The Market as Religion

There’s a rather good article in Evonomics I’ve just seen, the contents of which I tend to agree with generally. However, this passage stood out to me:- “Religious zealots are famously immune to experience, scientific evidence, logic and common sense. The religious story that has been planted in their heads is so captivating that it drives the behavior of the true believer, no matter what the consequences. In fact, the typical response to failure is to redouble one’s faith. The power of story is by no means restricted to religion. The dominant economic narrative, with its imaginary Homo economicus and frictionless market, is as detached from reality as any religion, as the theologian Harvey Cox perceptively observed in an Atlantic Monthly article titled The Market as God, which is even more relevant today than when it was published in 1990.  Perverse business practices with ruinous consequences make sense to the economic true believer. If they fail, then the solution is to practice them even more assiduously. The only solution to this problem is to break the spell by changing the story to one that is more in tune with reality.”

As regular readers will be aware, I consider financialised free market capitalism as The System of Satan. Any system in which, in order to succeed, you need to do the exact opposite of everything Jesus taught us to do has to have a good claim to that title. In the First Century, that system was probably the Roman Empire, and much of the thrust of the New Testament is subversive towards the Empire and it’s rulers. The very proclamation “Jesus is Lord” was a counterpoint to “Caesar is Lord”, which was the only “rational outlook” to take in First Century Palestine. The term “euangelion” (which we translate “gospel” or “good news”) was typically in that period the proclamation that you had just been conquered by the Romans and assimilated into the Roman Empire (and yes, I do have the Borg in mind there… hyperlink included just in case to you, “Borg” only conjures up Marcus of that name). There was, however, a huge amount of Jesus’ teachings which was economic (the Empire was political, military and financial, after all) – and this was counter-cultural as well – “Give to anyone who asks it of you”? Lunacy. “Lend without expecting repayment”? A recipe for disaster. “Pay your workers what they are worth”? That would be the end of the world for the kind of thinking which imagines that setting a minimum wage (far less than a “living wage” normally) would ruin the economy.

What I particularly like about the article (and it’s links) is that it shows that this idea of “the market” as the be-all and end-all is a fundamentally religious one. Yes, it’s the System of Satan, but it’s also the religion of Satan. Like the philosophical concept of God or the supernatural theist concept of God, it’s a neat intellectual idea which is not borne out by actual evidence. Markets in practice are messy, subject to all sorts of distortions and require very careful regulation to come anywhere close to the idea. Happily, God is merely subject to all sorts of distortions – of human concepts, at least – but requires no regulation…

Free Speech – who pays?

I was reading with interest a New York Times article about Free Speech today; the basic premise is one with which I agree, and which could be more succinctly captured by a facebook meme, also seen today, which reads something like this:-

Right winger “Let’s do genocide”
Left winger “Let’s not”
Centrist “Come on guys, you have to come to a compromise. How about ‘Let’s do some genocide’?”
Right winger “I suppose I can live with that for the time being”
Left winger “No”
Centrist “That’s what I can’t stand about you Leftists – you won’t compromise. You’re the real extremists!”

I am continually distressed by the fact that some media (and I’m looking, inter alia, at the BBC here) feel obliged to give two sides of stories where one of them is appalling; one result is that it only takes someone to start arguing a really extreme position to skew the whole debate towards that position. This, I hasten to point out, can skew debate either towards the Right or towards the Left; it does the first any time economics is discussed, with the extreme position of neoliberalism having managed to become mainstream, it does the second (in my opinion) where identity politics is involved, though there is a very sound Biblical case for privileging any person or group who are typically underprivileged, and I am open to argument… but not to the extent of closing down any debate which considers that no voice is valid except that of the multiply disadvantaged (intersectionality), which is what I sometimes see happening.

However, one of the examples given involves a long criticism of Charles Murray (author of the notorious “The Bell Curve”) and of Sam Harris for giving him air time on his “Waking Up” podcast, using the term “junk science” of his work. Another article is referenced , from Vox. The NYT writer, in fact, suggests that colleges and universities should not invite Murray to speak, on the basis that his position was as untenable as an individual fired from an Oceanographic Institute because he didn’t believe in evolution.

And I lost all sympathy with the article in the process. The Vox writers make some good points, but say (inter alia) “Murray casually concludes that group differences in IQ are genetically based.” Now, I’ve actually read The Bell Curve (I was asked to do so shortly after it’s publication by a group some members of which were distressed by the conclusions of the book, in the hopes that I could come up with conclusive arguments against its premises), and I can readily state that it is not “junk science”. It may be flawed science – the Vox writers advance arguments as to why this may be the case – but “junk” is just abusive. And Murray does not say that differences in IQ between racial groups are solely genetically based (which is what the Vox writers are suggesting, and which the NYT writer clearly takes on board), he merely suggests that the result of his study show that they are partially genetically based. TBC is quite adamant that a large proportion of IQ is due to nurture rather than nature, but it does come to the conclusion that some of the difference in IQ is genetic.

And there’s the problem which the group who asked me to read TBC were concerned about. It isn’t a question of what the science says, at root, it’s what you do with the conclusions. As the Vox writers say, it’s toxic. TBC has always been a favoured text of racists, because even a little genetic component, to them, justifies profiling the whole of a race, and discriminating against them (I can hear the word “untermensch” in the back of my mind here). I was equally concerned about that result – but, at the time, not to the extent of wanting to deny the science in TBC – and there is science in there, albeit now it’s 23 year old science. For those who are interested, my conclusion was that there was some merit in TBC, but that we should in social and economic policy stipulate that those results should not be taken into account. After all, the USA is founded on the premise that We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I regard this as a set of fictions, but ones which there are powerful reasons to adopt…

As the Vox authors point out, there have been a lot of studies done since TBC, and some of them call into question some of it’s conclusions, sometimes to a considerable extent. I would personally be very happy to find that virtually all of the difference in IQ between racial groups (which absolutely does exist) is due to nurture, because then I could stand in front of racists and tell them that any of these differences are due to disadvantaged circumstances in the group’s upbringing and berate then for their responsibility for that (whether it be systematic discrimination as in the USA or predatory colonialism – in which I include the virtual ownership of some states by large corporations). At the moment, however, and despite the Vox authors’ arguments, I do not feel I can do that.

The Vox article, in fact, ends with a very balanced and measured conclusion:-

“Our bottom line is that there is a responsible, scientifically informed alternative to Murrayism: a non-essentialist view of intelligence, a non-deterministic view of behavior genetics, and a view of group differences that avoids oversimplified biology.

Liberals make a mistake when they try to prevent scholars from being heard — even those whose methods and logic are as slipshod as Murray’s. That would be true even if there were not scientific views of intelligence and genetics that progressives would likely find acceptable. But given that there is such a view, it is foolish indeed to try to prevent public discussion.”

Would that the NYT writer had taken that to heart before using the Vox article as justification for his claim that TBC was “junk science”.

And this, I think, illustrates the problem in the whole thrust of the NYT article. Who gets to decide when a point of view is so appalling that it should not be allowed to be argued? The crux of the issue about TBC is that if its conclusions were taken to be true, the African-American community would very probably be “paying” for that truth. Is free speech, in this case, too expensive?

I don’t know, but I incline towards the view that even extreme and distasteful positions should be able to be discussed. Though, perhaps, they shouldn’t be given equal air time…

Drop dead money…

Many years ago, I was struck by the ambition of a character in James Clavell’s “Noble House”. That ambition was to have “drop dead money”. To explain this, the idea was to have sufficient money that, when asked to do something, you had the freedom to say “drop dead”. This is rather similar to the formula adopted by a friend in the recovery community about 10 years ago, who had a problem saying “no” when asked to do something – she was a “people pleaser”, and had a fragile sense of self-worth which was bolstered by being able to please other people, who would then like her. In recovery, she realised that rather than pleasing people, she was giving them licence to exploit her. Her standard answer to “Will you do this for me?” became “No, fuck off”. Over time, she has been able to relax that somewhat, but I suspect it still lurks at the edge of her thinking.

I am currently in the happy position of being able to say “drop dead” to anyone who asks me to do something, though I would be unlikely to be that forthright, far less to say “fuck off”. I can afford to be polite to people almost all the time – but I do reserve the possibility of saying something like that to anyone who won’t take no for an answer, particularly if that’s accompanied by any threat. In fact, I adopted the position of wanting “drop dead money” for around nine years, during which I was (due to PTSD) terrified of doing the job I was in; I conceived that I needed a really major influx of funds, at which point I could stop doing the job. I also conceived that there was nothing else I could sensibly do to make that money than stick with what scared me witless.

As it turned out, I didn’t make the huge windfall. In fact, I lost pretty much everything which I’d built up over the years – but I found, having hit rock bottom financially, that actually I didn’t need nearly the amount I’d envisaged, and in any event trying to get that via practising law was something which would harm my health to an extent entirely disproportionate to the benefit of a large degree of financial freedom.  Scared people make bad decisions, and scared people who self-medicate with alcohol make even worse decisions, and I therefore lost nearly everything as a result of not telling some clients to drop dead. Which, in hindsight, I should have done.

Circumstances have now arranged themselves without my having to make a “killing” on some contingency legal matter; I haven’t got the amount I envisaged 20 years ago, but I have enough to make it possible to refuse any action which people want me to do for them, dangling the prospect of money in front of me. Partly that’s because the government still maintains a safety-net for those who are disabled and an old-age pension system (into which I paid a lot of money for a considerable number of years), partly it’s because I made one spectacularly good decision in buying a property many years ago, partly it’s because my wife and myself have inherited from our parents. The net effect is that neither of us needs to work in order to live, albeit fairly modestly. I do work at a couple of part time jobs, as well as being primary carer for my wife, but I can refuse any work without fear of penury and starvation. Yes, I feel a certain amount of guilt at not following Matt. 19 (which would not be a concern if I didn’t seek to follow Jesus), but I am liberated from the tyranny of making money, and enabled to spend a large slice of my time helping others and a smaller, but healthy, slice of my income on charity. And I regard myself as holding the bulk of what we are living on in trust for my own children; just as inheritance saved us, I feel I should as much as possible pass it on. I think it possible that that might be what Jesus was getting at; not being a slave to ones wealth.

The vast majority of people I know, and particularly those significantly younger than me (a member of the much maligned baby boomer generation) don’t experience this kind of freedom. Neoliberal economics says that they are all free agents, able to contract to work or not depending on whether the terms of employment are acceptable to them. Neoliberal economists actually regard unemployment as being a choice people make when wages are too low to interest them in working (even during recessions), a claim I consider laughably stupid. Of course it isn’t a “choice”. Statistics show that the vast majority of people in most of the developed countries of the world (including, in particular, the UK and the USA) are only one or two pay cheques from financial ruin. Those in that position cannot afford to bargain for a job unless the safety-net of unemployment or other benefits is generous (and it isn’t generous in the UK, at least not these days, and is paltry in the USA).

There is no level playing field for bargaining, because the person seeking the job is desperate, and the employer is not. (Indeed, some economists in the USA at the moment are complaining that the unemployment rate is too low, and wages are going up as a result. They fear the awful spectre of inflation – against the background that wages in real terms have been static or dropping for the last 20 years or more.)

In addition, the job seeker is terrified, and as in my case, terrified people make bad choices and can’t be regarded as “rational agents”. Very few people would (or could afford to) “choose” to be unemployed before they reach pensionable age, and increasingly not even then, as pension returns diminish. Unless, of course, they happened to have “drop dead money”…

For those significantly younger than me, things are made worse by the fact that young people are told they need qualifications in order to get a job. However, higher education is not (as it was in my day) free, but saddles them with a mountain of debt to start them out in life. Having debt just ramps up the fear of financial ruin. Instead of having “drop dead money”, they have debt. They can’t afford to make bargains the way the “free market” enthusiasts say happens. I do note with interest that when people arrange for migrant workers to be permanently in debt, and thus desperate, it tends to be called “debt slavery”.

Thus, the jobs on offer tend to be low wage, often with no security (as in the “gig economy”), and are very often inimical to health in and of themselves, creating levels of stress just as a result of the job conditions (constant monitoring, frequent raising of targets and limited or no rest periods, for example) which destroy psychologies. Only the adrenaline addict can be comfortable in such jobs (and, as an admission, my first and dearest addiction was adrenaline, but eventually a high-stress job and intervening circumstances demolished my tolerance, to the point of my being, as far as I can tell, allergic to adrenaline – otherwise diagnosed as a Generalised Anxiety Disorder).

I suppose there is reason to hope that economics will soon come to the conclusion that, at least under governments affected by neoliberal ideologies, there are no free markets (I’ve written previously in various places about the lack of real freedom in consumer markets). After all, the “gig economy” seems to have spread to university lecturers these days, and I read recently that the long term unemployment rate was highest not for liberal arts degrees, but for those with business degrees… This might just mean that those writing with authority about economics will soon be people who actually know how unfree labour markets are…