Thu | Nov 23, 2017

Ian Boyne | Is economics a religion?

Published:Sunday | October 8, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Former UWI academic John Rapley.

Two seminal thinkers whose ideas on economics have had the greatest impact on the world, and who were founders of rival schools of economic thought, were philosophers Adam Smith, father of capitalism, and Karl Marx, father of communism. Today, sadly, their adherents have largely retreated from philosophy.

I often chuckle at those who fancy themselves practical, commonsensical people who despise philosophy and 'theory' - curse words in their lexicon. Many who are writing about economic matters - and many trained economists - analyse discreet economic matters without the larger context. They fail to see that economic ideas can't stand alone.

I often remember that poignant and oft-quoted statement of the great economist, Lord John Maynard Keynes, who said, "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood ... . Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

If you want to read a book about economics that returns the 'dismal science' back to its philosophical roots, and which situates it in a broader intellectual context, I could recommend no better contemporary work than the just-released book Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How it all Went Wrong, by the University of Cambridge's political economist and former Gleaner columnist, Dr John Rapley. Rapley, who lived in Jamaica for several years and taught at the University of the West Indies, began his career at Oxford University's International Development Centre. In his 468-page turner, Rapley, Renaissance Man par excellence, combines a masterful, suspenseful writing style with encyclopaedic knowledge to deliver this tour de force in economic, political, and religious history.

 

TURGID PROSE

 

Economists are legendary for their turgid prose. In this book, which chastens the profession and parades its weaknesses, Rapley writes with a clarity and accessibility as though to dissociate himself from even the suspicion of any affinity to economics. Twilight of the Gods draws parallels between economics and religion, pulling heavily on Christian history, in particular, to narrate the story of the rise and fall of the economics profession. There are chapters like 'The New Jerusalem', 'The End of Eden', 'Missionaries in Heathen Lands', 'The Golden Age', 'Horsemen of the Apocalypse', and 'Magic and the Millennium'.

If you want a book that gives you a sweep of world history and the history of economic thought and practice, grab Twilight of the Money Gods. What the publishers charge for it is a steal.

Reading Twilight of the Gods brought me back to past meetings when Rapley would challenge us to stretch our thinking. "Do we worship money the way some of us worship God?" Rapley asks provocatively. "Consider the thought. We devote our lives to getting money, often doing work we don't like, so we can get more of it. Instead of embracing hardship to reach heaven, we do it to get money. We organise our lives around its purpose and attainment, compose songs to its beauty, achieve lightness and serenity and ecstasy in its presence." Does that make us religious? Well, just think about it," Rapley probes.

"Think of the conversations that arise when you get together with friends or have a family for dinner. ... In one way or another, the topic keeps coming back to how you either make, spend, or save money." But the book is not simply a challenge to the cultured despisers of religion to re-examine the notion that they have outgrown the superstition. It is to show primarily how non-empirical, not-tested ideas have been simply assumed.

Rapley takes us on a journey down the road of neo-classical, neo-liberal terrain and shows how it has been conquered by the New Seers and how everyone must now sacrifice to the modern Moloch.

To question neo-liberal dogma and hyperglobalisation is to commit blasphemy worthy of excommunication from the High Church of neo-liberalism. You are crazy to do so, for just like all exclusivistic religions and cults, "there is no alternative", we are told with ex cathedra authority, to Washington Consensus orthodoxy. Rapley mentions that neo-liberal doctrine "(has) achieved a degree of hegemony that had eluded even the Keynesian church".

The Oxford-educated Rapley points out that neo-liberalism is really a historical -and faith-based. It's really magical thinking, contrary to its cloak of objective reality and commonsense. "Neo-liberal economists said the problem was clear: Too much government involvement in the economy. More agnostic economists noted the incongruity of the big-government-means-poor-economy claim, though, pointing to the fact that some of the East Asian tigers - notably South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore - which were still among the world's fastest-growing economies, had, if anything, more expansive state sectors ... ."

"The problem was not big government", Rapley says, but "bad government." Rapley calls for humility among economists. The Great Recession of 2008 should have humbled them, if they were not already by the Asian Financial Crisis of the 1990s - both of which are amply chronicled in this absorbing book written by an enviable storyteller.

 

BE HUMBLE

 

In an interview with The Huffington Post on August 23, Rapley said in answer to the question of what he wanted readers to take away most from his latest work: "Be humble. Shed your presumptions. Open your mind. One of the legacies of our faith in the cult of money is that we have come to accord money a moral value. Whereas other religions have come to accord a person's merit by the accumulation of, say, good works, mitzvah, or karma, we have come to accord that sort of sacred value to the accumulation of money."

But as he says soberly at the conclusion of the book, "the money gods have fallen."

Rapley quotes the famed economist Hyman Minsky, who wrote: "... If economics is too important to be left to economists, it is certainly too important to be left to economist-courtiers. Economic issues must become a serious public matter and the subject of debate ... ." But for that, people must be informed. They must read. My own recommendation is Twilight of the Money Gods and three other books released in the last few months: The Retreat of Western Liberalism; The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Chance and the Welfare State; and Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and Sane Economy. These all challenge neo-liberal orthodoxy and present some fresh, engaging ideas. But it is Rapley's Twilight of the Gods that gives an even more wide-ranging perspective.

UNCTAD has also just released its 2017 Trade and Development Report titled Beyond Austerity: Towards a Global New Deal, which critiques the austerity policies of the International Monetary Fund and the neo-liberal apostles.

Says the report: "Today's hyperglobalised world economy is delivering unfair and inequitable outcomes for far too many people in too many places. Economic and financial crises, like that of 2008-2009, are only the most visible manifestations of a world economy that has become increasingly unbalanced in ways that are not only exclusionary, but also destabilising and dangerous for the future political, social, and environmental health of the planet."

Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How It All Went Wrong tells us how we got here.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.