Of Camels and Needles


Last Saturday night, lolling around a friend’s place, I decided to stay in, which, incidentally, is becoming an alarmingly regular occurrence for me as I hurtle towards ‘early’ middle age.

I had spent the day ploughing through a manuscript, so I wasn’t up for any more reading. The ABC was screening that appalling ‘gritty’ cop drama, The Bill, and the DVD player was buggered. So instead, I decided to wile away the hours counting the number of pairs of shoes secreted throughout my friend’s apartment.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Thanks to Bill Leak

‘If we get to one hundred pairs,’ I warned her, ‘you’re officially a materialist.’ We broke the threshold – 111 pieces of footwear.

‘How is that I own eight pairs and still feel that’s too many, while you have about one pair for every three days of the year?’ She smiled and shrugged: ‘Just one for the ages, I guess.’

But all week I’ve been wondering: when is enough enough? Personally, I’m not especially exercised about one friend’s extensive supply of footwear, as I know that, in the end, possessions mean very little to her. But what if we had been counting diamond rings or mink coats or cars or houses? What if we were toting up billions in a Swiss bank account or the titles in a chain of newspapers? Then we would be playing in the big league of greed.

The issue became starkly relevant earlier this week when the Howard Government announced that right-wing economist Ian Harper would become the nation’s ‘Fair Pay’ Commissioner, under the proposed changes to the workplace relations laws. (Note my use of skeptical inverted commas around ‘Fair Pay’.)

Mr Harper will be responsible for ensuring the basic wage of those Australians not covered by individual contracts or enterprise agreements currently about 20 per cent of us. On the individual contract side of the ledger, so far, less than 5 per cent of workers have been suckered into that sham, but under the new laws hundreds of thousands, if not millions, might now be coerced.

Mr Harper is a professor at the Melbourne School of Business and an avowed supporter of Howard’s industrial ‘reform’ agenda; no great surprise that this Government appoints a supplicant to a top position.

But Mr Harper is also a committed evangelical Christian. Normally, I would find such a characteristic reassuring, given the proud tradition of evangelicals: for instance, William Wilberforce, in the anti-slavery cause; the Earl of Shaftesbury in the campaign against child labour; and Martin Luther King in the US civil rights movement. Unlike many fellow progressives, I see the evangelicals as allies in the cause of social, economic and global justice and peace. But if Mr Harper’s theologically inspired writings are any indication, he seems to believe it possible to serve both God and Mammon, despite Christ’s own teaching in St Matthew’s gospel (6:24).

Mr Harper is certainly right to point out that the Bible does not condemn outright the creation of wealth – and nor should we. In a 2001 report for the Anglican Church, The Distribution of Wealth and Work in Australia, Mr Harper and his co-authors refer to numerous scriptural injunctions, covering Jesus’s dealings with Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and Zaccheus, and the Apostle Paul, all noting that it is permissible to remain wealthy even after sharing your riches. ‘Christians do not believe that owning wealth or even being wealthy is, in itself, morally wrong,’ they conclude.

But they also acknowledge: ‘At the same time, those who have much are warned against exhibiting their wealth in ways that shame those who have less, and arouse their envy.’ Citing Ecclesiastes (5:10), they add: ‘Conspicuous consumption is born of vanity, and is a fruitless exercise: ‘Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.’

These measured, rather laudable observations would seem to sit rather oddly with Mr Harper’s 2001 Acton Lecture for the right-wing think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies, where he is a member of the ‘Academic Advisory Council’. In this lecture, Mr Harper appears to downplay the central role that greed plays in much of modern free-market economics. There is a difference, he insists, between wealth creation and materialism – and indeed there is. It’s just a question of where to draw the line. Our new ‘Fair Pay’ Commissioner, the man charged with looking after the welfare of the lowest paid, seems to want to err on the side of frugality for the workers and generosity for the wealthy. Money is bad for the poor and good for the rich.

The Reverend Ray Cleary of the Anglican welfare agency raised an especially troubling point in an era of obscene executive salaries, such as the $18.6 million paid to Macquarie Bank chief Allan Moss, when he said Mr Harper’s report for the church ‘even justified high salaries to corporate executives, [while]at the same time [saying]there was only a limited role for government intervention to ensure all received a share of the booty.’

We should not romanticise poverty – as George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Very few people can afford to be poor’ – but we should never venerate wealth, or the wealthy, for their own sake. Mr Harper needs to tell us where he draws this line.

It is surely possible to have, with an entirely clear conscience, a few billion in the bank. The issue is how you spend it. If, as cable news founder Ted Turner did, you give away $1 billion – in his case to the United Nations for development aid – you are clearly on the right track. Turner also owns 14 ranches, covering some 2 million acres, in the western United States, because, in America’s rip-roaring free-market economy, the most effective way to preserve and protect much of the natural wilderness is to own it yourself.

A billionaire might choose to plough his or her fortune into building up a loss-making but socially worthwhile business, such as alternative energy, low-income housing, connecting poor schools to the internet, or progressive publishing. (New Matilda itself is, at the moment, not a profitable enterprise but exists because many people of ‘means’, and enormous goodwill and community spirit, have chosen to put their money where their consciences are.)

No sensible person condemns wealth creation when it contributes to the commonwealth.

But what if you took your, say, $50 million-a-year salary and lavished upon yourself seven opulent homes around the world, from Park Avenue to the Amalfi Coast to the Bahamas, and bought a Lear jet to zip between them, and collected 111 sports cars, instead of shoes, and dripped with diamonds and gold? You could hardly say your wealth was productive, beyond providing an infinitesimal boost to the services economy in your neighbourhood. You could hardly claim to be building a great industry for the future that would benefit your community and provide jobs.

You would simply be a materialist, an idolater, and no matter how hard he searched, even Mr Harper would have a tough time finding justification for that in the Bible.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.