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A Question of Economic Freedom: The Mindless Spend Trend

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We live in a time when economic freedom is considered to be an important basis for virtually all other individual freedoms as well as for personal and global prosperity. But have you ever stopped to think what forces may be influencing your personal spending choices? When we go into a store or online to make a purchase, what is it that makes us decide to spend?

In many cases, our decision will be the result of a genuine or perceived need or desire for something. The impulse to spend may itself have arisen from an advertisement, or from a range of innate inclinations—such as the motivation to give a gift. 

Whatever the origin of our decision to spend, one thing seems certain: that the final decision of when to spend—and on what—is ours, and ours alone.

But is it? While even the most persuasive of advertisements cannot extract our cash without our complicit agreement, it appears that a significant proportion of our spending is mapped out in advance with a high degree of predictability. 

It is widely known and accepted, of course, that seasonal holidays will create a spike in consumer spending. But when we stop and think about it, these are often spending events that we have been born into, as the result of what we might call the conscious or unconscious acquiescence to a sense of tradition.

While we may think that we are the gatekeepers for our own expenditure, this may be largely an illusion. It could well be the case that when we plot our annual budget over the course of a year, we find that we are actually making our most significant outlay at times that we ourselves have not determined, but that have been predetermined for us on the basis of tradition alone, and our identification with it.

The three months before Christmas, for example, is the period when many retailers make more than half of their annual sales and profits. In the United States, it has been calculated that a quarter of all personal spending takes place during the Christmas holiday shopping season, spiking on pre-Christmas discounting bonanzas such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Green Monday, and Super Saturday. That's a lot of our hard-earned money spent in the name of Father Christmas. Add to this Valentine's Day, Easter and Halloween, and it becomes clear that a large part of our spending is highly predetermined.

This phenomena is not just evident in the West. In China, consumers spent billions during Golden Week last year, with reported outlay ranging from $59.2 billion to as much as $180 billion. Golden Week is a national holiday that allows people in China to take seven consecutive days off from work or school. This week-long holiday has its origin in one day, October 1, 1949, when the People's Republic of China (PRC) was inaugurated. On that day an official victory celebration and ceremony was held in Tiananmen Square. Mao Zedong, a founding father of the PRC, raised the first Communist national flag of China before thousands of people at the square. 

To this day portraits of Mao are still displayed during this season. Once established, the holiday was extended to a full week in a bid to boost domestic spending—which it has—as an estimated 593 million Chinese people opted to travel during that week last year. Of that number, an estimated six million headed overseas to spend approximately $7.2 billion.

Regular, predetermined spending gluts are certainly useful for boosting the economy and for government budget planning. In the UK, for example, 5 percent of all Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is expected to come from retail sales each year. Thus we find religious, national, ideological or other traditions forming a part of the functioning of the same system—of which government is also a part. We accept this because we know no other way; these institutions are passed down through the generations. In fact, we are carried by the wave of this infrastructure from the time we have our first piggy bank. 

Nevertheless, there is an inherent irony. For a society that so highly regards individuality and self-determinism, it seems somewhat incongruous that our spending habits are predetermined by generations of tradition—tradition which, in some cases, we may not ever have stopped to question.

How much might our spending habits change if we were to examine our traditions more closely and choose them more mindfully? How much might our lives change?

Daniel Tompsett

 

 

Recommended Content:

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Histories of Holidays and Traditions 

Tags: global economy, traditions, holidays

Space Exploration Comes down to Earth

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Between 1996 and 2011, Mike Massimino fulfilled his childhood dream of being an astronaut. Like many of his generation, his dream began with the moon landing in 1969. That “One small step for man . . . ” is a deeply embedded memory to those who witnessed it. And for those of us now 50-somethings, as for Massimino, that early encounter with space exploration and technology became an unfinished canvas, full of potential, calling out for completion.

In Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, Massimino writes of that pivotal moment. “On that night I said to myself, Nothing else matters. This is it. This is who I want to be.” He continues, “Being an astronaut wasn’t just the coolest thing ever, it was the most important thing you could choose to do with your life. From that moment on, I became obsessed with space in the way that only a young boy can become obsessed.”

The “Unlikely” of its title is the theme of Massimino’s autobiography. This is an against-the-odds story. “A lot of people, when they meet me [and he is ubiquitous across YouTube and has a large following on Twitter], can’t believe I’ve been to space. They say I look like a guy who’d be working at a deli in Brooklyn, handing out cold cuts.”

And so he does. Massimino is personable, down-to-earth and—by all accounts—generous and true; the best everyman one imagines. He is Old World. His grandparents were immigrants from Italy, his father a farmer turned New York Fire Department inspector. From the blue-collar Franklin Square area of the Bronx, to Columbia University, jobs at Sperry and IBM, and finally to MIT for a PhD in mechanical engineering, Massimino achieved far above his expectations. How did he do it? Mostly in spite of himself, he says.

“There were times I felt completely overwhelmed,” he writes. “Going to space had been my dream for so long, sometimes I felt like it might still be a dream. . . . It’s called imposter syndrome, the fear that people are going to figure out that you don’t belong, that you don’t know what you’re doing.”

The motivation to keep going, he shows time and again, came from the encouragement of others. Family, neighbors, teammates, fellow students, professional colleagues and mentors: they all had a role in propelling him forward. His message from cover to cover is simple: if you are surrounded with good people, the sky is literally the limit. Just as Proverbs 18:24 suggests, “Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family” (The Message Bible).

It was that kind of relationship he had seen between his father and the first responders of the fire department; among his teammates when participating in sports and—especially—in the movies he was drawn to that featured astronauts. “The more and more astronauts I met, the more I realized that they were my favorite people of all time,” he writes. “I’d had this fantasy of what astronauts would be like from watching The Right Stuff, the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose. And it turned out that was the reality; if anything, reality exceeded my expectations, and every time I drove in to the Johnson Space Center [in Houston] I had a voice in the back of my head telling me: This is it. I want to be a part of this. I want this more than anything.”

Bounding hurdle after hurdle and getting up after each fall or setback was possible, he says, because others believed in him. “If you work hard and get help from good friends, together you can overcome almost any challenge, no matter how great,” Massimino writes. “And as I pursued my dream, long after I became an astronaut and even when I was floating by myself 350 miles above the Earth, it was a lesson I would return to again and again and again.”

After being accepted into NASA’s astronaut academy, Massimino trained for six years before his first flight in 2002. This was STS-109, the fourth Hubble telescope repair mission. Seven years later, following the crash of Columbia and the reworking of the shuttle system to improve safety, he flew again on the final visit to Hubble in 2009 on STS-125. In an interview with Massimino following that mission, I commented on the camaraderie that was so evident among the team of astronauts. He explained, “When you’re doing something important that’s hard and has a danger element involved, it really requires people to cooperate and to pull together. Your individualism has to move aside, because you know that’s necessary to succeed.”

Massimino retired from NASA in 2014 and now teaches at his alma mater Columbia. He is back down to earth for good. Even so, he writes, we are all spacemen. “The Earth is a spaceship, and we’re all space travelers.” Likewise, a lesson he takes from the Columbia losses also applies to each of us: “You only have one life,” writes Massimino. “You have to spend it doing something that matters.”

Dan Cloer

 

For more articles on this topic, visit Vision's Science and Environment category.

Tags: space exploration, science and religion, science and the bible, technology

What Was Earth Like 100 Million Years Ago?

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Miners in northern Myanmar’s fossilized amber mines have been unearthing some incredible specimens containing the remains of an array of small creatures from the Cretaceous period of Earth’s history, which stretched from around 145 million years ago to about 65 million years ago. Fossilized amber is an amazing material that originated from the resins of trees or plants millions of years ago. The sticky organic resin oozes from certain types of trees, and from time to time, parts of plants, insects, spiders and other small creatures are trapped in it. Over millions of years, some of the resin that was trapped in layers of sediment and under immense pressure became fossilized amber. Due to the lack of oxygen needed for decay, organic material and even small creatures trapped inside the amber were able to remain remarkably intact and preserved. The advantage of fossilized amber over fossilized rock specimens is the greater integrity of delicate details such as pollen, skin and feathers.

Much of the fossilized amber mined in Myanmar is polished and sold in gem markets for use in jewellery, the pieces with trapped creatures in them being particularly desired for their ornamentation. Recently the scientific community has taken more interest in intercepting and purchasing these fossilized amber specimens for their immense value in providing the opportunity to study life on Earth as far back as 100 million years ago, which is when the Burmese amber was likely deposited. Some recent examples of Cretaceous period specimens found in amber include several species of ants and termites, the oldest example of a chameleon, and recently the wing of a bird-like dinosaur with intact feathers and soft tissue. A great deal of information is being uncovered about these ancient creatures through micro-CT scans and electron microscopy of fossilized amber specimens, led by scientific institutions such as the Florida Museum of Natural History (US), the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle (France), and the China University of Geosciences Beijing.

Do these incredible discoveries of 100-million-year-old insect remains conflict with the creation account found in the Bible, or does the Bible provide us clues that would allow for an ancient world teeming with plant and animal life? You might be surprised by the answer.

In the first two verses of Genesis there is a thought-provoking description that gives us an indication that a created version of the world existed well before the creation event mentioned in the remainder of Chapter 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1, New International Version). The Hebrew words for “formless and empty” are paraphrased “tohu and bohu” and indicate a state of confusion and waste. We know from another scripture that “God is not a God of confusion . . . ” (1 Corinthians 14:33, English Standard Version). Taken together, the statements that the planet was in a state of confusion and waste and that God is not the source of confusion strongly implies that the Earth became formless and empty rather than having been created that way. In fact, the New International Version of the Bible (NIV) includes a footnote explaining that Genesis 1:2 can be appropriately rendered  . . . the earth became formless and empty.”

What was the Earth like before becoming formless and empty? It may be that we are learning more about this ancient world when we study the incredible specimens trapped in fossilized amber from the Cretaceous period millions of years ago.

T. Brandon Sexton 

For more from Vision on the topic of the Earth’s geological record and creation see “For Creationists to Consider.”

 

Tags: creation, cretaceous period,, age of earth, amber mines

Springing the Prisoners: Crime and Human Behavior

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Whether you have been a victim or perpetrator of crime—or perhaps both—you may have a strong opinion as to the most effective methods preventing it. Nevertheless, it is a global social problem that is not easily solved: opinions about crime prevention are sharply divided. 

An entire system of infrastructure spans the globe in an effort to prevent and deal with crime, comprising social, economic and educational programs, police departments, and prison facilities. Yet, for all this, prison population growth has expanded by nearly 20 percent since the year 2000. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS), for every 694 citizens of the world, one is in prison.

The costs to society in financial as well as human terms are staggering, and continued growth in prison populations is clearly unsustainable. But what can be done to reverse this trend? What is the most effective way to deal with criminal behaviour? The methods currently employed cover a spectrum that begins with parents and communities, in whose care young lives are formed and habits are established, and extends to crime prevention and the capture, incarceration or even execution of the perpetrator. 

Regardless of which end of the crime prevention and punishment spectrum we consider to be the most crucial focus in the fight against crime, money is a key factor. The U.S., for example, incarcerates over 2.2 million people and spends billions of dollars doing so. Imprisoning people for long sentences obviously incurs a considerable cost, one that is regularly debated on balance with the cost of crime, which—when fully accounted for—is considerable. 

While economists continue to debate the ratios between cost of imprisonment and cost of criminal activity, countries such as France and Italy have experimented with early-release programs and mass pardons to help cope with burgeoning prison populations. But the threat of re-offense versus the cost of internment traps governments in a balancing act that they continue to struggle to get right

Whichever way we look at society’s efforts to mitigate the problem, no point on the spectrum (nor even the spectrum as a whole) has managed to put an end to criminal behaviour. Rather, statistics support the plain fact that the fountain producing it gushes as strong and as abundant as ever, no matter how earnestly we attempt to stem the flow (or to deal with the deluge of problems that it creates).

That fountain, collectively and individually, is nothing more than our human nature. The drive to promote our desires and ourselves is so ingrained in our nature that any one of us, unless we commit to a way of life that can change that nature, is a potential criminal in waiting. Merely suppressing that nature—preventing and incarcerating it, or mopping up the problems it creates—does not change that nature.

The problem is that we have accepted our human nature on its own terms, even perceiving it to be an evolutionary fact that we have to deal with. On the basis of that error we have become prisoners to it—obeying it, yielding to its corruptive influence and perpetually cleaning up after it, but never ever in the history of human governance, resolving it.

To resolve the issue of criminal behaviour—to stop crime—that nature must be changed. That isn't something that you or I can do on our own. It is possible for us to change, but it requires us to reject our natural human nature (and confidence in our ability to govern it without help), and to accept a new nature that gives access to a different fountain—water from a different well, if you will.

This well, which the Bible refers to as the fountain of life, offers us a different way of living. It’s a way that focuses on giving rather than getting, and on others rather than self. The good news is that we are promised a time to come when everyone will have the opportunity to take on this new nature, but even now we can benefit from following the example set by Jesus Christ. It’s an example that few follow, but when understood properly promotes right behaviour, adherence to law, and abundant life.

DANIEL TOMPSETT


RELATED CONTENT:

Imprisoned in the System

The modern penal system in many nations has been a failed experiment in rehabilitation. Are reformation and reconciliation possible for prisoners?

 

 

Tags: criminal justice, human nature, human behavior, prison system

Frontiers of a Virtual Empire

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If something like the ancient Roman Empire were around today, what would it look like and how would it function? Where would it operate and what would be its objectives?

At its peak in 117 C.E. the Roman Empire covered over five million square kilometers, stretching from Hadrian's Wall in England in the north, to North Africa in the south. It comprised 21 percent of the world's population at that time. Today the same geographic region incorporates 48 nations. In this environment, trade was able to flourish at a level not seen in any other pre-industrial society, limited only by the boundaries of that era’s land transportation technology.

However, as the frontiers of the empire expanded, its institutions became less effective and it became vulnerable to external attack. In 285 C.E. the emperor Diocletian split the Empire, signalling the beginning of the end for Rome's imperial rule. 

One of Rome's primary objectives was imperium sine fine ("empire without end"). Yet that empire had defined boundaries. Today, however, advances in technology have created a global village where geographic distance is irrelevant and where communications and commercial markets truly know no bounds. Although the term "global village" came to prominence in the 1960s, it is a concept that has taken on a deeper significance with recent advancements in technology.

We may draw a parallel between the dominance of the Roman Imperial system and that of digital infrastructure, but the capacity of the Internet leaves the Roman Empire in the dust. Its speed and spread makes Rome look positively sluggish and small. Today, approximately 40 percent of the world's population can go online from their homes, a figure that compares to less than 1 percent in 1995. Internet access is truly global, and digital infrastructure is not subject to the kinds of geographic strain that, in part, eventually caused the Roman Empire to collapse under its own weight. 

The only boundaries of the virtual empire are those of the technology. These boundaries are being pushed every day and—as was true for Rome—the frontier of development goes hand-in-hand with commerce.

Recent advancements include programmatic ad buying, where software automatically buys advertising space in the digital environment; artificial intelligence (AI) powered robots (bots) that can chat online with users as friends or customer service agents; and the ability to pay for goods with the swipe of a phone, without having to enter a PIN (personal identification number).

Programmatic ad buying is intimately linked to bot technology. As bots learn what the user likes, from restaurants to taxi services, the opportunity grows for advertising to become increasingly individually tailored. The level of interaction and control that the system can achieve with each user is beyond anything that could have been dreamed of during the height of the Roman Empire.

Despite the impressive technological advancements available to today’s merchants, the convenience and security they claim to provide inevitably play to our own flawed, greed-based desires. The result is the hard-wired circuitry of a virtual empire, to which we are already intricately bound. All indicators only seem to point toward closer and closer integration in the future.

Unlike the Roman Empire, this virtual empire is not subject to the infrastructure strain normally caused by expansion, it has already achieved world domination. It is also laying the groundwork for a system that is a far more automated, increasingly removing the element of human conscience.

While the virtual empire lacks an emperor, it is interesting to note that Rome also had an "empire" long before it had an emperor. The primary edict of the Roman Republic was that Romans should rule themselves. As American classicist Clifford Ando puts it in a 2011 Oxford Handbook essay, “Rome thus had, rather than was, an empire some centuries before the arrival of Augustus on the throne.“

So what lies ahead? Increasingly, the questions for us may become: Do we have any choice but to be a part of the virtual empire? And is there any future hope of an alternative system for a world so captivated?

DANIEL TOMPSETT

A Special Plan With Earth at the Center

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A new study led by astrophysicist Erik Zackrisson (Uppsala University), in collaboration with a team of astronomers and astrophysicists from Sweden and the United States, suggests that the planet Earth may hold a very special place in the universe after all. The team’s sophisticated computer model simulated the formation of galaxies, star systems and planets using huge amounts of data from astronomical observations and more recent exoplanet discoveries. Astoundingly, the computer model suggested that there are likely around 700 quintillion (7 followed by 20 zeros) planets in the known universe. Even more incredible is that none of these planets are predicted by the computer model to be like the planet Earth.

This study seems to dramatically contradict not only past estimates of the number of habitable planets in the universe but also commonly held assumptions in astronomy and cosmology. One such assumption is the Copernican Principle, named after 16th-century German-Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus; he made an important contribution to our understanding of the physical universe by explaining that Earth is not at the center of the universe and proposing a heliocentric (sun-centered) model instead. The Copernican Principle is a recent philosophical idea proposing that Earth and Earth-based observers do not hold a unique or even a special place in the universe. The famous late astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan, for example, referred to Earth as a “pale blue dot” in his 1994 book of the same name, challenging “the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe.”

Many theories in astronomy and cosmology have the Copernican Principle at their core, assuming that Earth-like planets are commonplace in the universe: recent estimates range from 1 billion to 100 billion in our galaxy alone. The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and the NASA Kepler Mission focus much of their effort on finding Earth-like planets orbiting other stars.

Whether Zackrisson’s new model of the universe ends up shifting scientific paradigms or simply providing an interesting alternative viewpoint, it certainly gives us pause to consider whether Earth is a unique place and the observers on it are special in the universe.

Even if other planets are discovered that resemble Earth, the Bible indicates that in all the universe there is only one place where a great Creator is working with a very privileged and special part of His creation (Deuteronomy 4:7–8). These observers on the planet Earth have the unique destiny to become sons of God together with all the profound implications that go along with that incredible potential (Romans 8:16–17). Based on what we read in the Scriptures, nothing like this plan and its special purpose for humankind is happening anywhere else in the universe. So, as it pertains to the focus of God’s great plan, Earth and its observers are at the center.

T. BRANDON SEXTON

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Tags: science and environment, earthlike planets, earth science

Spotting the Counterfeits


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Handling money is such a commonplace event in most of our lives that we probably hardly stop to notice it. Only rarely might we have occasion to wonder whether the money was real or counterfeit. Nevertheless, the issue of counterfeiting is a serious one, forcing governments to invest heavily in measures to ensure that money is as hard to fake as possible, even as criminals become ever more adept at doing so. 

The problem goes back a long way. During the American Revolution, the British government flooded America with counterfeit continental dollars in order to destabilize the currency. Similarly, in 1942 the Nazis established a plan (Operation Bernhard) to collapse the British economy by flooding it with counterfeit money. Despite the high-quality counterfeits produced by the forced Jewish labor, the plan was never enacted as the operation was turned over to the SS, who laundered the money to pay for German spies and strategic imports. A similar plan targeted US currency, but the war ended the day full production of the counterfeit bills was scheduled to begin. 

Unsurprisingly, the history of counterfeiting goes back a lot further. In 2010 on the south coast of England, an enthusiast using a metal detector found what appeared to be a fake silver denarius forged in antiquity. The ancient forger had apparently intended to pass it off as one of the commemorative coins struck to honor Octavian’s victory against Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Having forged the piece a few years after the battle, the counterfeiter made serious errors. First, he depicted the wrong emperor. Second, he misspelled Egypt. Third, the crocodile depicted on one side is facing the wrong direction. The forger also made the mistake of minting the coin in solid silver, negating the reason for forging a coin in the first place. Ironically, experts at the British Museum valued the coin at £3,000 (US$3,800), considerably more than the £100 (US$160) that is usually paid for the genuine equivalent, which is a fairly common coin.

Shortly after his victory at Actium, Octavian, the adopted nephew of Julius Caesar, would become Caesar Augustus, son of “the Divine Julius” (Divus Iulius), who had been declared a god following his assassination by Brutus on the Ides of March. A generation later, when asked by the plotting Pharisees whether or not it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Rome, Jesus told His questioners to bring Him a penny (denarius), and then asked them whose image and inscription were on it. When they answered that it was Caesar’s, He replied, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:15–21).

Leading historian Adrian Goldsworthy considers that “given the amount of currency produced during Augustus’ long life, it is more than likely that the coin in question showed his portrait rather than the Emperor Tiberius” (Augustus: First Emperor of Rome). Nevertheless, Caesar’s image was widespread in the Roman world. Goldsworthy notes, for example, that “more images of Augustus survive from the ancient world than those of any other Roman emperor—or indeed any other human being.” 

Regardless of whether the image and inscription on the coin referred to Augustus or to his successor Tiberius, both Caesars were proclaimed to be sons of a god. Coins depicting the young Caesar Augustus bear the inscription “Imperator Caesar, son of the god [Julius], triumvir to restore the Republic.” As the high priest of the Roman pantheon of pagan gods, Caesar Augustus also assumed the title of pontifex maximus in 12 BCE, a title that Goldsworthy tells us was “never again held by anyone who was not an emperor, until Rome had fallen and the pope took the title.”

However, the denarius of Emperor Tiberius, commonly referred to as the Tribute Penny, bore a similar inscription; Tiberius, it declared, was the son of the god Augustus. The coin read, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.”

Ironically, the resurgence of the imperial cult of ancient Rome—promoting what were essentially false messiahs—had stirred to life again only decades before Jesus Christ, the real Son of God, would be born in the flesh to bring true salvation. Meanwhile Augustus—a man who suffered poor health throughout his life and who, in middle age, wore a broad-rimmed floppy hat to protect his extremely sensitive skin—was in no sense divine.

When Christ advocated peaceful adherence to the prevailing authorities and their tax regime, it was not yet time for Him to demonstrate that He is the true Son of God. The question is, are we able to spot a counterfeit when we see one?

D
ANIEL TOMPSETT

 

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Tags: false messiahs, religion and the bible, religion and politics

Economic Issues: The Beast in the Machine

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Ensuring the health of household finances is likely to be high on the agenda for most of us. In the post-financial-crash world, we have all developed a heightened consciousness that money is the essential oil keeping the machine running.

Much the same is true of central governments. In the seven years since the financial crisis hit, Western nations have demonstrated a resolute focus on crisis management and on kick-starting their economies through a regime of quantitative easing, market stimulation and austerity. The result has been that many of these economies are now starting to yield slow growth and increased market stability. 

However, these measures will not solve the inherent problems that caused the crisis in the first place. One of the challenges to maintaining political and public attention for that goal is that the financial system is complex—massively complex. For governments holding office for finite terms, the primary objective is often economic stability, not disruptive overhaul.

Those initiatives that have been implemented to deal with the systemic problems have struggled to touch the surface of addressing real reform. Such initiatives have included the encouragement of challenger banks—the new breed of post-financial crash banks set up to challenge the largest established retail (high street) banks who lost credibility in the crash—and an unrealized desire to create a totally effective regulatory regime since the crisis.

Scandals such as the rigging of the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) by a number of investment banks, would suggest that we still have a long way to go to achieving real reform. Connected to hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of financial contracts, ranging from personal loans and credit cards to complex derivatives, LIBOR is one of the most important interest rates in global finance. The daily setting of LIBOR by the banks themselves determined the rate at which they were prepared to lend to each other. The breadth of the scandal became evident in 2012, and involved bankers from various financial institutions corruptly providing information on the interest rates they would use to calculate LIBOR. The scandal demonstrates just how chronically corrupt key elements of the system are.

Ironically, estimates indicate that in 2011 close to half (49%) of the world's adult population did not even possess a bank account. Yet even if we don’t all actively participate in the mechanics of the global financial system to the same extent, we are all impacted by it—especially when it breaks down. Philanthropic and microcredit initiatives do demonstrate a more outward focus, but efforts to bring about total reform have clearly failed, suggesting that the heart of the system is much less like a machine that can be fixed, and far more like a dynamic, wild force of nature beyond our control.

As the world begins to move on, there also appears to be a growing acceptance that the system will never be caged by regulation, only temporarily stabilized or momentarily tamed to allow us to secure our own short-term gains. Perhaps this is a beast that cannot be tamed because doing so would first require taming ourselves. At its heart is the systematized right of every individual to compete for self-gain, such that the wealthiest 1% own 48% of the wealth, while millions suffer poverty.

No matter where we are positioned in the wealth chain, scarcely anyone can escape from the fact that products and markets are designed to gratify consumer desire only momentarily, to ensure the essential return to market for renewed gratification. Therefore, in a very real sense, we ourselves are as much consumed as consumers.

Estimates for 2014 suggest that the number of adults with bank accounts had already grown to 62%. It may well be that government will be able to increase our integration within the financial system. However, based on its inherent flaws and inexorable link to our own flawed nature, should that really be the goal? Would it not be a far better solution if we could be released from its grip?.

While it might not be immediately apparent how this could be achieved, there are relevant principles from ancient sources that might seem simple on the surface, yet offer the potential for radical economic change if we would only apply them. The challenge there is that human nature is not predisposed to tame the beast in the machine. Because the beast in the machine is us. 

DAN TOMPSETT


Read more from Vision on this topic:

Global Economics and Community

Economic Futures

The Virtuous Cycle: Pay It Forward

Tags: economics, financial issues, global economy

Science and Environment: Change by Degrees

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When you think of climate change, what initially comes to mind? Do you think of the need to reduce your personal carbon footprint, or do you perhaps think of climate change as an issue purely for politicians to deal with?

In December 2015 the 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) took place in Le Bourget, France. The result of the conference was an agreement to limit the rise in global temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, by 2050, with the aim of actually keeping the rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). A commitment was also established to raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to assist developing countries in reducing their carbon emissions. Parts of the agreement are legally binding, while other parts are voluntary.

The collective political effort to tackle greenhouse gases dates back to 1992 when the first Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro. One of the three resulting “Rio Conventions” was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty established to stabilise greenhouse gases, which now has a membership of 197 parties. The main function of the annual Conference of Parties (COP), since its first session in Berlin in 1995, is to review progress made in implementing the Convention. COP3 saw the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, which set internationally binding emission reduction targets for industrialized nations among the convention parties, based on the premise that (a) global warming exists, and (b) it has been caused by man-made carbon-dioxide emissions. Some countries were exempted, including China and India, on the basis that they were not industrialized during the period considered relevant to the current problem.

While it was hoped that COP15 in Copenhagen would produce a binding agreement that could follow the Kyoto Protocol, which expired in 2012, this hope was not realized and Copenhagen was largely considered a failure.

In announcing the final agreement for COP21, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said that, "perhaps all the planets were not aligned [in Copenhagen], but today they are." He also said that "planetary configuration," a phrase he attributed to the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, had "never been as good as today."

Despite such optimism, it is suggested that we have already had a global temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius (about 1.8 degrees in Fahrenheit) since the industrial revolution, and that even if rises are held to 2 degrees Celsius some scientists believe we will still see the melting of the Greenland ice cap, thus rising sea levels, and the destruction of glaciers and coral reefs. Meanwhile, other scientists entertain the idea that the temperature fluctuation of the planet may have less to do with human impact and more to do with natural phenomena.

A recent working paper produced by the Grantham Research Institute, however, concluded that "in terms of greenhouse gas emissions today and in the future, the world is running a higher risk with the climate system than financial institutions, in particular insurance companies, would usually run with their own solvency."

The success of COP21 lay in producing the first accord to commit all countries to cut carbon emissions. It remains to be seen whether the ambitious agreement will be realized in the decades to come, or if, as in the case of the Kyoto Protocol, parties will ultimately renege on their commitments.

As our individual and collective efforts continue to fall short of fully understanding and addressing climate change—not only of solving global warming, but even of coming to a consensus on where to begin in tackling the problem—the question arises as to whether the climate will ever be stable and properly understood? What does it mean when at the critical moment, those tasked with finding solutions regard it as equally rare for people and nations to come into alignment as it is for the planets in our solar system to do so?

If we are unable to agree with one another even about something as vital to our survival as the planet on which we live, it can only mean that human nature itself is at the core of our problems. Until we can address this fundamental issue, we have little hope of securing environmental sustainability. The good news is that there are principles available to us, which—if followed—would offer the solutions that endless negotiating in decades of conferences has been unable to produce. We have only to dust off our Bibles and commit to finding and applying them.

DAN TOMPSETT


More from Vision on this topic:

Climate Futures
Earth's Puzzling Climate
The Missing Dots

Tags: climate change, environmental sustainability, science and environment

Religion and the Bible: Hope Springs (from the) Eternal

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When you think about hope, what comes to mind? Perhaps it is a personal hope, hope for family and friends, for the ecology of the planet, or even for world peace. Depending on your outlook, the attitude you adopt may be that better things are always just around the corner; or that the endemic nature of atrocity and suffering in the world renders hope hopeless!

It is likely that we have heard the optimistic epithet that "hope springs eternal." The quote is from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man (1733-34), where Pope suggests that "Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never Is; but always To be blest." Does hope still have relevance for the modern world? If so, where should we be placing our hope for the future?

Musicologist and author, James A. Grimes offers some perspective on the first half of that question. In his 2014 work, Violins of Hope: Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour, Grimes traces the history of violins played by Jews in the Holocaust. Each chapter of the book is devoted to an individual violin, documenting how they were used to save lives, ease suffering and how they eventually came to be acquired by Israeli violinmaker and repairman, Amnon Weinstein, who spent twenty years restoring the instruments in honor of their owners.

The violins have been given into the hands of orchestras, and after sixty years of silence were played by the ancient Old City walls of Jerusalem in 2008. In January 2015 the instruments resounded again in the concert hall of the Berliner Philharmoniker, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2015, to mark 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. Hope for the future, it would seem, is still an active ingredient in attempting to come to terms with the horrors of the past. As fresh atrocities come to light each day, the need for a certain expectation for tomorrow becomes an ever more urgent quest.

As for where we might place that hope, one ancient poet suggests that good courage and strength of heart come from placing it in God (Psalm 31:24). However, for many today this may seem irrelevant: knowledge about God is increasingly incomplete for most of the population, and in general humanity seems to have little interest in pursuing it. 

Even in the 18th century, Pope suggested that human efforts to know and understand God were presumptuous. "Presume not God to scan," he continued in "Essay on Man." Rather, in a tradition familiar in ancient Greek thinking, he urges his readers to "know then thyself." To Pope, "The proper study of mankind is man." While it is true that of ourselves we cannot come to know God (1 Corinthians 2:11), the difficulty with Pope's alternative is that a philosophy only concerned with ourselves has not been able to solve the problem of human evil. History clearly demonstrates that the answer does not lie within us. To have true hope then, we need something outside of ourselves that we can completely rely upon.

In his letter to the church at Rome, the Apostle Paul writes that the creation was "subjected to futility, not willingly" but "in hope" (Romans 8:20). That's where we are today. The reason for the temporary subjection to futility was sin, the hopeless desire of human beings to be the legislators of what is good and evil. The hope that Paul speaks of is the real hope founded in Jesus Christ, the Creator, who has already come in the flesh as the Immanuel (meaning "God with us"). He was described in prophecy as "a light to the nations" (Isaiah 42:6) and was seen, touched and heard by human beings directly at His first coming, when he spoke of a plan to benefit all of humanity: not just to save a few.

It is Jesus Christ who now represents the only certain hope for a better world to come

DANIEL TOMPSETT

 

From the Latest Issue of  Vision:

Insight: A Cross of Iron

As the world arms itself with more and more nuclear and conventional weapons, we find ourselves in a continuing pattern of warfare. And that’s just as Jesus said it would be.

Tags: religion and the bible