Archive for the ‘Capitalism’ Category

Thanksgiving and Pay-cheques

August 18, 2012

There once was a time, long, long, ago, when workers got real pay-cheques.  I rather liked receiving my official letter from Medicine Hat College each month with a large cheque in it.  I quite liked the subsequent bicycle ride to the bank to deposit my big cheque.  For a time I made it a practice to offer a prayer of thanks as I deposited my monthly salary.

Today it is harder to be thankful.  Computerization of workplaces and the financial industry has led to deposits being made automatically. One hardly notices these monthly deposits.  Now that I am retired I don’t even have to work in order to have cheques deposited into my account.  There are so many deposits coming in that I nearly feel that I should hire an accountant in order to keep track of them all.  There are the government pensions, CPP and OAS, payments made to me simply for being old – amazing!  Then there are my two work pensions. These will keep coming every month until the day that I die.  Then there are deposits from my current teaching and research contracts, and the occasional interest deposit.  All of these just keep being added to my bank account, month after month.  It is so easy to take all this for granted.

And there’s the rub.  It is all too easy to take these automatic deposits for granted.  I believe this creates a spiritual problem for us as Christians.  Taking something for granted represents a failure to acknowledge the God who is ultimately the generous Giver of all our pay-cheques.  Can we take credit for our intelligence or our skills that make it possible for us to get a job? No.  Can we take credit for the opportunities to work?  No.  Can we take credit for our health that enables us to continue to work?  No.  Can we take credit for living in a land of relative stability and peace that makes regular employment possible? No.  All of these are gracious gifts from our heavenly Father.

God, speaking through Moses, warned the Israelites about taking things for granted after they arrived in the land of promise.  You will be tempted to say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deut 8:17-18).

Remember to thank God, next time you look at your bank account and see those deposits that are really not all that automatic.

(This article first appeared in the “Reflections Newsletter” of Waterloo North Mennonite Church, Aug. 2008.)

Review of “Death of the Liberal Class,” by Chris Hedges, and “Hope in Troubled Times,” by Bob Goudzwaard et. al.

April 11, 2011

Review of

Death of the Liberal Class, by Chris Hedges (Alfred Knopf Canada, 2010)

and

Hope In Troubled Times:  A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises, by Bob Goudzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen and David Van Heemst (Baker Academic, 2007)

If you are at all prone to depression, you should avoid both of these books.  Each of them devotes a good deal of space to showing how troubled the world really is.  Hedges focuses on the failure of the liberal class in our society, on their having been co-opted by corporate power elites.  Goodzwaard et. al. provide a detailed description of worldwide poverty, environmental degradation, and widespread terrorism.

Hedges identifies the pillars of the liberal class as the media, the church, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts, and labor unions (p.10).  He has a very exalted view of the liberal class.  “In a traditional democracy, the liberal class functions as a safety valve.  It offers hope for change and proposes gradual steps toward greater equality.  It endows the state and the mechanisms of power with virtue.  It also serves as an attack dog that discredits radical social movements, making the liberal class a useful component within the power elite” (p. 9).  But the tragedy is that the corporate state has claimed the liberal class as one of its victims.  The liberal class has itself sold out to the corporate power of capitalism.  It is now anemic, decayed and frightened, unable to function as it was meant to.  The book is a long catalogue of the betrayals and failures of the liberal class.

But this raises a central question.  Why has the liberal class degenerated in the way in which Hedges describes in painful detail?  Why did it become such a helpless victim of corporate power?  Why did it sell out to the forces of global capitalism?  Surely such a colossal failure should make us begin to think that there is something fundamentally wrong with liberalism itself.  Michael Sandel has suggested that liberalism’s “vision of political discourse is too sparse to contain the moral energies of democratic life” (Democracy’s Discontent 1996, 323).  Indeed, there are problems with the very foundations of liberalism.  What is the basis of the moral values espoused by liberalism?  I would suggest that without a transcendent foundation, the moral vision of liberalism collapses. 

One can begin to see this when one looks at who is included in the liberal class.  Along with journalists and academics, Hedges includes the church.  Now this is interesting! Liberals are typically very hard on the church.  The church is most often associated with the Christian right, which has been recently demonised by Marci McDonald in The Armageddon Factor:  The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (Random House Canada, 2010).  So how can Hedges include the church in the liberal class?  Clearly he has a very particular segment of the church in mind – the liberal church that is preoccupied with such liberal values as tolerance, rights, equality, diversity, and inclusivism.  But, as many a survey has shown, the liberal church is on a downward spiral.   And this again raises the question, why? Is there perhaps also a weakness in the very foundations of the liberal church?   Indeed, the foundational weaknesses of the liberal church are parallel to the weaknesses of liberalism.  Without an affirmation of orthodox Christian doctrine, the moral vision of the liberal church is in fact hollow, and the church will not be able to withstand the forces of power elite within a society.

Hedges’ book concludes with this pessimistic analysis.  “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity” (p.196).  The only ray of hope, and it is slim indeed, is for individuals to engage in acts of rebellion.  But, how can the individual stand up against the collective powers of corporate capitalism?  And is not the call for individual resistance simply another expression of faith in the very liberalism that Hedges has found to be anemic and decayed.  And again, what are the moral foundations of such resistance? 

It is here where the analysis of Goudzwaard et. al. has so much to offer us?  I found the final section of this book dealing with hope most inspiring.  After a careful treatment of the problems of the world, you have an equally careful analysis of the theological underpinnings of hope.

While some of the problems identified in this work are the same as those identified by Hedges, the analysis of these problems is very different.  Goudzwaard et. al. talk instead about ideologies and idols.  Indeed, a fundamental tenet of liberalism, its belief in the inevitability of progress, has itself become a problem (pp. 24-5).  Thus we find that many of today’s problems seem to have developed immunity to our well-intended solutions.  “They have become like viruses that resist medicine or like pests that have developed a defense against pesticide”  (p. 31).  This book analyses four areas of spiraling problems in our world today – revolution, nationalism, global capitalism, and violence/war.  In each case we find ourselves becoming “more or less trapped inside the cocoon of an extremely narrow, reduced view or perspective that considers acceptable only the solutions that fall in line with the way Western society defines its further ‘progress’” (p.25).  Indeed, the language of “obsession” or even “possession” becomes appropriate as persons or societies place their faith or trust in things or forces that their own hands have made (p. 27).  But, unfortunately, these idols that we ourselves have made cannot deliver.  The gods we have created have betrayed us.

But there is room for hope according to Goudzwaard et. al.  The good news of the gospel is that after Jesus’ resurrection, “one can speak about evil only as a temporary counterpower, one whose effectiveness depends solely on enticing and seducing people with things like money, power, and the longing to survive” (p. 172).  These seductions occur in the hearts of people, and the hearts of people can be changed.  Idols can be smashed.  Ideologies can be individually and collectively undermined.  We are not at the mercy of fate or evil underground forces.  “In our view, this simple insight into the fundamentally limited scope of evil throws the door wide open to genuine and living hope” (p. 172).  Here it is important to note that this hope is not just a human creation.  We are not left to our own resources.  Instead, this hope rests ultimately in the God whom Christians confess and who has already fundamentally conquered the power of evil through his Son.  “Jesus is therefore worthy to hold ‘the whole world [including our future] in his hands’” (p. 172). 

What we need to do is to make sure that we see the bigger picture, and in so doing unmask the gods of our times – economic growth, technological progress, the free market, and even democracy (p. 181).  The Christian believes in instead in justice, love and truth, and he or she knows that these belong to the basic nature of reality itself (p. 182).  The Christian does not get caught up in the dead-end spirals of the idols and ideologies of our time.  Instead, with God’s help Christians move slowly, and patiently, and step by step, upward to a better way.

Fortune Obligates

January 30, 2011

 Is it right for some people to be rich while others are poor, or should there be equality? Opinion is sharply polarized on this question.

Much of the conflict in the world to­day is rooted in opposing answers given to the above question. This is at the heart of most wage disputes in our coun­try, with appeals made to either equality or justified inequality, whichever happens to be to one’s advantage in this dispute.

In many coun­tries there is growing conflict, largely due to the disparity between a wealthy minority and a very poor majority. Some are warning us that the disparity between the wealthy nations of the West, and the underdeveloped Third World countries will eventually lead to world conflict. The question I have raised, therefore, cries out for an answer.

One would expect the Scriptures to supply an answer to such a fundamental question, but unfortunately Christians do not agree on what the Scriptures say about equality or inequality of material goods. Some point to the basic principle of “just desert” running throughout the Scrip­tures, as providing support for inequal­ity. “A man reaps what he sows”  (Gal. 6:7).   “If a man will not work, he shall not eat”  (II Thess. 3:10).  The parable of the talents is often interpreted as suggesting that he who is faithful in little, will be given more responsibilities and more reward (Luke 19:11-27).

However, others point to Scripture passages that seem to favor more equality. Jesus encourages a rich young man to “sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21).  It seems that many in the early church did sell their possessions, “had everything in common,” and “gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44-5).  Paul quite ex­plicitly refers to equality as an ideal (II Cor. 8:13).

How do we reconcile these two em­phases in Scripture?

I believe it is possible for Christians to learn something from non-Christians who are struggling with the same prob­lem. Some recent writings on the prob­lem of justice have helped me to see the Scriptural answer to the question I have raised from a fresh perspective.

John Rawls and other philosophers have argued that “nature” itself is not just in its distribution of natural capaci­ties. Some individuals seem to be born with all the advantages; others, with various handicaps. Therefore it is surely unjust to distribute benefits in society simply on the basis of achievement or merit, because this gives an unfair ad­vantage to those who have been born “lucky,” just as much as it gives an un­fair disadvantage to those who have been born with certain handicaps. Rawls, therefore, argues that the distri­bution of natural talents should be re­garded as a common asset. Those who have been favored by nature have an obligation to improve the situation of those who are less fortunate. Another writer sums up this principle in the phrase, “fortune obligates”.

Rawls’ stress on the arbitrariness of nature’s distribution of gifts and oppor­tunities is helpful, although we may want to reinterpret this from a Christian perspective. It is God who determines where we are born, and it is God who distri­butes gifts and opportunities. Most of us are born with normal abilities. We, in North America, live in a land of plenty and in the midst of abundant opportun­ity. Have we earned this? No! “What do you have that you did not receive?” (I Cor. 4:7)  Everything we have is a gift, a result of a “divine lottery,” if you will. Therefore we should be very careful not to become proud about our abilities and gifts.  It is simply wrong to give ourselves all the credit for what we achieve.  It is also wrong to feel that we are entitled to the advantages that we enjoy. 

Further, those of us who have been given an undue share of God’s blessings have an obligation to share with those who have been less fortunate. Fortune obligates. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded,” Jesus said (Luke 12:48). We owe some­thing to those who have not been as richly blessed as we are. Generosity is not an option, but an obligation.

Again and again in Scripture, we find that God has a special interest in the dis­advantaged, and God calls on the advan­taged to help the disadvantaged. What follows from this? If the rich share some of their wealth with the poor, and the poor receive from the rich, then there will no longer be as much inequality between them. There is no way we can escape this conclusion. Paul is crystal clear on this point as he encourages the Corinthian church to be generous: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (II Cor. 8:13).

 Paul, in this same context, describes the meaning of the Incarnation: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich”  (II Cor. 8:9). As followers of Christ, should we not similarly become poor, so that others might become rich, or at least equal?  

(This blog first appeared as a “Personal Opinion” column in the Mennonite Brethren Herald,  Dec. 19, 1981, and is here slightly revised.)

On Unions

September 5, 2010

 (This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, June 30, 2008, p. A9, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title:  “Unions must adjust to today’s hard realities.”  The original article is slightly revised here.) 

 I once was a member of a union.  Thankfully, I am now semi-retired and no longer have to be a member of such an organization.  We didn’t call ourselves a union.  Instead we referred to ourselves as a professional association – the “Medicine Hat College Faculty Association,” which in turn was a member of the Alberta Colleges and Institutes Faculties Association.  

 The only problem was that we weren’t very professional and we spent very little of our time and money on professional activities.  Like all unions, we were there to get the best deal for ourselves – the best wages and working conditions for the least amount of work. 

 We weren’t even very successful at that. Our wages were low as professionals go, and because our workloads were so high, those of us who were conscientious felt badly about having to make compromises in teaching just so we could survive.   I for one took early retirement because of the stress of a heavy workload.

As you might expect, the failure of our union caused some of us to resent the frequent increases in dues needed to support the growing union bureaucracy, both at local and provincial levels.

One thing that a Westerner notices when moving to Ontario is that the union mentality is more entrenched here than on the prairies.  Even colleges and universities have “real” unions – at least they are honest.  There are strikes and picket lines.  Lengthy union negotiations or breakdowns in talks regularly make news headlines.  Buzz Hargrove (and now his replacement) keeps appearing in the news, especially since GM motors recently announced the upcoming closure of its Oshawa truck plant. 

But, there seems to be a problem.  There is plenty of evidence that both the market and the environment simply cannot sustain current levels of truck production.  It should have been clear long ago that truck production was not sustainable.  The present oil crisis wasn’t born yesterday.  Both GM and the CAW should have been sitting at the table years ago to craft a sustainable vision for the future.  This obviously didn’t occur, a fault shared equally by both GM and the CAW.

Lest the reader imagine that I am still an Albertan red-neck, let me assure you that I am anything but that.  I recognize the historical contributions of unions.  But I think there is a need to adjust to the hard realities of today. 

I am very much aware of the possibilities of worker exploitation.  In the case of GM workers, however, I would argue that they are suffering exploitation at the hands of both the CAW and GM.  Workers should have expected and received better treatment from both parties.  Similarly, Canadians should have expected more from their government than blindly subsidizing ill-planned auto-plants. 

I am also sensitive to the fact that power corrupts, especially consolidated economic power.  But the corrupting tendencies of power also apply to large unions.

I am as concerned as anyone about the dangers of global capitalism.   But I don’t hear Canadian union leaders expressing concern about their fellow workers in other countries where workers are indeed being exploited.

It is obvious that capitalism needs a conscience, a topic that I have written about previously.  But, the need for a conscience also applies to unions.

Maybe the answer is found here.  All of us need to work at developing more sensitive consciences.   We need to spend more time identifying and countering the selfishness and greed that exists in every one of us – and that includes the employer, and the worker, and the union leader.  We need to work at loving our neighbor as we love ourselves – and our neighbor includes the business manager, and the worker in the factory, as well as workers in distant lands.  We need to work at developing ways for management and workers to engage in more co-operative and constructive conversations with each other. 

We also need governments that ensure that both industries and unions think in terms of future realities rather than shaping themselves around short-term profits or high salaries. We need governments that are looking out for all citizens equally and for the long term.   We need citizens who are careful how they vote!

Christianity and Capitalism

August 11, 2010

(This blog first appeared in Focus Magazine, June 2002, 22(2):8-9, 24, and is here slightly revised.) 

 It happened at a meeting of a book club, whose membership consisted of male professionals, including several physicians.   We were selecting the books we wanted to study for the coming year, and I suggested Beyond Poverty and Affluence: Towards a Canadian Economy of Care, by Bob Goudzwaard and Harry de Lange.  Bad mistake!  My suggestion was quickly ruled out of court as being too leftist.  It took me a while to recover from the shock – I had assumed that we were a group of professional Christian men who were open to exploring books covering a wide range of subjects and perspectives.

 A conversation about this incident with one of the members of this book club prompted the editor of Focus Magazine to invite me to write a short piece on my views on economics from a Christian perspective.  I hasten to add that I don’t at all see myself as an expert in the field.  I am a philosopher, not an economist.  But philosophers like to meddle in other fields, particularly by way of uncovering underlying presuppositions and subjecting them to critical scrutiny.  Over the years I have tried hard to come to an understanding of the Christian Right, and conservative politics and economics.  I subscribe to First Things.  I even read the Report Newsmagazine: Alberta Edition on occasion.  But the more I read and study, the more concerns I have about the ideology of radical free-enterprise capitalism – the words “ideology” and “radical” are important for the purposes of this essay.  My hope is that this outline of my concerns will stimulate further thought and re-evaluation about an important issue for Christians.

 My first problem with capitalism is that it would seem to be based fundamentally on selfishness and greed. Selfishness and selfish ambition belong to our sinful nature, according to my Bible (Gal.5:20).  The greedy person has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God (Eph. 5:5).  Yet, selfishness and greed are the engines that run a capitalistic system.  Indeed, these qualities are seen to be virtues according to Ayn Rand, an outspoken advocate of individualistic/capitalistic thinking.  But surely there is something outrageous about a title such as The Virtue of Selfishness.  Selfishness is simply not a virtue.  It is immoral.  Naked capitalism rests on a Darwinian assumption of the survival of the fittest, a philosophy that is hardly in accord with Christian presuppositions.  Radical free-enterprise capitalism must therefore be condemned as wrongheaded and immoral.

 But is not my first objection to capitalism based on utopianism?  The selfish nature of human beings is inescapable.  We need to be realistic here.  So why not exploit these admittedly negative aspects of human nature for positive gain?  That is surely at the heart of Ayn Rand’s defense of the virtue of selfishness.  There is something to be said for this argument.  Political and economic systems must be structured in such a way as to take into account sinful human nature.  I quite agree.  But surely such realism does not entail the condoning of unbridled selfishness.  Surely we need to put limits on selfishness.  Indeed, when taken to an extreme, selfishness and other forms of evil, deserve to be punished.  Yet, nothing of the sort is entertained in unrestrained capitalism.

 Here, of course, another problem emerges with the ideology of radical free-enterprise capitalism. Freedom is an essential component of this ideology.  Any controls imposed on business is anathema to those who are committed to unrestrained capitalism.  “Small government” is the watchword of those held captive to radical free-enterprise thinking.   But here again, I would suggest that freedom can be taken to an extreme.  Freedom to exploit workers, to misrepresent products, or the freedom to charge exorbitant prices for a cheap product, are wrong.  Freedom is not an absolute good.  Indeed, freedom is only possible within a context of constraints (unless of course one assumes the goodness of human nature, another assumption of the ideology of radical capitalism that could be explored). Given the sinfulness of human nature, it is laws that make freedom possible.  Christians can only support the notion of “ordered freedom.”  Greed needs to be curbed.  Monopolies are dangerous.  The power of Bill Gates needs to limited.  And therefore we need a structure which represents all the people and seeks the common good, and which imposes limits on the inevitable enterprising excesses of capitalism.  That is the function of government.  Of course, government power too needs to be limited, and that is why we have systems of checks and balances in place.  The problem with the ideology of radical free-enterprise capitalism is that it wants no checks and balances.

 Arguments like the above invariably get me into trouble with conservatives and capitalists.  They point to the inefficiency of socialism, and the horrors of communism.  They assume that because I am objecting to the ideology of radical free-enterprise capitalism I must be a socialist or even a Marxist.  I am neither!  I am all too familiar with the problems inherent in state-planning, having spent some time in Lithuania shortly after it’s break up with the Soviet Union, and having witnessed first-hand the problems of state-control in the area of business and industry. I know about the horrors that my Mennonite ancestors experienced under Communism.  And I regularly do a thorough critique of Marxism in my political philosophy classes. 

 Here another problem of the advocates of radical free-enterprise capitalism needs to be exposed.  They are guilty of “either-or thinking”.  They assume that either you believe in free-enterprise or you believe in socialism.  But there is a middle way. It might surprise the reader to discover that I am in sympathy with conservatism.  I even believe that capitalism is a better economic system than socialism in handling the economic sphere of life.  But I believe in conservatism and capitalism with a conscience.  I believe in capitalism tempered with social responsibility.  I further believe that only with such qualifications can conservatism and capitalism be reconciled with biblical and Christian values.  The clarifying of this middle way is in fact the central thrust of a book by Jim Wallis, Who Speaks for God:  An Alternative to the Religious Right – A New Politics of Compassion, Community and Civility (Delacorte Press, 1996).

 The God of creation has built norms into all spheres of life, including the economic sphere. If there is one theme that comes through again and again in the Scriptures it is God’s concern about the poor, the widow, the helpless (cf. Deut. 10:14-22; Ps.82; Isaiah 1-5).  And this is not just an Old Testament concern.  James too reminds us that God hears the cries of workers who have not been paid adequate wages (5:1-5).  Instead of pious worship and chorus-singing, God wants justice to roll on like a river (Amos 5:24).  The economic sphere of life must therefore be ordered in such a way as to be in keeping with these God-given norms.  Naked capitalism which encourages selfishness and which exalts freedom as an absolute norm fails to follow the norms that God build into creation.  It is therefore unbiblical and something that we as Christians should not support.

 An emphasis on God’s norms in creation leads to another objection to unrestrained capitalism.  It doesn’t work, at least certainly not in the long run.  The current world-wide economic crisis, initiated by unregulated capitalism in the United States, should be ample re-enforcement of this point. The Scriptures are very clear as to the consequences of obedience and disobedience to God’s norms.  We always reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7).  Following God’s norms, His ways, His decrees, and His laws leads to blessing, and disobedience prompts God’s curses (Deut.11:26-32).  Interestingly, it is in this very same context of the Creator-God giving us laws and spelling out the consequences of obedience and disobedience, that we are reminded to be like Him in defending the cause of the fatherless and the widow, loving the alien, and giving them food and clothing (Deut.10:14-22).  Failure to do this will of necessity bring with it unpleasant consequences for the disobedient society, and there is abundant documentation of this cause-effect relation in the Old Testament. 

 It is in this light that we need to understand the growing unrest today, in our own societies and in the world at large. When economic injustice reigns, when there is exploitation of third world countries, when the disparity between the rich and the poor becomes too great and is too widespread, then discontent grows and eventually people begin to protest and to riot.  We know this from history.  That is if we study history!  It has been well said that the problem with this generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting.  Modern secular prophets are warning us about the consequences of unbridled capitalism (cf. Thomas Homer-Dixon).  Biblical prophets did so long ago. Are we listening?

 Another fundamental problem with unrestrained capitalism is that it leads to consumerism and materialism.  The good life gets to be defined in terms of possessions and more possessions.  The population at large is at the mercy of advertising, the engine of capitalism.  But advertising fosters consumerism, coveting, and greed.  Our Lord reminded us that man cannot live by bread alone.  You cannot serve God and Mammon.  “Watch out!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).  Consumerism is fundamentally wrong.  We must therefore also condemn the primary expression and cause of consumerism – capitalism that wants complete freedom to profit and to produce as much as possible.

 Finally, I want to suggest that the ideology of radical free-enterprise capitalism is an expression of idolatry.  Paul interestingly calls the greedy person an idolater (Eph.5:5). What is an idol?  An idol is anything that we as human beings create and to which we then give our utmost loyalty, devotion,and trust, and which therefore usurps the place that only God should have.  I would suggest that the primary idol of our time is the ideology of radical free-enterprise capitalism (cf. Harvey Cox,  “The Market as God.” Atlantic Monthly  1999, 283(3):18 -23). Just think of our preoccupation with economics today.  Governments see their function primarily in terms of stimulating the economy. The major newspapers include a weekly edition of “Report on Business” complete with a 10-12 page report on the markets.  The evening newscasts include updates on the TSE and NASDAQ – it seems we need a daily reminder that our god is doing well!  And how often is it suggested that free-enterprise capitalism is the answer to the grinding poverty of third-world countries.  Hence the push for a global economy and the significance of meetings of the World Trade Organization. But free-enterprise capitalism is not, and cannot ever be, the saviour of the world.  The twin idols of selfishness and freedom, upon which unbridled capitalism rests, cannot deliver.

  I do not at all condone the action of the terrorists on the World Trade Center on that fateful day of September 11, 2001.  But the terrorists knew the power of symbols. I cannot help but wonder whether the real significance of this event is not the exposing of an idol for what it really is – vulnerable and frail.  Is that perhaps why the United States took such desperate measures to reassure Americans and its allies that all is well, that while buildings can collapse, the foundations are still firm. “You shall have no other gods before me,” God says.  Christians of all people should be able to see idols for what they are.  Instead, all too often they themselves are blinded by ideological group-think.  And God is not pleased.

Financial Crisis and the Ethics of OverConsumption

July 3, 2010

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, Jan. 12, 2009, p. A9, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title:  “We have no option but to change our overconsuming society”) 

 The news about our current financial crisis seems to be getting grimmer by the day.  Factory lay-offs and closures.  The auto industry struggling to survive.  Growing fears about losing one’s job.  Consumer confidence decreasing.  Recession.  What next?

 And what solutions are being proposed?  Encourage consumer spending.  Sales, and bigger sales.  Lower interest rates so that people will borrow to buy more.  Reduce taxes so that taxpayers will have more to spend.  Provide a bail-out to keep the auto-industry and its many auxiliary industries afloat. Why?  Failure here means thousands of workers unemployed, and therefore unable to buy things, thus further escalating the recession. 

 What I find significant is that both the cause and the cure of the current financial crisis are seen as tied to consumption.  Regarding cause, the media carry story after story about consumers who are limiting their buying to the basics.  The purchases of big ticket items are being postponed.  The SUV market has plummeted.  Even the market for corporate jets has gone into free-fall.  But of course, these cautionary responses only escalate the crisis, we are told.

  The solutions proposed again relate to consumption. We need to restore consumer confidence so that people will again buy new houses, new cars, new big-screen television sets, and more toys for grown-ups and children alike. Do we need all these things?  No.  But having a “healthy” economy is dependent on our buying things that we don’t really need.

 Surely, there is something fundamentally wrong with all this.  We are addicted to consumption, but addictions are never healthy. Obviously some consumption is necessary, but not over-consumption.  One cannot live by bread alone.  The desire to consume more and more can never be satisfied.   Indeed, a preoccupation with owning things is dehumanizing.  Persons become mere “consumers” to be manipulated by retail advertising or by government encouragements to increase spending.  Over-consumption is also not sustainable.  It rests on over-production, and the exploitation of the environment and of people.  Surely there is something terribly wrong with 20% of the world’s wealthiest people consuming a massive 86% of the planet’s resources.

 But if there is something fundamentally wrong with over-consumption, then there must also be something fundamentally wrong with an economic system that rests on over-consumption.  Unfortunately noone is talking about this aspect of our current financial crisis.  Everyone simply assumes that the key to recovery is to restore consumer confidence so that all of us will once again consume more than we need.  We refuse to ask the more basic questions.  Should we, for example, let the auto-industry shrink because we simply have too many cars?  We refuse to see this crisis as a wake-up call to invest in public transportation systems that will be much more ecologically friendly.  We continue to evaluate our governments simply on the basis of their ability to get everyone spending money once again.  And what is curious here is that all the political parties agree on these spend-more solutions.  None of them seems capable of really progressive thinking on this matter.

 So, what is the solution?  For a start, we need to begin questioning what is universally taken for granted.  One possible guide might be E.F. Schumacher’s, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.  Schumacher would have us look at “Buddhist Economics” as an alternative to modern economic theory.  The essence of civilization, for the Buddhist, is not found in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character.  Self-centredness and over-consumption are evils to be overcome.  Simplicity is a norm, and it is the only way to counter the violence against other persons and against nature that is inherent in modern economics. 

 Impractical, you might argue.   But, our present system isn’t exactly working very well either, is it?  And it never will be.  We need to rethink the basics.  We need to explore other alternatives.  We need an economic system that is stable, sustainable and more equitable.

Excessive Advertising

April 27, 2010

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, Sept. 5, 2008, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board.  Newspaper title: “We need to take action against this flood of advertising,” p. A9)

An epidemic of advertising has infected our society.  For quite some time last fall we were receiving one or two glossy brochures per week in the mail from the same telecommunications company.  Each week we also had to retrieve one or two bulky bundles of advertising in the mailbox – one of them contained 19 flyers. 

We face a barrage of advertising in the media.  Think of all the billboards that we cannot avoid as we drive into any large city.  Or the one to two page advertising spreads in our newspapers.  As I open up my Internet Explorer I have to make an effort to look past the advertising that is splattered across the entire screen. It is estimated that the average consumer is exposed to 5000 corporate messages every day.

Advertising works.  Businesses are not stupid.  They invest in all this advertising because it increases sales.  But is it morally justified?  I will grant, for the sake of argument that some advertising is acceptable.  We as consumers need to be informed about the products that are available.  I am not concerned here with simple, modest, and informative advertising.  Nor is my concern here with advertising that is obviously wrong, involving distortions of the truth, or the exploitation of vulnerable children.

My concern here is only with the phenomenon of excessive advertising.  I believe that a corporation that sends me one or two glossy brochures per week and does this for months on end is not behaving morally.  I believe there is something wrong with the bundles of advertising promotions that we get each week.  I believe that newspapers and television programs that are cluttered with advertising are creating artificial “needs” and therefore the CEOs in charge are behaving immorally. 

I would suggest that the sheer volume of advertising does something to our very identity.  This is a point made by journalist Rob Walker in a recent book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.  Although few of us will admit that we are susceptible to advertising, marketing produces in us needs we never knew we had.  It transforms us from being human beings into consuming animals, or perhaps even worse, into consuming robots.

Excessive advertising is manipulative by its very nature.  Naomi Klein has identified the phenomenon of “branding” which is the ultimate aim of excessive advertising.  Corporations are trying to foster loyalty to their brand, so that we will no longer think about choosing another lesser known brand. 

We also need to ask the important question as to who pays for all this advertising.  Ultimately, it is you and I as consumers.  The production of glossy brochures, neon-lit bill-boards, telemarketing, internet clips, and ads in newspapers are not cheap.  And the costs finally are added to the price of the products that we buy.

What can we do about excessive advertising?  For one thing we need to help each other become aware of this phenomenon.  Walker argues that our susceptibility to marketing arises from our ignorance of its pervasiveness.  Once aware, we must then very deliberately refuse to patronize those businesses that do too much advertising.  We need to put up “No flyers” notices on our mail-boxes.  We need to join the Red Dot service offered by Canada Post, that tells mail-carriers that we do not want to receive flyers in our mail-boxes (www.reddot.ca). 

We need to hang up when we receive another annoying call from a telemarketer.  Here we can also use the “Do Not Contact Service” offered by the Canadian Marketing Association (www.the-cma.org).  As of October 1, Canadians will be able to register on a federal “Do Not Call List,” administered by the CRTC.

But individual responses are not enough.  We need to hold our provincial and national governments responsible for their failure to protect ordinary consumers from the brainwashing techniques of the corporate world.  What is needed is government regulation that will limit the amount that any business or corporation can spend on advertising.