Showing posts with label religion. Show all posts
Showing posts with label religion. Show all posts

Friday, October 1, 2021

Economists need updating on what makes humans tick

At the heart of the weaknesses of economics – its frequently wrong predictions and the bad advice its high priests often give governments – is its primitive understanding – its “model” - of how and why humans behave the way they do.

It’s taking economists far too long to realise that to understand how the economy works you’ve got to start by understanding how the people who make up the economy work. The model economists started with in the second half of the 19th century and haven’t really moved on from is the mere assumption that businesses, workers and consumers always behave “rationally” – with carefully considered self-interest.

In the 150 years since economists decided their stick-figure assumptions were a sufficient foundation on which to build their model of economic behaviour, the other social sciences – psychology, sociology, anthropology – have made much progress in understanding human behaviour and motivations.

So, just this once, let’s set aside “Homo economicus” and see what wisdom the more social social scientists have to impart.

In his book, Moral Tribes, the Harvard moral psychologist Joshua Greene lays out a view of human behaviour that accounts for most of the things missing from economics. He starts with the proposition that the way humans behave is heavily influenced by the way we have evolved.

As one of the founders of behavioural economics, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, explained in Thinking, Fast and Slow, humans are good at thinking rationally, but it takes time and (literally) requires energy, so we’ve evolved to make most of our everyday decisions instantly and instinctively – without conscious thinking.

Our feelings and emotions can’t be dismissed because their role is to do most of our thinking for us. To motivate our instinctive reactions.

Humans have spent all but the past 10,000 years or so in roaming bands of hunters and gatherers. So it’s no surprise we still think like members of a tribe. We feel an affinity with those in our tribe, but not with people in other tribes.

As tribal animals, we care deeply about our relations with those around us, the other members of our tribe. It’s being in the tribe that protects us from harm and provides us with food, friends and someone to mate with. So we have to keep in with the tribe; make sure we’re not kicked out.

This is where moral attitudes come from. Morality is about how we treat others. Greene says “morality is a set of psychological adaptations that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of co-operation”.

You can get competition within tribes, but mainly they’re about co-operation for mutual benefit. We co-operate to organise enough food and shelter, but also for the group’s protection against its enemies, animal or human.

As tribe members, the moral issue we face is “me versus us”. We’ve evolved to remember to suppress unbridled self-interest and treat others well. Thus we’re good at co-operating in shared objectives, and our moral standards involve punishing others who fail to co-operate.

This co-operation does much to explain our success in becoming the dominant species and in radically transforming the world to make ourselves more comfortable. Greene says we’ve defeated most of our natural enemies. We’ve outsmarted most of our predators, from lions to bacteria.

But note this: our ability to co-operate as a tribe has evolved into a weapon to use in competing with other tribes. And, though our evolutionary instincts may not have changed a lot since we ceased being roaming hunters, our success has greatly changed the circumstances in which we live.

Though we live in countries with populations of many millions, we still have moral instincts that evolved to help us solve the problem of me versus us, not the problem of us versus them.

In one sense, we no longer live in small tribes that don’t have much contact with other tribes, but only sometimes do we see ourselves as living in, say, one big Australian tribe. We tend to see ourselves as members of many tribes, according to our differing characteristics: not just the party we vote for, but the part of the country we live in, our ethnic origin, our religion, our occupation, social class, education and much else.

Our tribal instincts keep most of us believing and behaving the way our tribe thinks we should. But the moral intuition of particular tribes has evolved in differing directions. What I see as the moral – or fair – thing to do, may be quite different to how you and your tribe see it.

Most countries used to be fairly homogeneous, with most people in the country adhering to the same religious views, particularly about issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and assisted death.

These days, many people have abandoned traditional religious views, though many haven’t. And much moving between countries means most countries have many people from differing religious traditions.

This leaves us with moral tribes that can’t agree on what’s right or wrong. This applies not just to sexual morality, but to whether I think it’s “fair” for me to pay more tax to support you when (I tell myself) you wouldn’t need my support if you’d worked as hard as I have to get what I’ve got.

Because our two-speed brains are adept at finding fancy rationalisations for “values” that are really just instinctive desires, we argue about our sacred Right to this or that treatment – which the other tribe counters with its own sacred (but conflicting) Right.

And, Greene says, even when we think we’re being fair, we unconsciously favour the version of fairness most congenial to our tribe.

He offers no magic answers to these widespread problems caused by modern tribalism. But he does say that, with a better understanding of why these tribal disputes arise, we all ought to be a lot less self-righteous about the moral correctness of our position and more willing to find compromises all of us can live with.


Monday, April 13, 2020

How would Jesus treat people on the dole?

Since it’s Easter, let me tell you about something that’s long puzzled me: how can an out-and-proud Pentecostalist such as Prime Minister Scott Morrison be leading the most un-Christian government I can remember? Fortunately, however, the virus crisis seems to be bringing out his more caring side.

Many people think being a Christian means being obsessed with sexual matters - abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage – plus, these days, their human right to discriminate against people who don’t share their sexual taboos.

But if you read the four gospels recording what Jesus did and said, one message you get is one rarely emphasised by his modern-day, generally better-off followers. Jesus was always on about the plight of the poor, and was surprisingly tough on the rich.

Jesus gave his followers a new commandment, that they love one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Asked who was the neighbour we should love as our self, he told the parable of a despised Samaritan, who rescued a man bleeding in a ditch while two upright church-goers “passed by on the other side”.

Jesus said he came to “proclaim the good news to the poor”. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”

To the rich he advised: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

Jesus blessed those who had been kind to others: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

When a young man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, he said: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But the young man “was shocked, and went away grieving, for he had many possessions”.

All this compares badly with the actions of the Coalition government, in which Morrison has always played a senior role. As minister for immigration, he was more ruthless than Labor in turning away strangers who came by boat seeking asylum. Those who did make it were treated harshly, to ensure any further strangers got the message about how unwelcome they’d be.

A lot of people like to divide the poor between the deserving and the undeserving. Like Labor before it, the Coalition has pandered to this un-Christian attitude. It favours “lifters” over “leaners”. Morrison himself introduced the ethical code that only those judged to have “had a go” will “get a go”.

The deserving poor are people on the age pension; the undeserving are the unemployed, single parents and probably most of those claiming the disability support pension. I went out and found a job; what’s stopping them doing the same except their own laziness?

Labor always pandered to the widespread “downward envy” of the jobless, but the Coalition has doubled down, reintroducing work for the dole despite all the reports saying it does nothing to improve people’s employability, making people run down their savings and wait longer to be eligible for the dole, making people prove they’ve approached an unreasonable number of employers each fortnight and suspending their payment if they fail, or miss an appointment for any reason. Not to mention the "robo-debt" scandal.

The Coalition wants to control how people spend the dole by paying them by card rather than cash. It wants regular drug testing of those on the dole. And it has steadfastly resisted widespread public pressure to increase the paltry amount of the dole, even though Labor has finally been shamed into abandoning its own longstanding hardheartedness.

But now, however, having adopted the slogan “we’re all in this together” – one beloved of my co-religionists in the Salvos - in his battle against the virus, Morrison seems to have had a change of heart. Whereas Kevin Rudd studiously avoided including the unemployed in his two cash splashes, Morrison has included them with other welfare recipients in his two $750 payments.

His temporary “coronavirus supplement” effectively doubles the rate of unemployment benefits to about $550 a week. He must know that returning the dole to $40 a day after six months won’t be politically possible. Meanwhile, his temporary JobKeeper payment of a flat $750 a week undercompensates higher wage earners while overcompensating lower wage earners, including many casuals.

In all, a Christlike turn for the good.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Getting and spending - what's it meant to prove?

In the Aussie calendar, tomorrow – the day after the Australia Day holiday – is the unofficial start to the working year. So today’s the last day we have a moment to pause and wonder what all our getting and spending – my usual subject matter – is meant to prove.

From a narrow biological and evolutionary perspective, our only purpose is to survive and replicate our genes, playing our part in the survival of our species. Apart from that, what we do on the way to our inevitable death is of little consequence.

Don’t like that idea? No one does. Enjoyable though we find the mechanics of reproduction, the human animal craves more than just sex, good meals and a bit of fun while we kill time until our funeral. We want somehow to find purpose and meaning in our lives.

Contrary to the message of much advertising and other marketing, this meaning can’t be supplied satisfactorily by the efforts of our business people, politicians and economists. Beneath the glitter, their message is simple: get back to your getting and spending. Just do more of it.

Is there anything scientists – as opposed to philosophers – can tell us about the meaning of life? Steve Taylor, a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, can, even though he’s not religious.

In a recent article on The Conversation website, he tells of his work over the past 10 years talking to people who’ve had what he calls “suffering-induced transformational experiences”. These include being diagnosed with terminal cancer, suffering a bereavement, becoming seriously disabled, losing everything through addiction, or having a close encounter with death during combat.

“What all these people had in common is that after undergoing intense suffering they felt they had ‘woken up’. They stopped taking life, the world and other people for granted and gained a massive sense of appreciation for everything,” he says.

They spoke of a sense of the preciousness of life, their own bodies, the other people in their lives and the beauty and wonder of nature. They felt a new sense of connection with other people, the natural world and the universe, he says.

“They became less materialistic and more altruistic. Possessions and career advancement became trivial, while love, creativity and altruism became much more important. They felt intensely alive.”

A man who experienced a transformation due to bereavement spoke explicitly about meaning, describing how his “goals changed from wanting to have as much money as possible to wishing to be the best person possible”.

He added: “before, I would say I didn’t really have any sense of a meaning of life. However, [now] I feel the meaning of life is to learn, grow and experience.”

Taylor stresses that none of these people were, or became, religious. The changes weren’t merely temporary and, in most cases, remained stable over many years.

He says we don’t have to go through intense suffering to experience these effects. “There are also certain temporary states of being when we can sense meaning. I call these ‘awakening experiences’.”

Usually they occur when our minds are fairly quiet and we feel at ease with ourselves. When we’re walking in the countryside, swimming in the ocean, or after we’ve meditated, or had sex.

“We find the meaning of life when we ‘wake up’ and experience life and the world more fully. In these terms, the sense that life is meaningless is a distorted and limited view that comes when we are slightly ‘asleep’.”

So what’s the meaning of life, according to Taylor? “Put simply, the meaning of life is life itself.”

Wow. From my own reading of what psychologists tell us about life satisfaction, let me add two more-prosaic points. First, humans are social animals and we get much of our satisfaction from our relationships with our family, in particular, and also with our friends.

When economists and politicians try to make us more prosperous materially without ever considering what strain they may be putting on our relationships, they’re not doing us any favours. They – like us, so often – are mistaking the means for the end. Cannibalising our ends to improve our means doesn’t leave us better off.

Second, the simple economic model assumes work is an unpleasant means to the wonderful end of having money to buy things. But, as they say, if you can find a job you like – or get more joy from the job you have – you’ll never have to work.

If politicians, economists and the business people we work for put more emphasis on helping us find satisfaction from our work, they’d be adding more meaning to our lives (and theirs).

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.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

How to find happiness at Christmas

The beauty of Christmas is that it's a time when everyone's happy. Well, not quite. Better to say, it's a time when everyone tries to be happy, but we succeed in varying degrees.

When Dr Peter Clarke, of Griffith Business School in Brisbane, surveyed 450 people to ascertain the nature of "Christmas spirit", he found it had five components: bonhomie, gay abandon, ritual, shopping and a little bit of dejection.

Yes. We all have periods of less-than-perfect bliss and perhaps we don't have any more of them at Christmas than at other times; it just feels that way because we expect to be happy at Christmas and are surrounded by people trying so hard to be.

Perhaps. But my guess is more of us do experience periods of unhappiness at Christmas. There are those who, for various reasons, have no family or friends with whom to celebrate, or those who miss those now missing.

Then there's all the distress arising from overadministration of that substance supposed to magically generate good moods. Too many hangovers after too many Christmas parties, regretted behaviour at the office party (this year, Fairfax Media employees received a stern warning that no tolerance would be shown), things said around the dinner table that would have been better left unsaid. Old wounds opened.

Yes, Christmas has its share of unhappiness, even if just the wish we hadn't eaten (or spent) so much. There are, of course, a few traps that can be avoided.

If, as some clerics allege, materialism has become our dominant religion, Christmas must surely be our most sacred economic festival. But the evidence suggests that's not the way to wellbeing.

I've said it before, but it's one of my strongest conclusions after decades of economy-watching, so I'll say it again: the trick to succeeding in the capitalist system is to say no to most of the blandishments of the capitalists.

Professor Tim Kasser​, a psychologist at Knox College, Illinois, and Kennon Sheldon, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, wanted to determine what makes for a merry Christmas.

They asked 117 people of varying ages questions about their satisfaction, stress and emotional state during the Christmas season, as well as questions about their experiences, use of money and consumption behaviour.

They found that those who most remembered family and religious experiences were happier than those for whom spending money and receiving gifts were the main things they remained conscious of.

Of course, for many of us, religious experiences are no longer part of Christmas. Don't take this the wrong way – I'm not on a recruiting drive – but I suspect those who retain a religious commitment already have "man's search for meaning" sorted, while the rest of us can spend a lot of time looking for substitutes.

All those claims that the environment or economics or libertarianism or a dozen other things have become "the new religion" are unconsciously affirming that humans function better when they have something to believe in, something outside and above their own self-centred concerns.

There's psychological evidence to support that. It doesn't have to be the Christian religion, however. And other research has shown that a big part of the benefit people get from church-going, or its equivalent, is social contact and membership of a group.

One advantage of a religious upbringing that's of particular relevance at Christmas is an instinctive understanding that, to quote some chap supposed to have been born at this time, "it is more blessed to give than to receive".

Think of Christmas as about giving rather than receiving and you're well advanced towards a happier time. And, naturally, there's empirical support for the notion.

A study by Elizabeth Dunn and Lara Aknin​, of the University of British Columbia, and Michael Norton, of Harvard Business School, first asked a sample of 632 Americans to rate their general happiness, report their annual income and estimate how much they spent on bills and expenses, gifts for themselves, gifts for others and donations to charity.

They found that personal spending was uncorrelated with happiness, whereas higher "pro-social spending" correlated with significantly greater happiness.

Next, 16 employees were tested for their happiness well before and well after they received a profit-sharing bonus. They found that those who devoted more of their bonus to spending on other people or a charity experienced greater happiness after receiving the bonus. And how they spent their bonus was a better predictor of happiness than the size of the bonus itself.

This, of course, is just a narrower application of the much-noted principle that happiness can only be achieved indirectly. If you want to end up realising you're happy, focus on increasing the happiness of others, not your own.

In discovering all these studies, I must acknowledge the assistance of the British psychologist, Dr Jeremy Dean, author of the blogsite PsyBlog.

I'm indebted to him for drawing to my attention a study by Vohs, Wang, Gino and Norton, which finds that engaging in ritualised behaviour enhances the enjoyment of food, particularly if it makes you wait a little longer.

So, Christmas rituals are important. In my family, we repeat a short but almost incomprehensible Scottish grace by Rabbie Burns that our mother taught us, to the bemusement of in-laws.

Have a happy one.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Easter message to business is think relationships

At this time of year it's worth pondering: many business people and economists think of themselves as Christians, but what implications does this carry for the way they view the world and conduct their affairs?

According to Michael Schluter, founder of Relationships Global and, these days, a business consultant, Christianity is a "relational" religion. If so, it doesn't sit easily with market capitalism as it is conceptualised by economists and practised by business people.

The primary emphasis of economics and business is on satisfying the wants of the individual. In this they give little priority to individuals' human relationships.

Is Christianity much different? Certainly, in the Evangelical version I grew up with, it too focuses on the individual. And you could be forgiven for wondering whether it pays much attention to relationships.

But here Schluter begs to differ. He says all of Christianity is a relational story. It starts with humankind created in God's image, but then the relationship is ruptured in the Garden of Eden. Finally, God comes to earth as a baby and ends up dying on a cross with the expressed purpose of restoring the broken relationship with humankind.

What does God require of us? Jesus summarised it: all the law and the prophets depend on two commandments - love God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as you love yourself. What could be more relational than that?

Schluter says life can be viewed from many perspectives: financial, environmental, individual, material. But "as Christians, we need to see all of reality through a relational lens if we are to look at the world as God sees it".

All of life is ultimately about relationships. For example, he says, "every financial transaction is an expression of an underlying relationship between nations, organisations or individuals".

The development of a society can be measured not in terms of economic growth but by the quality of relationships between individuals and between ethnic and other social groupings.

Education's goal can be defined as acquisition of wisdom for children to be able to serve their family and community, rather than acquisition of technical skills merely for personal career advantage.

"At a personal level, our happiness and wellbeing are determined primarily by the quality of our relationships. Arguably, financial issues - for example, debt and savings - matter to us primarily due to their relational implications," he says.

Above a certain income, wellbeing indices point to the central importance of relationships. Even for those below this income threshold it's not clear if the priority of income is for personal benefit or for group benefit, such as the care of children.

Debt is closely associated with depression and also with divorce, child abuse and social isolation, he says. Survival rates after serious illness are more closely associated with levels of relational support than with levels of income.

"It is easier to find someone financially rich and miserable than someone relationally rich and miserable," he says. "It is hard to find someone on their death bed who says, 'I wish I had spent more time in the office'."

The individualism of our culture leads us to miscalculate the significance of events because it takes little or no account of "externalities" - that is, the effects on third parties.

For example, companies and public service agencies move staff to new locations to maximise economic productivity, and economic analysis applauds their decision to do so. But no attempt is made to measure the social or relational costs of such dislocation, especially to spouses or partners, children, friends and parents and grandparents whose relationships have been disrupted.

Schluter says business, finance and public sector organisations are increasingly coming to recognise that financial evaluation of performance is insufficient.

"The purpose of companies is increasingly defined inclusively to recognise the significance of company decisions for many stakeholders, rather than instrumentally, where customers, suppliers and so on are regarded simply as means to increase shareholder profits."

Low levels of national debt - a measure of inter-generational loyalty - decrease economic instability and aid economic growth. Political stability is a foundation for economic prosperity, but depends on peaceful relations between ethnic and religious groups and between rich and poor.

"To see the world in relational terms requires a re-education process as the media, corporate advertising and our own inclinations constantly point us towards seeing things from an individualistic or materialistic point of view," Schluter concludes.

Monday, June 14, 2010

What would Jesus do about economic growth?

Should Christians support capitalism? According to a leading English layman, despite all its material benefits, capitalism as we know it contains moral flaws with serious social consequences.

I'm in no position to preach to Christians, but I'm happy to pass on the views of Dr Michael Schluter, founder of Britain's Relationships Foundation, which will be of interest to a wider audience (and can be found at

Schluter's beef is against the failings of capitalism that arise from corporations, which have developed as its primary engine.

His starting point is the belief that God is a relational being, whose priority is not economic growth, but right relationships between humanity and himself and between human beings. Christ's injunction to "love God and love your neighbour" points to the priority of relational wealth over financial wealth because love is a quality of relationships.

Corporate capitalism's first moral flaw, he says, is its exclusively materialistic vision. It rests on the pursuit of business profit and personal gain. It promotes the idolising of money, which Jesus calls "Mammon".

"People are regarded by companies as a resource, or as a cost in the profit and loss account, devoid of relational or environmental context. So capitalism constantly has to be restrained from destroying the social capital on which it depends for its future existence," he says.

This focus on capital lends itself to the idolatry of wealth at a personal level, and the idolatry of economic growth at a corporate and national level. Shareholders pursue personal wealth with little knowledge of how it is generated, and senior management with scant regard for pay structures at lower levels of the company, while customers are persuaded by advertising to pursue self-gratification in its many forms.

Corporate capitalism's second moral flaw is that it offers reward without responsibility. In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus implies that gaining money through interest on a loan is "reaping where you haven't sown". Lenders may accept some small risk, but they accept no responsibility for how or where the money is used.

Debt finance generally results in relational distance rather than relational "proximity" because the lender generally has no incentive to remain engaged with, or even in regular contact with, the borrower.

In the workings of large corporations, shareholders generally have little say in decision-making. Most investors provide share capital through a financial intermediary, such as a pension fund. Often they don't know or care in which companies they hold shares. Even the financial intermediaries generally do little to influence company policy.

Perhaps, Schluter says, instead of "no taxation without representation" we should adopt the slogan "no reward without responsibility, no profit without participation".

Corporate capitalism's third moral failing arises from the limited liability of shareholders, which allows debts to be left unpaid where the company becomes insolvent. Worse, the unpaid creditors are often employees, consumers and smaller companies supplying goods and services.

Because the downside risks of borrowing are capped, while the upside risks aren't, management has been willing to borrow huge sums relative to the company's share capital and thus expand companies at a frantic pace.

In the finance sector, incentive schemes often reward risk-taking excessively on the upside with no downside penalties, reflecting the risk position of shareholders. Consequent mega-losses have to be financed by taxpayers to limit wider economic fallout.

Schluter's fourth charge against corporate capitalism is that it disconnects people from place. In the Old Testament, the jubilee laws required all rural property to be returned free to its original family owners every 50th year.

This ensured long-term rootedness in a particular place for every extended family. A byproduct was to ensure a measure of equity in the distribution of property, which ensured a broad distribution of political power.

By contrast, capitalism regards land and property as assets without relational significance. This greater flexibility and mobility undoubtedly bring material benefits. But as extended family members move away from one another, and communities become more transient, they can no longer fulfil welfare roles.

Grandparents can no longer help look after grandchildren, and responsibility for care of older people and those with disabilities falls on the state, with the costs having to be met from tax revenues.

Schluter's final charge is that corporate capitalism provides inadequate social safeguards. It has no concept of protecting the vulnerable through constraints on the market. Deregulation limits constraints on consumer credit although the devastating consequences of debt for personal health and family relationships are well known.

Deregulation ensures labour is available for hire 24 hours a day, seven days a week, whereas biblical law protected a day a week for non-work priorities including rest, worship and family.

The adverse consequences of these flaws start with family and community breakdown. "The greater wealth of some sections of society in capitalist nations has to be set against the greater 'relational poverty' which extends to an ever greater proportion of the population. The danger is that over time these relational problems become self-reinforcing and self-replicating," Schluter says.

Another consequence of capitalism's failings over the longer term is a huge growth in government spending. As the number of damaged households increases, so does the size of the bureaucracy.

Government spending on welfare has reached a level many regard as unsustainable, Schluter argues, yet without it many vulnerable people would have little or no physical or emotional support.

As state agencies take over many of the roles of family and local community, they undermine the reasons why these institutions exist and thus further lower people's loyalty and commitment to them.

Schluter's conclusion is that Christians need to search urgently for a new economic order based on biblical revelation.


Thursday, August 24, 2006


Talk to Baptists Today conference at Collaroy
August 24, 2006

In his book In Praise of Slowness, the journalist Carl Honore says that all the world’s a store and all the men and women merely shoppers. Sometimes it feels like that. I think we all know what consumerism is, but let’s look at it anyway. Consumerism is the belief that personal happiness lies in the purchasing of material goods. Sometimes that idea motivates our behaviour without us consciously believing that consumption is the source of happiness. But I have to say that I regard ‘consumerism’ as merely a euphemism for ‘materialism’. Materialism means a devotion to material rather than social or spiritual considerations. I’ve done a lot of thinking about materialism in recent years, so please forgive me if I use that term more than consumerism.

The material is an important and, indeed, inescapable part of our lives. You can’t live a life of utter unconcern for the material aspects of life - unless you’ve got someone who worries about them for you. You can’t avoid spending a fair bit of your life buying things in shops unless you’re the Queen. And it would be foolish to spend all that time and money with complete disregard for the choices available, the prices being charged, the amount we have available to spend and the need to get value for money. So it’s really a question of how high a priority you attach the material business of life. A question of whether you view the material as a means to some more important end - to staying alive and healthy so you can be of service to others, for instance - or as an end in itself. A question of where your heart is. As Christians like to say, it’s not money that’s the root of all evil, it’s the love of money. Materialism and consumerism are about the love of money - for the things it will buy. Some people are open about their love of money and material possessions, but I think there’s a much larger group - perhaps including many of us - who, while never espousing materialism as the great guiding principle of our lives, nonetheless end up allowing material concerns to crowd out relational and religious obligations that, in principle, we’ve always held to be more important. The material is seductive. Why? Because it’s tangible - you can see it, it’s always there and its importance is readily apparent, whereas the relational and spiritual are intangible. You can’t see them and it’s easy to underestimate their importance. And, since they’re less likely to have deadlines attached, they can be pushed back in the queue for our time and attention.

All of us are materialist to a greater or lesser extent. And in seeming to preach a sermon against consumerism, I don’t mean to imply that I’m impervious to its temptations. I suspect that Christians are particularly susceptible to the temptations of consumerism. Why? Two reasons. First because, with so many of the pleasures of the flesh declared off-limits - smoking, drinking, gambling, illicit sex - there’s a tendency to break out in areas that, for reasons I don’t quite understand, our preachers seem reluctant to speak out against. But second because the Christian life of sobriety, honesty and diligence is conducive to material success. I suspect many of you would be in the position of saying, well, yes, I do have a comfortable income and our family does live well, but I don’t love money, I’m not a materialist. There’s a good test of this claim: how generous are you? If all your money isn’t important to you, how much of it do you give to people who need it more than you do? From my reading of the psychological literature I’ve discovered another test: how much do you throw away? Some research suggests that people with materialist values are reluctant to give up all the stuff they’ve acquired.

There’s nothing new about materialism or even its trendier brother consumerism. That’s why you can find a fair bit about it in the Bible if you’ve a mind to. But I think it can be demonstrated that we’re more materialist than we used to be and that at present we’re going through a period of what I call hyper-materialism. Sometime over the past 20 or 30 years we suddenly became a lot more preoccupied with money than we had been. Materialism is the dominant characteristic of our era. Our descendants will look back on the last part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st as The Age of Materialism. That’s true not just for Australians, but for people throughout the developed world. Such claims about changes in people’s values are hard to prove, but a leading American social psychologist, David Myers, has produced impressive evidence for the United States.

In an American poll that regularly asked people what factor was most important in a job, ‘high income’ rose to second highest between the early 1970s and the early 1980s. Now consider the evidence from the American Council on Education’s annual survey of over 200,000 newly entering college students. Asked about their reasons for going to college, the proportion agreeing that an important one was ‘to make more money’ rose from half in 1971 to almost three-quarters by 1990. And the proportion believing it ‘very important or essential’ that they become ‘very well-off financially’ rose from 39 per cent in 1970 to 74 per cent in 1990. Over the same period, the proportion who began college hoping to ‘develop a meaningful philosophy of life’ slumped from 76 per cent to 43 per cent. This reversal stayed unchanged throughout the 1990s. Professor Myers calls this cultural shift ‘the greening of America’. And though our bank notes are multicoloured, I don’t doubt it’s true of us, too.

If we have become more materialist over the past 20 or 30 years, what has changed to bring this about? I don’t know. It’s tempting to blame it all on economists, especially that evangelistic brand of economist known as the economic rationalists. But I think it would be wrong to blame economists for starting the trend to hyper-materialism. The economic rationalists in the bureaucracy have been proposing the same policy prescriptions to their political masters for many decades. The question is, why was it that, from the early 1980s, the pollies began accepting the advice they’d ignored for so long? Perhaps because they sensed some change of attitude - some more materialist tendency - in the electorate. But even if it’s wrong to blame economists for starting the trend, there’s no denying that, by the policies they have persuaded the politicians to adopt, the economic rationalists have considerably heightened the trend. Take the rationalists out of the picture and we wouldn’t be as materialist as we are today.

Economic rationalism turns out to be the religion of materialism and rationalists the high priests in the temple of mammon. Economics is the study of how best to achieve humankind’s material objectives. It’s meant to be all about means, and say nothing about ends. But it’s about material ends, and the best way to maximise those ends. It’s on about efficiency in the use and allocation of physical resources so as to maximise consumption. Even an economist as sensible as Keynes, for instance, wrote that ‘consumption - to repeat the obvious - is the sole end and object of all economic activity’. This is why economists are obsessed with promoting economic growth - which means continuously increasing production and consumption of goods and services, and involves an ever-improving material standard of living.

Now, I think you have to agree that, given their objective, the economic rationalists’ advice on policy has been very successful. Over the past 15 years of economic expansion since the recession of the early 90s productivity has grown strongly, real incomes have grown strongly and consumer spending has grown strongly - all of them more strongly than during the 70s and 80s. So what’s the problem with economics? The problem is that it’s one-dimensional analysis. It focuses exclusively on our material objectives - on factors whose value can be expressed in dollars - while ignoring the non-material. In consequence, non-material ends - such as family life, relationships more broadly, and the spiritual - tend to be sacrificed to material ends. We should be optimising our material objectives, given the competing claims of our non-material objectives, but instead we maximise the material at the expense of the non-material because the non-material is excluded from our calculations. At one level the economists say, sorry, the material is all we’re professionally competent to advise on - which is true - but they’re always tempted to forget the limitations of their model - all the factors they have deliberately abstracted from - and lay down the law about what we must do to maximise efficiency as though consumption was our only goal.

If we had any sense as a community we’d take advice from economists about the material, but then weigh it against the advice of people who specialise in the social and spiritual. Why don’t politicians seek wider advice? Why do they allow people whose advice is so narrow so much influence? Because they’re responding to what they believe is the materialist preferences of the electorate. Why is almost every politician - Labor or Liberal - a vocal believer in rapid economic growth and rising material living standards? Because they’re convinced that’s what the punters want. Why do even Green politicians rarely express any doubt the supreme objective of maximising economic growth? Because they believe their opponents would wipe the floor with them if they did.

Conservative politicians are always lecturing us about the evils of envy. Say that a tax cut is unfair because high income earners got disproportionately more than middle and low income earners and you’ll be accused of indulging in ‘the politics of envy’. Trouble is, they never lecture against the opposite vice, greed - of which there’s a fair bit about. So their message on behalf of the well-off is, ‘it’s immoral for you to envy the fruits of my greed’.

The main device the economic rationalists have used to increase economic efficiency has been increased competition - competition from imports, or competition from other domestic players because of reduced government regulation of markets. But one of the consequences of the increased competitive pressure to which business people have been subjected has been to make them more aggressive in urging governments to change laws in ways that benefit producers. Businesses are in the business of satisfying our material needs. So the pressures on politicians from business are also pushing them in a materialist direction.

Many people imagine that capitalist economies must exist for the primary benefit of the capitalists. But, as hinted at in that quote from Keynes, one of the tenets of conventional economics is the doctrine of ‘consumer sovereignty’. This is the belief that the chief beneficiaries of the economy should be - and are - consumers. So production isn’t an end in itself, it’s a means to an end - consumption. And consumers are the king of the capitalist economy because the operation of markets means that producers maximise their profits only by giving their customers exactly what they demand.

If you find that hard to believe - so you should. It simply doesn’t fit with the pervasiveness in modern market economies of advertising and other marketing techniques. Advertising is an embarrassment to economists. They don’t like thinking about it and try to tell themselves it’s purely informational - that the purpose of advertising is merely to make sure consumers know what you’re selling, how much you’re charging and where your shop is. But we all know advertising is persuasive. The advertiser is seeking to persuade us to purchase his product and he does this not by intellectual argument but by appealing to our emotions. In the old slogan, advertisers sell the sizzle, not the steak. The ads for margarine, for instance, are trying to persuade us that buying a certain brand of marg - or sliced bread - is the way to have a happy, healthy family. Ads for menthol cigarettes used to associate themselves with good-looking women on pristine tropical beaches. At an intellectual level, these propositions are absurd. At an unconscious level, however, they work - which is why advertising persists. All of us are far more influenced by advertising than we realise.

And it’s not just the ads that promote consumerism. Most of the TV shows and films we see do it too. They do it by portraying a totally unreal world in which most people are very good looking, slim and fit. They live in beautiful, always-tidy homes, in leafy suburbs. Families always get on well together and no one’s ever boring or bad-tempered. All this exposure to the beautiful people leaves many of us perpetually dissatisfied with our own far-from-perfect lives and unconsciously trying to attain the beautiful life by buying things. The trouble with all this is that it turns consumer sovereignty on its head. This is not the producers as servants of the consumers, it’s producers seeking to con consumers into buying more stuff - stuff they didn’t know they wanted and that won’t satisfy the crazy aspirations the advertisers have excited.

Another device the modern economy uses to promote consumption is the greater availability of credit, particularly through personal loans and credit cards. In principle, credit should produce only an essentially once-only drawing forward of consumption, not a continuous increase. I suspect that those people who make heavy use of credit cards don’t consume all that much extra at the end of the day. Rather, their impatience to draw forward their consumption means they end up devoting a lot of their income to interest payments. It’s true that household debt has grown amazingly over the past decade, and that some people will get into difficulties. Even so, I think the extent of problem with household debt is easily exaggerated. The great majority of the growth in debt is due not to credit cards but to increased borrowing for housing - including for investment housing.

That raises another spectacular demonstration of rampant consumerism in recent years, the record housing boom with its doubling of house prices. House prices and mortgage debt doubled for various reasons, but by far the greatest reason was the halving of mortgage interest rates following our return to low inflation. The halving of rates roughly doubled the amount people on a given income were able to borrow. They didn’t have to respond by borrowing more to move to a bigger and better house, but many people did. Because they all did it at pretty much the same time, however, the main thing they achieved was to bid up the price of houses. It was, as I say, a spectacular display of rampant consumerism. Australians idolise their homes.

Another manifestation of the Age of Materialism is the longer hours some of us are working. Not every person with a full-time job is working long hours, but a significant minority are. It’s fashionable to see longer hours as something that’s been forced on us by grasping employers, but I believe most long hours are voluntary and are paid for by employers, directly or indirectly. People are doing it for the money, either because they want to buy more stuff or because they need to pay off the debts they’ve already incurred from buying more stuff.

People often ask what happened to all that extra leisure time the experts predicted back in the 70s would have come our way by now. The answer is that we’ve had plenty of productivity growth that would have permitted us to work fewer hours without loss of pay, but we’ve preferred to take those productivity gains in the form of higher pay rather than shorter hours. Another sign of our increased consumerism.

Perhaps this is the time to point out that all the increased consuming we’ve been doing has done nothing to make us any happier. Surveys of how satisfied people are feeling about their lives don’t go back far in Australia, but they do in most other developed countries and the conclusion from all of them is the same: the population’s average level of subjective wellbeing hasn’t budged in decades - it hasn’t fallen, but it hasn’t risen despite very much higher material living standards. Why not? Psychologists advance two reasons.

First, because of a pervasive human trait psychologists call adaptation. We do feel happier after we’ve had a pay rise, bought a new car or dress or house, but that feeling of pleasure doesn’t last long. It doesn’t take long before we get used to our newly improved circumstances and come to take them for granted. They get absorbed into the status quo and we go back to being about as happy as we always were. Studies show that even people who win the lottery return to their earlier level of happiness within a few months. To put this point another way, soon after we achieve a higher level of material success, our aspirations move up another notch and we go back to being dissatisfied with our achievements. Surveys show that a lot of people believe they’d be happier if only their incomes were ‘just a little bit higher’. Trouble is, they always believe that. Their income rises over time, but they’re still saying, I’d be happier if only I had just a little bit more. Talk about the donkey chasing a carrot. Actually, the psychologists call it the ‘the hedonic treadmill’ - you keep running and running to earn more and spend more, but you never get anywhere.

The second explanation psychologists propose for the inability of general increases in the standard of living to make us happier is our tendency to compare ourselves with those around us. When I get the same pay rise as everyone else, that doesn’t do a lot for me, but when I get a bigger pay rise than other people that does make me feel good. Trouble is, the people I’ve passed in the status race now feel worse. And when we all engage in an eternal struggle to get ahead of each other - a kind of arms race - no one feels better off for long.

Australia is a prosperous country. Most of us managed to satisfy our most basic needs for food, clothing and shelter a long time ago. So what have we done with all the extra income we’ve enjoyed since then? I believe most of it has gone on what economists call ‘positional goods’ - goods (or services) that, as well as doing whatever it is they’re designed to do, are also intended to demonstrate our superior position in the social pecking order. Why do we buy an expensive European car when an old Toyota would get us from A to B just as comfortably and reliably? Because we want to display our socio-economic status. Why do we send our kids to private schools, dress toddlers up to the nines, keep moving to bigger houses in better suburbs? Because we’re trying to impress people. The older term for it, of course, is ‘conspicuous consumption’. Why do we pressure governments to cut taxes? So we can devote more of our incomes to conspicuous consumption.

I said earlier that the modern emphasis on reforming the economy to make it more efficient and so raise living standards even higher gave priority to the material at the expense of social and spiritual objectives. The man who’s done most to make me conscious of the price we’re paying for our material success is Dr Michael Schluter of Britain’s Relationships Foundation and now our own Relationships Forum. Consider the way WorkChoices’ attack on penalty rates seeks to continue the abolition of the weekend - or the sanctity of Sunday, if you like - begun by the deregulation of weekend trading. There’s no doubt that the way to raise the productivity of capital is to keep factories working and shops open for as close as we can get to 24/7. But there’s equally no doubt that the more we move away from having common days when most members of a family aren’t working or at school, the more strain we put on families and other relationships. Similarly, there’s no doubt that economic efficiency and living standards are raised by having resources, including labour, as mobile as possible. But there’s equally no doubt that moving people around the country is deleterious to our relationships - relationships that psychological research joins the Bible in proclaiming to be of the highest importance to our lives.

But let’s say we were successful in persuading people to be less materialistic and consumerist. Or say we banned all advertising. Wouldn’t the economy collapse? You often hear people say that - and there are plenty of business people who’d be happy for you to believe it - but the answer is no, not really. They’re just displaying their ignorance of economics or lack of imagination. The first point is that the economy exists to serve us, not we it. It’s true that if everyone suddenly slashed their consumption, this would plunge the economy into recession and rising unemployment. But the economy would eventually adjust. In any case, it’s hardly likely that everyone would slash their consumer spending at once. It’s more likely to be a gentle slowdown in the rate of growth of consumption and hence in the economy’s rate of growth. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing if, in return, we got the benefit of more stable and satisfying relationships and more room for the spiritual. Assuming the same thing wasn’t happening in all the economies with which we trade, we could move to a position of lower consumption, but higher saving, increased exports and falling foreign debt. Does that sound bad? But let’s assume the worse and imagine a situation where the economy wasn’t growing fast enough to generate sufficient additional jobs for people joining the workforce. We could then engage in the job-sharing economists have frowned on as being not particularly efficient. But that’s the point: we’d give up some efficiency - some growth in income - in return for better relationships - with man, and God.