Balancing the books

I have to be honest, I’m worried about debt. What I mean is that I’ve always tried to make sure that I don’t owe anyone anything. Well, that’s not altogether true. I had to take out a loan to buy a car and I’m now properly grown up and have a mortgage. But thank goodness I’ve always managed to pay off the credit card and never really fallen into arrears at the bank. I suppose in some ways I’ve been lucky. A stipend from the Church of England, and especially when you’re first ordained, isn’t fantastic but it’s regular and guaranteed and your ’employer’ isn’t suddenly going to go out of business. The other thing about being ordained is of course that someone supplies you with a house, free of charge. You may not be able to afford to heat it but that’s neither here nor there. You have a roof over your head and if the roof is damaged someone will come along – eventually – and repair it and you don’t pick up the bill.

I suppose I was also taught that old adage from ‘Hamlet’ where Polonius says

Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

But I’m lucky and many people aren’t as lucky and have to resort to debt in order to keep life going. Before I went off to be trained, or rather ‘formed’ as a priest, I was a door-to-door rent collector. Remember I’m old and so this is a few years ago when rent was collected from council tenants by a person wielding a Gladstone bag full of cash and a board with carbonated paper with which a rent card could be marked. I had three rounds and I was useless. It was in Wellingborough that I walked (actually I ran and locally, on the estates was known as the ‘Running Rent Man’) the streets and attempted to collect rent. The arrears on my rounds quickly went up. You see, it seemed obvious to me that if you are on a low income then you have to look for ways of making ends meet and at that stage not paying your rent was equivalent to free credit. People knew that there was little the ‘Rent man’ could do if they didn’t pay and I was a bit of a pushover where excuses were concerned.

One of the good things of recent years and especially in response to the rise of the ‘Pay Day Lenders’ is the development of Credit Unions. They’ve been around for years of course but this fresh impetus in their life and a realisation of how good they are in terms of community cohesion and improving ordinary lives is fantastic. It is good that at this time members of the congregation at Southwark Cathedral are signing up with other members of our deanery to become members of the local credit union.

keep-calm-and-join-your-local-credit-union

Politics is fascinating at the moment and this last week was an interesting one especially with regard to finances, debt and austerity. The Government’s so called ‘fiscal responsibility charter’ has proved divisive all around.

Mrs Thatcher’s famous handbag I assume held a purse. She learnt her economics, so it would seem in her father’s store in Grantham where fiscal management would have meant living like me, avoiding debt. But can you use the same principles where government is concerned?

Mr Micawber, in Dicken’s ‘David Copperfield’ is perhaps the most famous pundit on the dangers of a lack of restraint where money is concerned.

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Mr Micawber shows young Copperfield the town

Mr Micawber shows young Copperfield the town

It’s true. In an ideal world we would want six pence left in our pocket when all else was settled. But should that be the way economics work on a national level? The Government is wanting to commit to a surplus budget rather than a deficit one. But this isn’t Mrs Thatcher’s purse we’re talking about. After all whose money is it?

The truth is it’s ours. If government produces a surplus at the end of the year then they should give it us back – they clearly didn’t need it. Government spending has to be about providing for the needs of the people – basic needs including benefits for the least able and the most vulnerable; health, education, defence, infrastructure, the arts, foreign aid. We know what should be in the list – and cutting back on those in order to make a surplus – well, in my view that is simply bad government. There is no justice at all in forcing the least wealthy in society into more personal debt so that the nation can be in surplus, or the sick left alone so that the books can be in the black, or the refugees and the homeless unhoused, the children uneducated, so that we can point to a good bottom line.

Vermeer's lovely picture of a woman with a balance

Vermeer’s lovely picture of a woman with a balance

But I’m a priest not a politician and surely, this is all a bit party political and I’m clearly no economist. The thing is though we have to be concerned – all of us and that includes Christians and other people of faith – about the soul of the nation as well as the soul of individuals.

In his Sermon on the Mount in St Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says

‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.‘ (Matthew 6.21)

Is there a heartlessness that’s driving our economics? If that’s true then we have to be concerned, for a heartless nation breeds heartless people. Money and morals, generosity and grace, justice, mercy and righteousness they’re all tied up with the notion of balancing the books, and who, and what, are put in the scales when we attempt to do this.

Lord,
make us wise with money
but wiser and more careful
with our brothers and sisters.
Amen.

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