The Pope, Politics and the Seductive Power of the Free Market

In an opinion piece written for The Nation, a Thailand broadsheet newspaper, Bloomberg columnist Ramesh Ponnuru argued that Pope Francis misunderstands the power of the free market. He goes further and lambasts the Pope for commenting on politics, economics and other problematic social issues which are the negative side effects of free market capitalism, claiming that the Pope is misguided when it comes to offering a point of view on the social ills of the free market era and the general decline in democratic freedoms throughout the developed world. He goes so far as to say that the Pope’s thoughts and comments are “frustratingly vague, imprecise or poorly considered” (Ponnuru, December 21st 2013). Clearly he hasn’t read the full text of the Apostolic Exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium.
Ponnuru isn’t the only ‘free marketeer’ to criticize the Pope for his forthright comments on the growing inequalities in an age of unbridled wealth and riches throughout the world. In the November 2013 issue of the right wing Australian Magazine Quadrant, Mervyn Brendle argued that “there are moments when the new Pontiff can sound very much like a spokesman for the Occupy movement, but his philosophy and goals are likely to go beyond the mere propagation of slogans” (Brendle, 2013). Brendle goes on to further discredit the man by arguing that prior to being elected Pope, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a conflicted fascist/ leftist leaning Jesuit radical; and likened him to the leader of “a secret order characterized by obedience, intellectual rigor and ascetic discipline—the Jesuit virtues—but whose intellectual influences were a mish-mash of Lenin, the mystic Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade and the sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci” (Brendle, 2013).
For those who hold advanced capitalism as their overarching secular pseudo-theological view of the universe a Pope with a social conscience can be very disturbing and very threatening (China bans religion for this very fundamental reason-to avoid anyone expressing or using their social conscience to challenge or disagree with the mantra that ‘socialist greed is good’).
Yet it is the right time to have a leading world Statesman comment on the malignant cancer of greed which attacks the body politic of humanity today. Barrack Obama attempted this but has been held captive by his own country’s inert and ineffective political dialectic, and has made little progress since the massive economic depression triggered through the greed and dishonesty of the financial practices of banks, traders and investors in 2008. And other Western political leaders have long forgotten about the concept and usefulness of having a social conscience; they never utter more than a word or two about the plight of the poor, dispossessed and alienated in their countries and in other Nation States throughout the world.
The new Pope is right to condemn greed and excess. He is right to comment that the death of a homeless man is completely disregarded while a 2% downturn on the stock market makes headlines. He is right to argue in Evangelii Gaudium that “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded (Bergoglio, 2013). He says that we have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading”; and that “we have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (Ex. 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” He goes on to explain how “ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision… In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response, which is outside the categories of the marketplace.” (Bergoglio, 2013).
Pope Francis has reminded the world in Evangelii Gaudium that the old aristocratic version of Christianity inherited from the Byzantium era, and upheld in all of its corrupt splendour by his predecessors, lacks relevance in 21st century Christendom, and that living the Gospel virtues, as taught by Jesus will bring us into conflict with a rampant advanced capitalistic, free market with little regard for those with no ready cash on hand. The Pope challenges us all to think more deeply about our priorities and about what is right and wrong in the world and take a stand. I for one am glad of this timely reminder of how to live a more relevant and virtuous life.

References
Bergoglio, J. (. (2013). APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION EVANGELII GAUDIUM. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Brendle, M. (2013, November 6th). Pope Francis, Liberation and Integralism. Quadrant, pp. 12-18.
Ponnuru, R. (December 21st 2013). Pope Francis Misunderstands the Power of the Free Market. Bangkok: The Nation.

Margaret Thatcher and the Problem of Evil

The spectacle of seeing people celebrating the death of the former British Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher and stamping their feet on her pictures and images is in sharp contrast to say the downfall of Sadden Hussein or the death of Chairman Mao Zedong. In Chairman Mao’s case millions wept openly in the streets, despite him being responsible for the worst famine in Chinese history which resulted in unspeakable acts of horror, including cannibalism, and the deaths of tens of millions of his people. Similarly, the death of the ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong IL of North Korea invoked national grief on an unprecedented scale however staged it was-there was no dancing in  the streets or defacing or stamping on his picture-perhaps because most of the starving and politically repressed North Koreans didn’t have the energy to display such acts of disrespect and defiance?

 So, what did some of the well-fed and over-indulged citizens of the United Kingdom have to celebrate over the death of a seriously ill, senile old lady, who once rescued their country from the abyss of political, social and economic decline and obscurity?

During her premiership I was a young man, often full of youthful ideals, yet somewhat naïve about how one managed to govern a country and cater for the needs of in excess of 56 million people of varying cultural, religious, social and political backgrounds. I didn’t always agree with her policies, especially her ruthless approach to the crisis in Northern Ireland and her brutal suppression of the Union movement. However, her decisions and actions on these divisive and alienating religious, social and political issues have to be considered within the turbulent political framework of the time. A political solution in Northern Ireland was off the agenda and the violent revolution being promoted by the IRA culminated in her attempted assassination on October 12th 1984. The long stand off with the miner’s union broke the back of that movement and witnessed a decline in socialism as an alternative measure of economic and political reform in the United Kingdom, and her former colonies. It paved the way for ‘New Labor” or as some would argue an unprincipled socialist alternative to covet wealth and political power at the expense of its former ideals.

Margaret Thatcher is infamously credited with overseeing the decline of the manufacturing base in her country and some would even argue of adopting a deliberate policy for the purposeful destruction of the social and economic power base of the working class. Unemployment reached in excess of 3 million during the initial years of her premiership and economic reform program, while unprecedented rioting gripped many cities within the United Kingdom. The infamous ‘poll tax riots’ culminated in the deaths of over 100 people-the tax was later abolished by her predecessor, John Major.  Some 8 years after her election, unemployment had decreased, inflation was down and the economy was stable; the lady, who “wasn’t for turning” on any policy had proved her quintessential political and economic arguments.

Possessing a formidable intellect, Baroness Thatcher also had a delicious sense of humor which she always seemed to exercise at the right moment. One of my favorite examples of this is her encounter with the Australian broadcaster George Negus:

Negus: Why do people stop us in the street almost and tell us that Margaret Thatcher isn’t just inflexible, she’s not just single-minded, on occasions she’s plain pig-headed and won’t be told by anybody?

Thatcher: Would you tell me who has stopped you in the street and said that?

Negus: Ordinary Britons…

Thatcher: Where?

Negus: In conversation, in pubs…

Thatcher (interrupting): I thought you’d just come from Belize

Negus: Oh this is not the first time we’ve been here.

Thatcher: Will you tell me who, and where and when?

Negus: Ordinary Britons in restaurants and cabs

Thatcher: How many?

Negus: …in cabs

Thatcher: How many?

Negus: I would say at least one in two

Thatcher: Why won’t you tell me their names and who they are?

 Another one I still chuckle over is “No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well”.

In contrast to other more notorious and scandal ridden 20th  and 21st  century western political and intellectual figures like Ann Rand, Newt Gingrich, George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin; Margaret Thatcher never destroyed her own country and its reputation or someone else’s country and its citizenry.  She achieved something-she rebuilt a country, economy and empire in decline. In doing so she maintained a stable marriage and family life and modeled in her private life what she promoted in her public life ““My policies are based not on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day’s works for an honest day’s pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.” The very people captured “dancing on her grave” are the ones who should take this advice to heart. They will continue to benefit from the social, economic and political reforms she had the courage to carry out at a time when collective and civil responsibility was subordinated to individual entitlement.

Hatred is a powerful emotional driving force in producing irrational and dangerous human behavior. In the case of Margaret Thatcher perhaps “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” (Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene II).

Mass Unemployment :The Irony in Education for the Masses

The reality facing us today, regardless of the level of education we’ve attained is there’s very little cause for hope if we continue the same determinist approach in our schools, universities and colleges; that is educating to serve an increasingly redundant and collapsing economic and social order. Unemployment is at catastrophic levels throughout the world. In the West, the vast majority of jobs for the lower and middle classes have been outsourced to the developing economies of India and China. Moreover, those that remain are jobs which simply prop up an economic and educational system where any diploma or degree once earned is immediately undermined through a corrupt meritocracy that promotes anyone able pay to the front of the queue. In a desperate attempt to invent new ways to make money (and make people think they are valued) we have created the priority queue. This insidious idea is that a person pays to get through a queue quicker-they don’t have to wait. The system is used in supermarkets, medical centres, places of worship, night clubs, and movie theatres and themes parks. It even includes priority traffic lanes, priority seating in airplanes, lounges, restaurants, and priority classes in Colleges and schools, even priority restrooms! All the obverse of the morally corrupt idea that if you slip a couple of bucks to anyone you’ll get through the door and be ahead of everyone else. Money talks. Knowledge and its pursuit for the greater good of everyone is becoming increasingly irrelevant in an age of impulsive and reckless capitalism.

The values of respect for individual differences, social class, understanding, care, compassion, tolerance, patience and hard work have been usurped by a money culture which deludes everyone into thinking they may gain access to the top of the pyramid. Since the catastrophic collapse of the world economy in 2008, mainly caused through greed and usury by those at the top of the pyramid, most of the jobs in industry, manufacturing, middle management, and other semi-skilled professions in some of the key western industrial based economies have disappeared-never to return. Furthermore, rapid advancements in technology have eroded job vacancies in manufacturing, the auto-industry and traditional white collar professions. What’s more developments in technology are usurping the way we learn and undermining the teaching and learning profession. Educational theories and methodologies are being duped into promoting a kind of interactive edutainment in the belief (mainly endorsed by multi- billionaire corporation like Samsung,  Apple Inc. and Microsoft) that learners will be better educated in the present and the future. This just isn’t true. The inexorable fact is we live in an age of uncertainties and insecurities and the kinds of inventions and innovations which laid the foundations for economic growth, education and security in previous centuries and created entire industries, no longer exist for us today. It is unlikely such a golden age will ever return. Some would argue (like most of our leaders) that this is not the case, and that technology,  Ed. Tech. tools, mobile devices, computers and the Internet, which have given rise to mini-industries in their own right have created new opportunities for everyone. But, the reality is that the jobs and opportunities which have been spawned in the technology sector are highly specialized for the most part and also there just aren’t enough of them to go around the 200 million plus people unemployed in the world today. For example, retail opportunities presented through Ebay, Amazon and other online industries, are limited in number, and do not even begin to make inroads into say the USA unemployment figure of 12.5 million or the United Kingdom’s 2.59 million unemployed. What’s more the applications and services made possible by Face book, My Space and LinkedIn etc. along with the mobile cosmos opened up by the deluge of smartphone and other mobile device manufactures hasn’t alleviated unemployment in the slightest, despite claims that it has done so. The truth is the world needs to create a further 400 million jobs over the next ten years to avert a further increase in the current world-wide unemployment rate, and even if it does so –which is highly unlikely-this would still leave 900 million workers living with their families below the US$2 a day poverty line, largely in developing countries.(ILO, 2012)

High Tech companies like Apple Inc. while grabbing a billion dollar market to promote their gadgetry in a failing education sector, outsource most of their work from the USA and avoid paying decent wages and humane employment conditions to their workers (some who have been found to be underage). It seems not only do economists and educators have their heads buried in the sands of their own ideological mindsets but so do the world’s leaders. We hear what they say clearly: “we’ll create more jobs, more opportunities for economic growth…” and so on; but what we see everywhere doesn’t match this kind of utopian rhetoric prophesying recovered economies and good times ahead for everyone. Among a plethora of crises facing the world in general and the educational sector in particular is unemployment:

Country

% General   Unemployment

% Youth   Unemployment

Angola

26

17

Australia

6.5

11.9

Austria

4.2

8.8

Argentina

7.2

21.5

Belgium

7.2

22.4

Bosnia  & Herzegovina           27.6                 47
Brazil

5.3

17.8

Chile

6.6

22.6

China

4.1

7.6

Denmark

7.6

15.1

Egypt

12.4

25

France

9.6

21.8

Greece

18

51.2

Germany

6.8

7.9

India

3.8

10.5

Italy

8.4

30

Kenya

40

64

Mexico

4.9

9.1

New Zealand

6.8

16.9

Nigeria

23.9

56

Peru

6.2

14

Poland

12.4

22.3

Russia

6.6

17.2

South Africa

23

74

Spain

25.1

51.1

Thailand

0.9

4.3

Turkey

8

15.4

United Kingdom

8.0

21.9

United States

8.9

23.4

Venezuela

7.4

13.6

Zimbabwe

95

24

Source: multiple sources were used to compile this graph-please contact the blog for details

There just aren’t the jobs which were once guaranteed at the end of one’s high school diploma or University/College degree.  This begs the question of why we continue to educate for a world which no longer exists. Why not educate for a world which could exist, a world in which hope grows out of struggle and caring for one another, and cooperation and support are valued over aggressive competition. A world where human beings are not debased because of how much they earn or have accrued throughout their lives, but are valued for who they are as persons.

An alternative archetype of education to challenge today’s deterministic model needs to be liberating. We seem to have come full cycle because such a model was argued for by John Dewey and the social Reconstructionists nearly a century ago. The model proposed below for the post-modern age is similar, and one predicated on the principle that education should not simply be a matter of reproducing the values, knowledge and skills of a dominant culture that sets up one social class against another; rather it must advance a just and fair society while promoting an emancipatory approach to understanding ourselves in relation to the times we live in:

Group

Topic Area

Description

A

Languages & Cultures A study of Narratives  and Lifestyles from throughout the world

B

Linear   Theories and Models of Thinking and Being Mathematics and the Natural Sciences

C

Knowledge and Human Societies A cross cultural study of the teaching and learning people have created throughout history to add   meaning to their lives

D

Gender   Studies Understanding Social Constructions of self and the ‘other’

E

Learning to Understand Cultures, Religion and   Spirituality A study of the  paradigms of thought which add meaning to people’s lives

F

Awareness   and Understanding of Self Design your own program of study based   on the themes within  the table’s influence

G

Sports Science & the Creative and Performing Arts A Collaborative approach to kinesthetic learning and knowing

H

Environmental   Awareness and Understanding Learning to live a sustainable lifestyle

This model has a compelling epistemological foundation, along with sufficient time set aside to promote, cultivate and encourage critical thinking, reflection and rumination on what is taught, learned and achieved throughout the years of formal education.  It is based on the ‘uncertainty of being’, which is a significant characteristic of living in our late post-modern societies. It places the learner at the centre of the teaching and learning process. It does not subordinate the procedure of teaching and learning to any specific ideology or methodological processes, neither does it shackle teaching nor learning to the hype and technophoria of multi-media and edutainment; rather it places such gadgetry in its proper servitudinal position, as instructional tools which may or may not be helpful at any given point in the formal educational process. In the model above learners are required to undertake a course of study from Groups A,E,F,G and H plus one elective from B, C, D or E. Or they may negotiate a course which best suits their circumstances and aspirations. Self assessment against criterion referenced descriptors would form the basis of formal learning appraisal. Students would be learning at their own pace and not be fiercely competing against one another to achieve the highest grades. Moreover, they’ll gain an understanding that the future grows out of their own creation and doesn’t need to be dependent on the deeds or misdeed of others. An essential part of this alternative model to education today is the personal growth and development of the individual. If education is to be liberating for communities, societies and nations, then it must begin with liberating the self.

ILO. (2012, October 4th). Exceutive Summary. Retrieved October 4th, 2012, from International Labor Organisation: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/@publ/documents/publication/wcms_171679.pdf

Money, Power and Education.

Catching up with the daily news and its portrayals of violence, revealed terrorist plots, drug wars, family wars and the blatant corruption within some sectors of the corporate world, in particular the banking sector, is akin to reading an updated publication of Sebastian Falk’s 2009 novel A Week in December.  Art really does imitate life-or is it the other way around? May be it’s all about self-fulfilling prophecies? Anyway, to use a Falkism, Goldbag have been at it again!  In April of 2010 the US Securities and Exchange Commission filed charges against the Investment Bank, Goldman Sachs, alleging that Bags full of Gold defrauded investors by misstating and omitting key facts about a financial product tied to subprime mortgages as the U.S. housing market was collapsing. Serious charges given what the sub-prime mortgage crisis did to average working Americans and by extension to a global population of workers who have simply become an extension of global capital in the form of tradable cultural capital, inter-dependent on a new order of financial deregulation and globalization.

This isn’t the first time Goldbag (and not the last?) have been caught out for their double standards and corrupt business dealings. In 2003 the United States Securities and Exchange Commission found that the Goldman Sachs Group had been complicit in corrupt business practices which had enabled the organization to benefit from its own research analyst’s inside information on currencies and securities trading, and investment banking. Goldman Sach’s consented to the findings of the SEC without admitting or denying the allegations. They also consented to a final judgment which cost the organization in excess of US 100 million dollars.

On August 9th 2012 the SEC announced that Goldbag would not be prosecuted for its unethical business practices which significantly contributed to the 2008 world-wide financial crisis. Surprised? Not really. Others have argued elsewhere about cronyism in the age of advanced capitalism. Hope for change? It looks bleak I’m afraid. Why? Well Goldman Sachs has a philanthropic wing-a foundation funded through the Goldman Sachs Group. The charitable wing was inaugurated in 1999 with a funding grant from the parent company of 200 million dollars (US). Since its inception the foundation has donated generously to the educational needs of young people in selected countries throughout the world. It argues that its ‘mission’ is to “promote excellence in education worldwide…and to enhance the academic performance and prospects for achievement at secondary level, and to develop the abilities of promising high potential youth worldwide, and to support high quality education for young people in business and entrepreneurship.”[1]

These goals are not dissimilar to any primary or secondary school’s mission statement and values insofar as they argue that the foundation’s aim is for the betterment of youth through educational programmes. But this would be as far as one could go in drawing any kind of comparative ideal and vision between the Goldman Sach’s Foundation and any school’s value system.

Fundamental to the Goldman Sachs group are its fourteen business principles worth quoting in full here:

  • “Our clients’ interests always come first. Our experience shows that if we serve our clients well, our own success will follow.
  • Our assets are our people, capital and reputation. If any of these is ever diminished, the last is the most difficult to restore. We are dedicated to complying fully with the letter and spirit of the laws, rules and ethical principles that govern us. Our continued success depends upon unswerving adherence to this standard.
  • Our goal is to provide superior returns to our shareholders. Profitability is critical to achieving superior returns, building our capital, and attracting and keeping our best people. Significant employee stock ownership aligns the interests of our employees and our shareholders
  • We take great pride in the professional quality of our work. We have an uncompromising determination to achieve excellence in everything we undertake. Though we may be involved in a wide variety and heavy volume of activity, we would, if it came to a choice, rather be best than biggest.
  • We stress creativity and imagination in everything we do. While recognizing that the old way may still be the best way, we constantly strive to find a better solution to a client’s problems. We pride ourselves on having pioneered many of the practices and techniques that have become standard in the industry.
  • We make an unusual effort to identify and recruit the very best person for every job. Although our activities are measured in billions of dollars, we select our people one by one. In a service business, we know that without the best people, we cannot be the best firm.
  • We offer our people the opportunity to move ahead more rapidly than is possible at most other places. Advancement depends on merit and we have yet to find the limits to the responsibility our best people are able to assume. For us to be successful, our men and women must reflect the diversity of the communities and cultures in which we operate. That means we must attract, retain and motivate people from many backgrounds and perspectives. Being diverse is not optional; it is what we must be.
  • We stress teamwork in everything we do. While individual creativity is always encouraged, we have found that team effort often produces the best results. We have no room for those who put their personal interests ahead of the interests of the firm and its clients.
  • The dedication of our people to the firm and the intense effort they give their jobs are greater than one finds in most other organizations. We think that this is an important part of our success.
  • We consider our size an asset that we try hard to preserve. We want to be big enough to undertake the largest project that any of our clients could contemplate, yet small enough to maintain the loyalty, the intimacy and the esprit de corps that we all treasure and that contribute greatly to our success.
  • We constantly strive to anticipate the rapidly changing needs of our clients and to develop new services to meet those needs. We know that the world of finance will not stand still and that complacency can lead to extinction.
  • We regularly receive confidential information as part of our normal client relationships. To breach a confidence or to use confidential information improperly or carelessly would be unthinkable.
  • Our business is highly competitive, and we aggressively seek to expand our client relationships. However, we must always be fair competitors and must never denigrate other firms.
  • Integrity and honesty are at the heart of our business. We expect our people to maintain high ethical standards in everything they do, both in their work for the firm and in their personal lives” [2]

When compared to the ethics inherent in the modernist educational system these 14 business principles share very little with a culturally interdependent worldview promoted through our general education in primary and secondary schools, and for that matter reputable Colleges and Universities, where the virtues of care and compassion together with ideals valuing inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people are considered central to the advancement of humankind.

Values inherent within General Education Goldman Sachs Group Core Values based on 14 Business Principles
  • Character Formation of Youth
  • Inquisitive, Knowledgeable Caring Youth
  • Create a better , peaceful World
  • Intercultural understanding and respect
  • Compassionate Learners
  • Unity through diversity

 

  • Service through self interest
  • People are assets
  • Profit over people
  • Uncompromising corporate ethic
  • Unchanging and inflexible “the old way may be the better way”
  • Meritocracy and Group ‘think’ ethos
  • Individuality is spurned
  • Loyalty to corporate culture
  • Limited vision: Finance is the world
  • Conflicting ethics : aggressive integrity and honesty
  • Integrate corporate values into personal life

 

When the inherent assumptions and values of the banking sector, which seem to include corrupt, and questionable (some would argue illegal) business practices, aggressive competitiveness, corporate conformity and youth as cultural capital, are juxtaposed with the values and principles of a sound rational primary and secondary education, one begins to see how these ideals and values are able to be corrupted, compromised and undermined at the end of a young person’s formative years in the educational system.

In taking the moral high ground in their mission statement and set of business principles, Goldman Sachs may well claim that such actions of which they have been accused of several times in the past 15 years, are “unthinkable”; yet clearly in the exceedingly competitive world of corporate power and commercial finance, are permissible if you don’t get caught. The recent SEC findings confirm this viewpoint. While this may sound harsh and somewhat judgmental, one needs to consider that Goldman Sachs, along with the majority of the banking sector are corporate organizations which on the one hand deal in the high risk, high stakes financial trading, where values of vociferous competitiveness, absolute corporate power, unbridled wealth and success at what ever cost, outweighing any values of cooperation, compassion, justice and the equitable sharing of our material resources. Cleverly, Goldman Sachs corporate actions are masked by their philanthropic wing which is seen through the public gaze as promoting and even fostering values associated with excellence in education and a successful career at the end of a college and/or University education. I would assert that it is only in a system of schooling, and a world of work where our lives are able to be compartmentalized, that such pathways to success can be validated morally, socially and politically. There seems little hope for positive, ethical change in the long term.

Everyone’s Crisis: Human Excess and the Failure of Global Capitalism in the Early 21st Century by Lawrence Burke, Ed.D

Behind the veil of combative western political dramas being played out in the United States of America and much of Europe today, is the emergence of an older yet familiar ideological battle about who will control much of the global power and wealth in the 21st century. The crisis of global capital mainly pertaining to the western industrialized countries has dominated much of the early part of the 21st century. Its beginnings are sourced in the naïve politics of economic and financial deregulations which swept the west during the early 1980s. Naïve because the architects of economic reform and financial deregulation never factored in human nature, and its capacity for greed, covertness and an inclination to an idle life. Some thirty years on from the global economic reforms begun in the 1980s, the crisis enveloping Greece and the Euro Zone countries and the wider world attest to this claim.

I remember clearly as a young man who had grown up in the poorer suburbs of the now quake stricken city of Christchurch, how the Labour government of the day elected on a platform of equality and dignity for all, especially the working poor and disenfranchised families of New Zealand, deceived and betrayed their supporters at a critical juncture in the country’s history. The man considered to this day as the great traitor of New Zealand’s labor party principles, Roger Douglas, took a small country with a population of around 3.5 million people, and a diminishing unemployment rate of between 0 and 2.5% to one of upwards of 6 and 7 %. It reached a peak of up to 11.5% in the early days of his great experimentation of economic and financial deregulation. (Economics, 2011). Today it hovers around 6.75%. Douglas was the first of several New Zealand finance ministers to sell off the country’s greatest assets, including lands and forests, to foreign interest.

Similar measures towards lassie faire policies of financial and economic reform occurred in Australia too. In 1985 the former head of the Australian Trade Union movement Bob Hawke, announced major restructuring to that country’s fiscal policy in a move not only considered ironic given Hawke’s left wing trade union background and his subsequent rise to the highest political office in his country, but also because like his New Zealand counterpart, he along with his government deceived their supporters in one of the greatest political betrayals of the 20th century. Many Australians recall with dismay the vehement homophobic rebuff Hawke gave the late Nobel Laureate Patrick White after he rebuked Hawke for compromising on his traditional labor principles and selling out to his constituency. But, such is the character of many politicians. It’s not as if we hadn’t been forewarned from history about the low principles of political purpose, that after it “attains its ambition the climber-upward turns his face; and unto the ladder turns his back, looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees by which he did ascend.” (Shakespeare, Julius Casear)

Further North, in the United States, Great Britain and Europe a virtual frenzy of fiscal reform took place from the early 1980s. However, for the most part this occurred under the guardianship of conservative governments, who from the outset canvassed on an open and transparent political agenda. Margaret Thatcher made it clear that “pennies didn’t come from heaven…and there was no such thing as a society”, just people linked by an economic imperative. (Campbell, 2009) While Regan in the United States proclaimed “we in government should learn to look at our country with the eyes of the entrepreneur, seeing possibilities where others see only problems” (Regan, 1984). Germany certainly understood and achieved this and managed sustained economic growth and fiscal reform from the mid 1980s up to and after reunification with the East. It was Germany, with the tacit support of France who spearheaded a greater European Union, and it was France in 2001 which embraced Greece into the fold, along with its mounting deficit, poor work ethic and corrupt government and private sector. Other poor former Eastern European countries had also been subsumed, along with their debt and outdated bureaucratic and political infrastructure into the New Europe with Romania, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania among them.

Back in 1989, in the midst of financial deregulation and the economic enlightenment of the day, Johan Galtung, a Norwegian Europhile argued that a greater united Europe would equal peace and prosperity for the continent’s population. His argument based on an open-minded idealism claimed that a unified Europe based on co-opted social and fiscal policies would lead to greater security and long term peace on the continent. A unified Europe would become a social and economic model for the whole world, a virtual utopia of freethinking values comprising of unity through diversity, multi-culturalism and everyone working towards the greater good of a common financial and trade based marketplace. Moreover, he asserted that a United States of Europe would be a model for the United States of America to embark on its own hegemonic model for the western hemisphere. (Galtung, 1989) Subsequent historical events have since debunked this fairytale wonderland view of humanity, and in retrospect it is difficult to comprehend the gullibility that led to these claims unless they are placed within the historical and social context of financial and economic deregulation.

For Galtung and many Europhiles deregulation of the financial and economic sector equaled an open society, the unlimited potential for a multi- cultural milieu without borders, one in which people would work and prosper together. And where this had the potential to fall apart, a natural insurgency of the disaffected would emerge to protect the Union. Galtung’s naiveté of the human condition asserted that the Green movement would plug all the ideological holes appearing in his vision of a unified Europe and along with the Peace movement and Feminist politics as such, would “challenge monopoly control by the governments over means of coercion in general and military power in particular, in the modern state” (Galtung, 1989) None of Galtung’s and his supporters’ fantastical claims has come about. Today, the European Union is closer to fragmentation than at any time in its short history. NATO has found itself caught up in three military campaigns, in a secular coup-de tat the Peace movement has been subsumed into a Green agenda scaremongering us about an environmental Armageddon, and unemployment in the 27 member Euro zone has reached up to twenty five million men and women.

As the unfolding economic calamity continues, economists and financial commentators focus on investor and corporate behavior as the primary cause of the current sovereign debt crisis embroiling most of Europe and the industrialized West. Investigations into corporate practices which precipitated the 2008 financial debacle and prepared the ground work for the 2011 crisis have shown poor risk assessment, greed and mismanagement of investors’ funds to be at the core of the crisis. Documentaries, films, books and articles have all pointed the finger and laid blame at the feet of someone other than the consumer. It has been asserted via all media that the consumers of capital in all its guises and products are the victim of foul play. This is simply not true. All citizens in the wealthier westernized industrialized nation states are complicit in the global financial crisis.  No one in today’s world is untouched by global capitalism. Many ordinary people, who are the consumers of capital, are in one way or another partially responsible for today’s economic mess, although some more than others.

In the early days of financial and economic deregulation, when protectionism was eschewed in favor of creating countries with ‘business friendly’ regulations to their markets, no-one consulted history or gave a lot of thought about the lessons learned from events leading up to and surrounding the Great Depression. In the 1920s, that era of decadence and largesse preceding the Great Depression and World War 2, regulations were changed to open financial markets to everyone, including the poor. Competition and financial access to the marketplace was created to lift ordinary people out of poverty. Such moves were considered innovative for the day, and it was claimed would eventually lead to a golden age of prosperity and well being for all. So heeding the call to become rich like the rich, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans invested in the stock market. Many borrowed money to invest and when the whole giant Ponzi scheme tumbled down around their ears, they lost along with their material wealth, their dignity as human beings. No-one wanted to know the poor. Steinbeck still tells a great story. Europe suffered too, as funds were withdrawn from the Continent and diverted to a financially bankrupt American monetary system.

Today we fare no better. Most of us live in permanent debtor nations, some worse off than others, and the statistics are alarming. For the United Kingdom it is in excess of £16,000 per person, in the United States it is above $46,000 per person, in Germany it is €22,000 per person, and in France it is €25, 000 per person. Down under in Australia it is a just over $5000 AUD, while it’s poorer New Zealand neighbors owe a whopping $42,000NZ per person. (Agnew, 2011) Clearly, there are still some important lessons to be learned from an open lassie faire economic and financial sector.

According to Lewis (2011), Icelandic men exchanged their traditional fishing industry to become Reykjavik’s answer to Wall Street, Europe, and the United Kingdom, embraced them with open arms. Ordinary Britons poured billions of pounds into Icelandic banks. He asserts further that when Ireland started borrowing heavily from the Euro Zone, and inventing investment banks like Anglo-Irish, ordinary Irish men and women borrowed at an unprecedented rate from them and started a house building frenzy in the hope that hundreds of thousands of tourist would flock to their country. The Irish built so many houses on borrowed money that there are now more empty houses in Ireland per capita than in any other country in the world. Every Icelander and Irish man and women wanted to be millionaires! His harshest words are for the Greeks, who he claims wanted the easy life, basking in the achievements not of their own making, but on the hard fought gains of old Europe’s twenty years of economic gains.  (Lewis, 2011) Elsewhere, ordinary opportunistic folk in other Western nations grabbed at easy credit to “live the dream”. Mortgage free houses were re-mortgaged, credit cards offers and low interest loans were snatched up, and the money came rolling in. New cars, second and third houses, trips of a life time overseas, gleaming jewels and the latest electronic products and gadgets were purchased mainly on credit; that is with other people’s money. Investment and Commercial Banks, Advertising Agencies and consumers all joined in a symbiotic relationship of easy credit and effortless greed.

The current financial turmoil and hardship is of our own making. It is profoundly naïve and hypocritical of the Occupy Wall Street protests and similar movements to claim they have been hard done by when they have tacitly, and more often than not openly been the recipients of their respective country’s wealth gains since they were born. Similarly, it is incredibly selfish to take to the streets and demand entitlements for benefits which may have been used as investments and shown diminished returns, knowing full well that these are the inherent risks of capitalism at work. A great number of ordinary people made choices to burden themselves with debt, for a quick rush of pleasure and the good life, ignoring the universal law of cause and effect. The wealthy too have exploited the situation to make their gains; the more infamous like Bernie Madoff and Raj Rajaratnam are ending their careers in anything but a gilded cage.

In December 2011 German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a rewrite of the European Union’s treaty so as to create a more tightly controlled fiscal zone. Such has been the lessons learned from the Greece debacle, which could yet still bring the whole European Union to its knees, such is the level of rot and decay within the Greek private and public sector. Merkel wants Brussels to act as a de-facto Board of Directors to member countries and tightly control monetary policy. Membership of the Union will be reviewed too, with candidate countries to be more closely scrutinized as to the level of their sovereign debt, their capacity to repay as well as the soundness of their government infrastructure and the integrity of their population’s work ethic. But we are in for a long contentious battle over these and future new Euro zone rules, if the signing of the Lisbon treaty is an historical marker on which to gauge future successes.   Similarly, the United States of America appears at a hopeless impasse with its elected representatives locked in a divisive dispute on how to pay off their monumental and ceaselessly increasing public sector debt.

But it is to Merkel’s credit that she recognizes that financial and economic de-regulation must factor in the greed and covertness of human nature if the European Union and indeed the world economy are to survive in their current form. As for the rest of us with our unavoidable responsibility to the public and private debt of our respective countries there are hard times ahead. Yet, notwithstanding the pain to come, it does seem incredulous that warnings from history were never heeded over 30 years ago. “See, sons, what things you are, how quickly nature falls into revolt. When gold becomes her object. (Shakespeare, Henry IV)

References

Agnew, S. (2011). Report on National Debt Per Head of Population. Brussels: European Parliament.

Campbell, J. (2009). The Iron Lady. New York: Penguin.

Economics, T. (2011, November 30th). New Zealand Unemployment Rate. Retrieved December 2nd, 2011, from Trading Economics: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/new-zealand/unemployment-rate

Galtung, J. (1989). Europe in the Making. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Lewis, M. (2011). Boomerang-Travels in the New Third World. New York: Norton.

Regan, R. (1984). Regan Quotes. Retrieved December 3rd, 2011, from The Ronald Regan Residential Foundation and Library: http://www.reaganfoundation.org/reagan-quotes.aspx

Shakespeare, W. (1987). Henry IV. New York: Signet.

Shakespeare, W. (1987). Julius Casear. New York: Signet.