Sunday, September 30, 2012

Economics as bad theology

Because economics is historically rooted in the study of moral philosophy, it is not at all strange that debates in economics often come larded with religious terminology and ideas.  It most often overlaps in USA with Calvinism but the economy as the Will of God is not exclusive to the followers of John Calvin.  Unfortunately, the god most worshipped by the dismal science is the god of hellfire and judgment, not the one of love, mercy, and providence.

The Economic Religion of Finance Capital

September 4, 2012 by ggita32

By Frank Scott

The Virgin birth.
The Chosen people.
The Resurrection of the dead.
The Free Market.

Which of those is unsupported by material evidence but exists by virtue of practice based on fervent , coerced or simply uncritical belief, and is thus subject to failure at any moment when the belief is shaken to its roots by experienced reality? All of them.

Of course farmers and flea markets are real, as are the corporate malls where millions enter with credit desire and leave in debt frustration. But the global financial market whose minority controllers run the planet is a vast electronic church sustained by a congregation of mentally and physically brutalized parishioners. A political clergy of rabbis, priests and ministers operate its banking cathedrals as an international casino whose minority profits accrue on the loss of billions of people forced to gamble their existence on its success, and their failure.

The ruling minority relies on its giant computers, mathematicians and symbol manipulators to transform global wealth into weapons of war for humanity’s forced use on itself, and luxury goods for lives of wretched excess for them and their servants. All this is supported by the majority whose struggles for survival increase in debt, pain, and endless war.

Financial dictatorship is maintained by military power capable of slaughtering thousands of people instantly and destroying governments through domination of minds as well as bodies. It is more profitable to manipulate worshippers through the consciousness control of political media rather than by brute force. Propaganda is especially useful at programming patriotism during wars, and civic duty during elections. Voting rituals have servant clergy driven into the collective mind as representing an abstraction called “the people” rather than the financial elites who run the temples, banks and the election business.

Philosophers who once claimed that god was dead encountered little resistance since no material evidence could oppose an immaterial charge. But the time for secular and spiritual communities to unite and proclaim that the financial market-god is dead may be at hand, before fanatic faith in this deity of the dollar obliterates us all.

What many religious people site as indications of the downfall of humanity sometimes offer a clearer view of reality than that of secular types skeptical of mythological belief, while they help perpetuate the most fantastic fable:

A political economic dementia that claims minority rule of the planet by a tiny caste of master-race-self-chosen people is creating the best life imaginable for their subject billions, while evidence increases that the material world can no longer support this fanaticism without ultimate destruction of much that passes for civilized reality.

Social critics who hold the spiritual in disdain can make seemingly more credible scientific arguments to indicate that radical change is needed in the political economic foundation of society in order for the race to succeed. Whether one side or the other is right is a dualistic argument and part of the problem. Both are correct to argue that we can’t go on as we have or we will face possible failure for humanity itself and not just the usual segments always sacrificed to the unjust dogma that benefits some at the cost of all.

While severe problems increase, protectors of the status quo take a more crazed and sadistic tone, screeching about peace and democracy while they murder the first and make the second impossible. Public programs are savaged by policies which lavish money on those who have great wealth, steal money from those who create all wealth, and deny money to those who have no wealth. The increased suffering inflicted on western populations manipulated into accepting the irrational idea that minority created financial collapse is the fault of majority need for human service is countered by more savage brutality inflicted on foreigners, especially in the middle east.

The plan to break up Arab nations that do not obey the west, criticize Israel or relate to Iran as an ally, has taken a more brutal turn. Viciously punishing any disobedience to the dogma of the great white church of the west, first Libya and now Syria – with Iran still pending – have been subjected to open warfare and the more covert murder of embargoes and infiltration by illegitimate outsiders who pervert insider’s legitimate struggles for change.

Libya has been shattered and the same fate is sought for Syria, but the shaman shysters of global finance capital have learned no lessons from their near destruction of Iraq. That nation is now an ally of Iran, strengthening the supposed center of an “axis of evil”. The real evil, known to be so by the overwhelming majority of global people. is the dualist deity of Israel and the USA. An entity calling itself the international community is actually a relative handful of toadies and one massive military power, insisting that the world is its possession to be regulated by a perversion of language, thought and practice that it calls democracy.

All of this is motivated for the gathering of profits by minorities at the expense of majorities, and the loss sustained by the earth and its people has become so staggering that life itself may be scarred for generations if we do not pierce the darkness of compulsory ignorance and create a more enlightened future of hope. That means tearing out the roots of superstition imposed by a few in order to enable the growth of wisdom for the many. We are all forced into worshipping this false god, no matter what label we attach to ourselves, our nations or our faiths. Continued belief in and support of the religious madness called global finance capitalism will be the undoing of the ultimate identity group; deists, atheists, agnostics and the rest of humanity. In short, all of us. more

Frank Scott writes political commentary and satire which is available online at Legalienate
The irony here is that conservatives most often quote Leviticus to condemn gay people.  They start to mumble when the verses start talking about shunning shellfish.  And they go stone silent when Leviticus starts talking about debt forgiveness.

The Economics of Leviticus

by Pericles

Culture-war conversations often end with a verse from Leviticus, the old testament book of laws. After the verse has been quoted, it does no good to point out that the implied solution is impractical or unfair or causes needless suffering. God has given his command and we should be carrying it out, whether it makes sense to us or not.

Strangely, though, the economic parts of Leviticus aren't quoted with the same air of ultimate authority. If they were, Biblical literalists might have to become radicals rather than reactionaries.
Let's look at specifics ...

For example, when vulture capitalists ruin a town by closing factories and shipping jobs overseas, someone might quote Leviticus 19:9-10, which clearly says not to wring every last dime of profit out of your business.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.The foreigner? You mean, like, illegal aliens? Could be. Leviticus 19:33-34 says:

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.It doesn't say anything about a green card, it just says "resides among you in your land". (Don't argue with me, argue with God. I'm just reading literally.)

But by far the most radical part of the book is Leviticus 25, the chapter that institutes the Jubilee Year.

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property."Their own property" includes anything that has been sold or repossessed since the last Jubilee:

If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property ... [and] if they do not acquire the means to repay, what was sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property.

Basically, every 50th year all mortgages and foreclosures are cancelled, and society does a reset on land ownership. Anybody whose debts forced them into slavery is freed. more
This author makes the very valid point that perhaps economics would be better understood of we stopped treating it like a deity, or anthropomorphize it, or thinking about it as a force of nature.  I tend to agree.  But as a good Institutionalist, I always argue that economics is a process—a society builds prosperity in largely the same way anything else gets built including the possibility for continuous improvements.

FDL Book Salon Welcomes Anat Shenker Osorio, Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy 

Author: spocko
Saturday, September 29, 2012 1:30 pm Pacific time

Welcome Anat Shenker Ororio (ASO Communications) and Host Spocko (Spocko’s Brain)

Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy

If you are like me (and the odds are 89.5 to 1 that you are) you have heard this line seventy Brazilian times since you started paying attention to messages or talking points on issues. “The right wing does a much better job than the left when it comes to messaging.” Amiright or amiright? Then the person talking (sometimes you) will say, “You know what we need? A Frank Luntz on our side, someone who can come up with stuff like “death panels” or “Job Creators” and then get everyone to repeat them. Next someone who reads books will shout, ‘Lakoff!! Frames! Don’t Think of an Elephant!” as if Lakoff, his books and his defunct institute is any match for the fully-funded, focus-group-tested, linguistically robust messaging work conservatives do. And don’t get me started on the multi-million dollar right wing infrastructure of belief tanks and media. (Seriously, don’t get me started, I’m really pissed off about it and I can pontificate and whine about it for hours.)

But here’s the thing, we do have a Frank Luntz on the left, and she does great messaging work for us. Her name is Anat Shenker-Osorio and her new book is “Don’t Buy It. The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy.” Now of course the question is will we start paying attention to her work and will progressives start paying her and supporting an infrastructure to get her winning messages out there. Since you, my dear readers, are now the media, I encourage you to read this book so that you can start using her real people-tested messages and metaphors that work for us.

Her first book is based on years of research on how people talk about the economy. The research ranged from academic reports and blog posts to focus group and dinner conversations. She also reviewed years of cable news footage and pop culture TV shows. As many of you will note (and will soon become more aware of after reading this book) when lots of people talk about “the economy” they use a couple of different metaphors. In many cases these metaphors support the right wings’ ideas, and it’s no accident when they use them. It’s also no accident that WE use them, even when we fundamentally disagree with them.

First metaphor: the Economy is a deity.

The impact this metaphor has on policy, and then human lives, is happening seriously right now in Spain and Greece. How often have we heard bankers, economists and politicians talk about the “sacrifice” that people must make to “The Economy.”

Shenker-Osorio is a crisp, funny writer and she starts off the book describing an episode of South Park, Margaritaville, in which the inhabitants of the small Colorado town are hit by a sudden and serious economic decline.

After a period of collective soul-searching, the locals hit upon the obvious cause of rampant unemployment and plummeting stock values: the Economy is pissed.

The citizens cower upon realizing the truth–the Economy is an angry and vengeful God. Because South Parkers have paid insufficient homage to it, the Economy visits ruination and recession upon them. A character lectures a crowd of rapt listeners, ‘There are those who will say the Economy has forsaken us. Nay! You have forsaken the Economy. And now you know the Economy’s wrath.”

The solution in South Park, as will be familiar to modern-day Greeks and low-income Americans, is sacrifice. The cartoon version of this goes full throttle: Bible-inspired acts of piety and prostration ensure. Citizens turn their sheets into togas and cease to buy or sell things altogether in an attempt to show deference before the Economy.

Second metaphor: The Economy as a Living, Breathing, Intentional Being

In current comments about economic policy and explanations of events, you will hear people talking about the economy as a living, breathing, intentional being. As a person with agency who we should by all means avoid hurting.

Think about how many times you have heard, “We can’t do [fill in some socially beneficial act] because it will hurt the economy. ” Or, “If we do [the thing that make American's lives better], it will scare the markets.”

We also hear talk about how The Economy is sick, unhealthy, suffering or recovering. which conveys the message that the economy is something organic and self-regulating.

Third metaphor: The Economy as Weather and Water

When it’s not a deity or lesser being in a body, the economy is often spoken about as some other natural element: the weather, the tides, the life force itself. We speak of “weathering economic storms.” We will say, the money moves freely, like a liquid. Or, like an ocean, the money rushes in or out.

When each of these metaphors are used they often support a conservative world view. In the book, Shenker-Osorio points out clearly how this helps them, and why. For example, when people use the economy as weather model, like the belief tanks Cato and Heritage do, they transmit the idea that conditions are natural, external control is either impossible or harmful, and that outcomes are as God intended. You know who regulates the ocean? The moon. (Or as Bill O’Reilly has said, ‘Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that.”)

Another problem with this metaphor (and she dives into explaining why each metaphor is problematic) is that it reinforces the idea that things just happen– no on does or decides anything, so no one is to blame. The retirement money you’ve been saving for decades? It went out with the tide. Your assets evaporated.

The issue of “things just happening” because they were caused by “The economy” also removes a focus on people. If God (or the “Invisible hand of the market” ) is running things, there isn’t really much people can do. How do you talk to God to convince him to do things differently? Well you can go to your Priests and they can make some recommendations. “The Economy wants some sacrifice” (of course it is always a special kind of sacrifice– rarely do the US military weapons contractors make sacrifices not to mention hurting the bonuses of Wall Street CEOs or CitiGroup stockholders.)

Real people are getting hurt because of decisions that people have made and policies that have been implemented. The Economy did not foreclose on Lilly Washington’s house and throw away her son’s Purple Heart while she was visiting him in the hospital in Germany. That was Bank of America. Specifically responsible it was Brian Thomas Moynihan, the policies that he enacted and the bank branch executive who signed the order to hire a company to empty out the house.

So, if we aren’t going to use these metaphors, what do we use? Unlike so many non-fiction books that I’ve read in the “messaging space” (I hate that term) this book does have some answers, and because Anat isn’t going away, there is an ongoing ability for us on the left to keep testing and creating metaphors that work and messages that resonate with people.

On the Right Track: The Economy as an Object in Motion

In contrast to the other metaphors there is a highly recommendable metaphor that suggests the economy is a human-made object. We compare the economy to a thing that’s in motion. We can say, for example, that we need to “rev up our economic engine” we can debate whether the economy is “on the right or wrong track” or “stuck in a rut.” Progressive economists like James Galbraith and Joseph Stiglitz have a frameworks about what should “drive” our economy.” This model works when talking about concern with movement, relative speed and direction.

Progressives have many reasons to use the language of such a model. First, an object in motion generically, and a vehicle more specifically, is almost always person made. It is a complex thing people build to do their bidding. Second, a vehicle actually requires an external operator. It absolutely does not run itself (okay, so pre-Google cars). A free and unfettered economy will “crash.” This model offers us the chance to argue that the government can “steer” the economy or create “rules of the road.” No, this metaphor is not foolproof, but it does make a case for many of the things that progressives want, including the case that we need someone at the wheel and a discussion about who should drive and what track to take going forward.

There is a lot more to this book, and I’ve already gone on too long, so please ask questions of Anat in this Book Salon.

This book reminded me just how important it is to our democracy to have good models to talk about the economy. As she says in the book. “Words mean things and the ones we pick matter.” more

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