Dion's random ramblings

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is Greed to blame for the current world economic crisis?

Today was truly a special and remarkable day! I had the privelage of speak at a gathering at the University of Pretoria at the invitation of my friend Cobus van Wyngaard and Professor Etienne de Villiers. You can read the official notice of the lecture here, and here.

The participants in the debate were:

Mr Dawie Klopper, an economist involved in PSG Konsult, dr Dion Forster, director of the movement Unashamedly Ethical, prof Deon Rossouw, head of the Department of Philosophy at UP and until recently president of the International Society of Business and Economic Ethics, and dr Vuyani Vellem, deputy executive director of the South African Council of Churches.

I found all of the papers extremely challenging from different perspectives. If I heard correctly Mr Klopper suggested that people are not inherently greedy, rather they are oportunistic in cycles (which has negative consequences for the economy). Prof Deon Rossouw made an extremely well thought through argument that the problem is not individual greed (since some measure of self interest is necessary in society for people to be motivated and moved towards doing things), rather what is at fault is the current system of corporate governance that enforces how companies are regulated. The argument is basically as follows:

  1. Companies are set up to represent the growth (and economic growth) interests of shareholders.
  2. Current legal regulations almost the whole world over hold directors accountable to making profit on behalf of their shareholders in a responsible manner.
  3. Any other motive (no matter how pure it is), such as investing in communities, providing health care, training persons etc. is anciallary and must not interfere with the motive to enrich shareholders!
  4. So, he challenged us to begin to think out of the box to change such regulation (much like the upcoming King 3 report will require) in the interest of social transformation. So, he did seem to say that greed was to blame, but not individual greed.

Dr Vuyani Vellem gave the best researched paper of the lot in my opinion, he spoke of how greed causes a massive imbalance between those who have and those who do not. Moreover, he approached the subject from the perspective of African Liberation thought with a preferential option for the poor. He had numerous wonderful quotes from theologians in various ages of Christian history, African and European theology, and some wonderful suggestions about 'deconstructing' the myth of capitalism and individual gain. He has offered to share his notes and I shall post them here when he forwards them to me. It truly is worth reading, and so I would encourage you to look back for the notes. One of the things that stood out for me was a statement that he made, which is of course true, but I have never considered it! He said that based on the most recent UN report on the world economic system (I need to find the reference), only 20% of the world's population benefit positively from the world's economic system - 80% of the world's population have had to find alternative ways of eeking out an existence IN SPITE of the current economic system. As such he was saying that it is a myth (or ploy) of the powerful an the rich to suggest that this is the only system that works when there are billions of people finding alterntives to it! What a challenging thought!

My presentation (which you can download here 2.2MB) made the following points:

1. Based on current research there SHOULD be enough resources in the world for all persons to have their needs met. However, there is a real problem... I used South Africa as an example to illustrate the problem. Here's the argument:
  • South Africa has the 23rd strongest economy in the world! That makes us 23 out of 220 economies!
  • We have the 2nd strongest economy in Africa (2nd only to Egypt). We have provinces that have stronger economies than most nations in Africa and the rest of the world!
  • BUT, it is clear that we have some real problems with wealth and greed...
2. Greed is clearly the cause of the problem - we live with a scarcety mentality that tells us 'I must hoard stuff for myself because there is not enough to go around'! I illustrated why we have the compulsion to do this by turning to my research on the human brain:
  • Research has shown that a very primal part of the human brain is activated when a person is tempted with greed. Basically, it is that section of the brain that has to do with survival (remember the three questions? Can I eat it / can it eat me? Can I mate with it / will it mate with me? Can I recognize it?)
  • Moreover, the human brain is an efficiency system! It tries to find the most efficient means to survive... Thus it goes for the HIGHEST value at the lowest energy cost... Hoarding is a good option in this framework, as is exploitation, unethical behavoiur and of course GREED!
  • The point is, however, that this is NOT the only way!

3. Proposition 3 is, since our brains respond to 'value propositions' there are numerous examples of people who have chosen sustainability, care for others, not being greedy etc., as a higher value proposition... It is longer lasting, has better effects, and of course it is better for others as well as yourself! I then went on to discuss how Graham Power and the Power Group have taken that value proposition.

You can view a short video summary of my presentation here:

Of course the point that I want to drive home is that we can help people to make 'healthier' value choices to bring blessing and healing to the earth! And, of course from my perspective these will be the choices of the way of Christ's Kingdom!

Well, it was wonderful to be there! I was blessed by the opportunity, and humbled to be asked. It was SOOOO fantastic to see my friend Dr Wessel Bentley and to meet Dr Kobus Kok again, Cobus van Wyngaard and to meet Justin Taylor!

I would love to hear your views, insights and thoughts on greed! Any thoughts? Alternative views?


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