Tag Archives: #classical greece

When a visitor encountered the philosopher Democritius* in his garden, he to his surprise found him laughing uncontrollably. When asked why he was laughing, he said it was at the follies of mankind. If Democritius was living today he would have found plenty to laugh at in the follies of our leaders.

One of the more interesting of the Greek philosophers was the sceptic philosopher Pyrrho. This was a man so sceptical about the possibility of there being such as human knowledge, that he did not bother to look where he was going went he went walking, as he thought that if he was going to fall into a ditch there was little he could do to prevent it happening. While this story recounted by Diogenes Laërtius is apocryphal it does illustrate quite clearly the nature of his thinking. As all human knowledge was fallible, he said that we should be wary of putting too much trust in the great systems of the philosophers that claimed to ‘explain everything’. Why I value Pyrrho is he an  antidote to stupid thinking. Whenever I contemplate the latest popular fashion in contemporary thinking, I always think of Pyrrho. I am wary of the latest popular enthusiasms, whether it be for hygge, Gloop the philosophy of Gwyneth Paltrow or Neo-Liberalism, as on examination they all seem to rest on similarly filmsyl foundations.

Unfortunately politicians with a naive belief in rightness of free market economics are particularly prone to such stupid thinking. The politicians of the New Right,  despite their claims to realism are often the enthusiasts for the silliest of ideas. One such is the idea that the when the UK leaves the EU it can install an computer based system to record all foreign trade transactions. This scheme will operate so efficiently it is believed, that traders will find litle difference betwen the new trading system  and the current regulation free trade system. Traders will find it as easy to move goods in an out of the country as they do at present. The only flaw is that there is no such system anywhere in the world and the record of governments installing new computer systems is one of failure. This government has spent seven years trying and failing to introduce a computer system to pay benefits, the much derided universal credit system. If this scheme in which all the recipients of this benefit are already known and yet the government finds it impossible to get the scheme to work effectively, how can it possibly develop an IT scheme that will be able to handle the thousands of daily transactions that make up our international trade. Already the fallibility of the HMRC computer system enables thousands of people to avoid paying tax. Yet even although they know this, these Brexiters claim that they will be able to introduce a new marvellous IT system which will have none of the failings of any of its predecessors.

What Pyrrho would have advised these politicians and economists of the New Right to do; would have been to look at the past history of government failure in the procurement and introduction of new IT systems. This would have reminded the Brexit enthusiasts that there has never been a government IT scheme that has not been a magnificent failure.

If they were not convinced by that, he could have told them to look at the problems of IT in the defence system.  The operating system in our new aircraft carries is Windows XP, an operating system so outdated that Microsoft has stooped supporting it with updates. The vulnerabilities of this operating system were exposed when hackers (from North Korea)? were able to shut down so many of our hospitals that relied on this as an operating system. Also the broadband speeds available to these carriers does not exceed 8mb, a speed slower than most household broadband systems.  Pyrrho would have told these politicians to stop being foolish and indulging in stupid fantasies and instead address the reality of the real world of flawed computer systems.

Why blame economists when all the failures that I have outlined are those of the politicians? Quite simply because all these politicians of the New Right and our Brexit are believers in the economic philosophy called Neo-Liberalism. Neo-Liberal thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman have taught that mankind has invented the best possible of social institutions and that is the free market and that the role of politicians is merely to ensure the smooth operating of this market.

It would be anathema for these politicians to install customs barriers at our sea and airports, as that mean introducing a barrier into the smooth working of the free market. Their philosophy then poses for them an unsolvable problem. Having decided that the UK must leave the free trade area that is the Single Market and the Customs Union, how do they introduce customs barriers that are not customs barriers? They know that once they introduce customs checks on imports and exports at Dover, they face the possibility of there being long tailbacks of traffic. Some estimates state that these queues will be up to 15 miles long. Now having introduced a problem that has no solution, they resort to a fantasy answer. The IT system for exports and imports that they propose only exists in the realms of their imagination, it is incapable of an existence in the real world. Its nonsense but nobody in government wants to admit to this.

What puzzles me is the great majority of these politicians who are enthusiasts for this scheme studied philosophy at one of our elite universities as part of their Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree. Even although scepticism is not the fashionable mode of philosophy in our universities, philosophy departments do boast that they teach their students critical thinking. Obviously our politicians of the New Right seem to think that this is a skill that only applies to essay writing.

*Democritius was a philosopher who lived in the fourth century BC in the cityl of Adbera, Greece.

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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.

Ugly economics an explanation of why we are in a mess

Plato developed the theory of forms which stated that all the virtues such as good and beauty were but mere copies of their ideal forms that existed beyond the sphere of life inhabited by humanity. In Plato’s creation myth the demigod who creates mankind makes mankind from the only material available, clay. A being made up of inferior materials unlike the Gods could never see the virtues in their true forms and would never able to appreciate true Good or Beauty. These inferior beings could only apprehend what were in effect rough and ready copies of the true virtues. Men could only know an approximation of the virtues. Although Plato was writing two thousand years ago his theory of the forms describes accurately the state of current economic knowledge, it is but a very imperfect copy of what might constitute true economics.

When I read economics what is striking is the lack of beauty in the subject, unlike for example physics there is no beauty in its formulations. Physics reveals the beauty of the universe, whereas all economics does is to reveal the ugliness of human society. The words of Gordon Gecko that ‘greed is good’ can be taken as the principle from which all current economic analysis derives. Our current Chancellor of the Exchequer believes that rewarding greed through  tax cuts for the wealthy is good, whereas helping the poor through welfare payments is bad, as it merely rewards a group of losers who are deprived of the incentive (compulsion) to work to provide for themselves and their families.

As a NeoPlatonist I recognise that although all the human sciences cannot be one or another form of moral philosophy; I do believe that a good social science should be informed by at least some of the virtues. Whenever I read an economic text it is very rare that I am grabbed by the beauty of the writing. All too often it is a struggle to get through some poorly written text.  A text that is peppered with difficult to understand economic terms, words that disguise the emptiness of the written text.  I believe that a text that is ugly in its construction can only create something that is ugly.

Good writing is that which contains understanding of beauty and as such moves the reader bad or ugly writing lacks any of the other virtues and as such has lost  touch with humanity. The government by constantly referencing ugly economics to justify all forms of unpleasant policy measures. One of the hidden scandals is the number of disabled and ill people who have succumbed to sudden death, as a consequence of sudden and unexpected benefit cuts. There are those ill and disabled who have resorted to suicide in consequence of the sudden loss of the income on which they depend.  Normally in such situations policy measures that have caused death would produce some contrition within political classes. The harsh welfare polices of the past few years have produced no such reaction. Instead ugly economics gives the justification to such measures, as what counts is the effectiveness of the whip that compels people to work. Government policy seems to a perverted inversion of Plato’s theory of forms. The supreme good is the balanced budget and subordinate policies such as welfare cuts are intended to make possible the attainment of this supreme goal. If this is the supreme good of human society it must be a very poor or mediocre society that sees this as its supreme good, a society which has rejected any sense of the grand vision that society’s of the past embodied. Athen’s with the construction of the Parthenon is one example of the grandeur of the human vision, contemporary Britain in which the only large constructions are shopping centres or malls sense to represent the very rejection of the grandeur that is humanity.

If Britain is to be judged by it’s leaders it is a nasty society bereft of any of the virtues that make a great society. A society which uses hunger as a scourge to make the poor work lacks any of the virtues that make a great society. All it’s leading politicians are like Socrate’s Alcibiades, a physically beautiful young man in appearance but in an inversion the Silenus dolls were ugly only on the inside he was ugly on the inside. Physical beauty concealed an ugly soul. It is not a true demonstration of the ugly society that politicians take great pains over their appearance, maintaining their youthful image through jogging or other forms of exercise and cosmetic surgery, What matters is their image, how they appear on the media. All our leaders tend to exhibit that fatal Alcibiades trait, beautiful on the outside ugly on the inside.

Perhaps it is being too unfair to blame the proponents of ugly economics for the mess that we are in. Could it not be equally possible that it is the ugly society which has created an ugly economics to match its essential ugliness. If economists are merely responding to the demand from the major power holders in society for a theory to justify their existence, they are culpable of devising a message that enables the ugly society to thrive. Their privileged role as the sanctioned intelligentsia serve to suppress any alternative voices. They are like the garden weed that denies those food plants we desire the space in which to grow and thrive.

Greece and the Sceptical Economist

Three kinds of economics

http://www.neuerope.eu

From a glance at the media it would seem that there is only one economics, usually what is now termed free market or Neo-Liberal economics. People are familiar with the mantras of these economists whether it spoken by them or a politician. Mantras such as a country must live within its means and it must reduce its debts to a sustainable level as is constantly repeated in the debate on Greece. However economics can be divided into three separate schools, Neo-Liberal economics being but the most dominant strand in but one school of economics. What ever school economists belong to will determine their approach to the crisis such as that in the Eurozone and Greece?

Neo-Liberal economics derives from the school of economics that sees the economy as an integrated system that when working well maximises the welfare of all. Economists from this school will see their role as to explain how the system works and how to make it work better. Changes such as removing restrictions or impediments that prevent the free market from working at its optimum. This has lead to the emasculation of trade unions and worker protections,as each are seen as an impediment to the smooth working of the free labour market. A loss it is believed that will be offset by higher incomes the now more efficient workforce. Ideally there should be no restrictions on how and where individuals choose to work and how employers choose to use them.

There are other schools of economics within this school that sees the economy as an integrated social system that can be made to work for the benefit of all. Although disregarded by policy makers today, they are the Keynesian economists who believe that through intelligent government intervention the economy can be made to work for the benefit of all. Their concern is ameliorating the damaging effects of the trade cycle, that is the economy goes through a repeated series of bans and busts. In the upswing period they are determined to stop the worst effects of the boom,  which is inflation, by regulating credit; similarly they wish to avoid the worst effects of a recession which is unemployment by using various measures such as increasing public spending to stimulate economic recovery. This school is anathema to the Neo-Liberals who believe that any government intervention in the economy can only have a malign effect.

Next there are a group of economists who see the economy as working for only one privileged group and merely providing the majority with the means of survival. These are the Marxist economists of whom there are few today. At the core of Marxist economics is the labour theory of value. This theory at its simplest states that it is labour that in the production process that adds value to the product, but that added value is skimmed off by their employers the bourgeoise. This group take a disproportionate share of the added value (profit) leaving the worker with only the minimal means of income. Marxist economists advocate measures to reduce or eliminate the power of the bourgeoise to take a disproportionate share of national income to achieve a more equitable sharing of that income.

There is a third school of economics of which I am a member, we are probably the smallest of all the economic schools. These are the sceptical economists who believe that seeing the economy as an integrated social system that works as fallacious. (I use the term sceptic after the sceptical school of philosophy, whose most prominent recent exponent of whom was Nietzsche, from whom I take my understanding of scepticism.) This is not to deny that the economy does not produce goods and services that add to the sum of human welfare, but to see it as working mechanism or a well functioning social system is wrong. There was a film realised  in the 1965 about an air race from London to Paris that took place in 1910.  In it there was song about ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ which included the words if my memory is correct, that these machines fly but I do not know how they stay up in the air. A sceptical economist has this view of the economy, we know that somehow the economy works but not exactly how. Parts of the system we do understand but not the whole, we even doubt if it correct to describe the economy as a system, we only use the term system to imply a something. What we deplore is seeing the economy as a mechanism that is capable of being perfected, that can be made the best of all possible economic systems, as is the claim of Neo-Liberal economists. Not that we don’t believe that changes cannot be made to improve the working of the economy but those changes will have only a limited impact. The revolutionary economics of the Marxists or Neo-Liberals who claim to have the ability to transform society and its human members we see as misguided. Economics is the science of small changes that have been proved to work not the messianic social science promising a better future for all.

Greece and the sceptical economist

Greece provides the perfect example of the fallacious nature of much of economics. When the financial crisis of 2008/9 came it exposed the frail nature of the Greek economy without its over dependence on foreign loans. The European Union (EU), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB) provided the loans Greece needed on the condition that it adopted a programme of austerity and embarked on a series of Neo-Liberal reforms. These reforms were to cut welfare spending, remove labour protections and embark on a large scale privatisation of state owned assets. After five years debts have increased to 177% of GDP, youth unemployment has reached 50% and many individuals especially pensioners have been forced into poverty. Despite the disaster that is now the Greek economy the EU insists that Greece most continue to follow the programme of austerity and Neo-Liberal reform. Even the election of a government opposed to austerity and the issuing of an IMF report saying that the continuation of the current policy will make it increasingly unlikely that Greece will ever repay its debts,has failed to make the EU change its policies. The Neo-Liberal politicians and economists that control policy making at the EU believe that in spite of the evidence to the contrary that the Neo-Liberal reforms imposed on Greece will eventually deliver. It is a matter of holy writ for these people that only the truly free market can deliver the best of all possible worlds.

A sceptical economist such as myself might point out to the failure of a similar radical Neo-Liberal programme in the former USSR. This programme of radical reform had such disastrous effects that some Russian nationalists believed that it was a programme implemented to deliberately weaken the Russian economy and nation. There was in the 1990s after the collapse of the communist system, the wholesale privatisation of state run businesses. The least efficient were closed for lack of buyers so creating large scale unemployment and poverty.  Those businesses that were bought were purchased at knock down prices from the state by the oligarchs (often former officers of the KGB), with the result that control of the economy was transferred from the state to the oligarchs to the detriment of the Russian people. Economic reform was introduced by a government that had no real understanding of Western society and economy and into a society that lacked the social institutions to make the reforms work. Instead of the free market reforms creating a new Russian liberal democracy, they created a new authoritarian state. All the old methods of repression are returning, political dissidents are confined to mental institutions or imprisoned. Poverty is still persists and it is no coincidence that Russian men have the lowest life expectancy in Europe.

Perhaps a phrase for describing the policy towards Greece would be Iraqi economics. When George Bush successfully conquered Iraq he ordered the destruction of the existing governmental system. He intended to create a liberal democracy out of the ruins of the old Baathist political system. Instead this overly optimistic programme created a political wasteland which has lead to a decade long period of internecine warfare, as the authoritarian government that existed was replace with nothing more than misplaced optimism that once freed the Iraqis would by themselves create a democratic state. The radical Neo-Liberal economic policies that have introduced to the former USSR and Greece have created an equivalent economic and social wasteland.

At some subconscious level of thought it does seem that the European politicians do seem realise that radical Neo-Liberalism can only be imposed by an authoritarian government. They have been trying to remove the democratically elected Syria government and replace it with one of technocrats that will do their bidding.

What the sceptical economist would have done is to work within the existing political system and with its leaders to adopt a gradual reform programme, consisting of those measures that would bring some amelioration to suffering of the Greek people.  The obvious one is some measure of debt relief, this would mean that the European banks that made irresponsible loans to the Greek government would suffer financial loss as their would the Greeks would be defaulting on their loans. However they would be paying their price for their irresponsible lending, which is what should happen in a free market economy. There would be no ‘big bang’ reform of the economy but a series of negotiated and sensible reforms. Reforms that would be made with the consent of the Greek political leadership and people. There would be sufficient incentive to reform as the downgrading of Greece’s credit status, would make raising international loans difficult and costly until the Greek economy showed signs of recovery. The reforms would be modest in scope, there would be attempt to destroy Greek ‘clientelism’ as it is one of the key elements of the existing society. Reform certainly of its worst features but recognition that it is part of the unique nature of Greek society. No attempt would be made to make it a southern European equivalent of Germany or free market Britain.

What I am trying to say is the politicians and economists of the EU should recognise the limits of their knowledge. They are the last people that should claim to have a knowledge of the ideal society and economy, as people in glass houses should not throw stones. One of the criticisms is that the Greek tax collection system was ineffective, as one writer stated it was as if the state was putting out a collection plate. Yet these European critics are in their own countries encouraging rich individuals and business corporations to avoid tax. Many business corporations locate their head quarters in Luxembourg, Ireland and the Netherlands to avoid tax. Soon the UK will be added to their number as our government is developing new tax avoidance schemes to encourage business to locate in the UK.

The sceptical economist has no one big answer to the problems of managing an economy, instead they have a series of small answers. These small answers are to be tried and if fail to be replaced by alternate measures that might work. What the sceptical economist recognises is the uniqueness of different societies, which come up with different solutions to solve common problems. Is the Greek system of ‘clientelism’ really much worse than the employment practices of the United Kingdom? If clientelism produces over employment, the Anglo Saxon free market produces under employment. Government departments in Greece may have been over staffed with political place men, but British business corporations such as supermarkets are staffed with the under employed, that is workers working on split shifts on low incomes, who desperate for extra hours of work  to boost their incomes. The Greek practice of clientism is far from perfect but so are the practices of the Anglo Saxon free market. What I want but don’t see is a recognition of the fallibility of social institutions and that what might work in one society does not necessarily work in another.

Superstition not reason is the basis for much government economic decision making

The English have any good luck mannerisms which are intended to ward off bad luck. One which I particularly do is crossing my fingers when I mention something dreadful, to prevent it occurring to me. Another is touch wood, as in I have not caught flu this year touch wood. Surprising this superstition is the basis of much economics practised by this government and to be fair many others.

Economists claim scientific status for their subject on the grounds that it based on quantitative analysis, analysis from which predictions can be made about future events. They will admit that in their predictions they cannot match the accuracy of those of a physicist, but the difference they claim is one of degree not nature. Governments invest billions in IT programmes that use the tools of economic analysis try to predict future events in the economy. It is telling that the most accurate predictions about the economy are made after the event, when there is more reliable information about the event that has taken place. Unfortunately the errors in these programmes have caused real problems in the past, as in 1976 when government statisticians calculated that the country was experiencing a horrendous balance of payments crisis; yet when later revisions of the figures showed that the initial calculations were inaccurate the damage had been done. The  revisions came to late to avert a financial crisis which included a large outflow of currency and forcing the government into borrowing from the IMF and the introduction of an austerity programme which effectively ended social democracy in the UK.

However past history demonstrates that this attachment to facts and figures is more apparent than real. One of the theories underlying the initial Neo-Liberal  free market economics, (practised by all British governments since 1979) was the quantity theory of money. This theory states that if money supply increases faster than productivity, inflation will result as their will be more money chasing the same number of goods. The control of inflation that as now was one of the chief concerns of government policy. In the 1980’s when this theory took hold one of the first policies that the government’s introduced was a policy to reduce the money supply to cut inflation. This in Britain caused the recession of 1980 and the loss of 20% of it’s manufacturing base, and this was decreed a good result, as in the new low inflation economy, growth would soon compensate for the losses of 1981/82. However after several years in power politicians of the Neo-Liberal persuasion seemed to forget about the quantity theory of money, despite it being the guiding principle of their policy decisions in the early 1980’s.

If Neo-Liberal economists wanted a demonstration of the truth of this theory, it is in their actions over the past thirty years. Politicians in Britain and Europe have overseen a huge rise in bank credit with a consequential inflation in asset prices, particularly in housing. According to the latest figures the debts of the UK banks total 340% and 324% respectively of the nation’s GDP in Britain and Germany respectively. Instead of the politicians reacting negatively to this huge rise in bank credit and the inflation that it induces, they have done all they can to keep that inflationary spiral going ever upwards. When in the crash of 2008/9 these over indebted banks should have experienced a painful devaluation of their assets, as many of their debtors defaulted on loans. Instead the governments of Europe  pumped money into these banks to prevent any real deterioration in their loan books. Consequently the banks have continued with their irresponsible behaviour and their loans spiral ever upwards, pushing up house prices. The politicians believe that the inflation in house prices contributes to the ‘feel good’ factor and that any downward movement in house prices would mean instant unpopularity and losing office, which would result if they reduced money supply through a reduction bank credit. Foolishly the Neo-Liberal politicians and economists put electoral popularity above a painful restructuring of the economy, which would mean no longer using inflation as a driver of growth.

Recently the governor of the Bank of England announced that he was happy to see bank deposits (largely loans) to increase to 900% of GDP. Sometime in the future there will be a painful awakening for the over indebted Western European economies. All this is detailed in painful detail by the economist Anne Pettifor in her book “The First World Debt Crisis’.

There is a blindness in economists and politicians to real nature of the problems of debt. Never in any debates in parliament will the huge private sector debt be mentioned. Policy is based on the hope that the problems that this huge debt will cause will never happen. It seems to be if you ignore the problem and hope for the best the debt problem can be wished away. Whether I call it crossed fingers or touch wood policy, it is a very naive belief by economists and politicians that all will be well in the future. It is economics as superstition in that if the real crisis is never mentioned it will never happen.

Going even further I can suggest that there is an element of voodoo about government and inter government policy making. They seem to think if they sacrifice one element of debt it will appease the Gods of economics and prevent them from causing the house to fall down. Rather than sacrifice a chicken they sacrifice public spending. They seem to hope that the misery inflicted on those dependent on welfare will appease the Gods of the economy. If the bankers are the Gods of the economy it has worked, as there have been no adverse movements in the financial markets against the pound sterling. They certainly are satisfied with the sacrifices made by the poor. However they are not the Gods, as is demonstrated by their failures in 2008/9, the Gods (if they exist) are much more abstract figures not to be appeased by minor sacrifices, inevitably they will visit punishment on the foolish and naive governments of the West.

Do our leaders still not worship the old pagan Gods?

This short essay is an attempt to answer a conundrum  that puzzles me. All the members of our government would claim if pushed to an extreme to be Christians. There are even some members of the government who demonstrate an extreme piety by being regular church attenders and by being active  proselytisers for their faith. Christianity is foremost a religion of compassion and caring, yet this government treats the most vulnerable of people with inhuman contempt. Today it was in the papers that the government was stoping the personal care allowance for an eight year old girl with a distressing and disabling illness. It is the type of illness that makes the child totally dependent on her adult carers.  With complete inhumanity this government denied the money for care, because the British father worked mainly in Germany and therefore it was up to the German government to provide funding. Even when claimants whose lose benefit commit suicide, this most inhumane of governments remains unmoved. Obviously this government is unfamiliar with the gospel text, in which Christ when surrounded by children and tells his disciples that if anyone harmed these children it would be better for him that he threw himself into the sea with a millstone around his neck, rather than face the wrath of God. (Matthew 18:6)

What kind of God I wondered do the members of this government worship? Obviously it is not the Christian God with which I am familiar. The members of this government see their actions as virtuous so what God can possibly condone such inhumanity? Whatever God it is it cannot be the Christian one. 

One candidate is the secular religion, which goes by the name of Neo-Liberalism. Practitioners of this religion worship the market and believe that it this this very secular deity that will distribute wealth to each according to their deserts. They do realise that the free market will at times create human misery, but they believe that the good the market does outweighs the bad.

However the explanation lies with the religion of entitlement and privilege that has pre-dated Christianity but which has continued to coexist with Christianity. Christianity was a break from the religions of the past, which were little more than state religions. Religions whose role was to validate the social order, for whom the people were just an anonymous mass. The only individuals that mattered to these religions were the kings and the warrior heroes.  In contrast the heroes of Christianity were the common people fishermen, carpenters and tax collectors. Christianity was a religion of individualism, one that threatened the existing social order as it saw merit in all not just the rich and powerful.  A religion that would appeal to the oppressed groups such as slaves and women,  who were the majority of its early members, a religion of the downtrodden.

Achilles Slays Hector, by Peter Paul Rubens (1630–35).

One of the  best examples of a pre-Christian religion of entitlement and privilege is the religion of classical Greece, that of the Olympian Gods. Homer in his two poems ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ gives expression to the beliefs of the classical Greeks. In the Iliad the poor or the ordinary Greeks only get mentioned once. This is when a boastful soldier from the ranks foolishly challenges Odysseus (King of Ithaca) to a boxing match. Odysseus brutally beats the upstart challenger to a pulp, to the approval of the watching Gods and Homer. Throughout the epic story of Odysseus’s return from Troy, the members of his crew, the ordinary seamen are who crew his ship are almost never mentioned. When Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca he has lost all his crew through various misfortunes, yet he never expresses any regret about their loss. For Homer and the Olympian Gods of Greece, all that is of concern or interest are the actions of the heroes, all of whom come from a rich aristocratic warrior class. The masses or majority are merely there to provide a backdrop or audience for these aristocratic warriors. Throughout the Iliad the only conflicts described are those between the various Greek and Trojan aristocratic heroes. The war virtually stops while the ordinary soldiers observe the conflict between Achilles and Hector beneath the walls of Troy. Classical Greece is an aristocratic society whose religion only attributes any worth to the great and the good. Regret is only expressed over the death of the heroes, as with the funeral games held for Achilles. Only aristocrats can be heroes, ordinary people lack the virtues necessary to make them heroes or interesting to the Gods.

Only a religion that treated the common man with insignificance would be of value to our new governing classes. Rather than heroic warriors we are now governed by a class of less than heroic bankers and financiers. George Bush’s advisors who pushed for the war in Iraq were largely ‘chicken hawks’, men seconded from the large corporations who when young dodged the Vietnam draft. This new class of financiers, hedge fund managers and bankers, needs a greater vision to validate their superiour position in society. Something similar to Homer’s Iliad which glorified the heroic aristocrats. These self proclaimed ‘movers and shakers’ need a poet of Homer’s stature to justify their acquisition of vast wealth. Lacking a Homer, their virtues are lauded in such books as Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’, a book in which her billionaire heroes show the same contempt for the common man, as exhibited by Homer’s heroes. In this book thousands of the useless poor die from hunger, freeing the heroic billionaires from the burden of caring for this group of useless humanity.

What Ayn Rand and others such as Friedrich Hayek proclaim is a philosophy that frees the rich and powerful from the obligations and restrictions that are thought to make for the good society. Tax avoidance becomes a duty as the billionaire is better equipped to spend his money wisely, than is the wasteful state, who will foolishly squander its tax revenue.  Poverty for example is no longer a social evil but a spur to the poor for self improvement.



Posted: Oct 24 Twenty Fourteen

By: Silvia Hoffman

 

The new class of financiers and politicians want more than the rather unappealing philosophy of Neo-Liberalism, as there are only so many ways that selfishness can be redefined as a virtue. Fortunately for our new governing classes of politicians and financiers, the Christian tradition is sufficiently plastic to be written to favour the rich and powerful. As Constantine proved, when he oversaw a remaking of Christianity as a religion of empire and power in the 5th century CE. These classes have successfully used Christianity as a means of sacralising the social order. The role of monarch is God sanctioned at the Coronation service, any sense of social injustice is dissipated by emphasising that the poor will get their reward in heaven. The campaigning priests of South America who preached liberation theology were silenced by the Vatican. It was a Vatican that preferred the poor getting their reward in heaven than on earth.   

Theologians have used the concept of accommodation to explain how the organised churches drop those parts of their doctrine that are a threat to the established social order, so as to facilitate their acceptance within society. What I am suggesting is that the Christian churches long ago won acceptance by incorporating into their doctrines an acceptance of the old religion of power and privilege. The position of the rich and powerful in society was sanctioned by God.  In England this new God had many of the characteristics of the old pagan Gods such as Odin and Thor. This new Christian God sanctified wars of conquest much like the deities of old.  One of the first Saxon Saints was St. Oswald a warlord and king who was killed by a pagan adversary. Many of the new evangelical churches have so far accommodated to contemporary society in that they preach a doctrine of business success rather than one of compassion. Even the new Archbishop of Canterbury has instituted a reform programme to make the church more business minded. The culture of business targeting  supplementing the existing practice welfare practices



Parish church in Sankt Oswald ob Eibiswald ( Styria ). Statue of Saint Oswald riding a horse.

There has always been an uneasy alliance in the church between what can be called the Christianity of compassion and the Christianity of power. This compromise is represented by two twentieth century Archbishops, Archbishop Temple the social reformer and Archbishop Cosmo Laing a conservative, who wanted to restore the old power and privileges of the church. The first a reformer who said in a speech, that if it was possible the rich would charge us for the air we breathe, while the second wanted to increase the wealth of the church by reinstating the collection  church tithes (a practice that had long fallen into disuse.)  

What I am arguing is that the practice of accommodation has led to the churches accepting, all be it implicitly many of the characteristics of the old pagan religions into their Christian practice. Is not the God of George Bush and Tony Blair who sanctioned the war of Iraq more like Zeus than Christ? The Christ who had an abhorrence of violence, is replaced by one who advocated turning the cheek has been replaced by a Zeus like Christ who hurls thunderbolts to destroy his enemies.  In this accommodating church it easy for a cabinet minister to find an accommodating priest who will be accepting of the most inhumane of policy decisions. The old religion of power and privilege is very alive in today’s  Christian church.   

In Praise of Idleness

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Aristotle writes an the end of the ‘Ethics’ that the greatest possible human good is contemplation, a life lived remote from endless activity. Another example of the benefits attributable to idleness is the life of Socrates, possibly the greatest of the Greek philosophers. He gave up his work as a stonemason to engage the citizens of Athens in discussions on philosophy. He wanted to educate them as to the real nature of good and so reform the behaviour of their behaviours. This meant he neglected his work as a stonemason and his family were left in want. Xanthippe his wife got an unfair reputation as a scold, as was constantly trying to persuade him to work. Despite his neglect of his family Socrates was revered by the citizens of Athens as their greatest teacher. Yet while the ancient Greeks could value leisure as one of the greatest goods, the rich countries of contemporary Europe look on leisure or idleness as an evil. Germany is trying to impose a work culture on the work shy Italians who take three hour lunch breaks. Good is equated with the hard working German labourer not the idle Southern European. What Germany and the European Union is attempting to do is to remove those rights workers have to create in Italy a British style flexible labour market where workers only right is to receive payment for their work. A country where Tesco’s the largest supermarket chain is applauded for scrapping it’s worker’s pension scheme.

There is an unfortunate axiom of business practice which states that if something has to be done, give the task to a busy man. Probably the task will get done sooner but probably not very well. The culture of overwork is now thoroughly embedded in British institutions,and the example I shall give us the one that one I am most familiar and that is teaching. When I started teaching in 1972 the breaks for play and lunch were periods in which teachers got a respite from the students. Children were discouraged from coming to the staff room and disturbing teachers during their rest period. Now any sense of break from work is strictly discouraged, teachers are expected to spend those periods of break on productive activities. Activities defined as productive by the management. The freedom to have time to think and speculate is strictly discouraged; what they don’t want is teachers questioning today’s battery hen methods of educating children. If they can fill teachers time with relatively mindless paper work, they can prevent this questioning and discontent.

Teaching is one of the professions most unsuited the production line methods. Contemporary teaching practise is good at instructing but poor at educating. When I was in teacher training I learnt that the process of learning was incredibly complex and could not be reduced to one simple method of teaching. This truth eludes education managers and politicians who want one simple method of instruction that yields quantitative measurements that can be checked to ensure that teachers are not slacking. What matters now is appearance, work that matches up with some externally imposed standard or concept of goodness and one that is easily recordable. A good teacher is now one that has excellent records, not one that inspires children with the love of a subject.

The problem idleness poses for the economist

Idleness is one human activity that economics have difficultly coming to terms with. For the economist any activity that leads to human satisfaction counts as contributing to human welfare. Socrates sitting at the rivers edge speculating on the nature of philosophy with a friend was enjoying himself and adding to the sum total of human happiness in classical Athens. Yet to the economist this idling by the river adds counts as nothing unless Socrates charges his friend for his time. Then it would be a recordable cash increase in the income of classical Athens. They would not recognise any inconsistency in their reasoning.

Economists have used the concept of opportunity cost to value idleness. They say what would it cost to persuade an individual to give up one hour of leisure time to work for one extra hour. If they demand £20 extra that is the value of leisure to that individual. However it is an inadequate response as in reality the vast majority of workers have little discretion as to whether or not they work extra hours. In contemporary Britain increasing numbers are on poverty level wages and are desperate for any extra hours of work. Often overtime is not at the discretion of the employee but the employer. Not to work overtime can put one’s job in jeopardy, so the coerced worker provides a very bad example of opportunity cost. Also in many of the professions many hours of unpaid overtime is the norm and refusal can harm job prospects or even out one’s job in jeopardy.

Obviously Socrates is an extreme example and reducing his family to penury is not perhaps the best example. Idleness I do believe when taken in moderation is one of the greatest of all human goods. It is a time to reflect and enjoy the pleasure of thinking, which contributes immeasurably to human happiness. The cost benefit analysis of economics has no role in valuing idleness. If sleep is necessary for human welfare and good mental health so is idleness.

The case for idleness

There is another historical example of the benefits of idleness that I would like to cite. Idleness has always been the weapon of choice of the poor and weak in their struggle against the over-powerful. Even the slaves of Rome managed to organise go slows, an action noted as ‘mumurings’. Roman slaves were one of the most oppressed groups in history. Unfortunate slaves could end up in the arena being killed for amusement in gladiatorial contests, yet they discovered an effective weapon of resistance. However the example I want to use is the one quoted by Anthony Beevor’s in his history of a World War II. Officers in the British army in the initial days after D-Day were frustrated by the habit of their men stopping for brew ups and so delaying the advance. He as with these junior officers had a very poor view the quality of the British fighting man. He is writing from the perspective of the officer corp and as so frequently in history ignores the views of the ordinary soldier. He ignores the fact that these officers were often referred to as ‘Ruperts’, a negative comment on their leadership skills. How many men were killed through poorly thought out plans or tactics? What he ignores is the stoicism of the British infantry man, who even when having little confidence in their leaders would attack the enemy regardless. Brew-ups etc. were one of the ways in which the infantryman coped with the horrors of war. Much has been made of the Polish cavalrymen attacking German tanks (which never happened), yet similar incidents occurred in the British retreat to Dunkirk. There on at least one occasion British infantry regiments bayonet charged German tank regiments. Taking time out has been the time honoured way in which the working men coped with the horrors of a situation into which they had no control, as well as being the best method for striking back at their over mighty rulers.

In today’s Britain when workplaces are becoming more and more oppressive, taking time out is is the one way of copping with the stress. It is also an effective way as the Roman slaves demonstrated. Once Britain had trade unions that effectively organised go slows to curb abusive work practices, with an increasingly disaffected labour force and worsening conditions of work perhaps a modern day equivalent of the Roman ‘mumurings’ is needed.

However I want to praise idleness for its liberating effects, when you reflect or idly speculate you are freed from the constraints and oppressions of everyday life. Even the most oppressive of employers cannot control an individual’s thought, only the public expression of that thought. Individuality and human freedom for me is best expressed by Socrates idling the time away with a friend on the river bank on a hot summers day. I see no freedom in the frenzied round of activities of the supper rich who go from one ‘to be seen at’ approved event to another. J.S.Mill defined liberty as the freedom to think free of external constraints, the chance to escape from the thought police.