Showing posts with label easter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label easter. Show all posts

Monday, April 22, 2019

If you’re virtuous, don’t be afraid to signal it to the world

I’m troubled by the fashion of accusing others of “virtue signalling”. This world could use more virtue and less vice. And if people want others to see their virtue, well, there are worse sins.

Usually, it’s an accusation hurled at those on the other side of the political fence as a way of impugning their motives. They’re not genuinely virtuous, they just want people to think they are when they’re not.

They want to be seen as better than we are. They want me to feel guilty for not being as good as them, but I’m not buying that. I may be motivated by self-interest in the government policies I advocate, but so are they – they’re just pretending otherwise.

You can rationalise such a response by using the assumption of the neo-classical economic model that economic agents (you and me) are always and only motivated by self-interest. Altruism doesn’t exist. When I help someone, I’m doing so only because it makes me feel good.

In truth, social psychology has found plenty of evidence for the existence of altruism. It’s associated with another truth: homo sapiens’ success as a species is owed as much to co-operation as to competition.

I remember how shocked I was years ago to hear a top Treasury official refer with contempt to the Australian Council of Social Service – the peak body representing welfare organisations, including the Salvos – as “the compassion industry”.

First time I’d heard that word used as a term of derision. It reminded me of a song we sang when I was a Salvo: “Except I am moved with compassion, how dwellest Thy Spirit in me?”.

The Treasury man’s claim was that the ACOSS people didn’t really care about the poor and needy, they’d just found a way to make their living by representing the interests of poor. They were no more than another lobby group with their hand out.

As social animals, humans form themselves into tribes – groups. We have a compulsion to divide the world into good guys and bad guys. Naturally, my group are the goodies but, unfortunately, your group are the baddies.

Each of us sees ourselves as good, but some others as bad. I’m genuinely virtuous, whereas you’re just pretending to be.

In truth, none of us is all good or all bad. All of us are good in some respects and bad in others. And psychologists tell us we’re all often guilty of hypocrisy – applying high standards in judging others’ behaviour while making excuses for our own.

Equally, much of what we do we do for mixed motives. Try this test (one I usually fail): when you’re giving money to charity, how do you answer when asked if you’d like your donation to remain anonymous?

It’s possible some of us do virtuous acts – or make statements in support of virtuous policies – without any genuine interest in the wellbeing of others. It’s possible, but I doubt it’s very common.

What’s much more likely is mixed motives: we’re genuine in our professed concern about others, but equally genuine in our desire to be seen by others as having such a concern. That’s not really hypocritical, just being human.

Because we’ve evolved as group animals, all of us care deeply about what others think of us. We want to be accepted by the other members of the group. And we fear being excluded from the group.

Like teenagers, we’re desperate to fit in. The more we look and act like the others, the more comfortable we feel.

(This points to a further weakness in the neo-classical model: its assumption that each of us is a rugged individualist who makes decisions – about what movie to see or what clothes to buy – totally without reference to what those around us are doing.)

Turns out humans are signalling animals. We’re always using what we do, what we say, the way we dress, to signal our virtues to others – including our conformity to the group’s norms of acceptable behaviour.

The economy abounds with people and businesses sending signals. The first three economists to realise this won the Nobel prize for their genius.

We resort to sending signals because neither we nor others have enough hard information about the people we deal with and who deal with us. The main message we send is: you can trust me to deal with you honestly.

In today’s economy we’re suffering from a loss of trust, caused by a lack of virtuous behaviour, which has damaged reputations. We need economic behaviour to be a lot more virtuous. As that virtue is signalled, others will join in and the group norm of acceptable behaviour will be restored.
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Monday, April 2, 2018

What would Jesus do about tax and government spending?

It’s Easter, so let me ask you an odd question: have you noticed how arguments about governments’ intervention in the economy – should they, or shouldn’t they – often rely on an appeal to Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan?

No, me neither. Until I read a little book called, The Political Samaritan: How Power Hijacked a Parable, by Nick Spencer, of the British religion-and-society think tank, Theos.

This is my take on what I read.

Polling in 2015 by the British Bible Society found that 70 per cent of respondents claimed to have read or heard the parable, but in case you missed that day at Sunday school, I’ll summarise.

One day a lawyer trying to trap Jesus quoted the Old Testament law to “love your neighbour as yourself”, but asked, who is my neighbour?

Jesus replied with a story. A man was travelling down a road when he was attacked by robbers and left half-dead. A priest came down the road and saw the man, but passed by on the other side. So did a religious functionary.

But next came a Samaritan who took pity on the man, bound his wounds and took him to an inn, where he looked after him. Next day the Samaritan paid the innkeeper to look after the man until he was well.

Then Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three was a neighbour to the man who’d been robbed. “The one who had mercy on him,” the lawyer replied. Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise”.

Politicians have been using this parable to support their arguments at least since British evangelicals were campaigning for the abolition of slavery in the early 1800s. Martin Luther King spoke about the parable at length in his last sermon before he was assassinated in 1968.

George W Bush spoke about it, as did Hillary Clinton. But it’s been a particular favourite of the British Labour Party.

Early in his establishment of New Labour, Tony Blair said: “I am worth no more than anyone else, I am my brother’s keeper [an allusion to Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis], I will not walk by on the other side. We are not simply people set in isolation from one another . . . but members of the same family, same community, same human race. This is my socialism.”

Blair’s successor as British prime minister, Gordon Brown, son of a Presbyterian minister, said “we are prepared to spend money to help the unemployed; we are not going to walk by on the other side, we are going to help them.’’

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, Brown said: “In a crisis what the British people want to know is that their government will not pass by on the other side, but will be on their side.”

So, to politicians on the left, the Good Samaritan is the all-purpose justification for state intervention to help anyone anywhere with a problem. It’s about collective responsibility and collective action.

To a politician like Margaret Thatcher, however, it’s about precisely the opposite. The Good Samaritan was an individual; he saw someone with a problem and he acted to help them. He didn’t tell the government to do something about it.

People shouldn’t hand over to the state all their personal responsibility. Point one.

Point two: the Samaritan needed money to be able to help the half-dead man, and he had it. But the more we’re taxed, the less we have to discharge our personal responsibility to others.

So what was Jesus really saying? First, according to Spencer, he was reacting against the lawyer’s legalism.

Jesus was concerned with following the spirit of the law, not exploiting its letter. And he was saying the law of neighbourly love is the key commandment which, in cases of conflict, overrides other commandments.

The Samaritan was from an ethnic group the other people in the story despised. So neighbours aren’t just the people in our street, our friends, our fellow Australians, they’re everyone, including those we don’t know or don’t like. The parable is relevant to our treatment of other races and asylum seekers.

The world has changed a lot in the 2000 years since the parable was spoken, so I think we should be wary of assuming it speaks definitively about every modern practice. It doesn’t explicitly authorise compulsory state redistribution of income from rich to poor, nor is it condemned. It doesn’t even give the tick to organised charities.

Conservatives are right to emphasise that our personal responsibility for others is fundamental. But I think supporters of collective action may claim that it’s consistent with the spirit of the parable.
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Monday, April 17, 2017

Disadvantaged should rate higher than rich and powerful

I shouldn't say it, but the thing that annoys me most about the readers of this august organ are those who want to consign me to a party-political pigeonhole. "He's only saying that because he's Liberal/Labor/Green/Callithumpian."

Sorry. I have a lot of strong views, and I hope it isn't hard to detect an internal consistency in them, but they're not driven by loyalty to any party.

Like many old journos, the older I get the more disdainful I become of both sides of politics. They're not identical, but they have far too many bad habits in common.

But if my views come from a consistent set of values, where do those values spring from?

It's no secret. If you must pigeonhole me, I don't mind you saying this: "He's only saying that because he grew up in the Salvos – and hasn't managed to shake it all off."

I certainly inherited from my father a penchant for preaching sermons. So, since it's Easter, here's the latest.

Earlier in my career as a commentator my mission was to convert readers to the one true faith of economic efficiency.

As I've got older and wiser, however, I've realised that, though economic inefficiency has nothing to recommend it, efficiency isn't the only worthwhile goal of public policy, and there are often times when other objectives should take priority.

Such as ensuring the fruits of our economic success are distributed fairly between all the participants in the economy, not hogged by the rich and powerful.

Such as ensuring the poor – these days we're supposed to say the "disadvantaged" – are given a helping hand, even if they're the political path of least resistance when trying to fix the budget deficit.

The more unimpressed I've become with party politics and economic orthodoxy, the more I've fallen back on the values I imbibed as a youth, reading about the Salvos' daring, disreputable and sometimes law-breaking exploits in their early days.

I've been reminded of all this by a four-DVD box set, Boundless Salvation, produced by my coreligionist and mate, John Cleary, late of the ABC religion department, to celebrate the Salvos' 150th anniversary.

The Salvation Army was founded in the East End of London in 1865, when the Rev William Booth broke away from the Methodists. As a protestant church, its doctrines are identical to Methodism.

As Cleary explains, what distinguished the Salvos was Booth's preoccupation not just with saving souls, but saving "the worst", and the way he matched spirituality with practicality.

As soon as you were saved you were set to work, not just spreading the word, but helping the downtrodden escape the economic bonds that enslaved them.

Consider this recorded sermon from late in Booth's life: "Amidst all your joys don't forget the sons and daughters of misery. Do you ever visit them? Come away and let us make a call or two.

"Here is a home, six in family. Bathe and drink and sleep and sicken and die in the same chamber.

"Here is a drunken hovel, devoid of furniture, wife a skeleton, children in rags. Father maltreating the victims of his neglect.

"Here are the unemployed, wandering about, seeking work and finding none. Yonder are the wretched criminals cradled in crime, passing in and out of the prisons. All the time.

"There are the daughters of shame, deceived and wronged and ruined. Travelling down the dark incline to an early grave.

"There are the children, fighting in the gutters, going hungry to school. Growing up to fill their parents' places.

"Brought it all on themselves, you say? Perhaps so. But that does not excuse our assisting them.

"You don't demand a certificate of virtue before you drag the drowning creature out of the water.

"Nor the assurance that a man has paid his rent before you deliver him from the burning building.

"But what shall we do? Content ourselves by singing a hymn? Offering a prayer? Or giving a little good advice?

"No! Ten thousand times no! We will pity them, feed them, reclaim them, employ them.

"Perhaps we shall fail with many. Quite likely. But our business is to help them all the same. And that in the most practical, economical and Christlike manner."

Never heard that sort of talk from the pulpit? Here's a verse from Psalm 82 a reader sent me:

"Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

"Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked."

It all helps me know whose side I'm on in the great self-centred battle for government largesse.
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Monday, March 28, 2016

The economy rests on Christian foundations

I can't think why, but Easter always reminds me of Christianity. Not, of course, that Christianity has anything to do with the grubby, materialist world of economics. Or does it?

Australia is the most unbelieving it has ever been, with the most recent census saying that only 61 per cent people identify themselves as even nominally Christian.

Twenty-two per cent say they have no religion and another 9 per cent didn't bother answering the question. People of non-Christian religions account for 7 per cent of the population.

Separate figures say only about 8 per cent of Australians attend religious services regularly. This is about the same as in Britain and France, but a lot less than in Canada or the United States.

With so few people having had much contact with organised religion, it's not surprising that so many people imagine Christianity to have little bearing on the modern world and economy.


But that is far from the truth, as Australian author Roy Williams argues in his latest book, Post-God Nation? I'm quoting him liberally.

Williams says he's sick of being told that religion's influence on our country has been either minimal or malign.

"It is a fact of history that Australia would not exist in anything like the form it does but for Judaeo-Christianity," he says.

"Deep-seated legacies of our religious heritage still endure, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future."

Sydney Anglican Peter Jensen says "we are . . . secular, in a Christian sort of way".

This might be a new thought for many younger people, but it's not a rare observation. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher said "the Christian religion . . . is a fundamental part of our national heritage. For centuries it has been our very life blood."

Historian Geoffrey Blainey has said that the Christian churches did "more than any other institution, public or private, to civilise Australians".

All market economies rest on a foundation of laws, which enforce private property rights, the honouring of contracts and much else. Williams writes that all Western legal systems are grounded in two core assumptions, both from the Bible: that humans have free will and that morality is God-given.

But the English legal system has many other religiously based features, such as the separation of church and state, the jury system, Magna Carta (negotiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury) and the Bill of Rights (asserting Parliament's supremacy over the king, since both were "bound by the laws of God and nature").

The system of common law, based on rulings by judges rather than parliaments, was established by the devout Henry II, who ensured that most of the early judges were clerics, because of their knowledge of canon law.

Economic growth comes mainly from productivity improvement, productivity improvement comes mainly from invention and innovation, and invention mainly involves applying scientific discoveries.
Guess who were the West's first promoters of science and the inventors of universities?

The scientific method – discovery by empirical reasoning – is, Williams writes, unquestionably a byproduct of Christianity. To know the truth of God's creation, it's not enough to rely on human logic. It's also necessary to observe closely what God has created.

Most people today don't realise how many of the leading politicians, judges and business people who shaped the social and economic system we have inherited had religious beliefs or backgrounds.

Most of the founders of the trade union movement and the Labor Party, for example. John Fairfax, who bought The Sydney Morning Herald in 1841, was a deacon of the Pitt Street Congregational Church, who attended up to four services on a Sunday.

Four of the Herald's first five editors were ministers of religion. In his research, Williams found it remarkable how often famous Australians turned out to have been the son of a clergyman (me, too).

But Christianity has permeated our attitudes and values, not just the institutions of our society.
You can be an atheist or a humanist, but if you have any ethical beliefs or moral values they might be influenced by Buddhist ideas, but they're far more likely to reflect Judaeo-Christian thinking.

And though economists keep forgetting it, it's the ethical behaviour of ordinary business people and consumers that keeps our economy ticking over satisfactorily and makes the CommInsures still the exception rather than the rule.
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Monday, April 6, 2015

Jesus the great debt-eliminator

At this time of our greatest Christian holy-days, what does the Bible have to say about economics? A lot more than you may think.

That's according to the Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek, whose book, Economics of Good and Evil, I'll be heavily relying on in this column.

When God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they had disobeyed him, part of their punishment was that "by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food" – they'd have to work for their living.

But Jesus said, "Man does not live on bread alone". So we have to be concerned about making our living, but we also have to be concerned about more than that.

"We were endowed with both body and soul, and we are both spiritual and material beings . . . Without the material, we die; without the spiritual, we stop being people," Sedlacek says.

Christianity doesn't condemn the material, but it does condemn materialism. It's not money that's the problem, it's the love of money. Keep too much of it for yourself and you've probably crossed the line.

It's true Jesus chased from the temple "men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money", but he didn't chase them any further. His problem was not with their commerce but with their mixture of the sacred with the profane.

Jesus's teaching is often based on paradox, we're told. Jesus considers more valuable two mites that a poor widow drops on to the collection plate than the golden gifts of the rich.

Implicitly, this legitimises the role of money. But, to economists, it also shows Jesus understood the concept of marginal disutility. The widow's mite involved much greater sacrifice than the rich person's gold.

Sedlacek notes the New Testament's extensive use of economic metaphors. Of Jesus's 30 parables, 19 are set in an economic or social context: the parable of the lost coin; of talents (money), where Jesus rebukes a servant who didn't "put my money on deposit with the bankers"; of the unjust steward; of the workers in the vineyard; of the two debtors; of the rich fool, and so forth.

But get this: the most central concept in the Easter story of Christ's death and resurrection – redemption – originally had a purely economic meaning. You need to know that, in New Testament Greek, sin and debt were the same word.

People who were unable to pay their debts became debt slaves. Once you fell into slavery, the only escape was for someone to ransom you, to pay your bail. Jesus's role was to redeem us, purchase us at a price, buying us out of our debt of sins. The price was the shedding of his blood on the cross, just as the sacrificial lamb's blood was shed at Passover.

"In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace," St Paul said.

Western civilisation has been shaped by Christianity and Christian values, which means Christianity has also shaped economics. Sedlacek says the prayer "forgive us our sins", meaning "cancel our debts", could be heard from the West's leading banks in the global financial crisis.

Our modern economy cannot function without institutions that deliver the unfair forgiveness of debt. Bankrupts, for instance, are discharged even though they've paid back only a fraction of what they owe. When a company goes bust owing millions, the liability of its shareholders is limited to the face-value of their shares, paid long before by the original purchaser of the shares.

As for the GFC, Sedlacek says, "It would be hard to imagine the financial Armageddon that would follow if the government actually did not pay the ransom and redeem banks and some large companies".

"This, of course, goes against all principles of sound reason and of basic fairness. We also breached many rules of competition on which capitalism is built. Why did the most indebted banks and companies, which did not compete very well, receive the largest forgiveness?"

Why? It had to be done, in order to redeem not only these particular troubled and highly indebted companies, but also others that would fail if these few were not saved.

You've heard of "positive discrimination", but Sedlacek says Christian thought emphasises the concept of "positive unfairness": the more you've sinned, the bigger dollop of forgiveness you get.

"It doesn't matter how hard you try – everyone gets the same reward" (something the prodigal son's brother had trouble accepting).

"Christianity thus largely abolishes the accounting of good and evil. God forgives, which is positively unfair," he concludes.
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