Economic lie no. 5; competition can solve all our problems…

william, sports day

Some ideas are so central to our world view that everyone just assumes them to be fact. The domination of so called free market economics have forced quite a few of these kind of ideas into our thinking- one of them is the absolute necessity of competition.

Without competition we become flabbily inefficient, like some kind of state run farm in the old Soviet Union. Without competition we will never become the best that we can be, either as individuals or as countries. Without competition, we are told, all human endevour atrophies. All science is still born, all education is weak and pointless.

A what is more, without competition, there is no fun, no sport, no football no (Lord save us) cricket.

Be honest, at an economic level, do you think this is a closed argument? It might surprise you then to hear that there the value of competition in economics can be regarded as something of a mixed bag. Sure, it might drive down prices, but it might also drive down quality. It will ensure too that devices will lack interoperatability- each new produce will lead to the need for a new device- leading to huge waste and cost.

It might also deliver more choice for consumers (choice being another one of those current cultural holy cows) but this often leads to huge complexity, confusion and again much more waste.

What about competition pushing technology forward? We appear to be seeing unprecedented advances in computing at present. People are upgrading and renewing computers faster than ever before. Rather than buying a machine and using it for 8 years, people are renewing every 3 years, often due to the lower build quality, and cheaper parts end up breaking sooner. Again this is leading to huge wastage, not to mention the environmental impact of all those rare earth metals– which seem to be increasingly dumped in poor countries. There is now huge pressure to buy a new computer at the slightest problem, rather than fix the old one- they are cheap enough and new formats (netbooks, tablets, wrist) are made to look like essential accessories.

bourke-white-margaret-under-construction-blast-furnace-at-magnitogorsk-metallurgical-industrial-complex

Competition might also be regarded as aiming to destroy the opposition. So a powerful company (say IBM) might ensure that their computer platform overcomes other ones. They are removed from the marketplace, even if the technological solutions they contained were better, more useful. The story is often told of computers that used to boot up in seconds but the company that won the competition went a different route.

Am I suggesting that competition is bad then? It would be possible to make a strong case; what is the root cause for war if not competition? Does it not create far more losers than winners? Might competition not be dragging us headlong towards the end of our civilisation because of the damage being done to our environment? But this would be every bit as simplistic and one sided as the competition-is-always-good hegemony. What I would argue for however is the urgent need to look at the holy myth of competition and expose it to a measure of healthy doubt.

Clearly competition delivers huge benefits, but at what costs? I have mentioned potential environmental costs, but there are other more human ones too. The dream of success stalks us all- our huge need for measurable, quantifiable, objective evidence of our place in the human race. But in order for some to win, many must fail. And so we will do what we can to be one of the winners, not losers. However it has never been a level playing field; some will always be able to control the game on behalf of themselves and their families/friends. At present, by almost every measure, the world is providing less chances for those who have little than previously. We are discarding countless Einsteins, Beethovens, Marie Curies every day.

You could argue that even the costs of failure (our current banking crisis) has been outsourced. Those suffering from all the adversity programmes slashing our welfare, health and education budgets were certainly not the cause of the problem- in fact they were not even in the competition.

As someone who tries to follow after Jesus, it seems rather obvious that he did not seem to regard the winning of competitions as any kind of priority. In fact he seemed to favour the opposite; turning the other cheek, the first becoming the last, the lion lying down with the lamb. I know that neo-liberal economists do not tend to use Jesus as their major source material, but nevertheless it is strange how these ideas co-exist within so called Christian cultures. Perhaps the Jesus way of doing things is not really a good way for our children to get ahead?

Which brings me to my final point- the education of our children. When I was a kid back in the increasingly distant 1970’s, competition was bad. Enlightened parents and teachers tried to emphasise non-competitive games, encouraging co-operation and the shared experience. To be honest it was a bit shambolic, not much fun and the urge to compete was so strong in most of we kids that it was pointless anyway. Since then the whole attempt to imbue education with egalitarian principles has been totally abandoned in the UK. Competition is most certainly good- the more the better it seems, particularly under our current government.

school photo

The fear we live with as parents is that we do not skew the scales as far towards our own kids as we possibly can. The pressure is on to equip them for success in each and every exam, so that they can succeed in life. There is some evidence for the truth of this. Expensive private education hot-houses kids to exam success, and privately educated kids crowd the top professions in this country, particularly the political class.

Here is the rub though- as we start to look back on lives (rather than imagine forward into the lives of our kids) what successes do we most appreciate? What gives us most pleasure, satisfaction? Which of them might be regarded as having been worthwhile- not just for ourselves but for the world we were part of? If you are like me, this has little to do with money or exam results or career. It is much more to do with family, friends, community, creativity, love, kindness.  Is it possible that competition mitigates against some of this? Is it not at least a distraction, or perhaps given too much weighting in the choices we make for both ourselves and our kids?

Competition is saving us. Competition is killing us. Both are true, and neither.

Competition is overvalued, and needs to be subordinate to grace.

 

Communing in the overlap…

Just Mooching Around (geddit?)

A story;

A man called Isaac grows and lives in a small village. He works hard on his farm, rising with the sun and tending the garden God gave him, tilling the rich brown earth. Rains come and water the green growth and plumps the ripening fruit. Life is good.

Next door lives his great friend Joseph. In the evenings they sit in the light of the harvest moon and share their hopes and dreams. They drink toasts to the future and laugh and joke and dream.

God looked upon them and smiled.

One day, Joseph inherits money from a long lost relative- just enough to buy a cow. And he walks it home up the hill and the evening light shines on its hide like velvet. He runs over to Isaac and invites him over to see the cow in its green pasture, solid and big and bountiful. “Look…” he says, “Look what God has brought to us- now we can have milk in the mornings- butter, cheese!”

But the cow became a shadow between Isaac and Joseph.

And one day, God visited Isaac and asked him what was wrong. Isaac said “It is the cow Lord- it has made Joseph into someone else. He used to be my friend.”

And God was sad.

“Isaac,” he said quietly, “If I can do anything for you- if I can grant you a wish, what would it be?”

Isaac looked up at God with cunning eyes.

“Kill the cow” he said.

Community.

As followers of Jesus, it is our calling, our aspiration, our tranforming power, and the very characteristic of the children of the living God.

Oh… and it can be hard.

Because real community implies closeness to those around us. It suggests relationships that go beyond the surface into the deep, undefended vulnerable parts of us.

And in doing this we are beautiful- as we serve and support, as we learn to love and let go our selfish stuff for the sake of the beautiful other. As we break bread and share wine.

But in doing this- we also are ugly- as we compete and squabble, as we dominate and oppress in the small things of a day, as we take in information and filter it through a screen of past hurts. As we nurse wounds and pick at the stitches until they burst and bleed on our communal table.

What was Jesus thinking of when he threw together his own band of disputing disciples? When he cautioned them that others will know that they are his followers by the love they had for one another?

Perhaps, just perhaps if we survive the examination of the stuff that we hide most carefully from the other- and we do not run away to build our own ego’s from bricks formed out of the manifest failings of our perceived inquisitors…

Perhaps then we might find that community is possible.

Because we Christians live in the overlap of what life is, and what we long for it to become.

The cartography of competition…

A little while ago, I met someone for the first time, and took a dislike to him.

It did not really matter- we are not likely to have a lot to do with one another. But it troubled me as it was quite a strong reaction.

I bolstered myself with an examination of his faults. He liked to talk- all the stuff he had done, how good he was at things. I followed standard meet-new-person procedure, and asked him lots of open leading questions about himself and his stuff, but after a while I stopped as he did not really need the encouragement. He asked nothing about me at all.

After an hour or so of this- I was annoyed, and… strangely depressed.

Of course things are never one dimensional where human interaction is concerned. This man had been through a tough time and was rebuilding his life. He was also someone who had gifts in similar areas to my own, and the talent comparisons were inevitable- given the fragile self-esteem issues we artistic types tend to suffer beneath.

There was a whiff testosterone-competition in the air, and I did not like it, or what it did to me. It had no place in my idealised understanding of the elevation that art brings to the soul.

Not to mention the Jesus way of being that I set myself stumblingly towards…

But there is was.

In dysfunctional style I chewed on it all. And wrote the poem below.

We meet and move about one another
Probing, exploring borders
Negotiating
Presenting our petition
And revealing this badge of office-
Sewn on sleeves whilst our hearts stay hidden
Revealing carefully edited glimpses
Of whom we want to be
But are not yet.

Then begins the measuring
Of the size of armies
The bore of canon
And the reach of your rockets
As we carefully deploy our camouflaged troops
To occupy the high ground
To hide uncertainty behind
A cloak of accomplishment
And capability.

Sometimes it seems that who I am is only revealed
In understanding what you are not
In seeing you
And finding you wanting
In mapping out your strongholds
And avoiding them
And raising up my tattered flag
Above this uncomfortable alliance.