I was round a friend’s house last night to use their mobile phone – my day job is making web sites and I needed to test how one looked – and in doing so ended up sidetracked talking about mobile phone contracts. It’s funny isn’t it how we baulk at the idea of a £499 phone but we’re happy to pay £45 a month over 2 years to use it and use the network it is on. That’s £1080.
Given the minute amount of data that we use in comparison with what the system can handle, do we really use £581 of the network’s running costs in 2 years?
Of course not.
What has happened is that the mobile phone companies have found a way to make money out of nothing. They’ve found a way to charge us for something that we didn’t know we could be charged for, and then successfully made it the norm. Very, very few people purchase handsets outright these days.
Pete and I compared this to televisions. Most people don’t buy a new TV every 2 years. Yet the technology in TVs is changing rapidly. You can now buy TVs with integrated internet! Why wouldn’t you want that? And the extra 2 inches of screen space?
We see this time and time again. Instead of buying software outright, we are now encouraged to pay a ‘subscription’ for it – a trend started by the AntiVirus companies. The claim is simple: “There are ongoing costs, so we need monthly fees”. That may have been (vaguely) true for them, then. But it is not true for a lot of software now. Yes, there are some costs – but not as much as we are being forced to part with.
Throughout the last hundred years there has been more and more of this – making money out of nothing. It is what our society thrives on. Loosely (and any economists will take me to task on this next bit I’m sure) it’s called profit. Profit is when you make more money selling something than it cost you to produce it in the first place.
But there’s a problem with that system: people often go back to the days of bartering to explain how money works: you know – I’ll give you three chickens for your sheep, and all that. But the problem with money is that it isn’t saying that any more. Instead it says “I’ll give you three chickens and then a chicken every month if you supply me with milk”. The exploitation is much more obvious when you take away the abstract (money) and replace it with real objects.
That’s not to say money is evil. The apostle Paul says that it is the love of money which is evil and he is right. But the system has been corrupted by the breaking of one of the most explicit laws in the old testament:
“36 Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. 37 You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit.”
Ahem… mortgages? Pay-day loans? Pensions? Overdrafts? Bank interest? Stock markets?
Our entire financial system, claiming roots in “Biblical” values (so often said in America) is built against one of the founding principles of Biblical economics.
So what as Christians are we to do about this? In the one sense we are trapped, part of the system. We cannot fully escape it without becoming Amish or removing ourselves entirely from the world around us. Yet to live as a part of the system means to perpetually break this code of conduct laid down before us
And a sensible code of conduct it is, too. Imagine a world where all commodity was traded at intrinsic value rather than arbitrary value driven by demand (the word alone betrays its nature). Perhaps as Christians it is our duty to play the system. Not for personal gain, but for the gain of others. Here are some practical ideas:
- Give away your interest earned on bank accounts as money to the poor
- Instead of storing up savings in banks, give it out as interest-free loans via organisations such as Kiva
- Start a business where you do not intend to make a profit but instead give ridiculously high salaries to your employees or where you give the money to projects that need it
- Share housing so that you can pay off mortgages really, really quickly, or buy housing outright
- Use your excess wealth to help others fund some of the ideas above
I could go on making suggestions; but we each need to come up with our own ways to subvert our broken, ungodly system. Perhaps one day someone will find a way to truly escape it without alienating the world from our way of life entirely. Until then I guess we just have to muddle along trying as best we can!