CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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A wakeup call on the cash splash

HONG KONG (SE): Spending is a culture deeply ingrained in all of us. We can splash the cash and wave the credit card almost as compulsively as we breathe the air.

The moment we wake up we are already pondering our choices, from breakfast to the daily newspapers, magazines and a host of other things.

However, what we want may not always be what we need. We buy out of habit and, because we have the money, spend without thinking.

This compulsion is also blessed by the government, as it uses consumer index figures as a productivity indicator of economic health.

The past two festive seasons of Christmas and the Chinese Lunar New Year gave yet another boost to consumer spending in the city.

Some people even credited the $6,000 government handout, money that miraculously appeared in our pockets like snowflakes from heaven, as being partly responsible for this.

When the money is free, we can shop until we drop, without ever giving a thought to whether we need what we buy or not, even the slightest craving can be satisfied simply by removing the plastic card from our pockets or handbags.

Most economists regard spending as a boost to the economy. As long as people are spending, production and manufacture will go up and the whole economy will expand.

Result, everybody will be better off, because there will be a rise in prosperity. Right?

Well, maybe not.

If we think a bit, we can see that shop owners lure us with free gifts, discounts, buy-one-get-one-free offers and great deals down the road, often for things we cannot use.

The offers often come at an inconvenient time or involve another purchase, but the thought of a freebie is a compelling invitation to a bit more retail therapy.

Somehow we get the idea we are spending less, because of all the discounts and freebies we get. 

A question worth answering honestly for ourselves is: “Am I just shopping out of greed or even vanity?”

The Gospel according to St. Matthew tells us that after Jesus had spent 40 days in the wilderness, “The devil took him up to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, ‘All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me’.”

Jesus replied, “Get away, Satan! It is written, ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve’”(4:9-10).

Jesus resists the temptation to worldly magnificence. Can we follow that example and resist worldly extravagance, as well as give a bit more time and energy to contemplating the spiritual benefits available to us instead?

Splashing money around has another hidden consequence, as more and more outlets are now run by large conglomerates.

Small grocery stores are fast being replaced by jumbo supermarkets and small merchants are being pushed aside by chain-stores in the glitzy shopping malls, even in local shopping centres and along the streets.

Our range of choice is gradually shrinking to brand name only, or those products on the glossy advertisements plastered across the billboards and walls of subway stations.

We may lament the loss of the unique little shops down the road and complain about our deprivation of choice, as the limits of our shopping options contract, but the small merchants suffer even more, they lose their businesses.

What we do not see is the flip side of our retail choices, the painful suffering of the many bankruptcies, which are a by-product of economic dictatorship.

We may be tempted to say that this is progress; the result of the free market.

But an unfettered free market can breed monopoly and this in turn questions the very label we give to the market. What is free about it?

Sometimes government policies can bring more benefit to property tycoons or financial conglomerates than anyone else, and this further fuels economic dictatorship.

Take the example of Tin Shui Wai; all the commercial complexes there are owned by either Cheung Kong Property or by the Link REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust).

Pressure on the government coming from lower down the economic chain urging the development of other land to allow cooked food markets, has been met with a lukewarm response.

A survey conducted last year shows that food and daily necessities are more expensive in Tin Shui Wai than in Wan Chai, despite the income disparity!

Could that be a result of the high rents charged by the duo-conglomerate monopoly to prevent the lowering of prices?

In the bible, we learn not to pursue wealth to the ends of the earth and to leave some for the poor.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not be so thorough that you reap the field to its very edge, nor shall you glean the stray ears of grain. Likewise, you shall not pick your vineyard bare, nor gather up the grapes that have fallen. These things you shall leave for the poor and the alien. I, the LORD, am your God” (Leviticus 19: 9-10).

Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical The Progress of Peoples (Populorum Progressio), also stated, “Human society is sorely ill. The cause is not so much the depletion of natural resources, nor their monopolistic control by a privileged few; it is rather the weakening of brotherly ties between individuals and nations”(66).

In this period of Lent, how about curbing our spending habits a bit and giving what we save to those who really need it, as an act of sacrifice.

More importantly, we should try not to let economic dictatorships dictate the choices we make in our lives.

We should not be programmed to shop only in the supermarkets or chain stores, just because they are more convenient or have advertising that makes our mouths water.

Let’s buy from the small merchants and help them to survive in this fiercely competitive market.

Let them improve their livelihoods and perpetuate the only way of making a living that they have. In turn, we, as Christians, can then fulfill our obligation to act with charity.


Catholic Commission for Labour Affairs

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