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Fear and Financial Security

Monday, 10 August 2015  | John McKinnon

What does a government do when it's lost all authority? It tries to scare people, big time

Fear has been a key weapon of empires throughout time. It is easier to subdue a populace and keep them that way if they are scared, because fear paralyses. It leads people to accept consequences they would otherwise reject. It over-rides all other emotions, squeezing out compassion or concern for others. It shortens our time horizon and prevents long term planning. Frightened people will accept almost anything in order to survive, so it is not surprising fear is used as a tool of control.

Gregory Berns, Director of the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University ascribes this to the “endowment effect.” This is the innate tendency to place a very high value on what we have – higher than the generally accepted value of those things. What do we have? In 21st century Australia we have relative prosperity and peace, we have a high standard of living. We value those things greatly. Hence we fear losing them.

Such fear is also self-fulfilling. Berns adds,

The cause and effect have not been fully sorted out, but the implication is that when our brains sense pain, or anticipate loss, we tend to hold onto what we have. When everyone does this at once, the result is a downward economic spiral.

Behavioural economist Sendil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir have written a book describing the psychology of poverty. They present evidence that poverty changes people’s mental states, reduces the ability to make long-term rational decisions and effectively drops IQ.  Furthermore, it isn’t just real poverty but fear of poverty that has these impacts. “Simply raising monetary concerns for the poor,” they explain, “erodes cognitive performance even more than being seriously sleep deprived.”

Still, it seems such fear only applies to those already poor, which most of us in Australia are not. However, we think we are. This is because we are constantly told we are. Matt Wade in the Sydney Morning Herald reports Prime Minister Abbott suggesting that an income of $185,000 per annum “isn’t especially high”. This is actually in the top 6% of family incomes in Australia. Andrew Carswell, writing in the Daily Telegraph, describes a family on over $150,000 per annum struggling to get by. According to The New York Times, US$500,000 per annum is still a struggle in New York. Our politicians and media tell us we are poor. Hence, we believe we are poor.

So we in Australia are vulnerable to scare campaigns about asylum seekers (coming to steal our jobs and upsetting our nicely functioning society), terrorism (again, pinching our peaceful, easy going lifestyle) and economic downturn (taking our prosperity). Each of these vulnerabilities has been used against the Australian people in recent years, resulting in loss of liberties, loss of compassion and vast expenditure of our money. I want to focus, however, on the third: fear of financial loss.

Two recent government reports were exposed for using this tactic. First we had the Commission of Audit. ABC journalist Sarah Ferguson described it this way, “If one of the Government's ideas was to scare the public with the far-reaching recommendations in the Commission of Audit, then the plan worked.” Why did the government set out to scare the public? The Australia Institute had the answer:

Lacking in the confidence or evidence to win a genuine debate, its authors simply seek to scare people into pursuing the policies preferred by the big business lobby group that called for and effectively ran the inquiry.

Then came the Intergenerational Report. It would be so scary, that according to Treasurer Hockey, “people would fall off their chairs”.  The government went through an elaborate social research process to ensure it was scary enough. According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Martin, “This approach is intended to do to the intergenerational report what the Prime Minister's statement did to national security - to make it an instrument of fear.”

The goal with both reports was to put the populace in such a state of fear that they lose their rational decision-making ability and accept whatever prescription the government put forward.  In the case of these documents, their farcical assumptions and underlying political nature was quickly exposed and they were consigned to gather dust on parliamentary bookshelves (no doubt to be dusted off at an opportune time). However, the tactic lives on in the discussion about raising the GST and cutting family benefits.

As I said above, the use of fear as a tactic of empires is not new. First century Palestinians (including Jesus) would have been no strangers to that (just imagine the impact of the rows and rows of crucified Jews on roadsides after the 7AD uprising).  But surely it is a reasonable speculation to suggest that the fear of the time was not only of violent repression but also of losing the “benefits” of the occupation. The pax romana was real.  There was peace (of a kind) and there was prosperity (for some).

I can imagine the Institute of Jewish Affairs (Jerusalem Chapter) producing a report on how temple taxes on the poor should be increased and that Sadducees and priests should be paid more to ensure they were able to maintain the temple system appropriately so as to keep peace with the Romans.  Distributions to widows should be subject to stricter eligibility or in 20 years time the explosion in widow numbers will send Judea broke and the Romans will be forced to impose harsher military rule. 

My point is that fear of losing the fragile financial stability in Judea brought about by the status quo of Roman rule combined with a Jewish puppet government was probably prevalent among the populace.

So when Jesus came preaching a non-violent revolution against the status quo, the populace would have been scared by the implications. Could this fear have been behind Jesus’ exhortation in his famous sermon to “not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink” (Matthew 6:25 ff)”?  Have we so removed this part of Jesus’ sermon from its context so it becomes an unrealistic pietist epithet, devoid of any practical implications in our everyday life rather than a very real and current encouragement to reject the narrative of fear, driven by the empire and its collaborators?

If Jesus was speaking to a real situation, what were the practices he was recommending? While campaigns of fear can be confected (such as those in Australia recently), there are real fears of scarcity that people face, both then and now. Here we need to draw on the broader “Jubilee narrative” that Jesus weaves throughout his ministry. In essence, the community is responsible for each other. The Sabbath and Jubilee laws concerning cancellation of debt, freeing of slaves, and redistribution of land provided a model of community that could defeat the fear-mongers. The early Christians meeting in Jerusalem after Pentecost had reason to fear. They were risking their future on a new movement.  However, we read, with echoes of Deuteronomy, “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34).

While the empires of our times may threaten financial ruin unless we submit to their desires, it is our radical practice of Sabbath economics within a context of community that can provide the antidote and allow us to pursue the Kingdom call of challenging the powers in the name of Jesus.



"Fear - the Abbott government's weapon of choice”, Peter Martin, Sydney Morning Herald, March 3, 2015.

“Really, Mr Abbott? $185k not 'especially high'?”, Matt Wade, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 2015.

“New rich adrift in ocean of debt and despair as Federal Budget attacks middle class”, Andrew Carswell, The Daily Telegraph, 11 May 2011.

“You Try to Live on 500K in This Town”, Alan Salkin, New York Times, 6 February 2009.

“Levy, welfare, infrastructure - Abbott Government's first budget takes shape”, Sarah Ferguson, ABC 7:30 Report, 6 May 2014.

“Auditing the Auditors”, The Australia Institute, 8 May 2014.

“In Hard Times, Fear Can Impair Decision-Making” Gregory Berns, New York Times, Dec 6 2008.

“The Science of Scarcity”, Cara Feinberg, Harvard Magazine, May-June 2015. 


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