The economy and the humans

MoneyThe economy is getting rather too uppity.

I have written a number of blog posts on the economy, and I plan more over the next few weeks. This is a lot for someone with only limited training in economics. My excuse is that I approach it from a theological perspective, which offers different insights.

Just as you can be very good at creating widgets without knowing what the widgets are for, so also a government can be very good at managing the economy without knowing what the economy is for. My main grouse about it (lamented for example here , here and here ) is that it is treated as an end in itself rather than a means to human well-being.

Many election debates have been dominated by the competing parties each claiming that they would be best at managing the economy. In Britain opinion polls usually tell us that the Conservative Party is most trusted for the job. However I cannot remember an election in which the rhetoric is so single-minded: to manage the economy the state needs to reduce expenditure on everything else. We get the impression that the Conservative Party would manage the economy better while the Labour Party would do better at most other things, and it is a close call between the economy on the one hand and everything else on the other.

In an earlier post, Sacrifices then and now , I compared present day beliefs about the economy with ancient Mesopotamian beliefs about gods and the need to offer them sacrifices. In the case of those sacrifices, we can now look back in bemusement at the way the dominant beliefs enabled the ruling classes to make ever-increasing demands of the peasants by holding over them the threat of ecological chaos. The link between the demand and the threat was that in theory the gods were the recipients and they controlled the environmental order.

Today the structure is the same: chaos is threatened unless the gods are propitiated. The main difference (apart from the different type of chaos) is that it is now the economy that must be propitiated. The economy is not a personal agent positively threatening chaos, but impersonal processes which, we are told by our economist-priests, are bound to create the chaos if we do not submit. The economy versus the humans.

There is one more common feature. The economy, like those ancient gods, does not exist. The economy is a collective noun summarising billions of human interactions. Not all human interactions; just the ones where there are records of money changing hands. To ‘manage the economy’ is to govern the country in such a way that these recorded exchanges keep increasing, year after year, without limit.

Spell it out like this, and it is difficult to see why there is any virtue at all in ‘managing the economy’. However, opinion polls show that large numbers of voters put management of the economy top of their priority list.

The economy does not have to be obeyed. Austerity is a choice. Instead of making the humans sacrifice to the economy, we could make the economy serve the humans.

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4 Responses to The economy and the humans

  1. Steve says:

    Okay, what would an economy the serves the humans look like? How do we get there from the current position of new government borrowing running at about £1 billion per week?

  2. Rob Lewis says:

    Hi Steve, I think the answer lies in operating with a sovereign currency that spends and taxes in the interest of the public good. So, no fracking but investment in sustainable energy, no exploitation of individuals by landlords and big companies. So, better social housing stick, rent caps, no bedroom tax, public transport, energy, health care, water and education under national ownership, subsidies for manufacturing and infrastructure. Reduced inequality, separate commercial banking from shadow banking, abandon TTIP, push for EU reforms, commit to human rights, introduce living wage and universal basic income. Independent regulation of media and political parties, placed under public control, protected from being corrupted by vested interests. Stop scapegoating immigrants, poor and vulnerable. That’d be a good start for first five years in office.

  3. Paul Doran says:

    Who is it that can afford to lend our government a £1 billion a week?

  4. Charles Walmsley says:

    Good ideas – I would expect nothing less from you! I think it is important to identify those ‘knobs’ that a government must manage and clarify the impact of adjusting them. These include the level of government spending, taxation and the incentives/disincentives it creates and perhaps most of all the impact of legislation.

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