The Measure of all Things | The Measure of all Things

Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

We talk about worship an awful lot in church and it does sound an inherently “churchy” word but in fact its real meaning has relevance to all, regardless of their faith position.  The word “worship” derives from the Anglo-Saxon “worth-shipe” and it’s that word “worth” that gives you the clue to the underlying meaning.  To worship something is to say that you ascribe ultimate value to it.  It’s to say that it’s what matters most in your life. Whatever you worship should, therefore, by definition, be your ultimate guide in life. As Christians we claim to worship God revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and this holy season of Lent is all about acknowledging the false idols that dwell in each of our hearts.  If you’ve been reading Jeremiah in the Bible Challenge these past few weeks you’ll see that the Israelites had that same problem in spades, and with devastating consequences.

Looking around us it’s hard not to conclude that as a society it’s money that we worship above all else.  Consider the current election campaign and the assumption by the parties that the votes of key groups can be bought by way of – effectively – cash incentives.  But the most egregious example of money being the ultimate arbiter in our affairs came a few weeks ago with the announcement that the Premier League football rights have been sold for £5bn, that’s 70% more than at the last rights sale. When asked whether this wasn’t an obscene amount of money, Richard Scudamore, the Premier League Chief Executive, simply shrugged his shoulders and said “it’s market forces”.  Well, fair enough, I guess.  If that many people are willing to pay to watch football on TV, why not?  But fast forward a couple of weeks later when it was revealed that workers in some of the Premier League clubs are paid only the minimum wage – that’s £6.70 an hour or £268 for a 40 hour week. Just contrast that with the pay of some of the top footballers which can be as much as £300k a week – and that was under the old deal!  Mr Scudamore’s response when challenged about this was to say that, if the government wanted people to be paid more it should increase the level of the minimum wage.  He did not see himself as having any greater responsibility than that.  Market forces again.

This tendency to see money as the measure of all things is now so pervasive that we hardly notice it. The Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel has written a book entitled “What Money Can’t Buy – the Moral Limits of the Market”.  It features a wealth of alarming, sometimes hilarious, examples of how almost anything can be bought these days.  For instance, if you are a prisoner in Santa Ana California and want a nice, quiet cell away from all those rowdy, low-rent prisoners, that’s yours for $82 a night.  If you like hunting in South Africa and want to shoot an endangered black rhino, that’s yours for $150,000.  And if you’re a business in the European Union that wants to emit lots of CO2, you can do so for 13 Euros a metric tonne.  Clearly, there’s a moral dimension to each of these examples but none so great that a cash transaction can’t minimise it or make it seem irrelevant.

Most depressing and alarming is what’s happening with gift-giving.  In the US the giving of gift vouchers – which is, effectively, the giving of cash – now exceeds expenditure on gifts of clothes, video games, jewellery and such like.  I can’t get the figures for Britain but anecdotally we seem to be going the same way, as we generally do. Some economists applaud this, seeing gift-giving as inherently wasteful. After all, giving a gift always carries the risk that the person receiving the gift won’t like it, whereas if you give them money they just spend it according to their own taste.  One economist has, in all seriousness, calculated the waste of gift-giving in the US to amount to $13bn per year.   But as Michael Sandel says, gift-giving is about more than money:

“Some gifts are expressive of relationships that engage, challenge and reinterpret our identities.  It’s about growing in character and self-knowledge in the company of others.”

As someone who has gained from my wife’s infinitely better taste in clothes than mine, I say a hearty amen to that! 

What Michael Sandel has documented is a sickness that will kill us unless we change our ways.  It’s how we’ve ended up with excessive executive pay, multinational corporations that see nothing wrong in avoiding – or, still worse – evading tax in the countries in which they make their money, so denying billions of pounds to the public finances, and banks that: launder money for drug cartels; mis-sell financial products; illegally fix bank rates; and assist their richest clients in tax evasion. 

The net effect of all this is to fatally destroy trust and that is not just bad for business but bad for all of us.  Put simply, there is absolutely no way that we can have the decent, civilised society we want which provides great public services and looks after the vulnerable if we don’t have businesses creating wealth in ethical ways that we can all trust.  In considering where the answer may lie it’s essential not to forget that it’s only recently that the idea that money is the measure of all things has held sway in business and public life.  I recall a lecture a few years ago here at St. Mary’s by the historian Niall Fergusson.  He spoke about his biography of Sigmund Warburg who was a giant of the post-war City of London. He was a deeply ethical banker.  A Jew, he drew deeply on the Judeo-Christian tradition he’d originally been brought up in in pre-war Europe. What particularly struck me about the lecture was Fergusson’s comment that in all his researches he could barely find any mention of the word “profit” in Warburg’s writing. This was because his focus was not on making money but on his customers. His prime motivation was to do the best possible quality of work for his customers in the interests of building long-term, trusting relationships.  It’s a world away from young bankers referring to their customers as “muppets”. 

What’s more, Warburg was not alone.  Our great British banks were set up by morally upright men who regarded their great wealth as a privilege and something to be used for the good of others. They were brilliant businessmen and you certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be on the other side of the negotiating table from them, but there is no question that they were deeply imbued with a sense of responsibility to others.

A couple of weeks ago I preached on the subject of covenant.  The idea of covenant is at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition that so inspired Warburg and the great bankers of the 19th Century, and you find reference to it again in today’s reading from Jeremiah.  A covenant is a voluntary association between two parties based on mutual respect and on the understanding that they can achieve things together that they could not do separately.  Marriage is a form of covenant relationship and such relationships lie at the heart of institutions such as the church and community associations to name but two.  The key point is that trust is their bedrock.

At its best business also contains aspects of covenant relationships with buyers and sellers coming together to both their mutual benefit and the wider benefit of society in wealth creation.  But this can only happen if there is real, mutual respect involved.  If this is what much of business has lost, how can it regain it?  Gary Hamel, a former Professor at London Business School who is one of the world’s two best selling business authors (and an Anglican!) has written a book called “What Matters Now”.  In it he argues that business must, for its own good, regain a sense of purpose that is higher and nobler than making money.  In his view, it all starts with businesses thinking first and foremost how best to serve their customers – just as Warburg did. What is it that a business can do that will genuinely help, even delight the customer?    He argues that if businesses are serious about doing this and truly understanding the interests and concerns of their customers, they will also begin to take into account their wider impact on society.  There is certainly a wealth of evidence to suggest that consumers are increasingly impatient of businesses that behave unethically and without regard to their impact on their employees (for example, low pay) and on the environment (for example, climate change).  He argues, convincingly I believe, that this is good for business both in the sense that it creates not only satisfied customers but happier, more excited, more committed workers.  Think about it – what would you rather work in? A company whose sole focus is to make as much money as possible?  Or one that has at its heart a commitment to serving its customers first and foremost and benefiting the wider community through its activities?  The fact that so many companies lack such a sense of worthwhile purpose is surely one of the reasons that explains why 80% of those recently surveyed in western nations said they were unhappy in their work.

I recently had a fine example of what a difference the approach Hamel advocates can make.  You will recall that a good number of you applied to join the local credit union just before Christmas.  A few weeks later some of you reported having heard nothing from the credit union, so I emailed Tony Das, the branch manager in Kentish Town.  He replied the same day, telling me that applications were dealt with by Head Office and that he had alerted them to the problem.  However, he added, until such time as I received a satisfactory response to my query I should hold him personally responsible for the situation.  All this happened in the same week that HSBC (that’s my bank by the way, for the time being!) was embroiled in another scandal. This time, it was revealed that its Swiss arm had been actively assisting wealthy clients in tax evasion (and tax evasion is illegal, by the way).  What astonished me was the response of Lord Green (the Revd., Lord Green) who had been chairman at the time all this was going on. He told a reporter that he refused to answer any questions about the affair “on principle”.  Weeks later, he is still to answer questions on the matter.  I am left scratching my head wondering what principle he was adhering to. In any case, the contrast between the responses of the two men is instructive, is it not?

So what can we do about all this?  Believe it or not, we are  not powerless.  If your business or organisation seems without a higher purpose then why not challenge it and ask what it’s doing to serve its customers and what its sense of duty is to the wider community? If you are unhappy about the business ethics of a company whose products or services you buy, let them know.  If you are on Twitter, so much the better, as companies are increasingly responsive to comments on social media.  If, like me, you are unhappy with your bank, then consider changing.  It’s not easy but there are some real alternatives and they are at least worthy of consideration.  If you are a member of the credit union and have some business experience, then consider joining their board. They’ve got a vacancy at the moment and they desperately need professional support and advice to grow.

Finally, use your vote in the coming election thoughtfully.  There are candidates in all parties who are committed to the kind of change I’ve called for here.  Find out who they are and consider giving them your vote because it really does matter who represents us.

We really can’t go on as we are. We may not feel we have much power but such power as we have we have a duty to exercise for the common good.