Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Giles Fraser

The United States of America is in debt to the tune of 14.3 trillion dollars. By the time I finish this Thought for the Day it will have risen by another 5 million. Unless the US can up its overdraft limit by a week today, it will default on its debts with potentially catastrophic consequences for the world economy. It is, as President Obama called it a few hours ago: “a dangerous game”. For some, the way out of this predicament is for the US to borrow more, to use borrowed money to stimulate the economy, and thus for the US to grow its way out of trouble. For others, like Jeff Randall writing in the Telegraph yesterday, the borrow-to-grow philosophy is nothing but a giant Ponzi scheme, mortgaging our children’s financial future so that we can continue to live it up in the present.

I’m not an economist and, perhaps like many people, feel somewhat cautious about judging confidently between the various options available. But what I do regard with a great deal of suspicion is the idea that prosperity must always be premised upon continual economic growth. For this suggests a world of perpetual expansion, a world in which there are no limits. And I am instinctively suspicious of this because the fantasy that human beings can wipe away all their limitations is at the heart of what the church means by original sin.

What Adam and Eve got so very wrong was their desire to press beyond the constituent conditions of their own humanity by reaching for a God-like perspective. Unsatisfied by what they had, they were driven beyond themselves, and in so doing sowed the seeds of their own destruction. In other words, they failed to recognize the reality of limit.

In economic terms, this story advises that there really is such a thing as enough. We live on a small planet, with limited space and limited natural recourses. The philosophy that borrowing and growth is always the answer to economic difficulty, a philosophy often wrongly justified by reference to the economist John Maynard Keynes, was never as simple as many suggest, and moreover, was invented long before we began to appreciate the effect that continual economic growth was having on the environment.

Adam and Eve lived in the garden of paradise. But they never appreciated how good things were for them. They wanted more - and in so doing destroyed the good that they already had. It’s absolutely a parable for our times. Which is why the drama that is currently playing out in Washington is just the beginning of a broader question about the effects of an economic system that is so awash with debt that it has to keep running ahead of itself in order to stay where it is.

Original sin warns that it’s an extremely destructive part of the human condition to resent the limitations of being human, that we are always over-reaching ourselves. The current expression of this over-reaching hubris is the build up of huge financial debts in Greece and the US and elsewhere. And so it is that the fiscal sins of our generation will be visited upon our children and upon our children’s children.

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