Credit crunches and bank collapses – is there anything of practical use that you and I can learn from the rapid downturn in Western economies?
International governments have been doing their best to salvage their fragile economies, which have been teetering on the brink of disaster. The British Government came up with two rescue packages to nationalise the Northern Rock bank and, more recently, The Bradford and Bingley bank. Meanwhile, the US Government has been looking for billion dollar solutions to prop up its ailing economy after the collapse of several major Wall Street firms. Other banks in Europe have also been showing signs of sickness.
Most of us don't breathe the rarefied air of the corporate big wigs of Wall Street or the Square Mile in London. We’re left scratching our heads and wondering what all the economic turmoil means for our futures. Why should the tax payer, we ask, foot the bill for the misdeeds of reckless money traders and bankers who've overstretched in the way they use other people's money? As comedian Jay Leno put it, recent events suggest that, ‘If you screw up, you pay. If they screw up, you pay.’
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have attacked traders in the City, London’s famed Square Mile financial district, for greed and questioned the value they bring to society. Doubtless, much of the blame for the current mess must be laid at the feet of these money market players, competitors in a game played with other people’s futures. And perhaps at least some of the responsibility should rest with those who are charged with regulating their activity – governments and the bureaucracies that support them.
However, there’s also an opportunity here for the rest of us, who're left to sort out mortgages and balance family budgets, to readjust or at least reflect upon our priorities. Recently, I had coffee with a friend who was at one time a speech writer for Margaret Thatcher, during her premiership.
Looking back, I should have asked him what exactly she meant when she said: ‘There’s no such thing as society.’ It wasn’t a popular statement at the time it was made. For many people, already suffering under various government reforms, it seemed to suggest that they should stop complaining about the hurt these policies had inflicted upon them and face up to their responsibilities to make good for themselves.
Whether or not it was the wisest thing to say at the time, I don't know. It certainly gave anti-Thatcherites more reason to dislike her. It may, however, have been intended to remind us that the concept of a society is an abstraction for a large collective of people. Perhaps Mrs. Thatcher was trying to remind people – albeit in somewhat insensitive language – that choices made by individuals count for something, they have power, even amidst the worst of social crises.
Facing a society-wide problem with an attitude that says, ‘It's not my fault, so there’s nothing I can do to change it’, is unhealthy and counterproductive. When we collectively face threats to our individual freedoms, each of us should look not only to governments for solutions, but to ourselves.
We can, at the very least, determine what we might learn from the situation, about our values and priorities. We may not individually be able to affect significant change in national economies, but we can make personal adjustments, which may lead to greater fruitfulness – and peace of mind – in future.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, often so obtuse in his public pronouncements, made no bones about his feelings on the money markets. He suggested that our modern devotion to the free market may be a form of idolatry. He may be right. Perhaps he is simply rephrasing the words of the gospels: ‘You cannot serve God and mammon.’
In actuality, money is an unreliable source of security, because it has no meaning or value in and of itself. Whatever the currency, the value of money is decided by the ever-changing whims of the marketplace. Money is as valuable as everybody else agrees it is. To build a life around the value of money is to put oneself at the mercy of others – particularly the capricious marketeers.
Today, money can be – and most often is – reduced to a series of ones and zeroes, the components of binary computer code. This has the affect of reducing money’s weightiness, its physical presence, which may help to explain why personal debt was on the rise even before the current downturn.
Some hardy souls are already making a stand against the creeping cancer of rampant consumerism. A group of women, for example, have stepped out of the mainstream to chart a different course under the media-generated banner ‘the Frugalistas’. These mainly middle-class women are growing most of their own food, cutting their own hair, making their own clothes and generating some of their own power.
Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2008
In years gone by, this would have been wholly unremarkable, but in a generation raised to expect, as a right of birth, a higher standard of living than their parents enjoyed, this is a radical approach. Is it a little drastic? Not at all – it’s a sensible response to a tightening of disposable income.
More importantly, it recognises that something fundamental needs to change in our ethics and values as a society. In what has become an overtly consumerist society – our motto might be ‘I shop therefore I am’ – there is a sense that the stuff we buy to make life easier isn’t necessarily making it any more meaningful.
Contentment is so uncommon today – at least in terms of our financial status – that it might be called a dying human trait. Contentment is not the same as a lack of ambition or aspiration. We all aspire to be more than we are; the problem is that we often confuse being more with having more. Contentment involves a decision to be thankful for what we still have when times get tough. It means celebrating the life we have rather than bemoaning what we've lost, or wanting what someone else has.
More than twenty years ago, I was privileged to visit the island of Sri Lanka. I was the guest of a number of charitable organisations and churches. As I was the head of a rather large Australian youth network at the time, community leaders were anxious to hear how they might build workable programmes for their young people. The nation was torn apart by civil war and concerned leaders hoped to sow the beginnings of a new future, through the generation who would carry the future on its shoulders. In the end, however, I think I learned a great deal more from them than they did from me.
The biggest lesson I learned was about the power of contentment. In the midst of one of the worst periods of civil strife in their history, these gracious people were almost unfailingly generous with what little they possessed. Many readers who’ve visited third world countries will doubtless relate. In my first public speech in Sri Lanka, I made a casual remark about how much I enjoyed their tea and the colourful saris they wore.
At the end of my address, I found that some folks had immediately slipped out of the session to buy me two huge bags of tea and a sari at the local market. These people, who had nothing to offer big-time money-traders, always seemed to live by the dictum that it is more fulfilling to give than to receive. They were extraordinarily happy in doing so.
I'm not belittling mortgages, ownership or sound financial investments. Present events, though, should remind us again that greed isn’t a vice restricted to high-powered financiers. It is something we must all face down at one level or another.
Speaking personally, I think I’d do well to see this season as an opportunity, a chance to ask myself some serious yet potentially liberating questions. Do I believe, and live, as if the value of my existence is built primarily on my earning power, or the size and stability of my mortgage? Or can I take advantage of this season, tough though it certainly is, to adjust my values and ethics, potentially freeing myself a little more from the consumer rat-race?
I intend to have that inner conversation and I expect it will produce change. At least for me and those impacted by the way I live, that will be a start.