Monday 24 November 2008

We must learn to live more abundantly with less!

Two readers have been kind enough to forward me great links, on the problems of consumerism, which I want to share with the rest of you.

The first, sent by my good friend Les Bertram, is this excellent 'Thought for the Day' by Alastair McIntosh, given on Radio Scotland on 22 October. You can listen to it here. He is a Quaker, Professor of Human Ecology at the University of Strathclyde, and there is a lot of interesting stuff on his website. I am looking forward to reading his latest book "Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition", which I've ordered from Amazon.
Good Morning

This month has been a critical one in the history of our nation, one that historians will look back on as a cultural watershed.

Our faith in money has been shaken and earlier this week Gordon Brown promised a “central mission” of doing “whatever it takes” to spend a way out of the economic black hole.

At the same time and almost lost amongst the economic headlines, the UK Government took a courageous step towards tackling dangerous climate change. It now matches Scotland’s aspiration by having raised from 60 percent to 80 percent the target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.

But setting targets is the easy bit; achieving them is harder. And there’s the rub. Both the economic bubble now bursting and global warming have one driver in common: consumerism. Our conundrum is that we need more consumption to save the economy, but less to save the planet.

Spending our way out of a recession is therefore only a stop-gap measure. It’s methadone for our planetary heroin addiction.

We simply feed the habit if we think that today’s problems can be tackled at conventional political, technical or economic levels. If we’re redefining our “central mission”, we must press further.

Technical fixes are certainly part of the solution. But I’d put it to you that the deep work must be this: to learn to live more abundantly with less, to rekindle community, and to serve fundamental human need instead of worshiping at the altars of greed.

The crisis of these times is therefore spiritual. It calls for reconnecting our inner lives with the outer world - an expansion of consciousness. And that’s an opportunity that we neglect at our peril, for as I once heard an old Quaker woman say, “It is perilous, to neglect one’s spiritual life.”

The second, sent to me by my daughter Amy, is a link to a fine US website

Do take a few minutes to watch the video you will find there, about 20 min long, in which Annie Leonard explains simply and clearly the problems with our civilisation's unsustainable over consumption.

The message of both, in Alistair McIntosh's words, is that we must learn to live more abundantly with less!

Saturday 22 November 2008

A View from the Pew - Judging the Budget

View from the Pew is a series of articles I am writing for Newslink, the Diocesan magazine for the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe. This one appeared in the November 2008 issue.

The morning before
I am writing the morning before Brian Lenihan’s first budget as Minister of Finance. We all know it will be harsh, because government spokesmen have been continually telling us so for weeks. No doubt they are managing our expectations to limit the political fallout. Dire it may be, but if it is kinder than they have made us fear, we will all heave a collective sigh of relief.

Our public finances have been badly mismanaged, I think. Government funding has relied far too much on the speculative property bubble, which has now burst. The sharp reduction in stamp duty and other property related receipts, the slowing economy, and increasing unemployment have led the Department of Finance to forecast a deficit in 2009 of €13.3 billion, 7 per cent of GDP, unless drastic action is taken. Plans must be changed to reduce the deficit. We must expect the budget to raise taxes, cut services and defer plans for desirable new infrastructure and services. And I do not think these changes will be temporary. The fact is we can never return to the unsustainable property boom which artificially buoyed exchequer receipts. Revenues must be found from elsewhere or necessary services will be cut. The global financial crash can only make the Government’s difficulties worse, but I do not believe their denials that the deficit is home grown.

But now is not the time to assign blame and punish the guilty – there will be time enough for that in years to come. Now is the time for those responsible to take the hard decisions on behalf of us all. Let us pray that they are also the right decisions. I do not envy Brian Lenihan today.

On his way into Government Buildings Brian Lenihan said, ‘The Budget will stabilise the economy and inject confidence into the financial system, while also looking after vulnerable people.’ I like the bit about looking after the vulnerable. Jesus tells us, ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.’ It is our collective, Christian duty in these difficult times to look after the vulnerable, so I pray that Brian Lenihan will live up to his confident words. Please God, he will look after the vulnerable in our own society, the poor, the disadvantaged, the unemployed. But please God he will not forget the very poorest of the poor in the developing world.

Overseas development aid – an Irish success
For me, perhaps the biggest test of his budget will be how he deals with overseas development aid. It is to the credit of successive Governments and to the Irish people that we have so expanded development aid in recent years. Like all rich countries we have promised to increase development aid to 0.7% of GNP to achieve the UN’s Millennium Goals agreed in 2001, which include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. Ireland has made a public commitment to achieve this by 2012. And unlike many other countries we have been delivering on our promise. Since 2001 Irish development aid has grown from €250 million to €870 million. We are now the sixth highest per capita donor, giving 0.54% of GNP in 2007. We are on track to achieving the target of 0.7%.

This table published by the OECD, showing how countries compare in aid to the poor world in 2007, makes interesting reading. The five leading countries that already exceed the target are all from northern Europe. Apart from Luxembourg, they are historically Lutheran – could their faith tradition have influenced their generosity? The USA is the largest absolute giver of overseas aid, but at 0.16% of GNP, its per capita performance can only be described as niggardly.

Of course these statistics do not tell the whole story. They are for official development aid, from state sources, and exclude private giving, for which it is difficult to find comparable statistics. Perhaps because of generous tax relief, experts believe that private US citizens give as much again as their government – but that would still leave them way down the league. How does our Irish private giving compare? I don’t know the figures, but I suspect and hope we too are privately generous. Nor do the statistics allow for how effectively the aid is used. Some decry aid as useless – I am thinking of a mean-spirited columnist I choose not to name – but aid does help poor people. And Ireland has developed an international reputation for using its aid well.

So what will the budget bring? Will Brian Lenihan live up to his promise to look after the vulnerable? Will he at least maintain the current percentage level of overseas development aid? We will soon know.

The morning after
It is now the morning after the budget. Like everyone else I’m sure, I am struggling to get to grips with its implications. It is indeed harsh. The pain will be felt by all of us through a combination of tax and duty increases and service cuts. Government supporters would like us to accept this as a patriotic duty, but there is a lot of anger around, as I detected chatting to people while doing the messages.

What about the promise to look after the vulnerable? I looked at the website of CORI – the Council of Religious of Ireland - to see their analysis. They say, ‘Our overall conclusion is that Budget 2009 failed to protect the vulnerable in the manner or on the scale required.’ They welcomed the increases for social welfare recipients – the only group to gain in the budget - while criticising the failure to fully cover the rising costs of food and fuel for poor people. They also criticised asking the working poor to pay the 1% income levy and the failure to increase child benefit. These are perhaps reasonable criticisms. But I think we should acknowledge that quite a lot was done in the budget to protect the vulnerable in our own society, even if we would have liked more. Perhaps the budget deserves half a cheer for this.

What about my own key test, protecting Ireland’s overseas development budget? This has been cut by €7million to €891 million for next year, but because GNP is expected to fall, this actually represents an increase to 0.56% of projected GNP. We remain on track to meet the 0.7% target. We continue to live up to our promises to the poorest of the poor, despite the economic difficulties. It really is remarkably good news, worth a full cheer at least!

If you agree with me, why don’t you write to a government TD to tell them so? When they do something right, they should be congratulated, to encourage them to do more of it in future!

Thursday 6 November 2008

A View from the Pew - Greed and Fear

View from the Pew is a series of articles I am writing for Newslink, the Diocesan magazine for the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe. This one appeared in the October 2008 issue.
Panic on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange

We seem to be living the ancient Chinese curse at the moment – “May you live in interesting times!” Humankind is buffeted by a myriad of crises, including global warming which I touched on last month. Now we are faced with a global financial collapse and a domestic recession.

The bad news in the financial markets comes faster each day. This time last year people of modest means in the USA found they could no longer pay their mortgages, their houses were foreclosed, house prices dropped, and construction screeched to a halt. Mortgage lenders, and banks they had sold their interests on to, began to worry about bad debts: the ‘sub-prime mortgage crisis’ entered our vocabulary. In March this year, investment bank Bear Sterns was sold for a pittance to prevent bankruptcy. In early September, the US government took over loan guarantors Fannie May and Freddie Mac to prevent their collapse. Two weeks later investment bank Lehman Bros went bust, another, Merrill Lynch, was taken over for a song, and insurance giant AIG was nationalised.

The contagion has spread around the world. Banks are writing off bad loans and will not lend to each other for fear they will not get the money back. The shares of the biggest UK mortgage lender HBOS have plummeted in recent days, and it may go under. Personal consumption has ceased to grow and investment has dried up. The world’s real economy is falling into recession. Oil and other commodity prices are falling, and unemployment is rising.

At home in Ireland, the building bubble has burst: house prices have been falling for a year, mortgages are hard to get, construction has crashed, and thousands of building workers are unemployed. Government finances have lurched into the red, and bank share prices have fallen to a third of what they were a year ago.

Where will all this end? I haven’t got the foggiest idea, but I would be pleasantly surprised if the coming recession is much easier than the Great Depression of the 1930s, about which I heard my parents talk. Alan Greenspan tells us this is a ‘once in a 100 years’ event. And it gave me no confidence to hear the CEO of the Irish Banking Federation on Primetime warn maverick economist David McWilliams that ‘loose comment is not helpful’. Confidence in the future is what sustains markets, and I don’t see much about. Should I start to fear for my pension and my savings?

How should we respond to all this as Christians?

First, we must pray for the very many people who will be feeling the pinch over the coming months and years. Our prayers will remind us of our Christian duty and God will guide us in our response. Second, it is our duty to protect the poor and the disadvantaged who are always hit hardest in a recession. This means both arguing for public policies to help them and supporting them with private charity if we can. Christ enjoins us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Our neighbours live not just in Ireland, but all over the world. It would be all too easy to say that ‘charity begins at home’ and ‘let the divil take the hindmost’, but that is not Christ’s way.

The cause of the problem, I think, is old-fashioned, sinful human greed. Banks borrow at low interest and lend at higher. Greedy depositors look for the highest deposit rates. Greedy banks make loans at the highest loan rates they can get. Greedy individuals borrow money to buy things they cannot afford. Greedy businesses leverage their own funds with borrowed money to improve their rate of return. All this works well enough so long as all parties accurately assess the risks of default. But when they don’t, the whole edifice starts to crumble – that is what we are seeing now. But risk taking has been built into the whole system as if it is a positive thing: the more risks, the higher the returns, and the higher the bonuses handed out to finance professionals.

If we want to avoid the periodic crashes to which the capitalist system seems prone, then, as Christians who understand the power of original sin, we must support those who call for stronger regulation to reduce greedy risk taking and allow the system to function.

But what if the problem is the capitalist system itself? Even if it were possible to regulate its excesses to avoid crashes, perhaps capitalism leads inevitably to the over-consumption which is degrading our God-given planet. The whole system depends on usury: lending money at interest. Paying interest requires economic growth, which drives consumption. But for Christians from the early Fathers up to the Reformation, and for Muslims to this day, usury was always forbidden. This is what St. John Chrysostom has to say on it:

"Nothing is baser, nothing is more cruel than the interest that comes from lending. For such a lender trades on other persons' calamities, draws profit from the distress of others, and demands wages for kindness, as though he were afraid to seem merciful. Under the mask of kindness he digs deeper their grave of poverty; when he stretches forth his hand to help, he pushes them down. . ."

Have the Fathers and the Muslims got it right? Perhaps we should also think again about how we organise our economy.