Sunday, 19 February 2012

Faith and Reason & the Occupy Movement

Ian Harris   Otago Daily Times      Feb. 10, 2012

The evictions of Occupy protesters from their patches in Auckland and Wellington seem to have been greeted with relief by the public at large. Even the many who sympathised with the cause – outrage at the rapacious greed of major banks and financial institutions, obscenely large salaries and bonuses for top earners, massive taxpayer-funded bail-outs, corporate power corrupting politics, political indifference over growing income inequality – wondered what the protesters could gain by prolonging their encampments.

Though criticism of the Occupy movement’s shortcomings has flowed thick and fast, its achievements ought not be discounted.  Since September, protests have been mounted in more than 2800 centres around the world. In some sections of the overseas media, serious discussion has taken place about the economic distortions generated by the 30-year neoliberal ascendancy. Some British bankers have been shamed into refusing $2 million bonuses they would otherwise have accepted as their due. Last week former Royal Bank of Scotland chief Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood. The cost to societies of allowing big business maximum freedom to make maximum profits, without government regulation or constraint, has become clear.

In Britain, for example, between 1999 and 2009 the poorest tenth of the population saw their income eroded by 12 per cent, while the top tenth enjoyed a 37 per cent rise.  In the United States, productivity rose by 119 per cent between 1947 and 1979, and the bottom fifth of the population shared the benefit as their incomes rose 122 per cent. Along came the Reagan reforms, and from 1979 to 2009 productivity rose by 80 per cent, the incomes of the bottom fifth fell 4 per cent – and the wealthiest one per cent basked in a 270 per cent bonanza. Then, after the moguls of high capitalism had guided many of their businesses to the brink of collapse and wiped $19,000 billion [Subs: US$16,000 billion] from American household wealth, they had the gall to beg the state they deplore to rescue them from the wreckage.

At one level, these are not problems of religion. At another, they are inherently religious because they have to do with human motivation, values, freedom and ethics, and every religion has a lot to say about those. The motivation of those who triggered the financial meltdown was greed. The values they pursued were the status and power that wealth confers. The freedom they invoked was freedom to exploit others. Ethics involves awareness of the effects of people’s actions on the society of which they are part, but these high-fliers cared nothing about that.

There have been no sustained moves to call them to account – and the Occupy protesters, along with millions of sympathisers, find that repugnant to any notion of justice and fair play. Part of the problem is that in a globalising world the primary allegiance of the multinationals is to themselves, not to any state or society. In tandem with that, the institutions that have so ravaged the world’s economies are now so influential that governments show more concern to rescue them than rein them in. The markets are not going to change the way they do business unprompted, so any change will have to come from governments focused on the well-being of the totality of their societies. The key question then becomes: What best serves the common good?

Suggestions abound, some from the Occupy movement, some from economists and some from church leaders. Among them:
 □ Ensure that risks and rewards, for companies and ordinary folk alike, are shared fairly across society.
□ Make depositors less vulnerable to market lurches by ring-fencing banks’ routine customer services from their investment arms.
□ Oblige banks bailed out with public money to direct lending towards reviving the real economy, by encouraging productive industry and stimulating social mobility.
□ Explode the myth that the super-rich deserve their millions because of a unique talent. Most simply got lucky.
□ Require transparency in setting executive pay, including getting shareholder approval, adding employees and independents to remuneration committees, and publishing the pay ratio between a company’s highest-paid executive and the company median.
□ Ban short-selling (where investors sell stocks without owning them, gambling on buying them more cheaply before delivery and pocketing the difference), and tighten rules on commodity trading.
□ Impose a “Tobin tax” of 0.05 per cent on transactions between financial institutions, with proceeds earmarked for investment in the productive economy at home and abroad.
□ Clamp down on tax havens.
□ Work towards some form of global monetary authority, taking account of the interests of developing countries.

All it would take around the globe is political will. Don’t hold your breath.

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