Recently I sat through a lecture on the difference between so-called honour/shame cultures and guilt/innocence cultures. A friend astutely suggested to me that Sydney, right now, is both and neither. Despite our individual legislative history, our social media seems full of the shaming of those who do not fit the collective standard. If Sydney is not, neatly, either type of culture, then what are we?
He suggested that the governing moral binary of our age is comfort/discomfort.
Whether that’s true or not sociologically, it seems true fiscally. Scott Morrison’s second budget has been well-received. Ross Gittins praised it as the best of the last four, a big-spending, big-tax, big-borrowing budget that breaks the straitjacket created by ‘the Coalition's misguided professed concern about a “debt and deficit crisis”.’[i] It’s a budget that funds the NDIS, taxes the banks, and re-ignites the Gonski debate.
Consider the semantics of this budget. It has been framed around fairness, balance, prudence, mainstream economics, responsibility. It’s a budget with few losers. It’s a very comfortable, even admirable budget.
What I suggest is missing from the 2017 accounts, is a higher sort of idealism. This budget, possibly like our culture, lacks the highest ideals. It isn’t a budget that accepts our extraordinary guilt in the damaging of the global climate. It isn’t a budget that honourably lives out our prior foreign aid pledges. The NDIS and Gonski measures may be commendable, but we still aren’t raising our eyes to the largest moral challenges of our time.
This is a budget that sidesteps the big moral issues because we, as a society—despite loud protestations to the contrary—would also like to avoid them. Our culture is settling deeper into foundations laid by decade upon decade of intentionally individualistic advertising. And the culture that values comfort is not going to accept real idealism and hence real sacrifice, instead of sloganeering, for a greater cause.
I am suggesting that the emptiness at the heart of the budget speaks to a deeper spiritual emptiness. As Keynes’ biographer, Professor Robert Skidelsky, wrote, ‘The values of modern liberal society are essentially second-order values, to do with the arrangement of relationships, political and social, so as to minimize conflict between competing values, religions, ethnicities. It leaves untouched the question: What is life for?’[ii]
It’s a question worth continuing to ask. And so as I look at this highly-acclaimed family budget of ours, I might be tempted to ask what it assumes about life. A slight change in the Medicare levy, a small move on housing affordability, an improved school funding approach, a slight change in the trajectory of federal debt. What does it mean to be an Australian in 2017?
Skidelsky answered this way: ‘Today, wealth increase is the only goal that Western society has to offer. The two previous great competing objects of striving—military glory and eternal bliss—are radically out of favor.’[iii]
I’m of the view that a good budget is a slightly uncomfortable one. One that calls for us to lay aside special interests, to countenance personal sacrifice in pursuit of true justice. But that’s an economic view flowing out of a set of ideals. One of those ideals is a commitment to the idea that whoever follows after Jesus must deny himself and take up his cross.
Fundamentally then, 2017, like every budget, is a set of accounts generated by a foreign value system. A Christian, who can never buy into the culture of comfort, must look upon it with a level of distance and caution. It’s a threat and a temptation, because—there’s no way around it—the value system that esteems comfort above all else is our enemy.
For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? (Mk 8:36)
[ii] Robert Skidelsky, The Return of the Master (Allen Lane, 2009), p137.
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