Thursday, March 01, 2007

Money, Money, Money...

There was a quote that I noticed in a Toronto Star article today that caught my eye. The article was dealing with the growing gap between rich and poor in Canada, and the seemingly insatiable desire for more - even among those who would be considered wealthy. It was written by Rita Daly and the quote was attributed to Kalle Lasn, an "outspoken critic of consumer excess..." He called this "hyper-capitalist" trend in society a "social virus" and thinks that "it's eating at our culture." I don't know the guy's politics; I'd probably disagree with him about many things, but I think he has a point here.

In my dealings with people I've found a growing number who find themselves falling further and further behind. I don't mean that they can't afford the latest toys; I mean they can't afford their house or apartment; can't keep up with their bills and can't keep their car on the road. In another article in the same edition, Daly and Laurie Monsebraaten quote statistics that show that the average Canadian family with children worked 200 more hours in 2004 than in 1996 yet found themselves no further ahead. On the other hand, the top ten percent of income earners worked less, yet found their salaries growing exponentially.

For example, in 1996 the 10% richest families earned 31 times what the 10% poorest lived on. By 2004 they earned 82 times more. That's quite a change - even without a careful study of the statistics. We've all heard about the incredible salaries of CEOs both in Canada and the U.S. Here's just one example: John Hunkin stepped down from his position as CEO of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) in 2005. He now receives more than $1.3 million yearly in retirement benefits. He also received more than $25 million in stocks. His salary in 2004 alone was $1 million. His bonus for the year was over $3 million. That's just one example.

Now, let me first say that I believe in free enterprise. I also believe in social responsibility. In 2004 three of the big Canadian banks earned profits of: $2.2-billion (CIBC), $2.9-billion (Bank of Nova Scotia) and $2.83-billion (Royal). Yet my non-scientific poll and my personal experience reveal that customer service is actually declining. You receive no interest on deposits, high service fees and no tellers when you want service. This is only one sector of business. We could look similarly at the oil companies and others. We could also look at our own Federal government.

The point is that there is a grossly disproportionate share of resources being channelled into fewer hands, creating, soon, a permanent underclass. Perhaps the most telling symptom of this "social virus" is one that is hard to measure, because you can't see it. It's a growing sense among a generation that they will not be able to achieve their dreams. Not only that, but there's a growing fear that they cannot even take care of their own. It's been a while since our culture has known that fear on a wide scale.
I think that there's a reason (or reasons) for the insatiable greed on the one hand and the fear on the other. We've made money and things the measure of our success; yet things can never satisfy. I remember at Christmas waiting for the new toy and then merely days later forgetting all about it. The more we have the more we want. We also have advertisers telling us all of the things that we need because they will make us happy.
There is something very wrong with a culture where, even though the very poor are wealthy by the world's standards, there remains such a high level of dissatisfaction. If you're looking to be the richest on the block there's always a Jones (or a Trump) with more.
Wouln't it be great if more people lived the way that Mother Teresa lived? She said: "I try to give to the poor people for love what the rich could get for money. No, I wouldn't touch a leper for a thousand pounds; yet I willingly cure him for the love of God." She understood that what really matters is not what we have, but what we do with what we have.
The Biblical word for that is stewardship. It's a recognition that God is the one who has provided for us, and He intends for us to use our resources to help others; to make the world a better place. One of the best examples I've seen of this was when Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California, became a best-selling author. His book, Purpose Driven Life, has sold millions of copies and brought in millions of dollars. What does a man do with that kind of money in light of Scripture? That's what Larry King asked him. Warren and his wife decided not to buy a bigger house; to stop taking a salary from the church; to pay back the church every penny he had received in salary; to set up charitable foundations to distribute the money; to give 90% of it away and to live on only 10%. He and his wife, Kay, are now heavily involved in fighting the AIDs epidemic.
He might not be perfect - I'm sure he's not. But I think I prefer his example to that of John Hunkin. We are not accountable for what we don't have; we are accountable, however, for what does come into our possession. If each of us could keep that in mind, we could make the world a better place. Just a thought.