Sunday, March 1, 2009

Are "you" the reason for our present recession?

It's easy to try to find people to blame for the present recession that seems to have gripped the economies of the world.  Greedy bankers, CEOs with exorbitant salaries and bonuses, politicians who encouraged out of control debt.  The list could go on, and there is a degree of truth to all of it.  But the issue goes much deeper, as an insightful article in Macleans a few weeks ago, points out. The article suggests that, quite simply, the present debt crisis may have come about because we all came to believe that we deserved the very best whether we could afford it or not. 

As the article's authors point out, "advertising has always promised us a better life through stuff. But listen for it, and you’ll notice the pitch has changed.  The shift is subtle, but powerful."  There was a time when advertising encouraged aspirations to a better you, a better life, a rosier future.  "See this," the ad would suggest. "This could be you."  That changed in recent years and I saw it expressed around the world, even among developing world Christians.  People began to believe that they need not aspire to anything; they were already worthy of it, they deserved it, they were owed it, they should get it now.  The focus shifted from desire and aspiration to entitlement and affirmation. 

In the West, this affirmational approach (you are perfect just the way you are, you deserve this, it's all about you!) led to debt accumulation of a type never seen in history. Now the time has come to pay the piper and many are finding that their possessions are worth less than what they owe for them. In the rest of the world, it also led to debt but also to dependency on foreign generosity fed by Western guilt over the perceived financial inequalities between churches in the developed and developing world.  We contributed to this by convincing our brothers and sisters in the developing world that they should have all of the gadgets and perks that we have. Now. Why use your old computer that, though adequate, lacked certain features?  Your international partners will surely get you a new one.  Surely you can't be a church leader without a Blackberry?  After all, all of the foreigner missionaries have one.  Why worship in a home or a grass hut, which a fancier, cement and steel facility could be built, even if the ability to pay for and maintain such a building is impossible. Surely the foreigner, with his wealth, owes it to you!  Why wait, when you can be get it now?  Why save, when you can ask someone else to fund it?  And we in the West, with our good intentions and values increasingly influenced by values of entitlement and instant gratification created an environment where the passing on of such beliefs to our foreign partners was not only possible but inevitable.  We rewarded those who sought after things like we did! 

I wonder if this recession is really going to teach us anything about our sense of entitlement and inappropriate use of money and debt both here and around the world.  Our present attitudes created this mess but now we seem intend on insisting that our government spend their (our) way into oblivion in an attempt to get back to where we think we deserve to be. 


Matthew said...

"I wonder if this recession is really going to teach us anything about our sense of entitlement and inappropriate use of money and debt both here and around the world."

Given that conservatives are preaching TAX CUTS TAX CUTS TAX CUTS so we can give lots more money back to the people who spent their way into debt (not that I think tax cuts are a bad thing, just not the root of the problem like you discuss here.) I like this post a lot, but sadly I think that very few people are actually talking about how to work for the cultural change that we need to live more simply and prudently.

Glenn Penner said...

I am also not convinced that we can spend our ways out of this problem either, which is a worse approach, to my mind, than tax-cutting. Tax cutting, I think is actually the lesser of the two evils. These bail outs are more symptomatic of the problem that says that our solution to life's needs is to spend, spend, spend. So, I am actually more in favour of the conservative solution than the more liberal approach of letting big government spend my money to solve my problem. I tend to trust people more that I trust governments to use money for things like food and clothing. Sure, there will be those who will fail use tax cuts wisely, but as we have already seen, massive bailouts to banks and car companies hasn't done much to correct their sense of entitlement.