Thursday, May 28, 2015

It's Spring In Frostburg...

... and a "Young" Man's Fancies Naturally Turn to...Economics and Religion

By Bill Neil


This will be one of my briefest “diary” postings, so cherish the moment. Some preliminaries are in order however.

I'm responding below, in the main text, to a column by Swedish economist Lars Syll, at the Real-World Economics website.  I'm allowed to comment there but not post articles since I am not a professional economist.  Hey, there’s a hierarchy even at good alternative economic sites.  Here at:  
And here's the bio on Lars...
I'm trying to talk the editors into allowing me to do a book review of Richard Smith's Green Capitalism: The God that Failed.  That's a story for another day, however.  Suffice it to say that apparently Smith’s book is too hot to touch for even these dissenting folks.  

So logically you might ask next, whose website is that, this Real-World Economics one, with the title implying that some other economists might not be living in “a,” or "the" real world, but an imaginary one (see below for details)?  

Well, the organization behind the website is the World Economics Association, a loose affiliation, as the song goes...with 13,500 members, founded in 2011, and it's safe to assume I think, that the force behind it was the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, the grand and emphatic failure of 99% of the economics profession to see it coming, and the general unhappiness with neoliberal and neoclassical economics among dissenting thinkers. 
Let's ground this organization with some founders and members whose names you might recognize:  Dean Baker, Herman Daly, James Galbraith, Steve Keen, Richard C. Koo, Richard Parker, Anne Mayhew, Stephany Griffith-Jones, Heiner Flassbeck, Yanis Varoufakis (the Greek Finance Minister)...Ann Pettifor, Robert Skidelsky (Keynes' biographer and a member of the House of Lords, "Lord" Skidelsky), Michael Hudson, Mark Weisbrot...Dani Rodrik, L. Randall Wray, Peter Radford, Geoffrey Hodgson, Immanuel Wallerstein…

I leave comments at the site from time to time as the various postings cross my own areas of interest or contemporary events... and what follows is my comment after Lars has discussed a revealing interview with Thomas Piketty, now famous author of Capitalism in the 21 Century.  Piketty is saying he doesn’t believe in basic neoclassical theory, although he will employ some of its terms to keep a dialogue going.  And here was my response:
“Good post Lars, thank you very much. Micro theory, “the margin this and the margin that,” always reminded me of the trouble I had following the higher reaches of geometry, where I was being asked to imagine lines, intersections, angles and spheres that were presented as common sense everyday renderings, as if that were the way I visualized the world, real and imagined. Of course some of it was based on the physical realities of everyday life; but it soon ascended into something quite remote and abstract…I always had the feeling of being led over a cliff, step by step, further and further from my comfort with a world that I could know and grasp. Power: who holds it and how does it shape economic theory? How silly! How mundane, grubby even, when we could be literally walking on air, out there, suspended on the micro world of neoclassical assumptions.  

I wonder if any readers here are familiar with Mark C. Taylor’s 2004 book, Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World without Redemption.  A fascinating author from Williams College and then Columbia, an atheist (or is it agnostic?  Atheist, I believe) head of the Religion Department and visiting professor of Architecture at Columbia, who handles economics with the best of the profession, having apparently drunk lots of coffee and other beverages across the table from some savvy inside players in the go-go “creative” world of investing and speculating that we all grew to love so much in the 1990-2007 era. (He's done a bit more than drink with hedgers, though, done a bit of reading and thinking I would venture...a bit of understatement’s the amazing bio:  )

Taylor is impossible to pigeon hole, he has no peer in the intellectual terrain he covers, and he is brilliant in helping us understand the grand hopes, Utopian hopes for the world of hedge funds as they developed: infinite leverage based on zero capital/collateral. An economic “perpetual motion machine.” Long Term Capital Management….chaos theory, “self-organizing, complex, highly networked systems,” then avalanches, and the Santa Fe Institute…it’s all there.

I’ve met one other person in my life who has read it. I still recommend it. 

And an additional thought to connect your post, Lars with Taylor’s Confidence Games, and the strange fact that here is a Religion department Chairman writing as fluidly about the most difficult parts of advanced economics as - well as… John Meriweather.

But here’s the thing: is not religion a vast extension, a vast series of walking out over the cliff based on a few fragments and hopes, a vast system built upon longings…economics has nicely filled the void for those who can no longer accept the old faiths…has assumed, among the powerful, the same role as consulting the auguries…whether it is built upon any more solid foundations, Lars is pointing out to us, as has Piketty,  what has been left out…the sociology of power, with just a hint that Marx was a better sociologist than economist…

And this delicious thought, that the Republican Right in the US is built upon a near religious intensity about the market and micro economics, and its alliance with the Religious Right, fundamentalists and the slightly more diverse evangelicals and their fierce intensities about matters religious and cultural…a strange alliance which buries class…for now…
Here’s Mark Taylor musing about the convergence of market fundamentalism and religion:

In the early twenty-first century, the world has become more complex than it has ever been and the rate of change continues to accelerate.  Many people still do not understand the far-reaching implications of this growing complexity.  Greater complexity brings more volatility and instability, which in turn create unavoidable uncertainty and insecurity.  As uncertainty and insecurity increase, there is an understandable desire for certainty, stability, and world order – be it new or old.  During the 1990’s, the longing for simplicity and clarity manifested itself in a resurgence of market fundamentalism… While claiming to be realists, these true believers imagine an ideal world at odds with the new realities emerging in network culture.  Their dream of a rationally ordered world where every risk can be hedged is as old as time itself.  All such schemes are designed to escape time and history and thereby overcome the inescapable insecurity of life.  In the final analysis, this dream is a religious vision in which the market is a reasonable God providentially guiding the world to the Promised Land where redemption finally becomes possible. 
That is not where we end up, however, not where markets are taking us.  No wonder James Galbraith notes in the Acknowledgements at the end of his latest book, The End of Normal – no,  he actually apologizes for his “fairly gloomy work…” -  for his having come to “these dire straits” of his “conclusions,” his recognition of Taylor’s world, a world finally “without redemption,” despite the Market Utopians. 

Bill Neil
Frostburg, MD 


William Neil said...

I wanted to add a very personal note to this posting. It has always been a mystery and wonder to me where the American Right, and the economic Right, like the Club for Growth, get their intensity, religious like in its zeal. Karl Polanyi gets at some of the this in his "Great Transformation," when he speculates that the project to create the world's first truly "marketized" society, in England, between 1790 and 1830, took on proportions not initially fully understood by the pioneering "classical economists." It became a full "conversion" project, with no turning back and many adjustments needed to create markets in money, land and human labor. A huge "social engineering project," to build those markets.

In my own life, I've have buttons pressed - that is - me unknowingly pressing them in conservatives - in the most bizarre of circumstances: an Appalachian Mountain Club hike, an Audubon weekend in Cape May (many years before I was Director of Conservation there), where a low key exploratory conversation would take a turn like Luther posting the theses on the Church Door - leading to an ideological explosion on the conservative side, like a land mine going off. Like the landscape, the "no man's land" that must have existed between Catholics and Protestants during the first century after the Reformation...and low and behold, I'm just now reading about the new reign of Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago (1929-1945), when he brought in Mortimore Adler, in thrall to the Middle Ages and yes, Thomas Aquinas...and of course Chicago would be the home of Friedrich Hayek (I like to add the Von to his name...seems appropriate) and Leo bent my mind when I read the account of Hutchins and Adler at Chicago in Mark Grief's recently published "The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973...because it just struck me that here were the roots of the alliance between the economic right and the religious right, well before they were apparent even to the leading minds of the movement itself...the foundation for a huge intellectual and moral re-orientation...which I think has ended in disaster for our country...

Meredith NYC said...

See Chris Hedges on Cspan today and Sunday..he's on 2 events re his book 'Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt'. Talks about surveillance state and economic exploitation in USA. I'm just trying to take it in.

As a reporter for the Times, he covered the East European civil disobedience against Communist tyrannies. Now saying that other countries' rebellions against dictators could serve as a model for American revolt against 21st century corporatocracy rule. He's worth reading to cut through the repeated fog of our media.

William Neil said...

Hi Meredith:

I'm quite secular myself, by median American standards, and when I write in my usual tone about these boundaries, I'm often misunderstood as being more than a writer trying to understand very different points of view. I think that's the virtue of Mark C. Taylor's book that I recommended and quoted from
Getting closer to your point now, I read Hedges regularly, like his courage, bluntness and uncompromising sense of late American Empire...and I agree with him about 85-90% of the times. But years ago I detected more than a trace of the old Puritanism in him, which makes some sense given his background in formal Protestantism and then theologic studies...There are times when I can see him, quite comfortably in a New England pulpit, a left-wing secular Jonathan Edwards, for better or worse, and this comes from an author of an essay entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Market" (me)....

I think Hedges has said, if not written, that there is usually a Puritanical streak in revolutionaries, going hand in hand with a single minded devotion to a cause and ideology, and I think there is some truth to that. But having been raised as a Catholic in the 1950's, I'm pretty leery of going back there entirely, even for a good historically grounded left-wing analysis of our troubles and prescriptions for reform - or further.

We live in deeply troubling times, but I am a skeptic about attempts to remake human nature entirely, which if you add up all the causes Hedges has declared himself for, veganism and so where he is headed, if not already having ended up there. I draw back from this having read too much history and hopefully, having had my eyes open about the full range of people's inclinations in our own culture. I get in enough trouble just reminding people of FDR's Second Bill of Rights, and FDR was no radical.

I'm grappling right now with preparing a review of Richard Smith's "Green Capitalism: The God that Failed," and what I have just written is a partial outline of how I will approach it. It's hard to disagree with much of his analysis, I can't just can't see how we get to his solutions by a democratic process from where folks are now. This is the dilemma FDR faced in Congress later in the New Deal, after 1936, as conservative and racist Southern Dems increasingly formed alliances with conservative Republicans and drew uncrossable lines for future economic and racial reforms. Maryland's senators often sided with the worst of the Southern Dems against FDR's programs...on labor issues as well...FDR just couldn't get to the stranded southern tenant farmers, black and white...without a revolution from below in that region that would transform the politics...and when it eventually happened, in the 1950's and 1960's, it was civic reforms, public accomodations, schools and voting, not an economic transformation...which we are still awaiting...the AFL-CIO never did succeed either in unionizing the South, the Southern Strategy failed...

Just sharing some of my worries as I reflect upon Hedges...who I do like on balance...and I readily "confess" to my moments of Utopian thinking, usually interrupted by a bucket of cold water reality as I live my day-to-day life out here in Frostburg.

Bill Sprague said...

I grew up in DC and I know Frostburg well. I used to ride my motorcycles there (from Baltimore-Ellicott City as well as from DC) What no one seems to have mentioned is that there are far too many people on this planet. No - I'm not in favor of forms of genetic and gender manipulation to get the population down but is there any lack of people anywhere? No. And there is no excuse for it. Human nature or otherwise.

Be fruitful and multiply. Yeah, sure. I'll go right out and do that!