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Manna from Kevin

Reflections on the economic crisis and stimulus package

by Jonathan Cornford

It probably hasn't escaped your notice that we are in the midst of a global economic meltdown. At least this is what we are continually being told anyway. However the experiences of this will be quite different amongst Manna Matters readers - while the lives of some may already have been turned upside down, others will hardly have noticed its effects at all, except perhaps for a $900 cheque in the mail any time now. This can make it all seem a bit surreal; nevertheless it is real, and by the end of the year most of us will have felt its impact in some way.

Preparing for the impact

It is a sobering thought, but if the current economic forecasts are in the right ballpark, then some reading this newsletter may lose their jobs in the next twelve months. It is clear that all sorts of different sectors of the economy are already feeling the strain of economic contraction, including odd little independent Christian ministries that harp on about economics.

What role does our faith play in how we prepare for and respond to this?

The first thing we must face up to is that 'having faith' does not in any way make us immune from suffering the effects of this economic crisis.  The core promise of Jesus (expressed in the name 'Immanuel') is that God is with us in the good times and bad, and not that God removes us from the bad times. We are bound together with the broader community of humanity and we share a common fate - this is as it should be. The questions of faith have to do with how we respond to suffering and not how we evade it.

So like many others, some good and faithful Christian folk will lose their jobs (and probably already have) through no fault of their own. Others will be forced to live on lower incomes. This is a devastating blow for anyone, and although our circumstances are nothing like those in the 1930s Great Depression, there will be real hardship. How will we face it and how will we support each other?

In all things it is important to keep perspective - one important resource for coping with a significant change in income and living standard is learning to see how wealthy we (in Australia) actually are. Indeed this is perhaps the first necessary step in any economic reorientation.  Maintaining a sense of clarity and thankfulness about the things we do have is a source of enormous spiritual resilience.

We need to look for and positively accept some of the lessons that the economic crisis will offer us:

  1. There will be new opportunities to explore different forms of job sharing. One of these - and it is already starting to happen - is accepting fewer hours of work (and therefore lower incomes) so that jobs can be saved. This has been needed for a long time, but now will become more possible.
  2. There will be a need for new initiatives in community cooperation to support those who have lost employment. These will necessarily involve material and emotional support but could also begin to help redefine a more positive and less individualistic approach to work: what work does the community need and how will the community resource it?
  3. There will be opportunities to learn a greater generosity of spirit that includes our material goods.
  4. We will need to learn new economic habits - we will have to downscale our consumption, learn greater maintenance and care for what we do have and learn to live within our means rather than on credit.

In all of this, it will be important to be building a sense of why this is happening. Having some understanding of the impersonal political and economic forces behind this upheaval will not lessen the hardship for anyone who has lost their job, but if we learn from it, it can instil a sense of  purpose and resolve about what sort of economic and political system we strive for as individuals and as citizens. This is another powerful source of spiritual and psychological resilience in the face of hardship.

All of these things are things we need to learn irrespective of the present economic crisis. Can we take up the challenge willingly? Given that we are currently in the season of Lent, it would not be inappropriate to even look on these lessons as an opportunity for economic repentance. The Greek word for repentance [metanoia] means to renew your mind; this cannot be forced on anyone - it has to be chosen.

Can we afford to move away from a consumer economy?

Let's be honest - the economic crisis throws up as many big questions and challenges for those of us interested in an alternative economics as it does for the evangelists of unrestrained capitalism.

For while times of crisis present times of opportunity, we are also presented with the very real human cost of such an event. So many jobs here and abroad have grown up around decades of rampant consumerism, can we now responsibly reduce our consumption? What about the impact on jobs, both here and abroad?

So keeping these questions in mind, let's put it into perspective:

  • While the financial meltdown (which has now turned into an economic meltdown) has completely dominated our attention, developing countries have been suffering an even more serious economic crisis for a longer period of time. Between  mid 2007 and mid 2008 the prices of food staples such as wheat, rice and corn shot up, in some cases more than doubling. While we experienced this as an annoying increase in our grocery bill, in the developing world an additional 75 million people went hungry resulting in food riots across three continents. The causes of this food crisis are multiple and complex, but it is very much a product of the present system.
  • To argue for the status quo out of concern for people's welfare ignores the very fact that the current shock and trauma is a product of the present economic system and its own inherent contradictions, and not the product of any steady shift away from irresponsible and unsustainable economic behaviour.
  • A more responsible economy is going to require massive job creation. Most importantly, a shift to more responsible agriculture (less dependence on petroleum inputs, better stewardship of soils, water and habitat, lower greenhouse gas emissions) will be highly labour intensive, in Australia as well as in developing countries. Likewise, there is whole raft of 'green jobs' which do not yet exist but will become essential to our ongoing economy.
  • Our current world economy is so ecologically unsustainable that continuing on with the status quo is the surest way to ensure mass suffering on a scale we cannot conceive. The potential economic impact of climate change and resource depletion in the coming century makes the current crisis look like a Sunday School role play. Simply put, we do not have an option.

Manna from Kevin

This all brings us to a more direct and immediate question. Sometime in April many of us will once again be showered in unlooked-for manna from Kevin - $900 if you are lucky enough to be on an income below $80,000. What then should we do with it?

The message from the Government is that we should use this money to consume our way out of recession. The cash hand-out is part of a much larger overall economic stimulus package which has the ultimate aim of keeping money circulating through the economy. This is undoubtedly necessary - while the amount that should be spent (and debt that is incurred) is debatable, it would be irresponsible to just let things collapse.

The more important question is how the money is spent. In one sense this is a golden opportunity - the much bigger issues of climate change, resource depletion and waste all require a massive effort of spending and human energy to begin to shift our economy onto a less self-destructive footing. Some of this is being done under the current package - things such as insulation rebates and water efficiency measures - although in a less than visionary manner.

However the purpose of the $900 cash hand out is simply this: shop 'til you drop. It is yet another development of the disturbing idea that a citizen's duty is to consume. It says that even though the current crisis is a manifestation of our collective greed, and even though this greed is killing the planet and creating poverty, we are determined to do more of the same.

It is in just such a context that Jesus calls us to do something different.: 'Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it' (Matthew 7:13).

The only responsible thing to do with such a massive splurge of public money is to put it towards healing. There are many different ways in which this could done (see the box for some suggestions) and it is appropriate that we take time to actually think and talk about it. Whether you use the money materially or symbolically is probably not important - what is important is that it makes a statement: we need to change.

Five things you could do with your $900 from Kevin

Give it all to an overseas development project in a country hit hard by the food crisis - see www.letsgiveitaway.org

Buy a 2000 litre rainwater tank (around $600) - if you own your own home, plumb it into your toilet and/or washing machine (you can get a $500 rebate in Victoria); if you rent, buy a pump and make it your sole source of water for the garden ($150 rebate, Victoria).

Hold on to it for a year (see no.5 below); when the Government's new Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme starts next year, buy $900 worth of carbon credits (around 36 tonnes of carbon dioxide) and then rip them up so no-one else can use them. This is manifestly stupid, but so is the current design of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (see article on p.3)

Send it to your state Premier and ask them to put it towards a decent public transport system.

Withdraw it in cash from the bank and stick it under your mattress (don't do this if you have a water bed). This will achieve precisely nothing, but it would be an interesting spiritual test of our attitude to money -  you could also read the Parable of the Pounds (Luke 19:11-27) and ask yourself who is really the hero in this story.

Visit mannafromkevin.wordpress.com and share your ideas.

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