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Sunday, 10 April 2011

Religion in EconoLand

Religion is not a single thing. It is a body of behaviour unified by our failure to find a simple rational explanation for it when seen from the perspective of the individual.

(James Dow, A Scientific Definition of Religion)

Priestly Predictions

EconoLand is a peculiar place. Although its people are perfectly normal in all other respects they place their trust and their futures in the hands of a cadre of strange, secretive and almost entirely incomprehensible priests. They name these divine intermediaries “economists”.

It seems that only these “economists” can intercede with the god of the land, who is imbued with superhuman powers of omniscience and perfect foresight, yet is wholly and totally devoid of emotion or any trace of human sympathy. It’s an odd fact that, although this god is believed to be perfectly rational and incapable of error, the predictions of the economists never, ever agree with each other. What’s even more odd, no one ever seems to notice.


Despite the fact that the god of EconoLand is both stern and implacable, and apparently believes that rationality rather than emotion should be the driving force of humanity, it’s a place full of remarkable and often quite contradictory humours. These emotions, which often lead to violent outbursts, frequently erupt amongst the priestly economists and, although usually no one can understand what they’re arguing about, it’s usually a sign that something bad has already happened.

To the external observer it’s a peculiar notion that different economists, all of whom are supposedly rational in nature and all apparently observing the same phenomena, can come to entirely and remarkably different conclusions. A sensible observer might think that while the god itself may be rational it’s at least possible that the priests aren’t very good at figuring out what it's thinking. Economists, however, dispute this.

In fact this may the only thing that they can all agree on.

Religious Economics

Indeed, some economists actually study religion, apparently oblivious to the idea that they are themselves practicing religious beliefs:
“Economic theories of religious behaviour assume that people approach religion in the same way that they approach other objects of choice. They evaluate its costs and benefits and act so as to maximise its utility.”
Yep, you read that right; there are people out there calculating the utility of prayer and how to maximise value from religious attendence.

Yet although economists are happy to apply these principles to religious activities they tend to get a tad huffy if anyone suggests that economics itself is a religious activity, based on an act of faith. Mostly, however, religious economists prefer to analyse the inconsistencies of religion without noting that they’re talking about themselves:
“Such side-stepping is quite common and arguably beneficial in economic discourse, since it facilitates the construction and application of abstract theories”.
Homo economicus

It's a common assertion of the economists that their god is simply a perfect person – homo economicus, they call this illusory being – and that every person should strive to emulate this model of perfection. This will promote a harmonious and effective society or, in economic jargon, an “efficient market”. Failing this economists either ignore the imperfections of the people or rail loudly against them in priestly journals which most people have never heard of.

Perhaps the most worrisome thing about the influence of the priesthood is the way that this doctrine of godly perfection in human form has inserted itself into every nook and cranny of everyday life. This view sets logic over emotion and profit over morality and, astonishingly, the priests insist that this means that every person should act in their own interests, at all times, regardless of the impact on other people.

If everyone does this, the economists claim, then the world will work as it was designed to by their god through the action of its mysterious "invisible hand" and then all will enter a time of great prosperity and happiness. If nothing else the priests live as they wish others to, and in their devotion to their deity, they spend most of their time demanding larger and larger rewards from the people for their oracular, yet obscure, readings while being notable as the worst payers of alms in the whole community because it seems Studying Economics Makes You Mean.


Occasionally one of the economic priesthood will break ranks and argue that their colleagues are pursuing a chimera. Here's Paul Krugman:
“The policy elite — central bankers, finance ministers, politicians who pose as defenders of fiscal virtue — are acting like the priests of some ancient cult, demanding that we engage in human sacrifices to appease the anger of invisible gods”.
Despite their manifest deficiencies as useful purveyors of the word of the faith this mass of incoherent, self-selected luminaries is permitted to dictate the ebb and flow of commerce within the nation. For instance, banks employ their own priests to help them read the economic augers, a process that is cloaked in secrecy but is commonly believed to involve the sacrifice and ritual disembowelling of small animals and subsequent careful examination of their entrails. In priestly jargon this is apparently known as “analysis”.


Based on these readings, and at the direction of the priests, banks will offer credit and, on occasion, withdraw it at their whim, oft-time from otherwise solvent institutions. Remarkably, this gaggle of ill-disciplined clerics, each of whom frequently seems unable to maintain a coherent train of thought from one moment to the next, are the ultimate arbiters of commercial success and failure.

Occasionally, though, there is some economic calamity so outrageous that it disturbs even the equanimity of the ordinary people. In such circumstances it would, perhaps, be unsurprising if the people marched upon the economists and demanded their penance, or at least their bonuses. Strangely, though, this rarely happens, presumably from fear that their god will cause some calamity by causing the economists to stop speaking in tongues and become comprehensible.

Instead the people storm the temples of the politicians and the financiers and demand a sacrifice. And usually they will get their way and huge sums of money will be burned on a pyre to provide quantitative easing of the god's anger.

Propheting from Keynes

At this point the economists will start arguing about whether this is or is not in accordance with the teachings of the Great Prophet Keynes. This will lead them to further inflame their followers as they adopt positions that, to the onlooker untutored in the arcane skills of economics, appear to be the entrenched attitudes of arrogant old men long accustomed to getting their own way.

It is perhaps notable that the most famous motto of the Great Prophet Keynes is “If the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” For most of this priesthood the answer appears to be “nothing”. There are many in EconoLand who feel that this perhaps sums up the abilities of the priesthood to a tee.

Related articles: Breaking the Guild of Macroeconomists, Laplaces's Hammer: The End of Economics, Memes, Money, Madness


  1. You can understand why this group of people are so resitant to returning to the gold standard. If there was a simple clear defination of money, and everyone knew how much there was there would be nothing for the economists to do.

  2. It's the media and the masses who demand certainty and invest it with the religious aspects LOL.

    Economists usually admit they're dealing with uncertainty and unpredictability. Economics, for all its weaknesses, is only impenetrable if you don't understand math - you can go to Amazon and pick up any number of books.

    @Rob, the reason there's no gold standard is repeated tries in the 20th century failed to make it work in a politically acceptable way. The monetary 'priests' were mostly the last ones to let it be pried from their fingers.