Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Christ and Consumption

In a recent survey of 2000 households, over a quarter indicated that unsecured credit card debt had become a problem. Although the average credit card debt was placed at £1747 per person in April this year, the average interest charged on credit cards (16.68 per cent) bears little relation to current loan rates (approx. 8.5%) or the fairly modest Bank of England base rate of 0.5 per cent.

It was reported in May this year, that one in seven credit card holders is relying on plastic to pay for household bills, such as utilities. Yet, around half were reported to be also using them to fund big ticket purchases, such as TVs and DVD players.

Given that these two groups are not mutually exclusive, we can conclude that some households are purchasing these expensive consumer goods and yet paying some of their monthly household bills on credit.

Men have an average of £3,425 in personal debts, compared with £3,353 for women. This is an interesting statistic given the gender income disparity. A uSwitch survey reported worryingly that female shopaholics spend 19% of their income on debt repayments, compared to a national average of 8. What proportion of your pay goes to pay off debt? It takes shopaholics approximately seven months to clear a debt. How long does it take you?

So what is the truth behind the intrinsic value of consumer goods? Well, let’s look at the current icon of consumer electronics, the iPhone. Its market share rose from 8.2 per cent in 2008 to 14.4 per cent in 2009. You can buy a SIM-free iPhone 4 for about £450. Alternatively, you can get one for £99 under a 2 year £35 per month (Total = £939).

But what does it cost to manufacture an iPhone? An article published in January 2007 indicated a 50 per cent gross margin on each iPhone sale in the US :

Based on a preliminary functional Bill of Materials (BoM) estimate, the firm calculates that the 4Gbyte version of the Apple iPhone will carry a $229.85 materials and manufacturing cost and a $245.83 total expense, yielding a 50.7 percent margin on each unit sold at the $499 retail price.

If anything, the unit cost of iPhone manufacture would have decreased as production ramped up and R&D, start-up costs were absorbed. In contrast, the unit price has increased.  So how do you manage to sustain this sort of margin in the competitive smartphone market? In two words: YOU ADVERTISE.

In 2007 Apple’s advertising budget was $467 million and much of it was allocated specifically to market the iPhone. The result is that the iPhone was responsible for 39% of the company's revenues in Q4 2008.

A key part of the advertising strategy is positioning. The iPhone is provided to a variety of high-profile music and sports stars free of charge. As we watch these widely-admired celebrities using these products, we assume that these products are part of that charmed world of leisurely success that they enjoy. We buy into that image and it is this assumption that drives consumer demand. It is this distinctive emotional connection called BRAND that advertisers try to build in our minds.

So what has this to do with Christ? Definitively, Jesus said ‘You cannot serve God and Mammon’. (Matt. 6:24) Mammon is the personification of worldly success and material security. It is BRAND objectified. A brand image distorts our values, so that an item that only cost $250 to manufacture is purchased for $499. If it’s bought on unsecured credit, at the typical 16.68 per cent interest, the overall cost to the consumer is extortionate. The image of success is a deception aimed at making us part with money we don’t have, in order to demonstrate that we’ve achieved a status that we can’t really afford.

These things have no power to keep us safe from hardship, or harm. They are fragile and yet we look to them for security. As Christ said: ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness,
for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’
(Luke 12:15)

For the love of money (wealth) is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money (wealth), have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.’ (1 Tim. 6:10) Many a debt counsellor would attest to the truth of this scripture.

Paul speaks of what repentance meant for the first-century Christians, ‘how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thess. 1:9)

The clear teaching of Christianity is for us to renounce the idolatry of paying inflated prices for fragile goods that simply maintain our successful persona, especially when it becomes an extravagant abuse of borrowed money. By all means get a decent mobile phone with good reception, but when advertising influences you to pay or borrow 70 per cent of a typical monthly house payment at 17 per cent interest (or spend more than £900 in phone charges over 2 years), you have to question whether Apple or any other technology company deserves a 50 per cent gross margin.

Of course, once you’re hooked on spending that sort of money through consumer credit, there’s little left over for personal or anyone else’s emergencies.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Marriage and the Three-Legged Race

When I think of marriage and its challenges, I think the curious analogy of a three-legged race is a useful one. The ideal pairing for winning this race is a set of identical partners. However, in real life, there is no perfect match. Instead, you are joined to a runner who has little knowledge of your stride pattern or gait. However, it’s only when you start running that you realise that there's a mismatch and the faster that you try to run, the worse it gets.

You scream at each other to keep to the same pace, and then to stop shouting because (I’ve been told) ‘SHOUTING DOESN’T HELP!’ The combined movement is more akin to a sputtering engine than a well-oiled machine. Of course, ever so often, you're meant to stop to adjust the tie that binds you together carefully and gently.

At some point, one or both partners may say (or think), 'What's the point? I'm faster or at least happier by myself. I'm almost carrying you and that's not fair. If I had known you had shorter/longer legs than mine or your tendency to lose your temper or give up so easily, I would have chosen someone else. I was conned. I don't know why I was paired with a total opposite. Obviously to turn me into a complete laughing stock!'

So, you start to either fix the bond carelessly, or forget the bonding altogether. So, with no need to pause, running seems easier. You don't even have to look at each other or match stride patterns. As freer individuals, you both seem to be passing other more closely attached couples who, by comparison, are only plodding slowly. I should know: I did this for years.

Some time before the end of the race, the bond is lost. However, not before the contempt-laden accusation is levelled: 'You’re not even making an effort!'

You can now see other solitary runners making their way up to the finish line ahead of the paired ones. You might even size up one of those running alone as a potential future partner. This one better matches your stride pattern and appears more suited for the long haul. Of course, if you’re partnered on the finish line, It will look as though you still respect and play by the rules.

At least for a while, with the new partner, you might seem more synchronised. You believe you can reach the finish line way ahead of the competition, and feel like a winner.That is, until one of you gets fatigue and slows down. And anyway, you will only find yourself disqualified at the end for cheating.

In contrast, for those who arrive at the finish line alone, the only acceptable excuse (I’ve been told) is that their partner’s run was ended by severe illness or that the other person ran off along the way. Of course, the race footage is a perfect record of when and how the partner was supposed to have 'run off' and how the bond was lost. It shamefully reveals that you were both already running at cross-purposes beforehand!

The whole purpose of this type of race (and marriage) is to challenge us to find cleverer ways to merge our styles. You won't be partnered with a perfect match. You might start out looking slow and awkward. People will laugh at your plodding efforts to make headway. Perhaps they will encourage you to give up altogether.

If you want to make it to the finish together, you have to slow down and make major adjustments to your own individuality, pace or stride pattern. You must be prepared to accommodate the good and bad peculiarities of the other runner gradually WITH A MUTUALLY AGREED AGENDA FOR CHANGE. This is the crux of the problem: NEITHER PARTNER WANTS TO SLOW DOWN.

So I guess, couples in crisis (‘been there, done that’) have to decide whether they want to explain to God how and why the bond was lost and be disqualified at the end of that long race that we call ‘life’. Or they might both submit to a mutually agreed agenda for slow, deliberate change. One that enables them to accommodate each other without compromising their core individuality and values about life.

Questions for each partner to ask themselves might be: 'Should the world just accept that I have no great desire to change my behaviour for anyone? How much am I prepared to change as an individual in order to match my partner's stride pattern? Do I think that the prize of lifelong marital harmony is worth the sacrifice and discomfort of changing my ingrained behaviour and approach to life? Do we need to seek outside help in order to effect the personal change needed to achieve harmony?’

However you choose to answer those questions, remember the wise words of Ecclesiastes:

‘I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favour to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.’ Time and chance will thwart the advancement of those who end their marriages for selfish and mercenary reasons.That’s just how God’s universe works!

Friday, 3 December 2010

If you think that God won’t get you…

Continuing the theme of overcoming selfish desires, I remember that Dolly Parton penned a great tune many years ago about the effect of illicit obsession as it corrodes the conscience. She weaves in the titles of great gospel and country music.

The tender love lyrics remind me of the Song of Solomon. Of course, it’s not a hymn, but a ballad of forbidden love describing how it plays on the mind. Dolly truly articulates the pangs of guilt and moral contradictions that we know can only be purified by recognising the price paid to remove them: the blood of Christ. It’s a reminder that sin’s pay packet (wage) is really an intolerable expense to the mind and soul in this life (as well as the next) that no-one escapes without repentance. I read this as a challenge to my own bad choices. I hope you do too:

Sometimes in my sleep I hold you close against my skin,
Waking’ up I wish that I could sleep and dream again,
Because only in my dreams can I know how it might have been,
But cheaters never win, their heartaches never end,
But sometimes I get crazy as lovers often do,
Trying to please him and wondering if she’s pleasin’ you
Though they have every right to any part of us they choose,
I still live just for you and our secret rendezvous

‘Torn between two lovers’ on the jukebox,
I’m thinkin’ how I could have wrote that song,
Wonderin’ if God loves us when we’re cheatin’?
Oh, but why he lets us feel things, if it’s wrong,
And I guess I should be singin’ "Rock of Ages"
"Amazing Grace" and some of those good songs,
But my ‘cheatin’ heart will tell on me tomorrow’
If you think that God won’t get you, well you’re wrong!

Thou shalt not commit it, it’s written in the ten
The spirit’s always willin’, but the flesh is weak again,
And you’re as close to heaven
as I might ever fly
And angel in disguise
A wrong that feels so right

‘Torn between two lovers’ just keeps playin’
‘I don’t want to be right if loving you is wrong’,
Wonderin’ if God loves us when we’re cheatin’?
Oh, but why he lets us feel things, if it’s wrong,
And I guess I should be singin’ "Rock of Ages"
"Amazing Grace" and some of those good songs,
But my ‘cheatin’ heart will tell on me tomorrow’
If you think that God won’t get you, well you’re wrong!