Sunday 26 October 2008

Greed and the economy

Sorry, we ate it!

Shortly after I took over as Head of a research centre at an Australian University some years ago I noticed that the centre had raised lots of money over the previous decade but there was little of it left. I asked one of the longest serving members of the team, "We've made a lot of money over the years, what have we spent it on?" The staff member replied, "Hard to say really. I had a nightmare once that Frank (the Vice Chancellor, not his real name) made me come to his office and he asked the same question. In the dream I just looked at him, shrugged my shoulders and said, 'we ate it'." She then went on to say how over the years they'd had lots of great dinners, had entertained lots of visiting scholars, bought lots of books and so on. They had largely spent the money on having a good time.

Paul Sheehan (in the Sydney Morning Herald 20th October 2008) has just written an interesting piece in which he pretty much says the same thing about the Australian nation. The essence of his argument is that we've been living beyond our real means for 10 years using credit to indulge ourselves. I expressed the same view to a senior manager in a financial services company recently and he 'bit my head off'. "No-one could possibly have predicted this financial crisis," he spat across the table. I pointed out exactly what Paul Sheehan and others have pointed out, we've been spending beyond our means for many years, and we were heading for a fall.

For Australia the telling piece of data is the extent of credit card debt (this is not news). Sheehan quotes Gabriel Stein, of Lombard Street Research, who had noted (as many others have been noted before) that Australian household debt had reached 177 per cent of gross domestic product, almost a world record:

"It is amazing that in the midst of the biggest commodity boom ever seen they have still been unable to get a current account surplus. They have been living beyond their means for 10 years. What worries me is that productivity growth has been very low: they have been coasting after their reforms in the 1990s."

I've had numerous conversations with varied people over the last ten years about the same, and related issues. For example that Australian savings as a proportion of debt have been low for many years, property prices in cities like Sydney (let alone places like Perth) have been inflated, households have been over-extending themselves with bigger and bigger mortgages, consumers have been insatiable in their appetite for goods and services, house are bigger than ever, credit card debt is at record high levels and so on. Not many people have been interested in listening.

Paul Sheehan asks in his article, "Did the lucky country become the greedy country?" He concludes his article with these words:

"During 17 years of unbroken economic expansion and a 10-year commodities boom, it took a lot of people, borrowing a lot of money, taking a lot of unproductive risk, to get to where we are today: a nation with excessive debt and excessive vulnerability to external circumstances barely within our control."

Sheehan isn't saying that people shouldn't borrow money or spend it, or for that matter, take risks. What he is suggesting though is that we've spent too much money that wasn't really our money with "unproductive risk". Risk that wasn't necessarily well motivated, and I'd say which in many cases was not motivated by anything other than greed and avarice. We wanted more, we wanted it now and so we got it now by borrowing more and more money.

People have been quick to point the finger at others to blame them for the economic melt-down that we're experiencing, here are some random comments I’ve heard: "It's all due to those dodgy American banks and prime mortgages", "Why didn't the government see this coming?" "The Baby Boomers are the problem...", "Why didn't the Reserve Bank act sooner", and so on. Now, there is truth in the fact that just as average consumers have been blind to their own excess, that banks and governments have also made some mistakes (see for example Peter Hartcher’s comments on the world’s ‘greatest banker’ here); but ultimately every single Australian who has wanted more of what they really couldn't afford, or couldn't afford to pay back, is partly responsible for the mess we are in.

A Christian response in tough economic times

It seems to me that there are three fundamental things that Christians need to ask themselves individually, as church fellowships and as citizens of this nation:

  • How can we ensure that we are not guilty of the greed and excess that mars our world?
  • How can we demonstrate generosity in the midst of economic hardship?
  • How can we encourage our leaders to make good, wise and compassionate decisions in the days ahead?

In his Presidential Address at the Anglican Diocese of Sydney 2008 Synod, Archbishop Peter Jensen made reference to the difficult economic times we face and used the example of R.B.S. Hammond as an example to us all. R.B.S. Hammond was Rector of St Barnabas, Broadway from 1918 to 1943. He was known as fine preacher and a man of action. There was a wall plaque dedicated to him in the old St Barnabas which said this:

‘The Need of the World was on His Heart.'

In the Depression of the 1930s he responded with action. He modelled for his parish how to hold together a concern for the preaching of God's word and care for the community, a relationship which he knew was consistent with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. "He (Hammond) fed the hungry, clothed the poor, fought against the drug trade (namely the abuse of alcohol), advised the famous, lifted up the hopeless, and began a whole new suburb of homes for the homeless, Hammondville."

In citing Hammond's example, Peter Jensen commended Anglicans to consider how they might respond in troubled times. As people who will continue to be wealthy in global terms, even in a recession, how will we respond generously to the needs of others less fortunate than ourselves?

"We are experiencing a significant economic downturn, with a possible increase in unemployment, poverty, homelessness - even of hunger. What sort of people will we be now? There will be far less choice. Our investment in the secular individualistic values will prove to be as illusory as our investment in some parts of the market. Choice will disappear for many; tolerance will prove too cool for comfort; work may be harder to find. Instead of the secular values, it would have been better to invest in the great biblical virtues, faith, hope and love. In abundance or in want, these are better for human beings to aspire to. I hope that we have not forgotten them, for we are going to need them."

Practical Compassion

Our response in troubled times is not simply to speak out against sins like greed. Yes, we need to exhort one another to repent of such sins, but we also need to show practical compassion. Not to atone for our sins (Jesus has done that!), but as acts of compassion for those who will suffer in and outside the church. The word ‘compassion’ comes from two Latin words, ‘suffer’ and ‘with’. We must become involved in the suffering of others and enter into their situation. Compassion is not a theoretical concept. ‘A compassionate response to suffering requires that one be moved by the suffering of the other, act to remove the immediate effects of the suffering, and respond at length to correct the structures which may have given rise to the suffering itself.’ (New Dictionary of Christian Ethics, p. 244).

We see this practical aspect of compassion supremely in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37). A traveller is attacked, stripped, beaten and robbed, and left half dead on the roadside. Two religious people - a priest and a Levite – are travelling by on the same road later in the day. Each refuses to get involved and simply pass by on the other side.

Then a Samaritan (a person of mixed-race hated by Jesus’ audience) came by. He saw the man and ‘he had compassion on him’. He then gave generous practical assistance, bandaging his wounds, putting him on his animal, taking him to an inn, and making arrangements for him to be cared for, as well as paying for his accommodation.

Jesus’ message here is that compassion is more than words. ‘Which of these three,’ he asked the lawyer who received the parable, ‘was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The lawyer replied, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus responds, ‘Go and do likewise’.

The words of James 1:22-25 are also helpful:

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

A biblical case for living more simply

I wrote two posts late in 2007 (just before Christmas) that each focussed on greed. I sugested in each that the Bible teaches that we should seek a simpler lifestyle and that consumerism can be a trap for Christians (here and here). On both occasions I spoke of the impact of excess, on the environment in the first, and in people's lives in the second.

I suggested that the biblical pattern in relation to possessions is one of simplicity, of having our needs met, and of generosity with what we have. The biblical pattern of seeking to satisfy our needs, not our cravings and wants, was clear even in the way God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness as they fled Egypt. God provided enough food for their needs. The Israelites were to collect as much Manna and quail as they needed each day, and no more (Exodus 16:15-17). Later Moses taught that God's law required them to be generous with what they had. He urged them always to give generously to the poor. “Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11)

This pattern is given plenty of attention in the New Testament. Paul urged the church in Rome to live lives worthy of God “….as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” They were not to be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, “…but (to) be transformed by the renewing of (their) mind.” (Rom 12:1-2). Paul then went on to list generosity as one of the gifts that God gives. If your gift “ contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously” (Rom 12:8). So some people are gifted givers, but all are called to be generous.

But Paul goes even further and makes a connection between being generous and our relationship to God; connecting godliness with contentment: "But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it" (1 Timothy 6:6,7). Paul stresses to the young Timothy that he is to put his hope in God, and that to be "rich towards God" is to "to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share" (1 Timothy 6:17-18).

Paul suggests that contentment is the key. He had learned what it meant to be content with what he had, rather than hankering after more. As he sat in prison and gave thanks to the Philippian church because of its generosity to him he wrote: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil 4:12-13).

We are commended in the Bible to rid ourselves of the idol that is greed and to give just retribution to the poor and needy:

"As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life" (1 Tim 6:17-19)

We are living in challenging times, but the Bible has challenging words for us for these times. In world terms we are very wealthy. We will need to fight against the sin of greed in our own lives, encourage one another to be generous, and call on our government to be generous and compassionate both at home and in our giving to nations less fortunate than ourselves.

Further reading

See the Paul Sheehan article here

See Pater Jensen's Presidential address here

See Peter Hartcher's comment 'Humiliation for the High Priest of Capitalism' which offers a perspective on how even the great Allan Greenspan got it wrong.

See previous posts on this blog:

Shoping till we drop the planet (here)

Greed and the multiple paths to destruction (here)


Anonymous said...

Hi Trevor,

When things go wrong, it is a common human response to look for someone to blame. As a society we have become increasingly litigious over the last couple of decades. When we trip over a piece of loose pavement and hurt ourselves, whereas once upon a time most of us might have said, “Oh, what a silly duffer I am!”, now a more common response seems to be to look for someone to blame (council, corporation, private individual) with a view to suing them for as much as possible.
Similarly with the current “financial crisis”, people are quick to blame banks, governments, greedy stockbrokers and CEOs, previous generations, etc, when it is generally the case that most things that go wrong in people’s lives, most of the time (at least in countries like Australia, where peace and the rule of law are the norm, and we suffer few natural disasters) are mostly the fault of the individuals themselves. I suspect that this is the case with the current situation. Certainly, one might question the behaviour of banks and lending institutions, for instance, in lending so much to so many with so little evidence that they would be able to continue to make the repayments over a period of many years; or in providing larger and larger credit card limits to people who were in many cases already overindulging in that direction. When all’s said and done, however, I think we as individuals have to take responsibility for our actions.
Wisdom is an excellent antidote to the kinds of behaviour which have so sadly left so many individuals and families in serious financial trouble. Making wise choices does not come naturally to most people (as I can testify personally). I realize that in a post-Christian society such as contemporary Australia it might seem a little naïve to suggest this, but I wonder how much grief might have been avoided if more people lived their lives according to the wisdom to be found in the Bible. So often we read there of the foolishness of attempting to secure lasting felicity through the pursuit of material goals (for example, in 1 Timothy 6, from which you quote); yet this is precisely what we as a society seem intent on doing.
The other suggestion I would make is that we need to keep the current “crisis” in perspective. It is the nature of markets (financial, real estate, etc) and economies to fluctuate: periods of boom are almost inevitably followed by times of “correction”, or “bust”. It is simply foolish to believe that growth can go on indefinitely. Over the course of 30-odd years as an adult I have seen this happen many times. What goes up must come down: but vice versa, as well. I think it is possible, therefore, to overestimate, in particular, the potential long-term effects of the current situation. We should remember that most of us get our information from the media: newspapers and their associated web sites, radio and TV programs, etc. It is the nature of the beast that bad news will often be exaggerated or sensationalised: good news on the whole doesn’t sell newspapers.
I think the biblical notion of the “season” might be helpful here. As the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, there is “a season for every activity under heaven”. We have had our boom season; now is the season of “bust” (supporters of the Australian cricket team might also find some solace in this thought!)
Jesus specifically told his listeners not to worry about material things, but rather to “seek first (God’s) kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:25-34). This is an area where Christians can set an example by not jumping on the sensationalist, doom-and-gloom bandwagon, but rather urging calm and a sense of long-term perspective. I should add that I don’t think Jesus was condemning wise planning when he exhorted his listeners to “not worry about tomorrow”: rather to keep things in perspective and trust God.
In the meantime, however, as you rightly point out, Trevor, there will be pain for many, and the challenge ought to be to act with as much justice, compassion and generosity as we can muster – particularly in consideration of the truly poor, who are always the ones to suffer first and most in such times, as more and more people start tightening their belts.

Greg T

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your detailed comment Greg, I appreciate your thoughtful reflections. Your reference to Ecclesiastes is a good reminder that there are seasons in life. The markets also move in cycles, let's hope that the bottom of this cycle is not too deep and not too prolonged for if its is deep and long then many will be affected. Of course, we know that true richness is only found in Christ not in money and possessions. But people will need support as they struggle through this period. Hard times can also be times that God uses to convict people of their need of him and their inability to control their own destinies.