Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Rown Williams on Economics

There is a brilliant address by Rowan Williams to the TUC Economics Conference, made on 16 November 2009. Here are a few extracts, which I think highlight important points that he makes.

I like his speech because it shows how he takes economics back from some kind of abstract discipline, and places it, very much where in my generation, E.F. Schumacher did in "Small is Beautiful", which was of course subtitled "Economics As If People Mattered".

There is a link to the full address at the end. It is worth reading in total.

'Economy' is simply the Greek word for 'housekeeping'. Remembering this is a useful way of getting things in proportion, so that we don't lose sight of the fact that economics is primarily about the decisions we make so as to create a habitat that we can actually live in. We are still haunted by the dogma that the economic world, 'economic realities', economic motivations and so on belong in a completely different frame of reference from the sort of human decisions we usually make and from considerations of how we build a place to live. And to speak about building a place to live, a habitat, reminds us too that we look for an environment that is stable, 'sustainable' in the popular jargon, a home that we can reasonably expect will be an asset for the next generation.

If we are not to be caught indefinitely in a trap we have designed for ourselves, we have to ask what an economy would look like if it were genuinely focused on making and sustaining a home - a social environment that offered security for citizens, including those who could not contribute in obvious ways to productive and profit-making business, an environment in which we felt free to forego the tempting fantasies of unlimited growth in exchange for the knowledge that we could hand on to our children and grandchildren a world, a social and material nexus of relations that would go on nourishing proper three-dimensional human beings - people whose family bonds, imaginative lives and capacity for mutual understanding and sympathy were regarded as every bit as important as their material prosperity.

Practically speaking, this means that both at the individual and the national level we have to question what we mean by 'growth'. The ability to produce more and more consumer goods (not to mention financial products) is in itself an entirely mechanical measure of wealth. It sets up the vicious cycle in which it is necessary all the time to create new demand for goods and thus new demands on a limited material environment for energy sources and raw materials. By the hectic inflation of demand it creates personal anxiety and rivalry. By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term well-being. In a nutshell, it is investing in the wrong things.

Goldsmith observes that 'the overwhelming bias in the current tax system is for indiscriminate economic growth, with among other things vast tax breaks on fossil fuels'; and, challenging the objection that tax ought not to be an instrument of change, he insists that taxation is never neutral. Bias is always there, and so we need to decide where we want the bias to be.

Whether we are thinking about investment or taxation, the important thing is to keep the focus on our ability to decide: the worst thing that can happen is that we give way to a fatalistic assumption that our choices don't matter. One of the paradoxes in the whole situation (and I'll touch on this again later) is that our current economic ethos both tells us that the resources for material growth are infinite -and thus that we shouldn't bother too much about the limits of living on a small planet - and at the same time paralyses us when it comes to thinking about actions that might cross the boundaries of what looks possible. It both pretends that we have unlimited possibilities and discourages us from discovering real potential for change.

But this is where things get a little more complex and interesting. To decide what sort of change we want, we need a vigorous sense of what a human life well-lived looks like. We need to be able to say what kind of human beings we hope to be ourselves and to encourage our children to be.

Human beings all begin their lives in a state of dependence. They need to learn how to speak, how to trust, how to negotiate a world that isn't always friendly. They need an environment in which the background is secure enough for them to take the necessary risks of learning - where they know that there are some relationships that don't depend on getting things right, but are just unconditional. The human family as a personal not just a biological unit is the indispensable foundation for all this.

And a culture, especially a working culture, that consistently undermines the family is going to be one that leaves everyone more vulnerable and thus more fearful and defensive - potentially violent in some circumstances, or turning the violence inwards in depression in other circumstances. In the last couple of years alone, research has proliferated on the long-term damage done by the absence of emotional security in early childhood and the need for a child's personal growth to be anchored in the presence of stable adult relationships...  An atmosphere of anxious and driven adult lives, a casual attitude to adult relationships, and the ways in which some employers continue to reward family-hostile patterns of working will all continue to create more confused, emotionally vulnerable or deprived young people. If we're looking for new criteria for economic decisions, we might start here and ask about the impact of any such decision on family life and the welfare of the young.

I also mentioned people's imaginative lives. We are not only dependent creatures, we are also beings who take in more than we can easily process from the world around; we know more than we realise, and that helps us to become self-questioning persons, who are always aware that things could be different. We learn this as children through fantasy and play, we keep it alive as adults through all sorts of 'unproductive' activity, from sport to poetry to cookery or dancing or mathematical physics. It is the extra things that make us human; simply meeting what we think are our material needs, making a living, is not uniquely human, just a more complicated version of ants in the anthill.

And this is actually very closely connected with my third item, understanding and sympathy for others. If you live in a world where everything encourages you to struggle for your own individual interest and success, you are being encouraged to ignore the reality of other points of view - ultimately, to ignore the cost or the pain of others. The result may be a world where people are very articulate about their own feelings and pretty illiterate about how they impact on or appear to others - a world of which 'reality television' gives us some alarming glimpses. An economic climate based on nothing but calculations of self-interest, sometimes fed by an amazingly distorted version of Darwinism, doesn't build a habitat for human beings; at best it builds a sort of fortified boxroom for paranoiacs (with full electronic services, of course).

From this point of view, the importance of the family isn't a sentimental idealising of domestic life or a myth about patriarchy; it is about understanding that you grow in emotional intelligence and maturity because of the presence of a reality that is unconditionally faithful or dependable. in religious terms the unconditionality of family love is a faint mirror of the unconditional commitment of God to be there for us. Similarly, the importance of imaginative life is not a vague belief that we should all have our creative side encouraged but comes out of the notion that the world we live in is rooted in an infinite life, whose dimensions we shall never get hold of - so that all the reality we encounter is more than it seems. As for the essential character of human mutuality, this connects for me specifically with the Christian belief that we are all dependent on one another's gifts, to the extent that if someone else is damaged or frustrated, offended or oppressed, everyone suffers, everyone's humanity is diminished.

I'm not suggesting that without Christian doctrine you can't have the sort of commitments I've described as essential for a three-dimensional humanity; that is obviously not true, if you simply look around you. My point is that, now more than ever, we need to be able in the political and economic context to spell out with a fair degree of clarity what our commitments are, what kind of human character we want to see. Politics left to managers and economics left to brokers add up to a recipe for social and environmental chaos.


st-ouennais said...

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TonyTheProf said...

Do read the full article though.

Isn;t it a shame Rowan Williams has had so much distration over pettifogging internal Anglican disputes, when we could have had so much more of his sharp thinking.

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