Feast or Famine - how the Gospel challenges Austerity
It would be difficult to find a top ranking economist who supports the idea that austerity policies will solve the economic problems of the nations that are implementing them. Nobel prize winners and others agree that it is, to use the title of Mark Blyth’s book (mentioned in this book’s further reading list) on austerity, “a dangerous idea.”
Unfortunately most people will never read substantial books on economics. They will rely on media which all too often portray people relying on state provided benefits as feckless, ill-disciplined scroungers. That makes this slim volume, drawn together by Simon Barrow of the Ekklesia think tank, especially valuable. It is intended for use as a Lent Course for groups or individuals, but would repay careful study at any time.
The Introduction, “Moving beyond austerity: a Christian Challenge” forms a solid basis for the book which follows. Thee are helpful definitions, for example, austerity is “difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure.” There are also hard hitting and challenging statements, such as “…the belief that money is a commodity that can be in short supply. That’s true for you and me, but it isn’t true of the national or global economy.” And, “The biggest lie of and about austerity is that ‘there’s not enough money’. That is untrue. We live in a world gifted by God, as Christians say, which has more than enough resources to sustain us…”
A moment’s thought will show that there was enough money (a “magic money tree”) ten years ago to bail out the financial system. These economic statements are set alongside the scriptures, major themes of which are the abundant generosity of God and his love which does not allow us to treat people as problems or liabilities to be managed.
Each session of the book begins with a scriptural passage which remind us of aspects of those themes, followed by a practical reflection by one of five contributors. Each offers us examples of people’s experiences and the impact of austerity on their lives and aspirations, based on personal experience of Christian ministry and work amongst communities who are struggling. There are questions for discussion and pointers for action. I have used this book with a group, and there was no shortage of material for discussion, often promoting us to share our own experiences and those of people we know.
The afterword forms a helpful conclusion, reminding us of “our collective solidarity in relationship to God and to each other.” All too often the Christian Gospel as it is proffered in our churches focuses on personal salvation, and the vital collective dimension finds little expression. We would do well to remember that God’s action in the history of the world is bring all things and all people to a place of reconciliation to himself.
The Christian scriptures set before us a picture of, and offer a pattern for, human flourishing. Those who believe in the God of those scriptures have a duty to share these insights as widely as possible. If that means venturing into areas which are thought of as “political”, then so be it. In a world where, as the book tells us, life expectancy in developed countries is declining, and huge numbers of children are growing up in poverty, we may make a better job of it than politicians. We can certainly approach the questions with a hope and confidence which is inevitably lacking in politics which are so often adversarial and focused on the interests of a narrow class in our country.
The individual examples throughout the book are hard hitting and provide anecdotal evidence for the statements which are made, particularly in the introduction and afterword. If the reader feels that statements about austerity, its damaging effects and its lack of justification are not properly justified or argued, then the “further resources section” would provide ample evidence. To these we could add Sanjay Basu, John Lanchester, Mariana Mazucatto, Thomas Piketty, Amartya Sen, Robert Skidelsky, Joseph Stiglitz, Adair Turner & Martin Wolf and many others.
As I say, it is difficult to find a significant economist who supports the idea that austerity policies will solve the economic problems of the nations that are implementing them. Meanwhile the lives and life chances of many people and their children are being needlessly squandered.