Thursday, 18 September 2014

All That Is Solid III

This is the third of three posts.

So what can be done?

First, we must recognise that our well-being is tied up with those poorer than us [165]. Second, ‘What is needed is a cultural change away from greed’ [187]. Third, we need to see property primarily as a home, and not as a (speculative) investment [265].

In short, ‘We need to remember that housing is a special kind of good – a social good – which brings with it wider benefits. In this it is like education and health. It is better for all of us if others are also well housed, well educated, and healthy’ [306].

To this end Dorling makes ten proposals:
1. Extend the current council tax bands up to band “Z” with a view to transforming the tax into a fairer national land and property tax.
2. Enhance the existing “right-to-stay” into a “right-to-sell”, giving mortgagors the right to become tenants rather than face eviction.
3. Second homes, holiday homes and empty commercial property need to be included in a fairer property tax system to discourage waste.
4. Spare bedrooms should not be taxed. Every family should be able to live in a home with a spare room for visitors. We already have enough rooms. Every single adult who wants their own space should have it.
5. An enhanced home-building programme will be needed if more people come into the UK than leave, as has been the case in recent years.
6. Benefits are now so low that they must soon rise faster than wages, which must rise faster than salaries – all of which must rise faster than home prices. Rents need to stay still, if not fall. All these are out of balance.
7. Greater income and wealth equality would be improved by the reintroduction of rent controls, which would also reduce housing benefit bills massively. The already calculated Local Housing Allowances could be used to set the maximum fair rent in an area.
8. Squatting and all other acts that are done purely to seek shelter and not to steal items for a profit should again be a civil, not a criminal, offence. Squatting is a symptom of a problem, not the problem.
9. Illegal actions by landlords and bankers that deprive people of their home and shelter should become criminal, rather than civil, offences.
10. We have to recognize that housing is central to environmental sustainability. When we build, we need to build for the very long term [314-315].
All That is Solid is incredibly stimulating. Yes, Dorling sits unapologetically on the left, but favours evolution over revolution. (The System can be slowly redeemed!) However, he also has a tendency to tar all landlords with the same brush. Here, I would urge some caution, since the landlord whom my wife and I left for social housing exhibited much of the (other-centred) virtue that Dorling so desperately seeks across the board.

In the next series of posts, we turn to Felix Martin’s book Money.

Monday, 15 September 2014

All That Is Solid II

This is the second of three posts.

Dorling’s argument unfolds as follows (according to chapter):*

1. There is a crisis.
2. People are myopic, only looking out for themselves (and for their immediate family) rather than for society [cf. 56]. Thus our inheritance laws require revision [33, 39], as do the laws governing empty properties [47 cf. 67]. Such properties could be used for the greater good. ‘There is enough housing for all, even in a crowded island like Britain, even in the heart of London (where it really cannot be repeated enough that there are still more bedrooms than people). What we lack is a housing policy that is collective, not individualistic’ [285].
3. The issue of inequality cannot be solved by increasing (the housing) supply, because the supply-demand argument assumes that consumers have economic equality (which patently they do not – some are rich, some are poor) [102 cf. 9]. In fact, although there might be a short-term trickle-down effect when an area is gentrified, there is a long-term trickle-up effect as people are priced out, and wealth moves from the poor to rich. This happens as taxes subsidise the rich (via housing benefit), as do guarantees for property development (funded by taxation).
4. Vacant space (whether land or housing) should be taxed to bring prices down.
5. The cost of housing rises ‘not because the cost of building or of maintaining homes has suddenly become greater, but because a few have found better ways to more fully feather the nests of those with money to lend: the “investors”’ [135].
6. ‘The free market does not balance supply and demand well when it comes to housing; it usually increases the imbalances that already exist’ [195].
7. We need to see property primarily as a home, and not as a (speculative) investment [265].
8. Suggested solutions include a land-value tax [75, 94-95, 305-306] designed to fund the right-to-sell [70, 309-310].

The theme of chapter 3 runs throughout the whole book.

Ours is a system that favours the rich over the poor. He observes that ‘given current trends, many of the [affordable] homes being built are likely to end up in landlords’ hands’ [7]. This happens as affordable homes are sold back to the open market. So (like housing benefit) help-to-buy ultimately benefits private landlords. ‘All this keeps rents and prices high. All this puts more and more people into even greater debt’ [9].

Taxes also favour the rich over the poor. For example, Dorling notes the irony of the Bedroom Tax (where those on housing benefit are taxed for what is deemed excess space). Aside from the subjectivity of determining what is “excess” – Dorling deems a guest room reasonable [189] – irony abounds because the poor tend to use space more efficiently than the rich anyway [111, 200]!

Besides, there are not enough one-bedroom places (into which people could down-size) [153]. And it is hardly the tenants’ fault if developers find it more lucrative to build two- and three-bedroom places!

He also notes that the upper limit on council tax is essentially a concession to the rich [204] – ‘You pay proportionately more council tax the lower your tax band’ [205] – and that the rich are more likely to know how to evade tax in the first place [122, 179].

* The structure of All That is Solid is somewhat gem-like. Whereas each facet is a window into the gem as a whole, each chapter in All That is Solid is a window into the others. Thus, in my synopsis, I have occasionally cited text on the subject of a particular chapter from the perspective of other chapters looking into it.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

All That Is Solid I

The story so far: we are in the middle of a series of posts reviewing the priestly (relationships) and kingly (economics) spheres of life. On the priestly we’ve looked at:

Then, we took a brief excursus on the Powers in Acts. There we saw that the Powers divide, whereas the Kingdom unites. With that in mind, we move on to two books that both consider the kingly (economic) sphere of life:
This is the first of three posts on the first of those two books.

The Powers divide us: the in-crowd, the out-crowd; the haves, the have-nots. So it is always worth asking, “what divides us?” “Where are we excluded?” “Where do we have no voice?” “Where do we exclude others?” “Where do we deny others a voice?”

Since ‘housing has become the defining economic issue of our times’ [15], consider the current housing crisis. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Society becomes divided into property owners and tenants. Not every property owner is a landlord. But every tenant has one.

To address this, Dorling takes his title from the Communist Manifesto: ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind’ [307].*

Although Dorling argues for evolution rather than revolution, the resonance with Marx and Engles strikes a cord nonetheless. Under the current free market, housing is no longer solid, at least not in London. This loss of solidity is why my wife and I fled the private rental market for the refuge of social housing. Dorling describes the environment:
In the year to 2013 median rents in London rose by 9%, while median London earnings rose by only 2%; and the typical young renter has been forced to move (on average) every twelve months by his or her landlord to enable that landlord to find a new tenant to pay the higher rent [10].
Accommodation is not only fleeting, but also very often wanting – unfit for purpose. Moreover, there is a deep correlation with freedom here (or the lack thereof). Dorling is worth quoting at some length.
[P]eople who talk of freedom but who are not concerned about housing – and about the extreme of homelessness – are not really concerned about freedom at all. They might be concerned about their personal freedom to do what they like and live as they like, but they are apparently less concerned that others should have the most basic freedom of having somewhere safe to live. Often people who advocate what they think of as the great freedom of the ‘free market’ find it hard to consider the basic freedoms of others. 
You are likely to be reading this book because you believe that housing is a crucial issue of our times. You are very unlikely to be homeless of even to have been homeless. However, we all need to be concerned, not only about homelessness and those who are very insecurely housed, but also about the very rich, and the affluent, and the average, and the modest, and the poor and other minorities, if we are to ensure that the current deleterious housing situation improves. The way to guarantee greater freedom is to think more widely than just about ourselves and our families. If there is to be enough good housing for all, and if our friends and family are to be well housed in the future, we cannot just look after our own short-term interests.
It is when everyone concentrates too much on their own interests that those very interests are harmed: we find that most of us are squeezed into too little space to be well housed, and that the growing wealth of a few affluent landlords and multiple property owners translates into growing insecurity and financial volatility for the majority. Ultimately, when the super-rich are encouraged to speculate on housing, they fuel a property bubble that grows exponentially with their wealth before it bursts. Those who find they have invested in whatever is next most profitable, often out of luck, become the new rich. But they know their position could easily be usurped. Each person acting purely from self-interest creates a future that is in almost nobody's interest. It is in how well or how badly we are housed that this becomes most evident, day in, day out. 
There are wider arguments than greater efficiency for demanding that we better manage our housing. The way we currently organize housing literally makes us sick with worry; it is a grossly unfair allocation of scarce resources ... More become homeless and fewer are well housed when a fraction of the population is encouraged to speculate in ways that do more harm than good – when they are encouraged to treat property as a financial investment [52-53].
In the next post, we will look more closely how Dorling’s argument unfolds.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Powers in Acts III

This is the third of three posts.

We have seen the early church engage the Powers by recognising that those Powers run right through them. Paul never revokes his Jewish background or his Roman Citizenship. There is therefore hope for their redemption.

What else might we observe? By recognising that the Powers run right through us, we are less likely to employ violence against them. Paul is Roman. He is Jewish. This is who he is. To employ violence against Rome and Jerusalem would be to employ violence against himself.

But there is more.

To employ violence against Rome and Jerusalem, especially as a Roman and a Jew, would also pander to the violent division that both systems propagate. It would fuel them rather than redeem them.

Acts 16 demonstrates the violent way in which Rome approaches “outsiders”. There, the Philippians beat Paul and Silas, because they do not know that they are Roman Citizens.

Acts 21 demonstrates a similar thing. The Jews seek to kill Paul because they mistakenly believe that Paul has brought the Gentile Trophimus into an exclusively Jewish area of the Temple.

Both Rome and Jerusalem employ violent division. “Us” and “them”. “In” and “out”.

But note the non-violent response to the Powers in Acts 16. Paul and Silas respond to their arrest by singing, refusing to escape, and by naming how they have been wronged. In Acts 22, Paul simply points out how he has been wronged (as a Roman Citizen).

Today, other Powers run through us.

Let us consider one example.

Debt-based Capitalism, which makes up the global economy, divides the “haves” from the “have-nots”. This has objective and subjective dimensions.

Objectively, some people have credit, others do not. Some people have enough credit to secure a decent mortgage on a decent property. Others do not.

Subjectively, “having” or “not having” is also something in the eye of the beholder. The desire for having what we do not is fuelled by Consumerism (a Power in itself).

Can these Powers be redeemed?

First, we need to name them (as we have just done). Second, we need to recognise that they run right through us. We are debt-based Capitalists and Consumers.

Therefore, there is hope to redeem the System.

Third, we need to resist them non-violently.

We can resist debt-based Capitalism by better sharing resources. We do this as we resist Consumerism with gratitude and generosity, for Consumerism knows neither. It knows neither the Lord to whom we give thanks, nor the sacrifice of selfish desire that is required to bless others.

One last thing, which I noted in the previous post: reaching individuals is necessary but not sufficient to change the world. We need to engage the Powers to achieve that.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Powers in Acts II

This is the second of three posts.

The Powers be they Communism, Consumerism, Capitalism, whatever – they all have lords who are not Christ.

But they can all be redeemed to have Christ as Lord.

This is essentially what happens to Judaism in the first half of Acts. The old centre of power (the Temple) is fulfilled by the new (Jesus). The old symbol of that power (circumcision) is likewise fulfilled by the new (Jesus).

Whereas Judaism failed to be a light to the nations, and the law became a barrier, instead of a light, dividing Jew and Gentile, the Judaism of the early Apostles (signified by Pentecost) redeems all this.

The Powers divide, but the Kingdom unites.

Similarly, in Acts 16 Roman Citizen beats Roman Citizen, or at least beat those not perceived to be Roman (Paul and Silas). This is a parody of the apostolic community in Acts 2.

The Empire divides, but the Kingdom unites.

And in the same way that Judaism is redeemed through Jewish individuals, Rome can be redeemed through Roman individuals (like Paul and Silas). But Judaism and Rome are also more than the sum total of those individuals. And this is the Christian hope – the renewal of everything, and not just of individuals.

The remainder of the second half of Acts, then, follows Paul’s journey to Caesar.

But, to labour the point, the redemption of Rome is not just about Caesar. The mission of the church is not just about individuals, but also about the Powers: ‘through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’ [Ephesians 3:10].

After all, it is the throne behind the individual that gives that individual power. To redeem the Powers is to redeem the throne (and the whole system around it), and not just the individual. (This might explain what lies behind the ambivalent reception of many congregationalists to the conversion of Constantine.)

To declare Jesus as Lord, as Paul seems to have done in 17:7, is not just to say that the individual Caesar is not Lord, it is to subvert the throne behind Caesar (and the whole system surrounding it).

(I sometimes wonder whether an over-emphasis on reaching individual leaders is an attempt to engage the Powers, albeit mistakenly through an individualistic grid. It seems to me that we will reach leaders by engaging the Powers, but that we will not engage the Powers by just reaching leaders. Just reaching leaders redeems individuals within the System, but not the System itself.) 

Luke leaves his account in Acts unfinished. This begs the question (whether Luke intends it to be begged or not) of how we might engage the Powers.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Powers in Acts I

I am in the middle of four book reviews. The first two concerned the priestly (relationships). The next two concern the kingly (economics). Since economics is also the sphere of the Powers, I begin below a three-post excursus on the Powers in the book of Acts.

This is the first of three posts.

9 years ago I was on a project to Nigeria.

One of our tasks was to show the Jesus film late at night.

My task was to count the number of Nigerians ... in the dark.

I quickly realised that the most opportune time to count was when they whooped and cheered – because when they whooped and cheered you could see everyone's teeth.

Now, what was interesting to me was that they whooped and cheered when Jesus performed a miracle. They whooped and cheered at the resurrection.

But they also whooped and cheered when Jesus engages the authorities – the Powers that Be – in Luke 20.

So I was wondering.

What place, if any, do the Powers have in the Acts of the Apostles?

Let me make a quick assumption.

Acts chapter 1 introduces the book as a whole. Chapter 2 introduces the first half, which is primarily to do with Judaism. And chapter 16 introduces the second half, which is primarily to do with the Roman Empire.

Chapter 2 also introduces the theme of the Powers. It does this in three ways.

First, unity. Pentecost reverses Babel. At the Tower of Babel, God divided people by dividing their language. At Pentecost, God unites people by enabling them to hear their own language. Babel connotes Babylon, so therefore connotes the Powers.

Second, subversion. Peter cites Joel, which was written when Israel – probably Judah – was in subjugation to the Powers. From this we can conclude that Pentecost will turn the world upside down like it is when being invaded by a foreign Power. 

Except, to reiterate the first point – unity – subversion will bring the peoples of the world together. 

Third, everywhere. Peter preaches about the subjugation of death – the final all pervasive Power. If the resurrection, which gives rise to Pentecost, can overcome death, then all Powers everywhere can be overcome.

So subversion will bring together people everywhere, even after death.

Judaism and the Roman Empire are both Powers. They have lords who are not Christ. So how does the early church engage them?

First, we recognise that the Powers run right through us. Paul never revokes his Jewish background or his Roman Citizenship.

In the same way, we are Communists, Consumers, Capitalists, whatever – the Powers run right through us.

Second, there is therefore hope for their redemption. We might see the redemption of the Powers in us, because the Powers have been redeemed in Christ.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Lamentations II

Robin A. Parry, Lamentations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), xii + 260 pp.

This is the second of two posts.

In an extended footnote, Parry deals adeptly with the exegetically difficult passage Lamentations 3:34-39. He concludes,

Whatever we suppose the authors intentions to have been, one inevitable effect of the way he has expressed himself is to slow readers down so that they explore various ways of construing the text. Readers must wrestle to make sense of the advice, just as they must wrestle to make sense of their situations [113].

So, for example, having listed three injustices in verses 34 to 36, the author ends with an ambiguous phrase [36b] that could mean either, “the Lord does not see,” or, “does not the Lord see?” Although immediate reflection might favour the former, further reflection favours the latter.

For example, 36b stands in parallel to 37b, “did not the Lord command it?”, which suggests that it is to be taken as a rhetorical question. The move from one to the other might well be designed to reflect our own thought processes during suffering.

Throughout, Parry plausibly holds together the books differing emphases. Whereas, for some, the hope of chapter 3 is held in tension with the more despairing chapters that surround it, Parry sees chapter 3 as the exemplary embodiment of suffering by an individual, which chapters 4 and 5 are yet to fully follow [132].

Lamentations ends with a plea for restoration [5:21] followed by a Hebrew phrase that is open to considerable interpretation. Verse 22 could mean “[restore us] unless you have rejected us … (negative ending) or “[restore us] even though you have rejected us …” (a little more positive).

Since it is clear from the rest of the book that God has rejected them, the latter makes more sense than the former. I suppose one could take the rejection here to be absolute – “unless you have rejected us forever” – but this goes against the covenantal context, which relativises rejection.

Parry continues by considering Lamentations in its canonical context. He notes the parallels between Lamentations and Isaiah 40-55 [162-168]. The exemplary embodiment of suffering by an individual in Lamentations 3 is surely taken up by the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. Isaiah 40-55 therefore provides a bridge between Lamentations and the New Testament (assuming that the Suffering Servant finds fulfilment in the person of Christ).

Lamentations then is to the exile and restoration of Israel what Holy Saturday is to the cross and resurrection of Christ [173].

The parallels between Lamentations and Isaiah 40-55 are striking. The latter alludes to all five chapters of Lamentations. For example, Lamentations cries out for a comforter [1:2, 9, 16, 17, 21], whereas Isaiah 40 begins, “Comfort, comfort my people …” The suffering individual in Lamentations 3:30a exclaims, “Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,” whereas Isaiah 50:6 begins, “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard.”

In the final third of the book, Parry considers Lamentations as a source for anti-semitism [174-176], anti-imperialism [176-180], the Christian faith [180-193], divine anger [193-201], theodicy (or not) and divine suffering [201-206], and human lament [206-236].

His discussions of divine anger and suffering might have benefitted from dialogue with Scrutton’s work on divine feelings (reviewed in previous posts). Scrutton discusses divine anger in the context of divine forgiveness, whereas Parry is keen to locate divine anger within the context of the covenant. And one wonders what a theology of divine grief might look like, should the two authors ever interact.

In sum, this is a stimulating theological commentary on the Hebrew text of Lamentations. For those who might prefer video over text, an accessible introduction to Parry’s commentary can be found here.