Category Archives: christianity

Reading Thomas Aquinas gives a better understanding of human society, than does a reading of the works of Friedrich Hayek

Just recently I have been reading and studying Thomist philosophy and works of other medieval Christian philosophers such as William of Ockham. The thinking and is usually regarded with contempt by contemporary philosophers. When I studied philosophy at university, the only philosophy of this period we studied was Augustine of Hippo and he was regarded with interest, because his work was a reworking of Plato’s philosophy. However what I discovered in these philosophers was a clarity of thought and elegance of writing lacking in so many contemporary thinkers. Anybody familiar with the writing of contemporary post modern philosophers will be perplexed by the obscurity of expression in their writing. They seem to believe that the difficulty one has in reading in there is a demonstration of their intelligence.

What particularly interested me was the question that these philosopher’s struggled to resolve, which was in God created the world, and he was a God of good intent, why did he allow evil to thrive in the world he created. There is a similar problem with contemporary economics. Nero-liberal economists have created there own best possible of world’s, the free market. They believe that the free market represents the epitome of collective human endeavour. The free market they believe possesses the mechanism to ensure the fairest distribution of wealth between members of society. When problems occur such as the lack of housing provision in the housing market, it is not the fault of builders or property developers, but some factor extraneous to the market. One favourite culprit is the local authorities who fail to release enough land for housing. Another is green belt regulation that also limits the amount of land available for housing. Never to blame are the suppliers of housing, they are the victims of foolish and vindictive governments.

What these economists are guilty of is dishonesty. They cannot admit to there being no fault with that creature of their imaginings, the free market. In fact in all economics textbooks,* there will be a section devoted to perfect competition. This is the idealised free market with all the imperfections of reality removed. Medieval Christian philosophers unlike free market economists face up to the problem of evil, in what should be the best of all possible worlds. Unlike contemporary economists they don’t blame some extraneous agency for failings within human society. As this was an age of belief they could easily have blamed all human failings on the devil. Instead face up to the problem as how a good God could allow evil to exist. They employ sophisticated logical reasoning to demonstrate that evil actions are a consequence of the choice made by human actors, nothing to do with God. It is in fact a turning away from God that leads to evil acts.*

This naivety has not always been a characteristic of economics teaching. When I started teaching economics in the 1970s, I taught my students both the failings and strengths of the free market. In particular how natural monopolies were unsuited to the free markets, as monopoly power of the suppliers would always enable them to exploit their customers. Monopolists because they lack any effective competition, maximise their profits by either charging exorbitant prices for their products and services, or by minimising costs by providing the minimum service possible. British rail companies do both, offering the customer a very poor deal.

There are many economists who have written about how it is possible to combat the abuses of the free market. The majority of them were writing in the 1940s and 50s. All these economists are hardly known by politicians today, in consequence a wealth of knowledge on how to manage the economy equitably in the interests of the majority has been lost. It’s a situation similar to that of the great Christian philosophers of the medieval period, apart from a small minority all knowledge of their works has been lost. If only our rulers would consult these ‘old’ books, they would find solutions to many of the problems that now bedevil our economy.

* Friedrich Hayek is the doyen of free market economists, who in his ‘The Road to Serfdom’ gives the best account of the virtues of the free market economy.

* This brief summary does little justice to the thinking of Thomas Aquinas and the other medieval Christian philosophers. Perhaps the best explanation of the thinking of these philosophers, can be found in Etienne Gilson’s ‘The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy’

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Intellectual stupidity a practice common to both Economists and Politicians

Intellectual stupidity is not a concept that is to be found in book on either the subject of economics and politics. This is a concept that was created by Robert Musil. He distinguishes between two types of stupidity, natural and intellectual. The first is the one due to physiological factors, it occurs when an individual lacks the mental capacity for higher order thinking. Although he would be criticised today for his use of this offensive word, he can be justified when its contrasted with intellectual stupidity. A term Hannah Arendt had in mind when she criticised evil as personified by Adolf Eichmann as banal. This was a man who lacked intellectual curiosity, he was unable to empathise with the millions of victims of the holocaust. He thought the was a good man because he made the trains to the death camps run on time. The fact that these trains took millions to their deaths was no significance to him. Their deaths were somebody else’s responsibility. He was in his mind a good administrator not an essential player in the holocaust.

Politics and economics practitioners are blighted with a similar failing. Milton Friedman was guilty of this failing. When Milton Friedman was told that the Chilean government when introducing the free market reforms he advocated were imprisoning, torturing and killing opponents of these reforms, he said it was a price worth paying. Just as with Adolf Eichmann his vision all that mattered was the introduction the Chicago School of Economic management to human societies. Human rights was for him just a matter of secondary concern. Recent political history has been dominated by such practitioners of intellectual stupidity.

In Britain such stupidity has been demonstrated by successive governments in there implementation of the free market economy. They see there role as being facilitators of a Hayekian free market system. When ever such reforms produce failures such as the collapse of Carillon, a company to which many government sources had been outsourced; it was a consequence of poor management with the company. Never was the policy of privatisation of government services considered to be a flawed concept. The ‘Economist’ magazine while exposing the failures of Carillon’s management mounted a strong defence of the outsourcing of government services. Now two other outsourcing giants Capita and Interserve are in trouble. Yet our government remains committed to outsourcing as a policy practice. This is demonstrates intellectual stupidity, as government ministers cannot contemplate any alternative policies or thinking.

Intellectually stupid politicians are always trying to second guess their civil servants. Rather than seeing them as experienced administrators who can offer them practical and useful advice on policy matters; they are seen conspirators who are trying to obstruct their policies. The traditional civil service practice of providing the minister with a series of policy alternatives from which to choose is seen as a threat to the integrity of government policy making. Just recently a senior politician who studied history at University decided that economists at the Treasury were conspiring to undermine Brexit, by producing erroneous data on the consequences of leaving the EU. This politician who has only a brief acquaintance with the subject of economics, claimed he could see not just errors but treachery in the work of these Treasury economists. This failure to accept any alternative view of events to the individual’s own is typical of the intellectually stupid thinker.

Why is intellectual stupidity the default mode of thinking of our politicians?

Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the books they read. Friedrich Hayek’s book ‘The Road to Serfdom’ can be read in a few hours, possibly on a wet afternoon, when there is nothing else to do. In this short book he claims to offer the solution to our contemporary malaise. There is no end to these books that claim to have the answer. Another such is Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Unchained’, yet another writer who claims to provide the solution to our current malaise. What these books encourage in their readers is a cult like belief, that they alone have the exclusive possession of the truth. The blinkered mindset of an ‘Moonie’, Jehovah’s Witness or Scientologist, is mirrored in the thinking of so many of our leading politicians. The lack of curiosity about alternative thinking is characteristic of the intellectually stupid.

These politicians have also been to the elite universities and this has given them an intellectual arrogance. They after a short period at university just ‘know’. One exemplar of this type is the politician who is an English graduate who decided that he did not need any advice from experts in their field (educationalists and economists), as he had acquired sufficient understanding ‘to know’. He as with so many of his colleagues ‘knows’ any further knowledge would be superfluous to the task in hand. These politicians can be best described as ‘generic’ politicians, as such they believe that they have already possess all the skills and knowledge necessary for the most demanding of political positions.

This lack of intelligent curiosity is demonstrated in these three remarks made by politicians about food banks in the U.K. The first said that increase in food bank use food was because people were attracted there by the free food on offer. Another said increased food bank use was a good thing, as it had shown that his government was more effective than the former at publicising this service. The last said people go to food banks for many reasons. What none of these politicians could say that people on low incomes were reduced to such desperate straits, that they were forced to go to food banks to get the food they needed for themselves and there families. Just as Adolf Eichmann could not bring himself to admit the his trains were taking the Jews to there death, so these conservative politicians cannot admit that there policies are creating such widespread impoverishment that thousands are now forced to go to food banks in order to survive.

This callousness is not the consequence of intellectual dishonesty, but a thinking that prevents thinking of either the Jews or the less well off, as people of any consequence. They are demonised either as a threat to the well being of the German people or a threat to the well being of the British economy and society. The political philosophy of both Adolf Eichmann and contemporary conservatives treats certain groups of people as inferior beings who lack the rights accorded humanity in general. A world view best summed up by the Nazi official who called Jews vermin.

What Robert Musil writes about intellectual stupidity is very similar to the thinking of Augustine on evil. He describes evil as a not knowing of God. People who don’t know God commit what we term bad acts. Augustine as a Neo-Platonist also equated God with Good, so people who did not choose to know God could not know good. The intellectually stupid chose not to know the evil of their actions and as such are unable to know good. These intellectually stupid would be the people who Augustine’s would accuse of doing evil acts.

Stoicism and epicureanism philosophies for today

Recently on radio there was a programme about the Roman philosopher and politician Seneca. What occurred to me was the similarities between the world in which Seneca lived and the one in which I live today. He witnessed the decay of the old Roman Republic into an authoritarian state which was at first ruled by the rich oligarchs, a rule which evolved into the rule of one man the Caesar. Several books I have read suggest that we are living in the last days of liberal democracy and that our political system is being subverted by the rich oligarchs who are turning our society into one that bears strong resemblances to the Rome of the last days of the Republic.

These similarities are no more than that, Britain is not becoming a society ruled by a new class of Caesars. Violence is not employed by the rich oligarchs to destroy their enemies, no opposition politician has suffered the indignity of being murdered and having his skull converted into a wine cup by his enemies. These oligarchs to gain power have used more subtle methods. They have corrupted the legal system with their wealth so all kinds of judicial restraints have been developed to silence their opponents.  One such restraint is the super injunction whereby a powerful individual or business can prevent any reporting or discussion of their alleged wrong doing as it is claimed that it will unfairly damage their reputation. Such stories can remained suppressed for years.  The other powerful weapon wielded by the oligarchs is the destruction of their opponents reputations. This is conducted through the publication of hostile articles in the media, which they largely control. It a weapon whose power cannot be underestimated, as when the politician Nick Clegg was asked to explain why so many MPs voted against their principles and backed the government over its policy to leave Europe, he said that they were scared of ‘The Daily Mail’. While there is no equivalent of the Roman mob who could be incited to attack opponents of the oligarchs there are the internet trolls. They can be whipped up into a frenzy and encouraged to launch virulent attacks on the oligarch’s enemies.

When hearing this programme I wondered if stoics such as Seneca who lived under the cruelest of authoritarian rulers could provide evidence of how to live the good life today in a society which is becoming increasing dominated by rich unpleasant oligarchs.

Stoicism taught that the world was created by logos (the spirit) and that logos remains force which continues to direct the development of the world and humankind. The logos determines everything, so people have a choice either to ignore logos and risk being crushed under its onward movement or change their actions and behaviours to accord with the movements of logos. What stoicism taught was that history was pre-determined and wise individual was the one who accepted their lack of control over their lives, Happiness was gained attained by those who cultivated an air of indifference to those things that they could not control. A person who valued material wealth above all else would suffer great pain from its loss. This cultivation of indifference reaches its extreme limits in the writings of Epictetus. He advises the father not to kiss his son goodnight or show any kind of affection, as that son might be dead by the morning. At its simplest stoicism was a philosophy of pain management. In the Roman society of the Caesars  it was rule by Caesar a capricious individual who if he wished could tomorrow deprive you of your wealth or even your life, therefore one should not be greatly attached to either.

In a society in which social and economic inequality is increasing to such an extent that it is likely that the great majority of people will be poor, in which the poverty that characterised earlier societies will begin to characterise the Britain of tomorrow. Material riches of even the most modest kind will be denied to a majority of people, so an indifference to material wealth will help them cope with a life of relative poverty. People would not be depressed for a lack of things of this world, as they have minimised their attachment to them. However such poverty does bring real suffering and why stoicism will help with managing the discomforts and unpleasantnesses of poverty it is not an answer to pain and suffering. Poverty is not caused by the movements of the logos, but through the greed of the rich oligarchs. A more activist philosophy than stoicism is required.

Stoicism was usually a philosophy of the educated rich. These people who had ample wealth could afford to affect to be indifferent to material wealth, as even under the worst of the Caesars very few of them lost their wealth. The poor of Rome preferred the fairy tale religion of the Olympian Gods. They would turn out in their thousands to celebrate the festivals of the old Gods, as the theatre of these festivals offered them some escape from the misery of their lives.

One positive effect of adopting stoicism as a philosophy would be an ending of the cult of celebrity. All these endless talent shows would lack an audience, as people would not longer see a rags to riches story as real, as celebrity would be due not to talent but the arbitrary movement of the fate. Also a people that attached little value to material wealth would have little interest in programmes which celebrated individual talent as a means to material wealth. Celebrity culture acts as a safety value, it releases the pressure that builds up from social discontent. The poor can be pacified by the fairy tales of celebrity that claim that no matter how poor there are celebrity offers an escape from poverty. People will instead have a keen sense of reality and are less likely to taken in by stories of celebrity success.

Stoicism can perhaps be called the philosophy of unpleasant reality and as such it will always lose out to philosophies of hope. In the Roman Empire such a philosophy of hope was Christianity.  Contemporary Britain lacks such a philosophy of hope which will act as a catalyst of change. There are many alternative philosophies in our society but they do not have the messianic appeal of Christianity with its potential for change.

There is another philosophy that was popular among the Romans of this time and that was epicureanism. This is a much misunderstood philosophy it usually thought of as the philosophy of hedonism, as Epicurus taught that the good life should be one of pleasure. However it was a very different pleasure that he had in mind. Individuals should take pleasure in the essentials of life, pleasure should be derived from enjoying a modest diet, dressing modestly, these things were sufficient to enable the individual to live a good life. If one took pleasure in the luxuries of life, life was reduced to a constant craving for more and more of sensual pleasures and this craving made life one of misery. For Epicurus only a person living a modest life could be described as happy.

Epicureans were often persecuted by the authorities because by only valuing a life lived modestly they threatened a society that valued overindulgence and sensual pleasures in all forms. At Roman meals the rich had vessels placed near the table at which guest could vomit into, so as to make room in their stomachs for more of the extravagant dishes that would be placed before them. They took pleasure in all kinds of sensual pleasures as demonstrated by the popularity of gladiatorial sports. Pleasure was gained from watching the pain and suffering of others. Epicurean philosophy through offering an alternative to the dominant philosophy of excess was seen as a threat to a society that valued excess.

If epicureanism was more widely known, there would be one major beneficial effect. The rich billionaires rather than being celebrated for their wealth, would be seen rather as slaves to it and as such to be pitied. There is one marvellous passage in Thomas More’s Utopia where it is seen as slavish behaviour to wear gold and valuable stones as jewellery or chains of office, they are seen as slaves to their possessions. If the rich billionaires who dominate contemporary society were seen to objects of pity, rather than celebrity, their malign influence on politics would be much reduced. Politicians would not seek out their company and not be so desperate to give them favours.It goes without saying that in contemporary Britain and the US the billionaires can buy policy favours, with what to them is the small change from their pockets. Unfortunately the most successful of our politicians worship wealth and despise modesty. Politics for them is a means to acquiring a substantial fortune.

In today’s papers an open secret is being exposed and that secret is that London is one of the major centres of money laundering for criminal enterprises. In this instance the police forces of Latvia and Moldavia exposed this criminal behaviour of the London banks. It was the poor underfunded police of two poor European countries that exposed this activity, not the well funded City of London police. Perhaps the relative poverty of the police and politicians there means they are of higher moral calibre than those of the UK. Only where wealth is so celebrated as the chief of virtues could such corrupt practices be sanctioned.

Billionaires by their very nature will always seek to corrupt those around them. What is the threat to our democracy is the willingness of our politicians to be corrupted by them.  An annual salary almost three times the median wage in Britain is seen as inadequate by most MPs. Too many of them seek sources of income from outside politics making them susceptible to persuasion or corruption. Now the successful politician is seen to be the one who uses their position to acquire the most wealth; the practice of politics taking second place to money making. Reform has become redefined as making changes in the law or society that benefit the MPs wealthy benefactors. Epicureanism with its emphasis on modesty if more generally accepted would give us a generation of politicians less susceptible to corruption and a political class more deserving of respect. Those few politicians uncorrupted by money are drowning amongst the swill of corruption that is contemporary politics.

Social democracy was formerly the force which ensured that the market economy worked for the benefit of the majority not the minority. Unfortunately nominally social democratic politicians have abandoned the substance of that philosophy believing that Neo-Liberalism was the philosophy of today. In the heyday of social democracy many politicians of the right subscribed to its tenets and contributed making Britain a fairer and better society. With the discrediting of social democracy it is unlikely that those moderate politicians of the right would ever subscribe again to its tenets. Epicureanism has none of the baggage associated with social democracy and could be easily adopted by those moderate politicians on the right. In a country with a political class in thrall to the philosophy of greed what is needed desperately in a philosophy of compassion and fairness to counter that extremism.

(Gauis Gracchi was the unfortuante Tribune of the people who lost his life and head.)

Is a Christian economics either desirable or possible?

A recent survey demonstrated that the majority of the UK population are now atheists. However there is another change which goes against the trend to a more secular society. Liberal theologians such as myself are seen increasingly as being in error and the new movement in theology is a return to what can only be termed pre-modern Christianity. A Christianity in which the Bible is seen as the last word, the ultimate expression of God’s will. A rejection of theologists such as Bultman who described the New Testament as a mythical expression of the essential Christian truths. This new movement in the protestant church is associated with the theologian Karl Barth. Within the church system  this return to Christian roots is mirrored in the growth of the pentecostal church movement, which is led by its members and dispenses with guidance of intellectual theologians. In fact I was taken aback when one Christian philosopher described Liberal theologians such as myself as being misled by demons.

Now this movement to return to the Christian roots is increasingly taking over the churches, if it becomes more successful it could result in a radical rethink of the approach to the all the sciences that deal with humanity. In England the Christian philosophers and theologians who advocate this approach believe that Christian philosophy should be at the centre of all thinking or as one philosopher said, ‘theology is about everything and philosophy is about one thing’.  Philosophers such as John Milbank believe that God’s creation of universe was not just a physical creation but  a creation of everything. One part of creation is the spiritual and all the truths about human existence and the nature of the universe are part of this spiritual creation. Truth is not found through rational enquiry but it recovered from the spiritual world created by God. The people best placed to discover these truths are the theologians, as those who seek a knowledge of God are best able to uncover God’s created truths. This philosophy is as John Milbank writes is a reversion to pre-modern Christianity, that is Christianity as it was before the renaissance.

John Milbank and his fellow radical orthodox Christians don’t want the abandonment of all the post renaissance disciplines such as economics, sociology and Cartesian philosophy, but rather a redrafting of them. The practices of these subjects should be informed by an understanding of God’s truths. This can be achieved in two ways, either economists, philosophers undergo an initial training in the truths of Christianity as discovered the theologians or Christian truths become part of the warp and woof of the subject. Universities in the 19th century were overwhelmingly Christian institutions and the economists of the period can be said to have been practising the first method of inclusion. The second would involve a radical redrafting of subjects such as economics if the practice of economics was to include Christian concepts and understandings.

Although the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were in the 19th century Anglican Christian institutions the practice of Christianity was limited to a knowledge and understanding of the ‘Thirty Nine Articles’ which were considered the essentials of the Anglican faith. If the student could recite them it was considered sufficient to warrant membership of the two universities. However if the radical orthodox Christians had control of the curriculum all students of economics would have go undergo a course of study in Christian doctrine. Economics would become a subsidiary of the department of theology. Once considered to be sufficiently imbued with Christian doctrine students would be allowed to study economics. Possibly if the radical orthodox christians had there way, the Philosophy, Politics and Economic degree (PPE) would become Theology, Politics and Economics (TPE).

However there is the warning from Aristotle when he writes at the beginning of ‘The Ethics’ that although he knows the meaning of the word good, that does not prevent him from doing bad actions. What he recommends is the instillation of virtue through habit, so good actions become habitual. In 2000 years of history Christianity has a very mixed record. There is for every compassionate and loving St. Francis, a St. Dominic, who use power and violence (in this example through the threat of and use of burning at the stake against heretics) to prevent error. George Bush’s war in Iraq was in part a Christian Crusade against the barbaric muslim regime of Saddam Hussein. In all probably compelling all economists to undergo a training in theology would at best have very mixed result, there would be a few St. Francis’s but many St.Dominic’s. Misunderstood and misguided Christian zealotry could cause as much distress as the misguided and malign doctrine of Neo-Liberalism.

A more fruitful approach would be to incorporate the key concepts of Christianity into economic practice. An economics which incorporated  Christian ethics would make it if not impossible, make it less likely that an economics such as Neo-Liberalism with its disregard for human life and dignity would ever become the dominant economic philosophy.  In the gospels Christ says that the supreme commandment is to ‘love the lord God’; a moral injunction which the theologian Caputo states is best demonstrated by loving your fellow man. What he advocates is agapé the disinterested love of our fellow men, or in the words of the Old Testament, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. If agape was accepted as the  ‘summum bonum’ of economics, practices such as Says Law would be removed from the subject. What Says states is that in the time of a recession any legislation that seeks to prevent incomes being cut is self defeating as it only creates more unemployment as employers lay off expensive workers. The same goes for the actions of trade unions as who try to protect workers wages in a recession. What for Says is the correct remedy is to let wages fall until they become so low that the struggling businesses can now afford to take on the newly cheapened workers. These newly employed workers will spend their incomes and generate increased demand which will kickstart the economy into a recovery. Although no politician or economist would ever say that they are a follower of Says, they do put his ideas into practice. The response of all governments to the crisis of 2008/9 was to cut incomes. In Britain this was achieved by freezing the pay of all public sector workers and by transferring many workers from permanent employment to lower paid self employment. The starkest example of this cruel policy is the austerity policy forced on Greece which saw pay reduced to levels that reduced many workers to poverty.

What so many politicians forget is that the practice of economics should aim at maximising the welfare of the people. (There is a section in economics textbook entitled ‘welfare economics’ , a section conveniently ignored by most practising economists.) Today so many economic policies do the reverse, they aim to minimise the welfare of the many so as to maximise the welfare of the privileged few. Policies such as increasing government expenditure in the times of recession (to offset the fall in demand and incomes caused by the recession) would be prioritised over those which recommend the cutting of the coat to fit the cloth. The problem of austerity policies is that the suffering they cause the great majority is rarely justified. Only in exceptional circumstances should the harsh austerity policies of today be applied, in such circumstances occurred at the end of World War II, when the government needed to direct the nations income into rebuilding a war damaged economy.

What economists most need is an ethical code built into their subject. Economists as with all people will only act in the best interests of mankind, if constrained to by the rules. Without such constraints they will not be inhibited from selfish policy recommendations that benefit them and their sponsors. Far too many economists are employed by consultancies (funded by wealthy individuals) or work for financial organisations that want to see economic policies drafted to promote their own selfish interests. When for example the government increased income tax for the wealthiest to 50%, there was a howl of protest from the economists who work for these self interested organisations. They all claimed that the increase in tax would be a disincentive to enterprise. Only the writing of a strict set of ethical rules into the subject would prevent its abuse at the hands of self interested individuals. At present the very lax approach of economists to ethics leaves it open to abuse, disinterested economic analysis all to often means disregarding the normal ethical rules that govern human conduct.

Why are our leaders so stupid?

What puzzles me is why are people such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson so popular. The first advocates the policies of a clown and the second pretends to be a clown to achieve political success.

When I was at school in the 1950s I remember being told about Columbus’s voyage to America. The Headmistress told us that it was a particularly daring adventure, as people at the time believed the world was flat and thought that Columbus was in danger of falling off the edge of the world. The  truth was very different as I discovered later. Columbus was an experienced sailor who knew about the fishing grounds off North America that European sailors visited each year that the Atlantic Ocean was bounded by a large landmass to the West. Also it was known at this time that the earth was round. The classical Greeks had realised that the earth was round because they knew there was a horizon, beyond which the eye could not see, therefore  the earth surface must be curved.If was the geographer Eratosthenes (276BC to 195/4 BC)  who calculated with an incredible degree of accuracy the earth’s circumference. It is highly unlikely that Columbus was unaware of that the earth was round. My teacher was typical of those of the time that believed that people of the past had a childlike understanding of the world, whereas in fact the opposite was true.

We assume today that our knowledge and understanding is superior to that of the past. Yet our politicians constantly disapprove this notion. In the USA Donald Trump is likely to become the Republican Party’s candidate for the Presidency and Boris Johnson possible future Conservative Party leader What both these leading politicians have in common is an anti-intellectualism, both of them in their campaigns seek to  appeal to most primeval of voters instincts. Trump blames the Mexicans for crime and wants to erect a wall to keep them out, and Johnson believes that Obama’s part Kenyan ancestry makes him anti British, because of the injustices the British inflicted on Kenyans during the days of Empire. To say that both these politicians are intelligent men who are just using anti immigrant and anti foreigner feeling to win support and that they don’t really believe what they are saying does these two men a disservice, they believe what they are saying. They are both populists who believe in simple solutions to difficult and complex problems, both of them personify the  anti-intellectualism which is dominant in the our society. The political dialogue in both countries is dominated by the anti-intellectualism of those such as the Tea Party whose policies are moving closer to the mainstream in both countries. UKIP a party that gets much media coverage seems to be campaigning for things such as ending the smoking ban in pubs. Sam Goldwyn once  said a movie never lost money for underestimating the intelligence of the average cinema goer, now in politics the belief is that no politician ever fails for underestimating the intelligence of the average voter. There is a change in society that has made stupid politics the dominant strand. Possibility it is linked to Walter Benjamin’s insight (when writing about the cinema) that contemporary media  leaves little time or scope for reflection, as the media image is all involving leaving no opportunity for distancing necessary for reflecting on the projected image.

If I was to compare contemporary England with medieval England, I would say that the former is technically sophisticated but intellectually unsophisticated. This is not to say that there are not a community of intellectuals whose thinking is far superior to that of those of the medieval era, but these people are excluded from the public debate, which is dominated by the advocates of stupid politics. Obviously Trump and Johnson are not stupid men, they just find a politics of idiocy the most effective means of self promotion. What is most disturbing is that these men intend to pursue the policies they advocate, without regard to the damage caused to society through the introduction of their simplistic policies.

As an economist I can see the dangers of practising stupid politics. Britain has endured years of austerity because the government believes in a nonsense called ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, that is cutting government expenditure will increase growth. Despite this policy having no economic credibility the opposition’s chief economics spokesman, a man who had a top class degree in economics from Oxbridge immediately signed up to the policy. Knowing it was fallacious economics made no difference, he did not want to appear out of step in with all the others who were practising stupid politics. Bonhoeffer said that the success of the Nazi’s was due to fact that good people did not speak up, similarly stupid politics is prevailing because the intelligent do not speak up. In England it is the noise and abuse made by the practitioners of stupid politics that scares of the intelligent when we most need them.

Intelligent women for example are put of entering the English Parliament because of the sexist behaviour in the bear pit that is the House of Commons. When female opposition MPs speak, male MPs on the government benches often  make crude sexual gestures with their hands and shout sexist abuse. Also any show of intelligence is likely to get a politician pilloried in the tabloid press as a geek, as happened to the last leader of the opposition. Anti-intellectualism is rife in the English political culture and it’s preventing intelligent government.

What really provoked me into writing this article was a tweet by the illusionist Derren Brown, in which he referenced a You Tube in which two evangelical preachers explain why it is necessary for them to own private executive jets. One says it is so he can get some quiet time in which to talk to God, as he would be unable to do that on a flight with other passengers who would disturb him. Christ when he wanted a quiet place for meditation found a quiet spot in a garden or in the countryside, surely these two men could have done the same. These two men are Christian literalists they believe that the bible is the word of God and that all should to obey the word of God as explained in the bible. These two Christian literalists are following a practice condemned as being wrong as far back s the early Middle Ages. St. Augustine in his book on Christian teaching explained that the bible should not be taken literally, the word of the bible required explanation by the Christian teacher. Following St. Augustine’s advice all medieval bibles contained commentaries on the page side by side with the biblical text. These commentaries were there for the preacher to help him explain the text to the people. What these evangelical preachers are doing is practising a type of Christianity that even the least educated of medieval priests would have recognised as wrong. If these men had been medieval clerics they would have been relegated to some obscure rural parish where they could have done little harm. Yet these men are seen as representative of true Christian belief, religion seems to mirror the practice of stupid politics.

This simplistic religious view of the world that divides the world up into good and bad guys is very influential. George Bush’s crusade against the evil of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is representative of good versus bad guy politics. Isis and other Islamic fundamentalist groups embody the same good bad guy philosophy. A philosophy that justifies the cruel treatment of all unbelievers whether they be Christian, Yazidi or Shia Muslim, as they are already condemned by God for rejecting the true religion and as such are wordless people. One of the main targets for Islamic fundamentalists are the Sufi Muslims who practice a more sophisticated and humane religion. The simplistic belief of the fundamentalists contrasts unfavourably with the sophisticated Islam of the medieval  period as demonstrated in the poetry of the Rumi  (1207-73) or the philosophy of Averroes (1126-1198). Christian thinkers owed much to these men, Francis of Assisi’s thinking was greatly influenced by the poetry of Rumi. Depressingly anti-intellectualism is not only a feature of Western politics but also in the politics of much of the Muslim world.

There are many sophisticated and intelligent clerics today but they do not get a hearing in today, because their speech is too subtle and nuanced for a world that wants simple truths. Rowan Williams the very intellectual former Archbishop of Canterbury was pilloried in the press as a bearded weirdy. They were not interested in the message from an educated Christian, for them Christianity is that of the simple minded fundamentalists.

There is no doubt that the public appetite is for stupid thinking, there is a wanting for people offering a few simple homespun truths that they claim will solve the world’s ills. Does not the constant diet of super hero films coming out of Hollywood demonstrate that something is very wrong in our culture? Hollywood appears to have opted out of making adult films, as it has correctly judged that the audience for its films want simple child like stories. The only hope is that the world particularly the Western world will tire of simple childlike stories and politics. When politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson get chance to put into practice their childlike policy solutions and those policies prove to be a resounding failure, the pendulum will surely swing in favour of a more grown up politics.

How to spot a bad economist

What cannot be doubted is that if a mysterious plague had wiped out all living economists twenty years ago, the world would be a better place than it is now. Economists despite their supposed understanding of the economy have consistently failed to predict any of the major crises that have occurred. Just before the crash of 2008/9 economists were speaking of a new paradigm in which the old rules no longer applied. The huge debt or credit mountains that had developed in the financial sector were no a cause for concern but a welcome development. It was evidence of the efficiency of the banking sector in creating credit to meet the needs of industry and consumers. Banks were at the forefront of the technological advance, an example for the rest of the business to follow. The new paradigm was of course no such thing, old fashioned credit bubbles had built up within the financial sector and would inevitably burst as they did causing a near melt down of the banking sector. There were a few economists that spoke against the new paradigm but the majority  were in favour of it. Since the few perceptive economist were ignored by governments it only goes to demonstrate that we would have been much better off without the profession of economists. What is most worrying is that economists have become cheerleaders for the worst economic practices and behaviours instead of being its critics. Very few economists wanted to spoil the party, most choose to go along with the partying.

As one of the few economists (letters published in the national media), who predicted the bust of 2008, I think the role to which I am best suited is to identify those traits in an economist which clearly identify them as a bad economist. While I am not in a position to advise ministers on the choice of economist, what I can hope is that my advice will get wider dissemination and over time and will eventually reach the political classes, so enabling them to make a better choice of economist to advise them.

A bad economist can be identified quite simply, they claim to have the answers, they just know. They never express any doubts ,they are unique in that they always know what will happen in the future. Usually they are one trick ponies, they  have learnt and rehearsed the arguments for their particular brand of economics and see no need to ever change their views. What these economists lacked was what I experienced, student’s on my economics course were pointed in the direction of  J.S.Mill in the 19th century philosopher, who argued for  the impossibility of there being a science of society and in particular a science of economics. His argument was that it was impossible to make sound predictions about what would happen in the future, as there were too many variables (people) who behave unpredictably, unlike the natural sciences where the subjects studied do behave in predictable ways.

The British Treasury as one of the doyens of economic forecasting has spent a century or more proving J.S.Mill correct. The Treasury has never produced one correct forecast about the future of the British economy. They at the best make predictions in line with what has been the trend of the past few years. The only accurate forecasts they make are those that are revised after the event, when adjustments can be made to the forecast on the basis of what really happened. Despite its massive  investment in technology the British Treasury has always been caught by surprise whenever a crisis occurs. It failed to predict the financial crash of 2008/9, the bursting of the dot com bubble in 1999 and the property crash of 1990.

Despite their record of failure the British Treasury has no hesitation about advising the government on economic policy. They never feel any sense of doubt and they have been the driving force behind the adoption of free market economics. They were in the 1980s advocating an end to security of tenure (be it home ownership or lifetime tenancies), they argued that there was a problem of accommodation blocking in the areas of economic growth, as people hung on to their accommodation denying them to those workers needed by the growing businesses. The Treasury believed security of tenure was the enemy of economic growth. They were one of the leading advocates in government that led to those policies that effectively led to the end of security of tenure for the majority of people. It was not so long ago that the Treasury were congratulating themselves on the success of their policies, as they claimed that insecure tenancy system of private rentals system had freed up accommodation for the large influx of the migrants from the European Union. The victims of the housing chaos, that is the young professionals and families being priced out of London would disagree.

The next criteria for identifying the bad economist is a wilful forgetting of their past errors, they can never admit that they have been wrong in the past. There are never any failures in their curriculum vitae. Treasury economists despite their mixed record move to senior positions in the finance sector, where the businesses that hire them foolishly believing that they are buying into their unrivalled expertise in economics.

Another of the criteria for judging whether an economist is bad or not, is do they over rely on economic modelling? Do they have an inability to speak in understandable English or do they rely on incomprehensible economic terminology to convince their listeners of  their expertise? When trying to sell a policy that the purchaser (the politician) themselves could have thought of themselves these economists use baffling economic terminology to dress up what is a very simplistic policy proposal.  I can never forgive the tutor who recommended a book on market economics written by an eminent Chicago professor of economics. A book that for all its use of difficult economic terminology taught me nothing that I did not already know. Not only that it was in hardback and cost far too much; however it was a lesson well learnt. I saw my role as an economics teacher to translate the economic texts I gave my students into comprehensible English. Close reading of the texts showed how authors would use economic terminology to cover up gaps in their knowledge and understanding. Now that I am retired I wonder if this use of unnecessarily complex language was not a deliberate ploy to hide their failings as economists.

One other criteria is does the economist sound like so many others in the profession? All to often rather than analyse a problem and make reasoned suggestions, economists will take short cuts and rely upon repeating what is the common stock of economic knowledge. If they repeat it in their reports they know that they are immune from criticism, as no other economist will criticise them for repeating the mantras from the economist’s creed. While the agreed understandings and beliefs of the profession are not quite the holy writ, no criticisms of it will be tolerated by members of the profession. In conclusion it can be stated that a bad economist is a lazy thinker, someone who relies on the knowledge of the herd, one who follows convention.

Einstein once said that to do the same thing over and over again and yet expect different results each time is the height of folly. This happens regularly at the British Treasury which  insists that public services should be put out to tender and run as private enterprises, each year the Treasury finds new sectors of the public service to be farmed out to the private sector. Most recently it was the prison service, individual prisons are now to function as private companies. These new prisons will be judged on there reoffending figures. Incomes for the enterprise will depend on reoffending rates, those with the best record for reducing reoffending will get the biggest bonus payments. Profitability will depend on their success at cutting reoffending.  The only problem is that human behaviour does not respond this profit and loss model in the way the politicians assume.  If an effective method of reducing reoffending had been discovered it would have been introduced to the system long ago, as it would have been the most effective of reducing crime and costs of criminality. What methods of reducing reoffending that have been discovered are expensive to implement and one of the criteria for the new Prisons Ltd is that they keep costs to a minimum. This cost minimisation criteria goes contrary to the demand to reduce reoffending. This demonstrates another criteria naive over optimism, it is seeing the solution to complex social problems as being the adoption of simplistic business models.

When I attended my first philosophy lectures I remember Professor Oakshot talking about the various philosophical models adopted in the past. One was that adopted in the medieval period  was to examine human behaviours from the perspective of a super human being, a God’s eye perspective on mankind. Obviously mankind was found wanting or to use Augustine’s phraseology human behaviour was all too often dominated by the lower appetitive instincts. If today such a super human judged mankind he would recommend the elimination of the tribe of economists. This action would bring immediate benefits to human society and if it did not bring heaven down to earth it would lead to human society becoming much nicer.

The Economic Devil

There is one great flaw in economic analysis and that it that it has no theories that explain generalised wrong doing within the economy. Instead it recognises that there may be individual wrong doers but that wrong doing can be systemic throughout a particular sector the economy. Unlike Christianity it lacks a devil, Christians can account for wrong doing by referring to the malign influence of the devil, whereas in economics the assumption is that there are only occasional examples of wrong doing. There is on earth an economic Garden of Eden that is the free market system ensures no evil practices will prosper. Competition will force all businesses to adopt the highest standards of conduct through fear of losing sales to more ethical competitors.

Christians would have no difficultly in understanding that the greed of bankers was a key factor in precipitating the crash of 2008/9. It was their desire to accumulate larger and larger bonuses that encouraged them to undertake increasingly risky investments, investments that offered the possibility of greater and greater profits and bonuses. Self restraint was a characteristic absent from the traders and bankers money in the City of London. When it is phrased in these words the Christians seem to have a better explanation for the crash of 2008/9 than do economists. Fundamentalist Christians might suggest that the devil who had corrupted the behaviour of bankers and that this corruption directly led to the crash. Faust sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the love of Helen of Troy and as such was committed to a life of sin. It could be argued that the bankers sold their souls to the devil in exchange for untold wealth. Certainly there behaviour in that time suggested that they were little more than the servants of the devil.

Fortunately economists don’t have to re-invent the devil to explain the wrong doing that takes place within the economy. The corruption of the spirit comes from the belief that the main purpose of all human activity is the accumulation of wealth. It is the quest to maximise income and profit that will lead to the adoption of unethical behaviour. Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations 1776) stated that when a group of businessmen are gathered together their purpose is not to promote the common good but to further their own selfish interests. He was familiar with the practices of 18th century merchants who would divide a market between themselves; where each would be guaranteed a local monopoly so they could charge the highest possible price for their goods without having to worry about being undercut by a low cost rival.

Today there is a report in the newspapers that house builders are restricting the supply of houses so as to force up the price of houses. The former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone produced a report that claimed that house builders in London made a profit of 26% on each house sold at a time when the average company profit was 10%.

While there is no devil in economics but there is the devil like ethos which is summed up in the words profit maximisation. Any behaviour is deemed acceptable if it results in increased profits for the business. A practice demonstrated when international firms operating in the developing countries hire mercenaries to eliminate local politicians and trade unionists that might campaign for better wages or environmental protections that would increase their operating costs.

Bad behaviour amongst business executives is not unknown to economists, its just that the current generation of economists assume that such behaviours have only a small impact on the economy and its host society. Yet a recent writer on the Italian mafia asserted that London was responsible for facilitating the activities of the various Italian drug cartels through money laundering, which gave the gangs clean money with which to finance their corrupt practices in Italy and other European countries. The very opaqueness of the banking system makes it impossible to know the extent to which such bad practices are common in the London financial markets, whether it is one or two bad apples or the whole barrel that is rotten.What evidence there is suggests the latter.
What I am arguing for is a recognition that there is a devil in the economy, there is an ethos that perverts its workings so as to favour the selfish interests of small groups at the expense of the majority. I would suggest that Gresham’s law needs updating, in its original form it states that bad money drives out good. Gresham was thinking of Henry VIII and his constant debasement of the currency. A contemporary Gresham’s law would state that bad economic practices drive out the good. I do have some experience of this as when I worked in the City of London in the 1960s, new sharp practices began to creep into the city. At first the old established city firms resisted employing these sharp practices, but when it was clear that these new practices were very profitable the old ethical behaviours were soon abandoned.

The old city insurance firms were very conservative in their practices they never employed aggressive selling techniques, such as cold calling. New comers to the market employed much more aggressive tactics and took an increasing share of the insurance market forcing the old established insurers had to follow suit. This had one unfortunate consequence as life insurers competed with each other by offering more and more generous end of term policy benefits. To finance these generous payouts the insurers had to raid their cash reserves. This had two effects the first was to reduce the viability of the company forcing a wave of mergers as these firms sort tried restore their viability through consolidating into a few large companies so building up their depleted reserves. The second was that the life insurance industry was unable to pay such large end of policy benefits and were guilty of overselling their products. This led to the pensions scandal when it was revealed that the many millions who had on exchanged their occupational pension for one provided by an insurance company believing that their promises of a much higher pension, discovered that their private sector pensions generated a pension far less than that offered by their former occupational pensions. What has happened is that the old conservative but financially sound companies of the past have been replaced by more aggressive but less viable businesses. The trusted figure of the man from the Pru is now a figure from the past as he has been replaced by the salesman eager to win your custom.

Christianity has another lesson for economics, according to Christianity mankind is tainted by original sin and only an outsider untainted by human corruption can save them, that is God. Similarly the market system is tainted by an original sin, greed or perhaps more accurately original greed. The economic devil an integral part of the free market, this devil is ever ready to corrupt the participants in the market with the promise of riches. The business ethic, that is the desire to maximise profits is all too often little more than a disguise for this primal greed. Personalising the faults of the market system in form of the devil (even if it’s a metaphor for greed) has one important role it will constantly reminds politicians that the free market is not the solution to all problems, but is yet another flawed human creation that is corrupted with all the sins of its makers. The unregulated free market is a threat to social order as all manner of unethical behaviours are made possible, if there are no laws or regulations to prohibit them. The behaviour of the bankers and traders in the financial markets in 2008 and since demonstrates the folly of leaving the market and its members to set their own rules. Once this is accepted the government will return to its former function of legislating to stop powerful players in the market from abusing their power at the expense of other members and outlaw the most undesirable of economic behaviours. What politicians fail to realise just are there are crimes against the person and property, there also the economic crimes, which are also a threat to the person and property.

Note. A more sophisticated version of the threat that an unregulated market poses to the social order is to be found in Michael Polanyi’s ‘The Great Transformation’.