Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Illusion of Prosperity - Who are we kidding?

Statistics Canada released some scary figures on Monday, Oct. 15. These figures indicate - in fact, they make it abundantly CLEAR - that Canadians are in a deeper debt hole than economists had anticipated. And believe me, what they had anticipated was bad enough! The fact is, the ratio of credit market household debt to disposable income has now hit a record high of 163.4%. That means that for every dollar of disposable income we earn - collectively as Canadian households - we are spending $1.63. And just as an aside, since not everyone is in debt - other figures indicate that increasing numbers of Canadians are living debt-free - the reality is that some Canadians have over-spending habits that are way beyond the 163% threshold.

The annual RBC poll for 2012 indicates that 26% of Canadians are now living debt free, not counting mortgage debt. But while that's encouraging, mortgage debt may be a wild card in the light of early indicators that Canada's housing market is softening. On average, Canadians are carrying $13,141 in non-mortgage debt. While the figures can be spun in different ways, surely no one can be completely comfortable with the degree to which we Canadians are living beyond our means... Just last week we heard reports that the International Monetary Fund is sounding an alarm about the twin towers of the softening housing market and debt levels in Canada.

And yet, we somehow believe that we are a prosperous country! Who are we kidding?

I've been reading a report just put out by the Broadbent Institute entitled Towards a More Equal Canada: A Report on Canada's Economic and Social Inequality. As one might expect (given that the Broadbent Institute is really the Ed Broadbent Institute) the paper is a clear and well formulated apologetic for NDP principles. It demonstrates clearly that any benefits of national economic growth over the past 20 years have gone disproportionately to the richest 1% - in fact, it states that:
"Almost all of the income gains during that period went to the wealthiest 20% of Canadian families, with much of that going to the top 1%. In fact, the share of all taxable income going to the top 1% of families rose from 7.4% to 11.2%, and the average income of those in the top 1% of families soared from $380,000 to $684,000."

No wonder the 99% are feeling deprived and angry! But I think there's a deeper problem than this growing gap between the super rich and the rest of us.

The deeper problem is that our economy - and the social order that it finances - is based on a model that presumes growth - perpetual, steady, hope-inspiring growth. And THAT'S a problem. It's not just a matter of dividing the pie up more equitably, with the assumption that the pie can continue to get bigger and bigger. If we're not convinced that there really are ecological limitations - only so many raw materials and natural, non-renewable resources to draw from - then the ill effects of a consumer culture driven by greed and financed by debt should be a hint that what we're doing is unsustainable and blatantly unhealthy, not only for us but for future generations. And I would say that it's really those future generations that are most at risk because they're the ones who will one day have to deal with the most inconvenient truth that our prosperity is actually an illusion.

I think I've mentioned this book before, but it bears repeating - the book is Affluenza by Oliver James. In this book James argues that there is a negative correlation between mental health and affluence - that is, the more affluent a society becomes, the greater is the incidence of mental illness and other social ills. That's the basic idea, but it's well worth the read to get the full impact of his study...

Yes, there is a problem when 30 cents of every dollar goes to the top 1% of the population, but stronger unions - part of the answer proposed by the Broadbent Institute - is not likely to result in a decision to shrink the pie.

To be fair, the vision proposed by the Broadbent Institute is quite appealing:

"There is no single magic bullet. Rather, we need to develop a comprehensive policy agenda integrating our economic, environmental, labour market, social, human rights, and taxation policies. The goal must be sustainable, shared prosperity, measured by a much broader range of indicators than GDP, which values only economic growth and not equity in its distribution."

Sounds good, but can we get there in such a way that a smaller pie to distribute is a vision that can be embraced by rich and poor alike?

I realize that this all sounds pretty gloom and doom. But there is a silver lining. The truth is, we are living in all kinds of ways that are out of compliance with our design and our destiny. Correction is necessary and though it may not be pleasant, I believe it will ultimately be for our good and our delight - and more importantly, it will be good for our neighbour, both rich and poor.

Jesus warns us about putting too much stock in material riches when he says:

"Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being (The Message, Matthew 6:19-20)."

God is not unconcerned about economic matters. The kingdom of God will not avoid economics. Rather, in the kingdom of God - trite though this may sound! - economics will be redeemed. In his book, God's Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove describes the abundant life that Jesus promises and lays out five tactics that will help us to discover it. The tactics are: subversive service (Mark 9:35); eternal investments (Matthew 6:20); economic friendships (Luke 16:9); relational generosity (Matthew 5:42); and gracious politics (Mark 12:17). This is another book that is well worth the read!

There IS a way forward and I dare say that it is a path that may appear to be overgrown and not particularly inviting, but I think we'll find that more and more pilgrims are re-discovering the beauty of this path less traveled.

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