallying cry calling us to meet “our generation’s Sputnik moment”. The economic vision comes in three careful investments. Obama challenges us to invest in the energy innovation of the future, improved education with greater access to higher education, and new transportation infrastructure with emphasis on high speed rail.
His approach is both pragmatic and innovative in and of itself. He cannot be blamed for looking inward at a time when the nation is concerned about its imminent future. His approach takes into consideration the ecological challenge which is a concern of Catholic social teaching. This ecological challenge is addressed in his call for energy innovation and new infrastructure and I welcome both developments. I am also very much in favor of supporting our education system and promoting access to higher education although I will have to wait to see how he hopes to implement such an investment.
These investments are designed to help our nation become competitive in the global world. President Obama sites how “China became home to the world’s largest private solar research facility and the world’s fastest computer.” This highlights the competitive concern that Obama has. With regards to international trade agreements here again the President emphasizes his focus on bringing in more American jobs through these negotiations. Again I recognize that he has to be looking inward but is this limited vision with regards to our role in the global economy sustainable for the global community?
Endemic to this global economic crisis are the socially unsustainable rules that govern international trade and global finance polices. The issue continues to be that our international economic system has almost no way of protecting the socially vulnerable sectors of our global community. It is laudable that President Obama is not willing to eliminate deficit spending “on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens” but is he willing to improve our own economic position on the backs of the global poor?
In his 2009 social encyclical Pope Benedict XVI challenged as all to:
take to heart the lessons of the current economic crisis, which sees the State’s public authorities directly involved in correcting errors and malfunctions, it seems more realistic to re-evaluate their role and their powers, which need to be prudently reviewed and remodelled so as to enable them, perhaps through new forms of engagement, to address the challenges of today’s world.
The Catholic Church has long recognized that there is a systemic problem with the way that global institutions are organized. Institiutions such as the World Bank and the IMF are built to the advantage of financially strong nations and the poorest nations are often left to bear the economic consequences of these policy decisions. The Church calls on the nations of the world to adopt policies based on a global ethic of charity rather than competition. Charity is seen as a guiding norm that can help us “pursue development goals that possess a more humane and humanizing value”. To implement a global structure that is guided by this norm Pope Benedict XVI suggests that we reform the global financial institutions so that policies are done collegially and with the consent of all who will be impacted.
Americans are of course concerned about their own economic situation, that is perfectly natural and under the principle of subsidiarity we must address our own domestic economic policies first. But the principle of solidarity calls us to examine how our global economic engagement may produce a negative impact on others especially those who are poor and vulnerable. Domestically I support Obama’s vision of innovation, education and infrastructure but at some point he will have to come to terms with the role of the United States in creating the rules of global trade and finance. Once President Obama shifts our position away from our own self interest to a global policy that is based on an ethic of compassion and charity to all who are vulnerable then I know that as a nation “we do big things”.