Tag Archives: St Francis

Is a Christian economics either desirable or possible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are our leaders so stupid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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