(Gordon Joly, March 9 2012)
The Australian government is reportedly considering an increase in the rate of the GST – the Goods and Services Tax – from 10% to 15%, and a possible expansion of taxable items. In response the Australian Council of Social Service released its modelling of the regressive effect of any increase or broadening of the GST. As a tax on consumption the GST is inherently regressive, having a proportionately greater impact on lower income households than those with a higher income. A GST increase will “hit [the] poor hard and leave the rich unscathed”.
In Australian commentary the spectre of “class war” is never far away, whether it be the Liberal government’s position on regressive taxes or penalty rates, or the Labor opposition’s early attacks on Prime Minister Turnbull’s personal wealth and Cayman Islands’ connections.
Our Christian heritage plays an important part in any class war, with a scepticism toward money and wealth enshrined at the very beginning. St Paul famously wrote that love of money is the root of all evil. Luke and Matthew’s Gospels likewise record Christ disparaging a love of wealth:
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Yet the modern world has made it more difficult than ever to avoid being servants of wealth or mammon. In a consumerist society we are encouraged to make more money, spend more money, and at the same time somehow save more money for retirement. In this respect, we should be less worried about what separates the rich from the not-so-rich, and more concerned with the consumerist attitudes both rich and poor have in common.
The consumerist paradox
The health of the economy is predicated on consumption, which in turn is facilitated by people’s dependence on the market for the provision of goods, and on the turnover of consumer goods through built-in obsolescence and carefully cultivated demands for novelty and fashion.
There is no intrinsic reason why a mobile phone should deteriorate after 24 months, or why Apple should unveil a new and only-slightly-improved iteration of the iPhone every year. But if we stopped buying new cars, phones, computers, televisions, fridges, lightbulbs, and washing machines a lot of people would lose their jobs and even more people would make less money.
Never before have we had so many needless objects to buy, and never before have we been so reliant on buying the things we actually need. For many of us, cooking our own meals is the sole remaining act of self-sufficiency in our consumerist lives and even that bulwark is slowly eroding according to a recent Washington Post report on the decline of the home-cooked meal.
From a spiritual point of view the temptation of the rich is to depend on money for everything and so love money more than God. In the past, being rich meant we could pay people to do things for us rather than having to do them ourselves. Wealth gave the impression of power, freedom, and luxury. Slaves and servants could do the dirty work – do all the work in fact.
Most of us do not consider ourselves rich – we still have to work, after all – but consumerism has made us similar to the rich in our dependence on money, on wealth, for meeting our own needs. We may not be rich relative to the billionaires and multi-millionaires, but we are just as dependent on money as they are. Consumerism has given us the rich man’s dependence on wealth without his corresponding freedom from work.
What is your time worth?
At the same time, the monetisation of life has made us willing accomplices in this consumerist trend. My accountant-friend and I make our own pasta sauce for about $1.50 per litre. To buy the commercial equivalent would cost us about $10 per litre. But these sums do not take into account the cost of our time. If we were to add the cost of a Sunday afternoon for two people, it would end up being “cheaper” for us to go to work and just buy the pasta sauce instead.
This is how most people respond: “why don’t you just buy the sauce?” And whether we call it “economic rationalism” or common sense, it would seem more sensible to convert our time into dollars instead of passata, maximising income and spending power.
But this consumerist common sense amounts to treating money as our master. As a means of exchange, money has no intrinsic value but allows us to ascribe relative value to all things. Money is more portable, more durable, more easily exchanged and hence more sought after than other goods like pasta sauce.
Money is the perfect medium of exchange, and the temptation to therefore specialise in the accumulation of money makes a great deal of sense. But as competitors in the proverbial rat-race often discover, optimising monetary income does not necessarily coincide with the happiest or most satisfying approach to life. It might be more satisfying to make pasta sauce one afternoon than to work at your usual job and buy the stuff from someone else.
Putting a price on our own time may well be the most destructive conceit of the consumerist way of life. It’s said that time is money, but time is also life and we ought to baulk at putting a price on our own lives. To reject the conclusion that money is life we have to find fault with one of the premises: either time is not life, or time is not money. I think the latter is false: no one is really paid for their time but for their work; an hourly wage is just a convenient way of measuring productivity (or lack thereof) in many occupations.
So when we consider again the example of making pasta sauce, it’s not so much a question of accounting for the cost of our time, but of considering the kinds of work we could be doing instead; or perhaps better still the kinds of things we are working for. Working for money is sensible because money has such powerful exchange value; but working for money also presupposes a number of other conditions, not least of which is another person’s willingness to pay you for your work. Part of the joy of making pasta sauce and similar products is that not only are you ”your own boss” but you are your own most valued customer as well.
The moment we go from private productivity to the realm of commercial enterprise a slew of laws, regulations, fees, accreditation, not to mention market considerations, advertising, market share, return-on-investment, economies of scale, and other hurdles and objectives come into play. There’s nothing wrong with working for money, but given the constraints and limitations surrounding it, working for things other than money can suddenly seem a lot more attractive. The problem with our consumerist society is that it puts so much value on the buying-power of money, we start to view our own potentially diverse productivity as merely a question of how to earn as much money as possible.
In choosing to make things directly rather than buying them, we are rejecting the mastery of money. What seems economically irrational starts to make sense when we consider the broader value of the work, experiences, and non-monetary gains involved in making things rather than buying them. These values might be hard to fully elucidate, but they are worth more than merely accumulating a little extra money through our usual specialised employment:
Solidarity is defined as “communion of interests and responsibilities”. Working with a friend to produce food for our families builds solidarity at the most basic level. Solidarity is an increasingly uncommon experience in a society that likes to idealise the “invisible hand” of self-interest, and in which money facilitates many individualistic options. Having a common interest in producing food demands that each person lift their weight and take responsibility with none of the protocols, safeguards, contracts, remuneration issues, or policies and procedures that are usually required when people work together for individual benefit.
Solidarity is enriching. It builds a sense of trust and commonality with others. Putting solidarity ahead of a more superficially self-interested economic imperative invests value in shared goals, experiences and resources.
Subsidiarity is a political principle which encourages the decentralisation of power to the lowest competent levels of authority. In politics it means that national governments should not take charge where states are competent to act, states should likewise not take charge where local governments or municipalities are competent to act, and local governments or municipalities should not take charge where individuals, families, or communities are competent to act. This is not merely an efficiency issue, but a justice issue: where it is good for individuals, communities, or polities to act within their competence, it is unjust for higher authorities to intervene and usurp that authority.
Subsidiarity is not usually applied to microeconomic matters, but when it comes to producing bread, pasta sauce, beer and similar goods, by analogy the lowest, most competent authority is you, the consumer. Why pay for someone else to exercise a competency that is well within your power? There’s a reason people feel disempowered and disconnected despite all the consumer choices available to them: much of our consumption annexes the domain of our own productivity, paying a “higher authority” to do what we ought to do for ourselves.
The very notion of consumer choice is facetious when you consider that all of the important choices are made not by consumers but by retailers and producers. Do you want to choose how much salt to put in your pasta sauce, which tomatoes to use, whether to add extra preservatives, sugar, or other ingredients? Sure, you do have choices, but your choice is limited to the options that the producer and retailer think will bring them each an acceptable profit. If you want real choice, make things for yourself.
Subsidiarity and solidarity suggest a more enriched perspective of wealth that deviates from a narrower consumerist mentality.
Money is not the problem
The irony of the consumerist mentality is that it is not even as money-oriented as it purports to be. Money is used as the measure and justification for many things, from deciding where to shop to finding a “better” job. But people love money as a means of gratifying our own desires and assuaging our insecurities, we don’t really love money for its own sake. If we truly loved money we would not be such wanton consumers. It would be more accurate to say that we love consuming, and we love money only to the extent that it facilitates and represents our capacity to consume. Our love of consumption over and above money is exemplified in the popular reliance on consumer credit: consumption without even the money required to fund it.
Consumerism has made us like rich men without actually making us rich. Because we are not truly rich, we fall back not on our wealth but on the work that is our sole source of income. If we were truly rich, so rich we didn’t have to work, then we might be at risk of actually loving money directly. Instead, though we love money, we know we have to sell our time and labour in order to get it. Money is bitter-sweet for us, and we mask the bitterness with further consumption.
The real problem is not money but consumerism, which makes us dependent on money and confusedly money-minded in all aspects of life. We all desire the security and freedom to consume that money offers, but there is an inherent vulnerability in this “make money, buy everything” way of life. Making and spending ever-increasing amounts of money is not economically rational. The best way to stop feeling like you never have enough is to consider why you want so much in the first place.
This isn’t a global prescription for economic reform, but part of an immediate and local critique of our consumerist spirit. We all face different priorities and pressures – self-inflicted or not, and it is up to individuals to decide what they can best do to improve their own lives and the lives of those closest to them.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com