Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Alberta Blues?

I was born and raised in Alberta and I am a loyal Albertan. Our family has been in Alberta for almost 9 years and we are thankful to be here. There is no place we’d rather be. BC is a nice place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there again. I say this as a preface to some negative and pessimistic thoughts about this place because I want to make it clear that I really like Alberta. To be honest, I like prosperity as well, as far as it goes.

When we first moved here in 1997, oil prices were relatively high and the oil and gas industry was doing very well. I was pleased to hear the cautious tone of people out here regarding the strong economic times. “We remember ‘82” was an oft-heard reality check. High interest rates, low oil prices and the National Energy Program brought the party to an end after the prosperous 70s. People weren’t going to get fooled into thinking that good times were permanent this time.

Today, I don’t hear as much caution, particularly among younger folks. Older people see those in their 20s and 30s mortgaging their futures away and cringe, knowing that this long boom will have a future correction, as the economists call it. That correction is going to hurt.

Cowboy Clint has written an excellent Anthropological Study of Alberta. This is from an Albertan just back from Toronto. His reflections on boom time attitudes and the church’s accommodation are sobering and helpful. My thoughts are less philosophical. They are observations from the sidelines, largely, though our family is reaping some of the benefits of the prosperity of Alberta.

There are many evidences of a cavalier attitude regarding the prosperity here. I could do a series of blog posts to explain them, but I’ll just list them without much comment in one post. I think you’ll be able to fill in the blanks:

  • Danger signs in the workplace:

  • The presumptuous attitude of employees that says, “You need me.” Many workers are showing up late for work, don’t show up at all sometimes and display little aptitude to work hard. They know they are hard to replace and take advantage of that fact.

  • The disinclination of many young people to get a trade or further education because they are earning good money right now without these things.

  • Shortage of workers – there are frustrated employers here that are giving up, closing their doors and moving to a different part of the country because they simply can’t get people to work for them.

  • Dangerous patterns of debt

  • Expensive houses – even a ratty little old box is about $150,000.00. Rentals are scarce and expensive as well.

  • Everything on credit – quads, vacations, home entertainment, etc.

  • Bragging about how much you paid vs. what a good deal I got. This one was new to me, but I can see it. A very astute man in our church has heard guys bragging about how expensive their new trucks were. This boasting about spending is evidence of runaway acquisitiveness.

  • Refinancing of newly “valuable” homes to buy stuff – so much for the 25 year mortgage. What happens when the prices go back down?

  • Higher interest rates – they are rising already, but we could see them go much higher. Again, this will put the already stretched mortgages way, way out into the future and sharply raise monthly payments.

  • Debt games by banks / finance companies – our booming economy is full of people who don’t reflect on how these games work and spend a fortune on interest charges.

  • Bigger debt than product worth. This happens all too often to people with new cars. People buy a car that they can’t afford and then realize later that what they can get for their car is less than what they owe. Houses and motorized toys as well as vehicles will be dead weight, financially speaking, when a downturn comes.

  • Spiritual consequences

  • Greed = idolatry (Colossians 3:5) and boasting in what you have (James 5:1-5). The glory of temporary prosperity is an alluring substitute for the glory of God.

  • Independence – “I don’t need God or any church; I’m good as I am.” God’s work is not thwarted by prosperity, but many people who once had some spiritual interest are trusting in material things rather than Him.

  • Busyness – family and church have to wait “until things slow down a bit.”

  • Coming crisis – no marketable skills, big debt, burned bridges, no hope. We have big drug and alcohol problems now – they are bound to get worse if the economy slows down signficantly.

I know it is not just Alberta that is facing these issues, but with the boom, the potential consequences of misplaced trust are amplified. As strangers and aliens, Christians need to gently and firmly sound the alarm that prosperous times are no foundation for life.

The Gospel is for all of life. Being faithful disciples includes being faithful with our time, finances and opportunities. Pastors and mature Christians in the church need to train less mature believers to be good stewards and keep material things in perspective. In other words, we must remember that our treasure is in Heaven, not in the Alberta Advantage.

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