Being a theologian as well as an economist gives me an insight into the subject of economics that is denied to my non theological colleagues. When puzzling over the the current mundane level of thinking that passes for economic analysis, I came to the realisation that economics is not one of the analytical human sciences so much as a new mystery religion. A cult of economics that can be compared with the cult of Mithras in classical Rome or the Eleusinian Mysteries of dark ages Greece. Initiates in the latter achieved enlightenment by using psychedelic drugs, economists through years of confinement in economics departments. By a mystery religion I mean that religion whose truths are only known to its initiates, its truths are concealed from outsiders. While economists practise their craft in the full view of society their arcane truths are known to them alone. The language in which they conduct their dialogues and debates is incomprehensible to the uninitiated, that is non economists. Rather than it being a language of clarity that informs it is that of the obscurantist, a language that hides and conceals and deceives, a language almost totally devoid of common sense meanings. Gordon Brown was mocked for using the phrase ‘endogenous growth’ in one of his speeches, when what he meant was he wanted an economy that was characterised by self generated growth without the need of any external intervention. Economists never, but never speak in a language that people understand for that would take away from the mystique that attaches to the profession. It would also reveal the insignificance of much of their thinking and threaten their high status as experts.
There is a better example of this from British economic history. All economists would agree that the free market economy of today is superior to the state managed economy of the 1960’s. Yet in the 1960’s unemployment averaged about 2% of the workforce, while today it is 7% of the workforce. Today the deficit on foreign trade is nearing 5% of GDP, it is the highest deficit of any developed country. In fact a trade deficit of these proportions more nearly resembles that of a developing country,that is that of a country insufficiently productive to pay for it’s much needed imports. Economic growth for the past five years has been below the trend rate of 2% per annum, whereas in the 1960’s it for many years it was over 4%. Only naive economists such as myself can fail to recognise the superiority of the dynamic free market economy of today, compared to the sluggish corporate economy of the 1960’s, we let statistics blind us to the truth. Economists judge the performance by other standards, standards which non economists are ignorant. Any apparent failures are but the consequence of the slowness of transforming the economy, unemployment is but a function of the existing remnants of the old dysfunctional economy persisting in their dysfunctional manner in the new age. Economists don’t need statistics they ‘know’ that their reforms will initiate a new golden age for the British economy.
Economists who practice the cult of economics have created a new God, that in many ways is as barbaric as the Gods of classical Greece and Rome, a God that is the economy. This new God demands the sacrifice of the hopes and aspirations of youth to satisfy its demands. Youth unemployment averages over 20% in much of mainland Europe. Unemployment caused by the implementation of one of history’s most savage programmes of austerity. Economists believe Europe suffered a catastrophic financial crisis in 2008/9 caused by overspending, a problem that can only be put right by a savage programme of cuts to ‘balance the books’. A programme of savage cuts made mainly by denying employment to the young. The young ‘indignacios’ of Spain who rage against the austerity programme lack the understanding of economists who know that there suffering is necessary for the well being of the economy and that this is but the first stage in creating a better world for them. Is it unfair to compare the cult of economics to that of some primitive religion, whose practitioners believe it is necessary to sacrifice their young to appease their savage God?
What economists see is not the world as others see it, but one constructed according to their imaginings. They see in every society that the free market God is frustrated in its desire to create the good society. Frustrated by such as the devils of state intervention, trade unions and all the other enemies of free enterprise. Their beliefs blind them to reality, they don’t see a world in which young workers who lack employment rights are exploited by greedy and cruel employers. Instead they see a Britain in which labour is infinitely flexible, an economy whose labour force can adapt rapidly to change demanded of them. One of the boasts of coalition politicians is that Britain’s flexible labour force (easy to dismiss and paid near third world level wages) attracts foreign firms to invest in Britain.
How in a democracy have economists been able to persuade politicians to accept and implement the most inhuman of economic strategies? It is in a large part because economics is in a large part similar to the old mystery religions. Outsiders fail to understand the truths of the economists because the difficult language in which they are phrased makes understanding only possible to insiders, that is other economists. Politicians have long been persuaded of the desirability of supply side economics, without understanding what it really means. They believe it means increasing the productivity by policies such as improving schools and universities to give the young the skills to make them more productive. This is the nice but incorrect understanding of supply side economics. Below the surface of this public debate on supply side economics, lurks the very different understanding of what supply side economics means. It means changing the character and nature of the labour force to make it more suitable for employment in a contemporary society. Those ‘realist’ supply side economists lurk beneath the surface in institutions such as the UK Treasury and political consultancies and who seek to make politicians to adopt whatever inhuman policy is necessary to make labour fit for work in a people unfriendly economy.
One of the great concerns of the UK Treasury was the immobility of labour. Workers were not willing to move to find work. They saw labour shortages caused by labour’s unwillingness to move, as causing production bottle necks as firms lacked the workers to needed if they were to operate at full capacity. What they as saw causing this immobility was security of tenure, tenants in secure social housing or in owner occupied homes, were unwilling to give up their homes to move to find work elsewhere. Treasury officials saw the ending of security of tenure as the means to achieve this end.
They (the experts) could always sell this policy to the politicians who never really understood what the Treasury officials were saying as the technical language employed by these these economists hid its inhumane policy implications. One such technical term was the inefficient use of housing stock, what they by which they meant too many houses were under or unoccupied or under occupied for long periods of time. If tenancy agreements were changed to favour the landlord, more landlords would come forward to offer accommodation in areas of greatest need, such as London. This was made possible with the assured short term rental system. More important was the destruction of the system of social housing (council housing) which these officials believed discouraged tenants from moving from areas of high unemployment to those of low unemployment. Rather than go into the details of the policy changes, it is sufficient to say that the majority of social housing has been transferred from state to private ownership. What economists knew was that by changing the nature of the housing stock they would replace security of tenure with insecurity of tenure, with all its unpleasant consequences such as market abuse by unscrupulous landlords. What economists had persuaded the political classes was that PEOPLE HAD TO BE MADE TO WORK THE BENEFIT ECONOMY, NOT THAT THE ECONOMY SHOULD BE MADE TO WORK FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE PEOPLE. They could sell the new economics to politicians as making the economy more productive which inevitably would benefit all. However they knew that their actions would do the reverse as to benefit the economy one group in society would be impoverished, that those dependent on social housing. The reforms would create a new group in society the house and home poor.
The new economics can only be understood by using concepts borrowed from the study of religion. Those who had undergone a rigorous schooling in economics would have revealed to them the truths known only to economists, as in many cultist religions. It is this learned language that prevents the layman from participating in the cult of economics. Their only role is that of bemused bystander.
A similar criticism could be made of the study of physics or cosmology, but the difference is that these subjects seek to understand the world, not remake it according to the revealed truths of their subject. There is a religious like fervour to the study of economics; economists like the religious missionaries of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Church of the Latter Day Saints wish to remake the world according to the revealed truths of their belief system. Just because the revealed truths of economics come from a profane rather than a scared source does not exclude the cult of economics from being a contemporary religious belief system.
One final remark, the free market economy that economists believe in is as unreal as the God Mithras worshipped by Roman soldiers. The other night on the television I saw one cultist who stated that our current high level of standing was due to a combination of technological advance and the market economy. Only when such beliefs are recognised as just another cult belief on a par with that of Jehovah’s Witnesses will society be able to look to real solutions to its problems. Cultists are the only people that believe society is perfectible and that is why their beliefs are so unreal. Society is an organised mess and muddle, which can be improved but never perfected. Economics can help find the answers to problems as it does contain some very real insights into the nature of society, but not while it remains a cult belief system.