Money Or A Life, The Choice Was Yours

The Bank of America recently acquired MBNA Corporation, bringing its number of active credit card accounts to 40 million and its managed outstanding balances to $143 billion. Is this a good thing?

Ross Gittins, September 2005

The industrial changes might be a chance to pad the wallet, but at a price. I doubt if there is anyone in the world who would tell you our relationships are not more important than money. And yet there is often a big gap between what we believe and what we do. In practice, we’re always putting money – whether earning it or spending it – ahead of our relations with family, friends and neighbours.

The best thing to come from John Howard’s plans for a revolution in industrial relations is the way they are prompting people to ask what effect they would have on family life. It’s a question we should have been asking a lot earlier about other aspects of economic change.

Relationships – who cares?

In the policies they advocate, economists quite deliberately ignore the possible implications for our relationships. In their professional capacity, they neither know nor care. It’s not their department, so they leave it for more qualified people to worry about.

Which people? Well, one group with a special interest in the topic is the purveyors of religion. They are always being told to butt out because they know nothing about economics – although no one ever tells the economists to dry up because they know nothing about relationships.

One Anglican leader remarked last week that the industrial relations changes go back to the question of individualism. ‘The mood of the moment is that the individual is king,’ he said. ‘That we are in charge of our own destiny, we are in charge of our own lives – and the result has been a sort of very unsatisfactory materialism. What I want to say in this present situation is that we need to look for community. Is this revolution actually going to foster and help the Australian community?’

He had some questions he wanted to ask about the industrial relations changes. ‘I’m a great believer in the weekend. I believe that it’s very good for our community to have a time when we stop, and stop together, so that families can be together on the weekend. And as this legislation comes out, I’ll be looking to ask the question, “does it encroach on the weekend?” They are the sorts of issues that I think we need to be assessing and talking about as a community. Is it simply a matter of being more wealthy? Well, in that case, why do we want to be more wealthy? And are we giving up other, very important aspects of our lives in pursuit of the dollar?’

But isn’t it fair enough to allow people to choose, for example, whether they want to trade their Sundays or their sick leave for extra pay? Is he saying there are some areas where people should not have choices of this kind?

‘That word “choice” hides the individualist philosophy,’ he said, ‘which has done so much damage. There are certain times when we give up our choice – our individual, selfish choice – for the sake of the group, for the sake of the family. And yes, I am saying I wonder if it’s useful for us to run our factories 24 hours a day, seven days a week – which may be economically efficient, but at the same time brings a dreadful nemesis to family life, and to people getting together, and being together, and people being able to play sport together. That’s the cost of so-called choice. And I think we’ll have to be very careful not to sell ourselves at this point.’

Goodness gracious. Who is this radical leftie, almost Marxist cleric? That terrible chap from Perth? No, he’s the Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, interviewed on the ABC’s Religion Report .

Relationships and the market economy

One man – a deeply Christian man – who’s done more thinking than most about how the market economy impinges on our relationships is Dr Michael Schluter, the founder of Britain’s Relationships Foundation. He’s visiting Australia at the invitation of the federal Labor MP Lindsay Tanner.

Schluter says the market threatens relationships on a broad scale. For a start, it treats land as just a category of capital. Its worth consists in what you can get for it – what you can do with it or to it. But land has intrinsic value. There’s a close link between land and community. It is crucial for the roots it gives us, the sense of belonging.

Second, the market economy fails to appreciate the relational consequences of the mobility of labour. Economic theory says workers should move to where the economic returns – and hence the wages – are highest. So to have a highly mobile labour force is a virtue.

Many workers accept that to advance their careers they must move from job to job and place to place. Big companies think little of moving staff around their branches, even overseas. But someone has noted that relocation is different from many other forms of work-related stress because it extends beyond the workplace to include the family. Clearly, a lot of relationships are disrupted when people move from city to city. And social scientists estimate it takes at least five years to integrate fully into a new area.

Then there is the effect of financial markets. Their role is to spread risk more thinly, but financial intermediaries – such as the banking system and the sharemarket – separate savers from borrowers, making everything more impersonal and stopping social relationships forming. The financial system’s ability to collect large sums of capital permits the emergence of big corporations. But the bigger businesses become the more impersonal they become – for customers as well as employees – and the greater their ability to strike hard bargains with small businesses.

All this makes our savings – including through super[annuation] – more mobile. The system directs them to their most profitable use, which makes the economy richer. But it also means some regions expand while others decline, creating a need for workers and their families to up sticks.

Then there is all the emphasis on lending in return for interest. Compared with investing in the ownership of the business doing the borrowing, it’s a way of keeping the deal impersonal while trying to shift the risk of failure on to the borrower.

Schluter has more, but I have shocked you enough. These notions would not appeal to economists because they strike at all the things we have done to make the economy more efficient and ourselves richer. But that’s his point. We’re always putting money ahead of relationships.

This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 24 August 2005, duringMichael Schluter’s two-week working trip to Australia in late August. He held numerousmeetings and, as this article illustrates, there were some encouraging opportunities tocommunicate biblical and relational thinking through media channels.

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Category: News and Reviews

September, 2005

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