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Credit Crunches, Greed & Discontentment - What Can We Learn?

Mal Fletcher
Posted 29 September 2008
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Credit crunches and bank collapses - is there anything 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 it's 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 who don't breath the rarefied air of the corporate big wigs of Wall Street or the Square Mile in London are left scratching our heads and wondering what all this 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 their use of 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 attacked city traders for greed and questioned the value they bring to society.

There can be no doubt that much of the blame for the current mess must be laid at the feet of these players in the money market game - a game that's played with other people's futures. And perhaps some of the responsibility must rest with those who are meant to regulate their activity, our governments and the bureaucracies that support them.

Yet there's also an opportunity here for the rest of us, who are left to sort out mortgages and balance our family budgets, to reflect on and readjust our own priorities.

Recently I met with a friend who was once a speech writer for Margaret Thatcher. 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 reforms, it seemed to suggest that they should simply take responsibility and stop complaining about the hurt that government policies inflict on them.

Whether or not it was the best thing to say at the time, I don't know. But it may have been intended to remind us that society as a concept simply represents large collectives of people. People's choices do count - even in the worst of social crises.

Facing a society-wide problem with the attitude of, 'It's not my fault, so there's nothing I can do to change it' is unhealthy and counterproductive.

When we collectively face something that threatens individual freedoms, each of us should look at what we, as citizens, can do about it - or at least what we can learn from it.

There's not much you or I can do as individuals to turn around national economies, but we can at least make adjustments in our own lives and values, 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 intentions on this issue of 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 Christ who said: 'You can't serve God and mammon.'

It's always interested me that this is just about the only time in the New Testament records that money is given a personalised name. Perhaps that reflects another level within the statement: "If you rely on money as your primary source of security or meaning, it will take on a personality of its own.

When that happens, money does talk. It says things like: 'I can take care of you in your old age; I can feed you and clothe you.'

In actuality, money is an unreliable source of security, because it has no meaning or value in and of itself - its value is decided by the ever-changing whims of the marketplace.

Money is as valuable as everybody else agrees it is. This means that building a life around the worth of money means putting oneself at the mercy of others, and particularly the whims of marketeers.

In our times, money is even less solid than it may have seemed in the time of Christ. Today, it can be, and most often, is reduced to a series of ones and zeroes; the components of computer code.

Already, a number of women in society are taking a very different course under the media-generated banner of the 'Frugalistas'. These mainly middle class women have taken to growing most of their own food, cutting their own hair and making their own clothes.

A bit drastic? Not at all - it's a sensible response when disposable income is tight. But it's also a recognition of something more fundamental than responses to the credit crunch or ecological concerns.

In what has become an overtly consumerist society - 'I shop therefore I am' - there is for many people a growing sense that the things which supposedly make life easier don't necessarily make it more meaningful or enjoyable.

Contentment is so uncommon today - at least in terms of our financial status - that it might be called a dying art form. 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 - and to celebrate it - rather than bemoaning what we've lost, or wanting what someone else has.

More than 20 years ago, I was priviledged to visit the island of Sri Lanka. I visited a series of community organisations and churches, to encourage people in the work they were doing and to learn about their culture.

As I was the head of a large Australian youth network at the time, they looked to me for advice on how to build programmes for their young people. But I think I learned a great deal more from them than they did from me.

The biggest lesson was in the power of contentment. They were, at the time, in the middle of one of the worst periods of civil warfare in their history, yet these people were unfailingly generous with what little they possessed.

In my first public speech in Sri Lanka, I made a remark about how much I enjoyed their tea (best in the work, I think), and the saris they wore. I stepped off the stage later to find that some people had gone to the local market and bought me two huge bags of tea and one very colourful sari (which I think had to wear!).

These people, who had nothing to offer money-traders and mortgage-lenders, always seemed to live by the dictum that it's more blessed to give than receive - and they were extraordinarily happy in doing so.

I'm not belittling mortgages, ownership or sound investments of money. Present events simply remind me again that greed isn't a vice simply for the high-powered money men and women; it's something we must all face down at one level or another.

Speaking personally, I would do well to take this opportunity to ask the big question: is the worth of the life I'm leading built on something more solid than my earning power, or the size of my mortgage?

Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2008

What’s your view?

Do you feel that the credit crunch will affect your life in a significant way?



Keywords: credit crunch | wall street | banks | mortgage lenders | $700 billion | US government rescue package | bradford & bingley | northern rock | financial collapse |

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