Category Archives: religion

A Country Childhood – Enchantment

A friend of mine often mocks my religious beliefs, citing Bertrand Russell. A philosopher who said he had no respect for those who claimed to worship an unknown God. People such as me believe he thought in an irrational and nonsensical set beliefs that could withstand the cold of scientific scrutiny. What I believe is that they they lack is an understanding of the magic of existence. One of the benefits of a country childhood was being gifted with an understanding of the magic of nature. Now in my seventies I can see it as a time of enchantment.

As a child of the 1940s when technological advances had left the countryside largely untouched, anything could be magical. One such occasion was my first visit to the blacksmith. His workshop was dark and gloomy, the only light coming from the forge and a soft ingrained window. Usually the lack of sunlight meant he left the door open, whatever the weather so as to get sufficient light with which to work. I witnessed this man using hammers, pincers and the forge to manufacture a horse shoe. A man so shrouded in shadow, that the only feature of his that I can recall is his bare arms. As a child of a pre-industrial age I can understand why medieval man intuited magic to the work of blacksmith. Seeing him turn a lump of shapeless metal into a horseshoe for the horse tethered outside seemed to be the practice of some spectral art. Given the powers of the swords wielded by the heroes of the medieval sagas, magic had to be part of the process of their making. Excalibur could well have been made in that age old smithy in the Gloucestershire of my childhood. It was not so far distant from the reputed land of Arthur.Technology robs today’s children of that sense of wonder. Excalibur for them could feature in a game played on their tablet, becoming a sword robbed of all its magic.

Today’s urban children are remote from the natural environment. I was not only in it, but part of it. . The natural environment was an ever changing constant in my life. Nature started at the bottom of my garden. There the hidden world of the woodland started. Even those paths through the woods that were familiar to me were constantly changing. Each day there would be something new to discover. Autumn was the time to look for toadstools, what I wanted to spot was the red Fly Agaric. A red toadstool with white spots, so loved of the illustrators of children’s books. Surprisingly they were not a common sight in the woods, instead they were full of their duller cousins. Although one duller cousin the puffball gave off delightfully clouds of black dust when kicked. Once the red Fly Agaric was finally found you knew that you were a participant in those stories about fairies that you read. Not only that there was the even more exciting time when you came across a fairy circle. These toadstools grew in a circle within which you knew the fairies danced at night. Adults then never disabused you of this belief. They also knew that nature was never a mystery can could never be fully explained. In their lifetime they had seen things that could that not be contained within rational explanation.

Naturalists claim that the rooks court is but a figment of the rural imagination. Rooks courts were those held by the colony of rooks, in which those rooks that have committed infractions of the rules of the colony were judged and punished. Yet my father one day heard a cacophony of noise from the vicinity of the rookery. There he saw a circle of rooks in centre of which were two rooks. From the tone of the rook’s cries it was obvious that were antagonistic to these two at the centre of the circle. Unfortunately these rooks became aware of my father’s presence and flew off, so he never discovered how the rookery would have dealt with these two miscreants. All countrymen could recount the similar stories, so for them nature was a mystery that could never be reduced to the explanations of science.

One of the most important events in the estate calendar was the village fete. All the villagers wanted to earn the prestigious title of best of show for their vegetables and flowers. Tricks and ploys of various forms were used some whose practice seemed to be the practice of some natural magic. Some men swore by planting their vegetables during the evening of a full moon. I cannot comment on the efficacy of this practice, although my father did try it one year, but disappointingly it produced no excessive profusion of vegetables.

None of the men of my childhood ever attended church. Church was for those of a different social class. It was for those who considered themselves superior to the workers, the rural middle class. The attitude of these people towards their supposed inferiors can be illustrated by a story. When the estate agent was checking on the work of the gamekeepers, he came in a car accompanied by his wife. She while observing the workers from the open car window, dropped a glove. She said to her husband while pointing at my father, tell that man to pick up my glove. What my father and his co-workers seemed to believe in was a religion was one that predated Christianity. An older religion that was founded on a respect for nature and its ways. They knew little of the church rituals or practices. Yet they were aware were the seasonal Christian rituals, as these rituals marked the changing of the seasons and there work practices. Then harvest festival signalled such a change. By now the crops had been harvested and the pace of work slowed. Work lost the intensity of summer. No longer would men work late at night harvesting the crop to take advantage of the favourable weather conditions.

While they never delayed the ploughing until ‘Plough Monday’ and certainly never attended a church service on that day, they knew on what day it fell. Plough Monday and other such rituals sanctified their working lives, it was more than a recognition of there value to the community. It elevated the mundane task of work into something out of the ordinary, something hallowed. For a country child Ash Wednesday was not a day of penance, it was instead the day in which we played with keys from the ash tree, trying to make them spin and fly. A shortage or lack of ash keys would have meant something was very wrong in nature. If I could go back in time and tell my father and his friends, that they practised a natural religion, they would have laughed at me. Religion was not something they talked about. Although I believe it governed there lives. Nature was a certain something, a thing to be respected not abused. They always had tales about the farmer or farm labourer who went against nature and suffered in consequence.

Although I think that my father and his workmates would have implicitly understood Democritus’s statement that every changes and nothing changes. They knew that nature was both ever changing and also a never changing something that endured from season to season and year to year.The rhythm of the seasons taught them this.

What a country childhood has given me is a sense of wonder. I can still see the enchantment within everyday things. As a child I eagerly looked for the first snow drop, as being the sign of the approach of spring. Then, if my father had come across the first snowdrop of the year, I and my sister would accompany him to that spot in which the snow drop was found, and marvel at its presence. Even now in my seventies when snowdrops are so common in urban gardens, I still look eagerly for that first snowdrop that is the first sign of the coming spring.

These old countrymen seemed to me to possess the wisdom of the ages. Not the silly version shown in Hollywood films, but a knowing grounded in reality of human existence. This gave them the strength to endure the horrors of war. In my fathers unit of thirty two that went to war, only three came back in 1945. The man who came back my mother said unrecognisable, he had become an old man. Yet he and the others endured seemed to me and his childhood friends to have come through the conflict unscathed. We longed forward to adulthood when we would possess the strength of our fathers.

Unlike my father I can give a name to my religious beliefs, I am a deist. While I respect Christianity and love the Anglican Church, I cannot call myself a Christian. What I possess is a countryman’s natural religion, a sense of awe at the wonder of existence. A religion which is not one that does not fit easily within the narrow confines of a particular doctrine. One that is without boundaries, one that flows easily from one religious discipline to another. That anonymous author who wrote ‘The Cloud of the UnKnowing’ gives the title to my religious belief. It not require a name.

Having inherited the natural religion of my fathers, unlike my friends I have great respect for the religious writers of the past. I read them wishing to give clarity to my natural religion. Medieval theologians were not as I popularly believed, obsessed with silly debates as to how many angels could dance on a pinhead. Anybody who cares to read the scholastic philosophers will discover thinkers as sophisticated in their thought as contemporary philosophers. Also as difficult to read as any modern philosopher.

John Hick with his term the ‘religious ultimate’ expresses best the belief of the those who cling to the natural religion of their fathers.

The Cult of Neo-liberalism and the bizarre beliefs and practices of its believers

Cult movements are supposed to appeal only to the marginalised in society, that is the losers desperate to find a way of out the dire circumstances in which they find themselves. Yet evidence shows that cult movements are as equally likely to appeal to the rich and powerful. The Orange movement with its emphasis on sexual freedom was a movement that appealed largely to the young and wealthy. However a cult movement of the rich and powerful can avoid being labelled as disparagingly as such because they have control of the media. Cult like movements redefined as mainstream political or social ideologies much like established religious practices. In a secular society such as ours cult movements will lack the mystery and religion usually associated with such and instead claim ‘realism’, to be a practical movement for individual and societal improvement. The cult that currently grips the imagination of the rich and powerful is Neo-Liberalism.

Believers in Neo-Liberalism as with all cult members have a fervent belief in the rightness of the message and reject any evidence to the contrary. To paraphrase George Orwell it central belief is ‘private enterprise good, public or state enterprise bad’. Currently in Britain all our prisons are being transferred to private management. Despite reports from the prisons inspectorate that such prisons are poorly managed, largely due to cost or staff cutting measures intended  to turn prison’s management into a profit making activity, political leaders seem oblivious any problems arising from the privatisation of the prison service. Riots, rising prison suicides are not the things to turn the political leaders away from their belief that prisons can only be run successfully, if they are under private management. There is nothing to match the fervour of the converted for their cause. When criticised they will say that the reforms they have introduced will take time to take effect and what is being witnessed now are the painful birth pangs of a new society coming into being. Without wishing to name politicians I feel they are so similar in nature to the Jehovah’s Witnesses that come to my door promising me salvation if become a member. A salvation promised on as little evidence as that provided by the cultish Neo-Liberals.

All cults have a charismatic leader, one who have a message one which points out the failings of current society and the way to a brighter and better future. Scientologists had Ron Hubbard, Neo-Liberals have three Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Followers of each cult treat the writings of the founders as holy texts and try to follow to the letter their writings . It helps if the charismatic leaders as death sanctifies their writings, much as earlier death gives pop stars that aura of specialness and which boosts their record sales. All these leaders were persecuted and vilified in their own societies. Ron Hubbard was dismissed as a fraudulent science fiction writer and the prophets of Neo-Liberalism were persecuted by the liberal social democratic establishment of their time, who dismissed their writings as lacking merit. As all of these prophets are dead there writings cannot be subject to revision making it much easier for them to be seen as the unalterable holy writ.

One of the holy writs of Neo-Liberalism is that any state intervention in the market is hateful and destructive. For British Neo-Liberals the very personification of this hateful state intervention is the  European Union (EU). Any damage inflicted on the economy or social fabric of the nation occurring from a precipitate exit from the European Union is a price worth paying. When the Global Institute for Economic Affairs states that leaving the EU will diminish national income by 10% they dismiss it as a mere trifle. A valid comparison is with the regime of Pol Pot, they have a wish to return the economy to year zero so they can remake it according to the collective scripture of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Fortunately for this group of very rich and powerful Liberals the martyrs that will be sacrificed are the less rich majority, not the rich minority.

A cult movement also sanctities its members and demonises outsiders. Ayn Rand writes that the saviours of mankind are the rich and powerful or more precisely the billionaires. All the powerful Neo-Liberals imagine themselves part of this class whether they are or not. This also makes them very greedy for money, as wealth demonstrates that they are one of the elect. Ayn Rand characterises the poor and desperate as the undeserving poor, who when they die in their thousands in ‘Atlas Unchained’  meet a fate they deserve. This makes tax avoidance a moral cause as by paying taxes the rich are merely giving money to the undeserving poor on whom it is wasted. Politicians can claim high taxes on the rich are immoral, as it takes money away from the rich who will use it well and gives it to the poor who will squander it. A morality given common sense expression by the Surrey woman who wrote that the rich have greater need of money than the poor as they have more things on which to spend their money. The wants of the rich are many according to her reasoning, whereas the wants of the poor are few, so they only don’t require much money.

Media commentators who write about the death of Neo-Liberalism misunderstand the persuasive power of a cult. Believers are immune to rational argument, the collapse of the economy on Brexit will leave them unmoved. There is a tribe in New Guinea who worship Prince Phillip as a God and who believe that one day he will come and distribute to them the wealth that was unfairly stolen from them by the Europeans. All they have to do is to await the arrival of Prince Phillip and the prosperity that he will bring. Neo-Liberals are as rational in their beliefs as this New Guinea tribe. They will believe that whatever economic disasters occur during Brexit, are unrelated to their practice of Neo-liberalism. The failures in the economy be a consequence of the government failing to implement Neo-Liberal policies properly, if only they had been more Neo-liberal in their approach to policy making all the problems that afflict the economy would never have occurred.

Neo-liberalism will only die when all its powerful proponents are removed from power. Until then Neo-liberal policy making will be practised by our government.

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.)

Don’t dance with the devil, the tragic demise of social democracy

This proverb which warns against dancing with the devil probably dates back to the early medieval period, when there was a strong sense of the presence of the devil in the world. While I don’t believe in the devil as such as I believe that mankind has sufficient potential to do evil without need of the help of a malign supernatural being; I do think it aids explanation to reduce  what is that nexus of  power and evil intent to a personified term the devil. I suspect the medieval users of this proverb were quite aware of the potential to commit evil within us all, but they saw the value of having one simple proverb to remind people of the perils of being complicit in evil. Complicity with the devil would mean either being burnt in this life as witch or suffering the fires of eternal damnation in the next.

What I am writing about is not the individual who acts with evil intent, the one who wishes harm on his fellow men. The serial killer now matter how appalling and frequent are their crimes, they can only hurt a small number of people. What matters to me is the people of evil intent who have the power to commit crimes on a much larger scale. People such as Chairman Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot were monsters and its easy to write them of as exceptions to general run of humankind.Yet there are those politicians of evil intent in the Western democracies that abuse power to cause hurt and pain to millions so as to secure some financial advantage for themselves and their friends. Usually these politicians claim a religious sanction for their actions. There is hardly one of these politicians that would not claim to be a good Christian. Yet they seem unaware of the religious injunction to treat your neighbour as you would yourself. To be fair they do have some sense of neighbourliness, there neighbours they understand are people such as themselves, the great majority, those outside their friendship groups don’t qualify as neighbours. These are the politicians that will impose punitive sanctions on the undeserving poor, while also give generous government contracts to their friends. A recent newspaper article claimed that £500 million was given in contracts to business to assess the fitness or otherwise of benefit claimants. Ministers felt £500 millions was better spent this way, than on the undeserving poor.

Evil may take many forms, but in this essay I am taking it to policies undertaken by politicians which impoverish or cause misery to thousands if not millions, as a means of securing some financial advantage for their friends.

What concerns me is the extent to which social democrat politicians have become complicit in this evil. They have ‘danced with the devil’ in the misguided belief that they can get some advantage by doing so, securing a benefit for the people that would not otherwise be available. Medieval man new that the devil never kept his promises and that all he wanted was to corrupt the soul of the innocent who sought his help.

There is one social democratic politician that exemplifies this tendency. This politician was one of the highest achieving students in economics at one of the countries elite universities. Yet when the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a pronouncement about economic policy, which any sane economist would recognise as nonsense, he instead of opposing the measure supported it. He claimed it showed responsibility to follow the governments lead and it would win support from the voters. He claimed that voters would never vote for a party that appeared irresponsible in matters relating to the economy. It is unfair to say that he was entirely responsible for the adoption of nonsense economics, as all the other senior members of the party agreed with him. (Although they were not as talented an economist as him, they had all secured good degrees at elite universities, which would have given them the analytical skills to identify nonsense when it was spoken by a government minister.) The consequence was that this party appeared indistinguishable from the government to many of its supporters. These disillusioned supporters drifted to other parties that appeared to promise those policies to which this party refused to commit. This party is now haemorrhaging support to those ‘irresponsible’ parties of the populist right and of the nationalist persuasion.

These politician’s who ‘danced with the devil’ thought by being complicit in one evil they could secure a greater good. The greater good they sought was the power, which would then enable them to implement a political programme to alleviate the suffering of the many. What is extraordinary about this saga is that these self same politicians had been involved in campaigning groups that sought to alleviate the miseries of poverty.  They were people who had campaigned for many good causes and as group were more probably more virtuous than any other group of people, yet these politicians as a group were willing to sign up a policy that was contrary to what they believed, because they though it would secure them some advantage.

Faustus sold his soul to the devil in exchange for securing the love of the most beautiful woman in history, Helen of Troy. Social democratic politicians throughout the Western democracies have sold their souls to the devil in return for the chimera of power. Unlike these politicians Faustus got a much better price for his soul, all they secured was the promise not the gift of power.

Why economists are so miserable and why you should never trust a happy economist

I can explain the title through referring to a story from the Westminster political scene, as it demonstrates how politicians fail to understand the role of the economist. Although Mark Carney as  governor of ‘The Bank England’ and is not strictly speaking an economist, only a person thoroughly grounded in economic theory and practice could fulfil this role. He was called to a meeting of the Select Committee on the Treasury to explain why he gave such a negative account of the impact of  Brexit. Why the assembled politicians wanted to know did he give such a negative account of its impact on the economy, as all knew that in fact the economy was as buoyant after the vote to leave the EU as before it. He answered that he remained serene about his prediction of a dire economic future if Brexit occurred.

There are two answers to the question posed by the angry politicians.The first is that he by being aware of the possible bad effects of Brexit, had reacted immediately after the vote to offset the negative impact through cutting interest rates and pumping more money into the economy by the process of quantitive easing. These measures restored business confidence and enabled the economy to recover from the immediate post Brexit blues. However this was a short term measure, which had a short term effect. The truth or otherwise of his predictions will be known in 2017 when negotiations to leave the EU begin in earnest. The uncertainty engendered by the negotiations to leave the EU will have a negative impact on business confidence and investment. Businesses will postpone investment decisions or as with the major car manufacturers look to develop their new models in those parts of Europe that are unlikely to be subject to the import tariffs that British exporters will have to pay. There seems to be a consensus among economists that incomes will fall in the long term by 4% or more as a consequence of Brexit, which if these angry politicians had listened to Mark Carney’s speech would have realised that this is what he was saying.

However what these politicians fail to demonstrate is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of economists. Economics is with some justification known as the miserable or the gloomy science. The role of economists is to look for the worst in possible outcomes that could develop as a consequence of current policy decisions or current changes in the economy and to warn against them. Foreknowledge of the bad to come enables politicians to take action to prevent the worst of all possible futures from happening. Happy economists fail in this task as they never foresee future economic storms and squalls. The Governor of ‘The Bank of England’ at present with his advisors is considering what possible future measures he will need to enact in 2017 to prevent the worst effects of a loss of the uncertainty generated by the Brexit negotiations. If like the many politicians advocating Brexit he took an optimistic view of the future, he would lie woefully unprepared for the expected downturn in the economy in 2017. What politicians fail to understand is that economists and Bank of England governors are doing the job for which they are paid when they a being economic miserablists or Jeremiahs.

When economists are happy they are not fulfilling their role. Before the crash of 2008 the vast majority of economists were upbeat about the economy. They believed that the world economy had entered a new paradigm in which the old caveats about credit bubbles and an overheated economy no longer applied. The over whelming majority of economists believed that the world economy had entered a new phase in which it would continue on an ever upward trajectory, in which the minor mishaps that occurred could be remedied by a few simple changes in monetary policy, such as varying the interest rate. Those few economists that warned that the world economy was heading for a financial disaster were ignored. After all who is interested in the pessimistic views of a miserable neighbour. Politicians just like the rest of the population are not interested in unpalatable truths, they just wanted the party to continue.

When the Queen asked the economists why they had failed to predict the crash of 2008, she was asking the wrong question. What she should have asked is why they had abandoned their role of that of social Jeremiah for that of cheer leader. Politicians could deny their responsibility for their irresponsible policies that led to the crash of 2008, by claiming that economists also believed that that they were pursuing the right policy. The financial crash could be claimed to be a once in a life time unforeseeable event, such as the Tsunami and therefore politicians should share no blame for the crisis which in reality was a large part of their making.

Economists can be compared to the Old Testament prophets who warned the Israelites of the dire consequences of ignoring God’s will. Similarly economists should be warning of the dire consequences that will follow from ignoring economic realities. Although revering their prophets the Israelites could react badly when their were told things that they would rather not know. Isaiah is reputed  to have been sawn in two while hiding in a tree, after having angered King Manasseh. The Israelites had time for regret after the disasters following on from the invasions by the Assyrians. Economists will always be tempted to follow the party line or say what pleases those in power and the consequence is a disaster such as that of 2008, when economists should as one have been urging the government to take action to end the dangerous explosion of credit, they were encouraging the government to continue to inflate the asset bubble. A good economist is one that is willing to court unpopularity, as did the Old Testament prophets who sought no one’s favour when speaking God’s truth.

I as am economist am very wary of speaking the truth about future events to my friends, as to do so is one way of losing ones friends.

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.

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’.