Sunday, 13 November 2011

Reconnecting the financial with the ethical?

This is going to be a little angrier than my usual posts, but it's a subject I feel very strongly about.

The following is my slightly doctored version of a famous story from the Bible (see Mark's gospel, chapter 10).

See if you can tell which bit I've changed (clue - in case you're not familiar with the story, I've typed the edited bit in italics!):
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. "No one is good - except God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.'"

"Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, start an initiative to reconnect the financial with the ethical, then you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
It doesn't work, does it? - for all sorts of reasons. For those who don't know the story, what Jesus actually said was:
"Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven". (my emphasis)
I think you'll agree, the original has a lot more punch!

For those who don't recognise it, my edit is a reference to an initiative recently announced by the Bishop of London in response to the protests at St. Paul's. The initiative is being headed up by Ken Costa, who is ex-vice-chairman of UBS, current chairman of Lazard International, church warden of Holy Trinity Brompton, and chairman of Alpha International (a course which provides a beginner's introduction to the Christian faith).

I do not mean to suggest that Ken Costa should give away all his money, or that it if he did it would help very much to solve the current financial crisis (although who knows, such a radical example might have a positive effect on some!). What I am suggesting though, is that he is not doing what Jesus did in the real version of the above story, which is to cut to the heart of the issue - whatever the cost!

The rich man above clearly had a problem with money. He was a slave to it - money has a tendency to do that to people - which is why Jesus goes on to say to his disciples:
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
Our society is in a very similar situation. It is a slave to money - to capitalism and to the economy. We are addicted to the acquisition of wealth. Simply trying to "reconnect the financial with the ethical" is not going to solve this problem. This is why Jesus once also said:
"No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."
Costa seems to me to be trying to "reconnect" two incompatible masters and I believe he will fail in the attempt - unless the fundamental starting point for this "connection" is that money should be subservient to people (and to God) and not the other way around. So far, it doesn't really sound to me as though this is what Costa is proposing. He seems to be saying instead that we should all just carry on as normal - but we simply need to be a bit more "moral" in our approach. Here are some quotes:
"I certainly don’t believe the economic system we have is broken, let alone irredeemably broken. But I do believe that our markets have drifted too far from their ethical moorings."
"The market brings together individual liberty, the human capacity to create, and resources such as capital, land and knowledge to form the most effective known system there is for wealth generation and improved living standards. It gives us the freedom and the opportunity to be responsible for our own future because its mainspring is private enterprise rather than the state or collective. It generates the opportunity to develop latent potential and exercise responsibility. It creates a space in which individuals can be creative and constructive. And over the years it has resulted in a higher standard of living than our ancestors could have dreamed of."
Yes, the market has achieved many of these things, but at what cost, and for whom has its wealth been generated? The "market" has destroyed a massive proportion of our ecosystem, corrupted and destabilised governments, caused massive unrest and global suffering and siphoned most of the wealth of the planet off to a tiny proportion of its inhabitants. This is not a system that has "drifted too far from [its] ethical moorings", it is a system that is deeply corrupt - root and branch - and is in urgent need of reform.

Regulations won't make the problems go away, but they could have a significant impact if there is anyone left out there who has both the power and the courage to see them through - we should be forcing through such measures as a matter of extreme urgency. Of course such measures have to be thought through, but we are not ignorant of these problems and have had many decades in which to solve them. Some of the good solutions we used to have were actually dismantled because we were afraid they might prevent us from generating more wealth...! Private enterprise (to quote Costa above) does not give us more opportunity to be responsible for our own future than the state or the collective does - instead it gives the most opportunity to those who happen to be good at private enterprise, rather than to all of us, as democracy seeks to do!

Costa is right that business needs to be more ethically motivated, but the highest ethic should not be to preserve the free market - but to preserve, protect and promote human dignity, equality and well-being, which depend on much deeper things than financial prosperity. Money can help with this endeavour, but only if it is kept subservient to these ideals.

I am not completely anti-capitalist, but I am anti-the-current-global-capitalist-system, which needs a lot more than the quiet talking to that Costa seems to be proposing and that the Church of England seems to support. It needs prophets shouting from the side-lines, confronting it with its evils and abuses and it needs deep and penetrating transformation and reform.

I have little faith in Costa or his initiative, to deliver - or to really attempt to deliver - this kind of transformation. It seems to me that he and the church he represents are still too deeply compromised by the system they are attempting to reform. This was epitomised for me by the following response from Costa to an interview question from the BBC, regarding the ridiculously large salaries so often paid to those in positions of financial responsibility:
Well, that is one of the issues that we're going to have to look at. This initiative is to talk it through. Every time a figure is mentioned of a large pay - we don't know the responsibilities that someone has incurred in order to get there.
Seriously Ken? How much responsibility can you incur that justifies a salary which would satisfy several hundred (or perhaps even several thousand) "less responsible" people? To give him some credit though, he does then go on to say that:
Clearly there needs to be a fairness, and I think we've got to a tipping point...
But then he gets a little hazy again regarding what exactly that tipping point consists of, and large salaries - the point just raised by the interviewer - seem to disappear off the immediate agenda:
...where people now feel we need to articulate an argument for companies to act on in order to do good things and to encourage their employees to actually do the right things.
So to paraphrase then, what we need is a better argument for people to do good things and then everything will be fine - just as long as we can all still hang onto our money...

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