Faith Stretches Further Than Religion.

22

Throughout my time writing on ethics, I have always made one value very clear: there are issues in politics which it is possible to be right and wrong about. It is easy, in an environment such as this, to note examples such as the presently occupied homophobic positions of many US politicians. Most rationally inclined people will see the moral problems with disregarding the rights of the LGBT community, and thus note that it is wrong to deny people a right to marry (whatever we may think of the institution of marriage).


My opinion that it is possible to be wrong in politics goes deeper than this though, and is best highlighted by the UK system. We currently have a right of centre party forming the majority of our government, who have spent the last 4 years cutting the funding for a variety of public services based on the reasoning that they need to do so in order to cut the ‘deficit’. This idea goes almost unchallenged – politicians argue about it, but very few people are getting upset about the fact that so many services are being cut so drastically. Yet even healthcare experts are now noting that this is undermining even the most cherished of our institutions.

 

The reason for this lack of opposition is that the Conservative’s reasoning sounds fairly solid. ‘Deficit’ is now a globally understood term, and politicians in many countries are happily using it as a buzz word for putting in place a series of spending cuts which wouldn’t otherwise go unchallenged. This, in turn, is down to the work that politicians have done in persuading people that the deficit of public spending and borrowing is so severe that we need to start cutting spending immediately. They have been especially effective in using terminology which compares it with credit card debt: the sooner we lessen our borrowing, the sooner we can pay off our debt and be back in positive terms.

 

The fault with this reasoning is that it’s wholly ineffectual at doing anything but pushing a right-wing agenda: there are two rational sides to this argument, one of which is not being heard. Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman is in my opinion the best proponent of the opposite view to the Conservatives’. It is unarguable that the government is in debt, he simply takes issue with the idea that spending cuts is the only, or even the best, way out of them. The conservatives are taking it as common sense that we must cut public spending to reduce the deficit, but to steal a famous rationalist phrase, if economics was common sense then we wouldn’t need economists.

 

Krugman argues that as the economies collapsed, and are still collapsed throughout the world, we have returned to requiring depression era economics. This doesn’t require spending cuts, but rather history shows us that the way out was through counter-intuitive increased spending. The reason for this is simple: government debt is not like a credit card debt, and companies cannot be stimulated into significantly investing into the economy by reducing debt. This is what he refers to as the ‘confidence fairy’: a logical fallacy that politicians often use to argue their case for spending cuts. Instead, by increasing/continuing high levels of spending, you might initially increase a deficit but you also stimulate more economic growth by employing more people and thus allowing more spending in the wider economy. Economic growth means that the deficit is naturally reduced, as it reduces in value due to the difference inflation – perhaps also spending can be reduced gradually to normal levels, if it was initially increased, once the economy is stable enough to handle it. This is why economics isn’t common sense: we are all used to dealing with personal finances, and personal finances have absolutely no relevance to public finances, in which one must consider all kinds of other effects.

 

Krugman’s case is very persuasive, as it appears to peck away at that familiar ‘common sense’ and by doing so produces a gaping hole for a logical explanation which his historical research provides. But at the same time, economics isn’t an exact science, so we are free to side with where we see most evidence being evident. Such an example does at least tell us that politics, with its almost wholesale reliance on the credit card analogy, is wrong by refusing to debate any further than at ‘common sense’ level.

 

In the UK such a discovery of rational opposition leads us to even further analysis. The conservatives are a right of centre party, and are classically built on the foundations of a will to reduce public services. Indeed, it was the Conservatives that already privatised many of the institutions which the UK no longer has public control. If we want to see the motivation for ignoring the rational debate on debt and deficit, look no further than a rigid desire to find any reasons that support public spending cuts – a belief for which the party have total faith and support in.

 

We might bemoan the faith-based thinking that stops people from challenging their personal prejudices or religious beliefs, but this faith-based culture spreads far wider than this. In the political systems of every country in the western world is an inbuilt battle of ‘left vs. right’ or ‘central vs. extremist’ but yet never explicitly ‘evidence based vs. opinion based’. That is by far the biggest political problem in the western world. We now have evidence to judge, or at least to enable us to rationally debate, most political issues which we face, yet decisions are largely still made based on a case of dogmatic perspective – no-one is accountable to facts or reason unless someone else’s opinion happens upon it.

 

Politics is a subject on which it is almost always possible to be right or wrong – we now have the ability to find out who is most likely to be right, at least. Yet it continues to exist in a cocoon of tradition and opinion, which halts the onset of any improved, evidence-based decision making.

 

Robert Johnson is a practical ethicist and philosopher of science. He specialises in the intersection of rationality and ethics, and is the author of 'Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong'. http://www.robertjohnson.org.uk/. Be sure to follow Robert on Facebook here.

Written By: Robert Johnson

22 COMMENTS

  1. This theory of Krugman reminds me of the skyhook theory of flying. Pull hard enough on your shoe laces and you will take off.

    The dirty word “profit” was not mentioned once in the article. Once the capitalists smell a profit then they will start investing again.

    • In reply to #1 by Mr DArcy:

      This theory of Krugman reminds me of the skyhook theory of flying. Pull hard enough on your shoe laces and you will take off.

      The dirty word “profit” was not mentioned once in the article. Once the capitalists smell a profit then they will start investing again.

      Framing the narrative as you do – the pulling up the shoes analogy – naturally forces the conclusion “Why, that is nonsense!”

      Alternatively, you might argue that there is nothing more unproductive, unstable and unmanageable as a country where the people re sick, unpoliced, have no infrastructure or nationwide education system, where uncompetitive transport routes are cut irresptective of whether this isolates communities and eliminates job opportunities for some. The conclusion now becomes: OK, the state does have a role.

      I think the true debate is in How much. Not abolutist, reductio ad absrudum stuff about trying to make yourself fly by tugging your shoelaces.

  2. We might bemoan the faith-based thinking that stops people from challenging their personal prejudices or religious beliefs, but this faith-based culture spreads far wider than this. In the political systems of every country in the western world is an inbuilt battle of ‘left vs. right’ or ‘central vs. extremist’

    Yes indeed, far too much political dogma. Left versus right? If you will read the holy texts of politics (a.k.a. Newspapers) then this is exactly the kind of nonsensical dogma that results. Evidence-based political pundits (if they exist, I have yet to see one) would be pointing to a terminal decline in left versus right dogmas.

    Neither am I convinced that dogmatic Keynsianism is anything more than economic snake-oil. Borrowing to stimulate an economy will work when the medium to long term growth in wealth creation will repay the money borrowed to stimulate in the short term. However, unable to learn the lessons of the past our politicians managed such a financial failure of such ‘heroic’ proportions as to produce a debt which already generates more debts faster than we can grow the economy and the deficit of public spending beyond our immediate means gives us a debt which is growing fast from two directions – the ballooning repayments on the one hand and the continued deficit adding, year by year, to the debt – enough to swallow any stimulus to match those of history.

    I may be mistaken, but that is what I see when I look at the evidence …

    if economics was common-sense we wouldn’t need economists

    QED

    We now have evidence to judge, or at least to enable us to rationally debate …

    We do?

    Somebody needs to get a hold of those newspapers your so fond of and tell them. It would be good to see them actually present it – without the Opinion Pieces to muddy the waters.

    … decisions are largely still made based on a case of dogmatic perspective – no-one is accountable to facts or reason unless someone else’s opinion happens upon it.

    Wow, you noticed too, huh?

    If we want rational, evidence-based, politics then we need to fix the information flow, and we need to recognise dogmatic positions – like the inappropriate application of Keynsian economics. To do that requires critical thinking. Got some?

    Peace.

  3. There is a large opposition to imposed austerity…the starving and impoverished majority are committing suicide all over the place…
    That’s not a cry for help….Its more of a hopeless sigh of realisation that Left or Right politics in UK and USA only serves the needs of the rich elite minority – while the poor majority have less services and rights….The system is not democratic – its parading as democracy while furnishing the corporate needs and landed gentry of the conservative party and their relations – the lords peers who are given ‘shut up and retire’ titles with healthy pensions….They all pander to religion because religion was once like them and owns a lot of corporate, banking and property interests.. tax free…..Politicians would pander to any vote gaining scam like religion if they became popular with voters……

    You talk of deficits – that simply means too many individuals and corporations took too many profits and left nothing to share with the deserving majority….Politicians stealing expenses and bankers stealing bonuses…. who pays for all of that wealth in the hands of the minority……???? You know…..we the little people who have nothing….pay for it all ….over and over all of our lives…and we also pay for the ‘so called’ never ending up grades to military and nuclear technology so that we can be safe from the endless fears perpetuated by the government media propaganda campaign…..the military budget is another guise for a secret money pot for the rich bastards who actually aim to maintain world hegemony – USA

    America is a poor excuse for democracy when only a few rich elites can even run for becoming top dog – what a stacked an unfair system from the start….left or right…..neither….

    • In reply to #3 by Light Wave:

      There is a large opposition to imposed austerity…the starving and impoverished majority are committing suicide all over the place…
      That’s not a cry for help….Its more of a hopeless sigh of realisation that Left or Right politics in UK and USA only serves the needs of the rich elite minority -…

      You could write a book about all the hypocrisy associated with pseudo-intellectuals like Thomas Friedman and concepts such as fiscal austerity and free trade. Here are just a few examples:

      If people are serious about reducing budget deficits then their favorite modern presidents should clearly be Clinton and Obama. Those are the two who cut spending Clinton to the point of giving the US  an actual surplus and Obama who recovered from the unprecedented in US (and to my knowledge world) history precedent of giving people a tax break while starting two major wars. 

      Then there is the idea that the free market rules the US economy. Consider the Internet, there were tons of money invested in that via DARPA that were directly relevant to the infrastructure we have now. And even though Gore got mocked for it he really did do a lot to sponsor applied research (I got one of the grants actually) to make the Internet a commercial reality. BTW, just to be clear I actually have nothing against any of this (the Internet and in general R&D funding). I think it’s perfectly rational for a government to encourage research that is too bleeding edge for industry yet and the Internet IMO shows what great things government and business can do when they work together intelligently. My only gripes are the incredible hypocrisy, not acknowledging that it wasn’t just the free market that create these technologies and also the fact that virtually all of this kind of research has to be driven by the military. I would be all in favor of someone who did what Clinton and Gore did briefly in the 90’s, recognize that government has a role in funding research for non military applications as well. 

      And if you want to go into a bit more history you can find incredibly hypocrisy in the policies that the US and our favorite pet the UK (just kidding guys) now impose on the third world and the policies that they used military force to implement in the beginning of the 20th century. The US and UK put all sorts of restrictions, tarrifs, price supports, etc. to encourage local industries. They actually still do so to some extent now for a few lucky industries such as oil and gas (the ones who need it least). They talk now about how trade has to be unrestricted across national boundaries, which of course is what a country that dominates the world would want even though it will and does cause an incredible hardship on people in third world nations who have the natural resources to feed and clothe themselves but whose local industries can’t compete without the same kind of support that US industries used to rely on. 

      • In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #3 by Light Wave:

        And if you want to go into a bit more history you can find incredibly hypocrisy in the policies that the US and our favorite pet the UK (just kidding guys) now impose on the third world and the policies that they used military force to implement in the beginning of the 20th century.

        You are very right no kidding about the UK being USA’s puppet….That’s why Scotland wants the hell out of it….we want to stay with Europe…and America darn well don’t like it…..and will probably squash us with their big guns when we get Independence or maybe Trump’s doing that with his corporate shit already

    • Well said.In reply to #3 by Light Wave:

      There is a large opposition to imposed austerity…the starving and impoverished majority are committing suicide all over the place…
      That’s not a cry for help….Its more of a hopeless sigh of realisation that Left or Right politics in UK and USA only serves the needs of the rich elite minority -…

  4. I strongly urge you all to hit youtube and listen to a couple of talks given by Krugman and another Nobelist Joe Stiglitz.

    Keynesian econnomics is not snake-oil for this economy. There is a time for Keynes and a time for Hyack. The problem right now is lack of demand and keeping money away from the bottom, who will spend every dime on something (and that ripples through the economy), is not a ticket out of this jam.

    In the US, the infrastucture is crumbling and will have to be fixed at some point. Why not put people to work on it now when labor is plentiful and interest rates are low? As the money ripples through (it does not now and never has “trickled down”) tax revenues increase to pay for it.

    Pay $100 to the highway worker and tax it. He gives what’s left to the butcher and tax it, he gives it to the baker and on down the line. It’s demand-side that works. I promise you the problem with the Ford Edsel was not that they didn’t make enough of them. The government (as we saw in the Great Depression when Hoover tried austerity and Roosevelt tried spending) needs to be the consumer of last resort.

    • In reply to #5 by rjohn19:

      Hi rjohn19,

      I strongly urge you all to hit youtube and listen to a couple of talks given by Krugman and another Nobelist Joe Stiglitz.

      I promise I will as soon as time permits.

      Keynesian econnomics is not snake-oil for this economy.

      But surely Keynes’ economics was a plan for managing the economic cycle? My understanding is that he urged governments to save (or repay debts) in the good times in order to create the headroom to spend and keep the economy rolling in the bad times.

      In the OP the model used was the UK economy, not the US. When the last UK government to enjoy a growing economy (inherited, not created) had the opportunity they spent like there was no tomorrow.

      In addition, they spent on services, like health, that give no long-term structural return and they mixed government money with government-backed securities in order to extend the debt under the radar – as they did for housing projects. For vote-buying pet projects like building hospitals this wasn’t enough, by-the-by, oh no. For that they used the Private Finance Initiative, thus ensuring that local authorities and specialist government agencies could have their share of borrowings that are unaffordable.

      Then they compounded this error by forgetting that bankers need to be supervised because there is a continuous tension between making a profit and managing risk. Not content with this astonishing level of inadequacy (and yes, I did say so at the time but I’m not in the public eye) they also undermined working banking regulators (with the creation of the FSA), then reacted to the subsequent banking crisis with all the urgency of a pot-smoking snail.

      Whatever the rights and wrongs of my history the net result is unarguable: the UK government pushed hard in the opposite direction to Keynes’ model for more than a decade then added to the problem.

      There is a time for Keynes and a time for Hyack.

      I’m only an amateur economist, but even I can see that as we in the UK have already borrowed more than we can repay, more than our children can repay and more than our grandchildren can repay … and we’re still borrowing – because there’s still an annual deficit adding to that astonishing level of debt … it might, just possibly, be a good idea to stop borrowing more money and have a rethink.

      In the US, the infrastucture is crumbling and will have to be fixed at some point.

      It’s the same in the UK. This may seem odd, given the amount spent by previous governments. However, we have to factor in that a significant proportion was spent on services. That money created no legacy of assets, and it was channeled through organisations that, while their spending may have boosted the economy in the short term, has no lasting economic impact.

      Why not put people to work on it now when labor is plentiful and interest rates are low?

      The problem, as I understand it, is that the money for infrastructure comes from government. If, as in the UK and US, the government is basically bust (taking the commercial perspective where returns are normally expected on a four year business plan) they must borrow. They can try and borrow from the markets – meaning citizens and institutions, foreign and domestic, lend the cash in an open forum. Or they can raise taxes – though for any large infrastructure projects we’re talking about figures that will spread the tax burden pretty wide which is playing with political dynamite. Or they can cut expenditure elsewhere. Or they can approach foreign powers and do deals. The bottom line is that these options all cost more than the local interest rates (usually set by the domestic central bank).

      As the money ripples through … tax revenues increase to pay for it.

      Yep, that’s the thinking.

      Pay $100 to the highway worker and tax it. He gives what’s left to the butcher and tax it, he gives it to the baker and on down the line. It’s demand-side that works.

      I don’t know anyone that seriously argues against that in the short term and infrastructure projects also leave a legacy. Building bridges across 100 rivers will have a long-term economic benefit.

      The problem is that as you pour the water from the Engineer’s bucket into the Butcher’s bucket (and so on) a little gets spent each time. After a while you only need a kid’s beach bucket, then a cup, then a thimble. Government spending is never (as the politicians so often like to pretend) investment.

      Government spending on infrastructure might just count as investment because the resulting assets lead directly to economic boosts through greater efficiency and lower costs to users, but not services. But even in this special case we need to be careful. What is the long-term economic benefit of government funded housing projects, for example? There are probably indirect benefits, but their influence on the overall economy must be slight.

      Getting back to the OP example, i.e. the UK economy, this is the conundrum we face. It is clearly a bad idea to borrow more money unless we can see a clear return that will grow the economy to such an extent that the short-term (bucket-style) gains will be replaced by longer term gains great enough to ensure that our great-grandchildren have the opportunity to make their own debts in their own bad times, and spend on their own services.

      Until someone shows me evidence to the contrary, my opinion is that the UK Government is pussy-footing around. It needs to get serious about cuts. I am not a rich man, such a policy would have a direct and fundamental impact on my standard of living and I therefore say this with a heavy heart.

      I promise you the problem with the Ford Edsel was not that they didn’t make enough of them. The government (as we saw in the Great Depression when Hoover tried austerity and Roosevelt tried spending) needs to be the consumer of last resort.

      Yes, this is classic Keynes, and it worked because those governments were handed economies with great structural strengths and they therefore had the wherewithal to borrow and spend to stimulate the economy in bad times.

      That is not the situation the OP was talking about. The UK economy was recently run by a bunch of morons. It still has a lot of resilience, but the burden of debt that it carries will hold it back for at least the next ten years.

      I don’t pretend to know the answer, I just know that we got here by digging, and that we’re in a big hole. Not digging gets my vote.

      Peace.

      • In reply to #10 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

        In addition, they spent on services, like health, that give no long-term structural return

        I think you are missing the point that spending on good health services, makes for rapid recoveries, and the early ability to return to productive work.

        The rest of the post looks like a good summary of events.

        • In reply to #12 by Alan4discussion:

          Hi Alan,

          I think you are missing the point that spending on good health services, makes for rapid recoveries, and the early ability to return to productive work.

          I won’t quibble.

          It is very difficult to know where to draw the line between government as albatross around the collective neck, and government as provider of essential services.

          My difficulty reflects, it seems to me, a major weakness in Robert Johnson’s argument. It is not enough that there are factual reasons, and it is not enough that among subject experts (in his example, economics) there is a confluence of interpretations of those facts.

          If politics is to be more subject to reason then the polity needs to have access to those facts and expert agreements. Either we support a two-tier society or we find ways to inform ourselves better.

          I have spent considerable amounts of time studying economics and I’m little better informed than when I started. This does not bode well for Johnson.

          We could, of course, learn to trust experts – particularly when the vast majority form a consensus of opinion. But the problem with this is vested interests pushing in the opposite direction.

          In the end I always come back to this: How is information disseminated, and by whom?

          Peace.

  5. rjohn19 :

    The government (as we saw in the Great Depression when Hoover tried austerity and Roosevelt tried spending) needs to be the consumer of last resort.

    And only the world war ended the depression when, once again there were profits to be made and unemployed workers brought back into production. Governments can only have peripheral influence on what the capitalists invest in. Employers don’t employ workers for the sake of creating jobs, – they employ workers because they realise profits through such employment.

  6. rjohn19:

    Keynesian econnomics is not snake-oil for this economy.

    Is this the same Lord Maynard Keynes who thought that banks could create credit up to 9 times the value of deposits ?

    If that were the case, I wonder why any bank ever goes bust. If wealth could be so easily made “by the stroke of a banker’s pen“, why weren’t the Lehman Brothers so advised ?

  7. There are various definitions of economics. The one given by David Begg et al in the textbook Economics (2nd Edition) is as good as any:

    “Economics is the study of how society decides what, how and for whom to produce.”

    These questions are determined by people making decisions, at the individual and at the societal (political) level. Each decision is underlain by choices, preferences, value judgements and moral beliefs. These can all be lumped together as assumptions. Every theory in economics is based on assumptions about human psychology, none of which have actually been proven in a scientific sense.

    The author of this article is making an argument based on his preferences and moral beliefs. That is fine and they may be very admirable beliefs but they are beliefs and preferences backed up by nothing resembling a scientific case (Krugman and Stiglitz argue from their own moral standards and have both been proven to be disastrously wrong on recent events).

    As such, this article carries as much scientific weight as one claiming that Liverpool is a better football team than Manchester United.

  8. Politics is a subject on which it is almost always possible to be right or wrong – we now have the ability to find out who is most likely to be right, at least

    For Johnson, “politics” is defined to include judgments on macroeconomics and the morality or other wise of LGBT- and presumably also stem cell research, creationism v. evolution, burning the flag, etc… . Thus, for practical purposes, one can replace “politics” by “judgments” or “opinions” in all domains. Is it not what Sam Harris is saying i.e. that moral judgments can be derived from facts? . There has been much debate on this, so I will not address it here..

    “Yet it continues to exist in a cocoon of tradition and opinion, which halts the onset of any improved, evidence-based decision making”

    I am afraid this “_ cocoon of tradition and opinion_” is very large indeed, constituting a majority in many cases. Thus, for LGBT opposition , the Muslims, fundamental Christians, Africans and many others ; against Krugman, many economists, almost all central bankers, Ministries of Finance, the IMF , credit rating agencies, and mainstream political parties- and people electing them.

    To make it worse, many of those defending what Johnson and others consider wrong policies sincerely claim to do so on the basis of evidence and would deny that it is “faith-based”.

  9. Faith is an instrument for idologies to keep themselves in power. It is nothing else! We have limited minds and a lot of us are scared to death by this knowledge. Others – mostly small minorities – know about this and push the rest into subordination based on their fears (thinking control over people is an appropriate means against their own fears!) .That’s why I really dislike ideologies anyway, whether political, religious or economical ones.

    • Spending your way to prosperity is indeed nonsense and is a crude misrepresentation of what Keynes wrote. But what Milton Friedman actually did say was total nonsense and he retracted a lot of it in his twilight years.

      In reply to #15 by Thomas Carter:

      Total Rubbish
      The “Spend Your Way to Prosperity” theory has been disproven many times.
      Milt Friedmans concepts work best for everyone in society.

  10. 4as4is4

    I think the true debate is in How much. Not abolutist, reductio ad absrudum stuff about trying to make yourself fly by tugging your shoelaces.

    I think you will find that I cited profit as the motivating force for investment. No profit , no production, – too bad about human needs.

    Of course I realise that the state has to step in for essential infrastructure, to finance things that would be unprofitable for individual groups of capitalists. Most advanced countries have transport systems, clean water and sewage disposal, health services, education, armed forces etc which the state has to pay for. And it pays for these services out of taxation. The burden of taxation mostly falls on those who own the most, the capitalists. Hence the endless arguments about who is going to pay for e.g. the high speed railroad in the central valley of California. Or in Britain and France a few years ago, the Channel Tunnel. Sorting out the finance was a bigger job than building the bloody thing !

  11. In the political systems of every country in the western world is an inbuilt battle of ‘left vs. right’ or ‘central vs. extremist’ but yet never explicitly ‘evidence based vs. opinion based’. Robert Johnson

    Doesn’t it occur to this ‘practical ethicist’ that political policies have something to do with self-interest? In any case, it’s imperceptive to equate prejudice and dogmatism with religious faith.

    • In reply to #21 by aldous:

      Hi aldous,

      … it’s imperceptive to equate prejudice and dogmatism with religious faith.

      I assume you are using the prefix im as a negative?

      I further assume you are using the main meaning of perceptive: Showing sensitive insight?

      Imperceptive = Not showing sensitive insight?

      I have no idea what you’re talking about. Would please be so kind as to break that down for those of us who are a bit dim.

      Peace.

Leave a Reply