July 15, 2007
Galileo was no saint and was partial to a fair bit of carousing.
But he was the father of experimental science, the sharpest thinker of his time, a great debater and a dismissive polemicist.
In 1663, he was condemned by the Vatican for heresy. The Vatican’s charge against Galileo read: ‘‘The opinion that the sun is at the centre of the world and immobile is absurd, false in philosophy and formally heretical, because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scripture.”
Galileo’s big mistake was not so much in taking on the Vatican, but rather how he did it.
He made a fatal error by publishing his heretical views in Italian, rather than Latin. At a stroke, he put his views beyond the Church and disseminated them to the public. Popularising heresy – rather than the heresy itself – was the greater sin, as it could do greater damage to the reputation of the sitting Pope.
Ultimately Galileo retracted, but was heard to say at the end: ‘‘Eppure, simuove’’ (‘‘Say what you want, it moves’’).
The vilification of Galileo for questioning the Church was a sign of the Church’s weakness, not its strength. The Inquisition coincided with the greatest mass conversion from Catholicism ever. If an institution can’t accept criticism, particularly scientific criticism, it’s in trouble. Dismissing critics as heretics is a bad sign. In recent weeks, economists, a reasonable bunch for the most part, have been attacked by a variety of sources and hounded like enemies of the people. The new ‘‘thought-crime’’ in Ireland is, apparently, ‘‘talking down the economy’’. It is unpatriotic. To even suggest there might be something wrong with the preposterous notion that one of the least densely populated countries in Europe can have the highest houses prices, is now heretical.
Even the Taoiseach pointed the finger at the ‘‘talker downers’’ the other week. He is as entitled to his opinion as the next Bass drinker and, because of his position, his views matter considerably more, but there is something unreal about accusing those who point out the blatantly obvious.
The truth threatens nobody and the truth is that the Irish economy left the miracle phase a few years ago and is now being sustained by hot air and cheap credit, largely driven by ludicrous valuations in the housing market.
It is also true that a small number of landowners are being enormously enriched by this. It is equally true that close to 30 per cent of the price of a new house goes back to the state in various different taxes and levies, and that our national budget is dangerously geared to the continued strength of the housing market.
Like the medieval Vatican, there are many vested interests that might significantly lose out if the truth were exposed. So, instead of analysis, they rely on dogma, accusing the dissenters of heresy. Indeed, if there is indeed a crime committed by these new heretics who are suddenly sceptical about the economy, it is that many of them were cheerleaders of the boom, up until recently, and only changed their tune when the herd itself began to turn.
So are the Taoiseach and the Inquisition right? Can the economy be ‘‘talked down’’? If it can be talked down, then we must have some idea from what level it is being talked down. The inquisitors maybe by looking into their pure hearts must have an idea of where the economy should be at.
They must be able to figure out where mass psychology begins and hard economics ends.
Let’s see what economic model the Inquisition is using. If the economy can be talked down, the implication is that there is some fundamental value which is the right value for GNP before the sceptical spread their rot. GNP is derived by adding up all the private consumption in the economy, the government expenditure, the investment and everything we export.
From this figure we subtract all the stuff we import. So which part of this equation are the ‘‘talker downers’’ affecting?
Obviously, government spending and exports can’t be affected by the ‘‘talker downers’’, so it must be investment and private consumption the Inquisition is referring to.
Assuming the Inquisition is right, it must be said that, if it is possible to talk the economy down, it must be equally possible to talk it up. But who was talking it up, panicking thousands of young workers to buy commuter homes for 14 times their salaries?
Who terrified thousands to get into life-long debts with their 100 per cent mortgages over 35 years?
The people responsible for this are those who ‘‘talked up’’ the economy precisely when it was overheating three or four years ago. Did they consider the long-term implications of their bubble rhetoric when they told our young workers house prices would rise 15 per cent and that they had better queue up to get in now before it was too late?
What we are seeing are two things playing out here. The first is the economy coming off the boil more quickly than many expected. That it might come as a surprise to the people in power is frightening, given the ample opportunity we had to examine economic cycles in other countries.
The second factor is that the miracle economy is likely to be exposed as nothing more than a massive overdraft and that the vested interests like the Vatican of old – can’t quite believe their days of coining it might be over.
So, instead of sitting back and figuring out what we do next, they accuse the sceptics of heresy – as if by frightening them, the problem will go away.
This is where real psychology comes in.
Ireland is on the cusp of a financial, social and ultimately political experience which might best be understood by the well-accepted five stages of bereavement outlined in 1967 by Elizabeth Kubler Ross in ‘‘On Death and Dying’’.
Initially, Kubler Ross, a Swiss doctor, intended to describe how we all deal with our own mortality.
She observed explicit stages that dying patients went through as they tried to come to terms with death.
Originally, the five stages were meant to describe how we all come to terms with our own deaths. Later, others saw the five stages as also being helpful in understanding the emotional state of those left behind – the bereaved.
But it is not just death that causes trauma; anyone who has lost their job, experienced a divorce or a break up goes through a similar process. We all go through some, if not all, of these stages as we try to come to terms with what is happening to us.
The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Only by getting to the acceptance stage can the bereaved finally get over the tragedy or the dying person come to terms with his own mortality.
Psychiatrists maintain that, on the journey through these stages, many people get stuck in one stage or another and need help from friends to get out of it.
The five stages also provide an interesting framework to analyse how societies react when they experience a significant fall in house prices and the consequent loss of wealth so shortly after a boom.
This plays out on a personal and political level. If you examine countries that have gone through a rapid debt-driven surge with all the partying, carousing and the feeling of omnipotence, and have subsequently fallen back to earth, the collective experiences also appear to go through these stages.
In Ireland, we are still in the denial phase. And the Inquisition’s attack on the ‘‘talker downers’’ has more to do with unhinged psychology than economics.
Given that we have four stages to go, we had better get used to more irrationality.