August 18, 2002

Priests of economics preach forgiveness

Posted in ·
Share 

The financial press and pamphleteers had a field day, suggesting that the church could crumble in the face of such a revelation. Although there is serious disquiet among the faithful, the rock has not given way. Opposing creeds have made the most of the disclosure, yet a combination of inertia, disbelief and habit appear to have saved the church from immediate implosion. But for how long?

Alan Greenspan and Pope John Paul II have more in common than meets the eye — both are getting on in years, their memories might not be what they once were and, more interestingly, both are powerful “religious” leaders. They have both presided over a boom in their respective theologies. The Catholic Church, while under pressure in the secular West, has consolidated its position in the poor parts of the globe, while the new religion of economics has never been stronger.

In many ways, economics is the new religion for the secular world. Economists themselves act like priests of a secular religion which proclaims economic progress is the path to salvation. Sometimes, we can overlook this fact and describe ourselves as objective scientists, but this understates the role of the economist in modern society. Arguably, no other group — bar the dismal scientists — possesses the authority to influence political decisions regarding what goals society should pursue, making them the religious leaders in our secular quest for spiritual salvation through material abundance.

In the world of this economic theology, original sin is a scarcity. “Efficient” and “inefficient” replace “good” and “evil”. Higher levels of efficiency bring us closer and closer to a new heaven on earth — attained by eliminating all shortages of goods and services.

When this state of complete abundance is achieved, the debilitating struggles for control of resources will end and people will be free to perfect their inner selves and achieve a happy harmony with each other. The set of powerful social values described here imbues the thinking of most members of the economic profession.

Like all good religions, economics would be nothing without its schisms, dissenters and heretics. Over the years the state has been central to the theology of economics just as the established church was the font of all knowledge in Catholicism.

Until the 1960s, economic theologians believed in one of two basic interpretations of the gospel. First, the western or Roman interpretation where the Pope was infallible, the state could provide, but dissent was tolerated, while not encouraged. On the other hand, there was the much stricter, eastern or orthodox church which followed a prophet called Marx.

This sect broached no dissent, claiming the state was the only organ holy and wise enough to interpret the word of God and questioning the state was a question of God himself.

During the 1960s, a reformation occurred in the Roman church. A group of gnostics led by an eminent theologian and scholar named Freidman questioned the authority of the Roman church. He railed against its lack of mathematical purity, its vested interest, its lack of econometric piety and, above all, its exploitation of the masses in paying for secular indulgences by levying higher and higher taxes. It was a corruption that in his eyes had to be reformed.

The reform movement quickly attracted a huge following and, with the zeal of converts, former Roman followers adopted the new creed evangelically. They spread the word in academia, in politics, on the airwaves and eventually through the ballot box. The old creed was rattled.

The Protestants as they became known, began to change the way the world thought about heaven on earth. Yet the biggest loser was not the now flexible Catholic or Roman church but the Orthodox or Marxist faith. Just as the fall of Constantinople badly wounded Orthodox Christianity, the fall of the Soviet Empire maimed orthodox Marxist economics. Today there are only two creeds: the Catholic, Roman or social democratic one and the more fundamentalist, protestant or reformed creed.

The reformers or fundamentalists are in power in the US and wishy washy versions exist in most of the other English-speaking countries. Charlie McCreevy is a self-conscious disciple. In contrast, the Romans still hold sway with our political masters in Europe.

As the Marxist creed dissolved, the other two religions have embarked on a process of mass conversion sending missionaries out to the four corners of the globe. Mission headquarters is in Washington at the IMF from whence idealistic young priests set forth to bring the light of secular economics to the darkest regions.

With little or no concern for themselves, they book into four star hotels in far-flung countries and preach virtue to the impoverished and economically uncivilised natives. Efficiency good, inefficiency a sin — the message is reduced to its simplest form for the unfortunates.

Every so often there are crises on the missions when a local, misguided warlord might refuse to convert to the new faith. In the religious press or on the mainstream airwaves — which are stuffed with the more articulate and presentable priests — those who refuse to convert are dismissed as amounting to nothing more than the last kick of the primitives. Every now and then, a sect breaks away from the main church and goes native, infecting the locals with such rubbish as “liberation theology” — a mumbo jumbo of old Eastern Orthodoxy with modern, sound-bitey bits thrown in.

Although neither the fundamentalists nor the Romans seem to care much, they are both slightly wary of the liberation theologians who, with their anti-globalisation rhetoric, might produce a Nazarene or a John the Baptist.

However, the main worry for the Protestants, for whom Alan Greenspan is the high priest having been a follower of the extreme libertarian Ayn Rand as a young fella, is that they may have set their own standards too high. The purity of the creed dictated that heaven on earth could be achieved by all men acting rationally, in self-interest and in abstraction from the rest of us.

They deemed it sufficient that a man be left to his own devices to maximise his economic utility. In their eyes, the free market rather than the state would lead us all closer and closer to Nirvana. The problem is that they overlooked the small human problems such as free men who, in pursuit of their own self-interest, lie and cheat, over-emphasise and mislead, evade and obscure. So now we have the strange spectacle of the high priests of protestant fundamentalist economics believing in confession.

This week, the fundamentalists deemed it to be satisfactory if the American chief executives would own up, say sorry and swear not to cheat and lie again. All the rhetoric about purity, integrity, corporate governance and the like — the economic equivalent of early Calvinist dourness — has been washed away like a Czech trinket seller on Charles Bridge.

Today, we have the very Catholic spectacle of confession, forgiveness, frailty and original sin re-emerging in the home of natural justice, without so much as a synod called among the fundamentalists.

Yet the point remains that economics is the new religion and economists in the media are the high priests of this creed. Being one, I know how we bully and cajole. By spinning a web of statistics and logic, we can remain on the high moral ground without deviating from the true theological tenets. In addition, by employing the tyranny of empiricism over ideas, we can strangle debate, enquiry and, worst of all, dreams.

This week, Greenspan was proved to be more than fallible after all, when it emerged that his economic forecasts were as valuable as those of an eccentric reading tea-leaves. My main regret as a priest of the new religion, is that this evident fallibility has not led to derision. Let’s hear it for the heretics and the emergence of a Nazarene in the midst of all this theocratic consensus.