Germany’s Election: As Bucolic as the Country

If the past year’s elections in the US, Britain and France have been reminiscent of adolescents at an amusement park, Germany’s are more like the parents waving from the ground. Sunday’s results will likely resemble any other German Sunday: relaxed and uneventful.

Germany sometimes feels like a land of small towns and contented burghers because, well, it is. Berlin may have the feel of a bustling global city, but it almost stands apart from the rest of the country. For a nation of its size, there are few large cities, and the share of the population that lives in rural areas and small towns is among the highest of the developed world.

That’s a product of the country’s history. Formed in the nineteenth-century when over 400 different states, united only by a common language, joined to become one, Germany’s constituent regions have long insisted on retaining their powers and identities, along with their major centres. This colours most everything about the country.

Take its schooling, for instance. I’ve spent the last few months as a visiting professor at the University of the Marburg, and have been struck by the widespread distribution of the country’s higher learning. If a way could be found to ascertain the average quality of a country’s universities, Germany’s would, despite years of government cutbacks, come near the top of the global table. But there are no Oxfords, Cambridges or Sorbonnes here. There are just a lot of good universities, many of them, like Marburg’s, located in provincial towns.

And small towns like a slow pace of living. Coming from London, it’s a shock that first Sunday when you dash out to pick up dinner and find out that everything is closed. There’s no need to wait at crosswalks, as you can mosey across four-lane thoroughfares. I’ve come to spend my Sundays here in a sort of enforced idleness, hiking along alpine paths and then lounging in the ebbing evening warmth and listening to the breeze wax and wane like a languid conversation. Even if you want to work, you can’t.

Nevertheless, Germany’s refusal to board the twenty-four-seven, flexwork bullet-train hasn’t cost them – at least not yet. German labour productivity remains high, its manufacturers are world-beaters, and it runs a healthy trade surplus with the rest of the planet. With the economy recovering well from the Great Recession, almost everyone who wants a job can find one. Along with the affordable cost of living and universal health care, that means life is good for the average German.

So who would want to rock this boat? In a country whose post-war history has been dominated by long-serving Chancellors, Angela Merkel looks set to top them all this Sunday when she leads her Christian Democratic Party to yet another victory. To judge from his recent speeches, the Social Democratic leader Martin Schultz seems to have resigned himself to this outcome, and is just positioning himself for a place at a coalition cabinet table. To Mrs Merkel’s village-banker, he is the insurance-salesman, telling his supporters to vote for him to keep her honest.

It bears little resemblance to the bomb-throwing of other recent polls. Still, such complacency has its risks. Beneath the contented surface there is anger bubbling at the edges of German politics. It’s a bit like a London football stadium: they’ve managed to make the main stand a family-friendly place of pretzels and beer, but the adults have to cover their children’s ears whenever the chants start in the supporters’ ends.

Despite the general stability of the German system, the two main parties have seen their combined share of the vote diminish steadily over the last three decades, like an iceberg that is dwindling amid rising heat. Parties of the extreme left and right are enjoying a late surge in the campaign and may take as much as a fifth of the seats in parliament. The discordant voices in the glee club, they won’t be able to frustrate or affect the policy agenda for now. But they will stand as a reminder that if the ruling parties fail to deliver, German politics might begin to look less like a Bavarian singalong and more like a Ramstein concert.

Equally, Germany’s current prosperity rests on a foundation which is showing some cracks. Built on a bedrock of mid-sized, family-owned business, the economy is nonetheless starting to look a bit long in the tooth. As anyone who has wandered from café to café trying to find a decent Internet connection can attest, Germany’s infrastructural development has lagged in recent years. Meanwhile its administrative structures tend to encourage continuity rather than innovation.

So the good times will roll in Germany, and the beer will flow – and I, for one, can’t get enough of it. This is Germany’s moment in the sun. But that’s no guarantee that the next time around, the weather will remain this clement.

 

Image: Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz campaigning in Marburg

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Ten Years After: We Blew the Great Crash, Let’s not Waste the Next Crisis

‘Recovery now complete’ declared the newspaper headline once the worst had passed. The financial crisis had brought dire warnings of the collapse of Western civilization. But thanks to swift and decisive action by our political and financial leaders, catastrophe was averted. So today, that headline probably serves as an apt summation of the official narrative about the management of the Great Crash of 2007-2008: thanks to the astute response of our leaders, what could have been another Great Depression, ended up being just a short and relatively shallow recession, and we’re now back on track.

Except that headline was from 1930. And I’m willing to bet that in time, the self-congratulation of today’s leaders will come to look as ill-founded as the complacency of 1930. Our leaders haven’t solved anything. They’ve simply redefined success as the forestalling of failure.

One day at the height of the financial crisis, I was in a meeting with some corporate CEOs. As share prices collapsed across the globe, the mood was glum. One man present, watching as his fortune evaporated, groaned that his world was ending. Nevertheless, as he spoke, the political and monetary authorities were furiously working out a rescue plan. Governments soon took on the bad investments banks had made in the run-up to the crash, and central bankers flooded the markets with cheap money.

A few months later, when I bumped into the same gentleman, the spring had returned to his step. Share prices were rising once more, and property prices would follow suit in a couple of years. How different it all was from the 1930s. Back then, after share prices in New York had lost 90% of their value, consumption plummeted, and the Great Depression began. This time around, the authorities were ready. By shoring up assets, they restored consumption. Instead of the collapse of the 1930s, at which time the US economy shed a quarter of its output, the Great Recession of 2007-09 shaved only some 3% off output. And now, the economy is growing again, with unemployment at record lows.

But flip the telescope, and see how different things look. A dozen years after the 1929 Crash, the US economy was growing by double-digits. Today, it’s bumping along at one or two percent a year, with little prospect of change.  As for unemployment, it’s low because productivity is so bad, which means real earnings have kept falling. At this rate, our recovery from the Crash of 2008 will leave us no better off, relatively, than we were a decade or so after the Great Depression.

Now I don’t want to overstate the comparison between two very different periods in Western history. Nevertheless, a couple things bear noting. First, the Great Crash of 1929 had a levelling effect. One of the periodic episodes of wealth destruction which Thomas Piketty argues reduces inequality, it helped forge a consensus for the New Deal. Because everyone, rich and poor, suffered dire losses, everyone agreed a new social compact was necessary. Contrast that with today, where the small proportion of asset-owners has grown richer, and the majority poorer, and there is no consensus for change. Elites are happy, the masses angry. Ergo the polarized, populist politics now wracking the West.

Second, the 2007-2008 Crash may have made some people despondent, like my corporate CEO. But there were other conversations going on at the same time which were markedly less gloomy. With everything suddenly cheaper and the old guard now weaker, young entrepreneurs began envisioning new possibilities. New magazines and blogs, with radical and exciting visions of how we might remake society, began appearing, and there were bold experiments in such things as the sharing economy. These might have transformed our economic model in such a way as to enable a wider distribution of its fruits. But instead, because our leaders rescued finance capital, enabling it to launch its rearguard, we were left with Uber or Airbnb – a model which has enriched a few but done little for the many (whether by driving down wages or crowding out renters).

John Maynard Keynes said the euthanasia of the rentier class was a necessary step towards emerging from Depression. We haven’t euthanized the rentier class. We’ve put a moribund and low-productivity sector onto life support, and are draining the blood from young people and entrepreneurs in order to keep it alive. The effect has been to shore up some of the least productive segments of society while inhibiting entrepreneurship. Amid the consequent rising asset prices but sluggish productivity growth, all we’ve done is inflate another bubble.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Keynes wrote the General Theory in order to enable capitalism to save itself by winning over the working class. Today, we saved capitalism by winning over the rich. Whether today’s bubblenomics leads to another crash, or instead to a chronic sluggishness that yields deepening austerity and worsening inequality, it will end badly. Today’s intellectuals thus need to come up with a better blueprint, one that will lead to a new future, and not cling to a dying past.

On Thursday, The Mint magazine will be hosting a day of events at the RSA to mark the tenth anniversary of the start of the Crisis of 2007-2008. I will be speaking about my new book Twilight of the Money Gods, so if you’re in London, do come join us!

 

Madness and Marginality

‘Why,’ someone once asked me after a walkabout in Brixton, ‘do we have so many crazy people here?’ I said there was no more mental illness in Brixton than elsewhere. It was just that in Chelsea or Mayfair, families had more resources to look after their sick, whereas here they ended up on the street.

My answer was only half-true, though. Mental illness is not only more visible, but often more common, in poorer communities since it can induce downward social selection. Unable to find or keep decent work, for instance, people with mental illness frequently end up falling down the income-ladder.

Recently, while I was picking up something in a Brixton department store, a woman began following me around. Mumbling inaudibly, she tracked me closely, and I finally turned around and asked if I could help her. ‘I heard what you called me,’ she said. Accusing me of addressing her with a racial epithet, she began a long monologue about how racism was illegal now, that she was going to report me to the store manager, to the police, to the prime minister, that it was all caught on video. On it went.

At first, I tried reasoning with her, inviting her to join me for coffee while reassuring her that I never said, nor would say, any such thing. But it quickly became apparent that I was not dealing with someone who was fully ‘there.’ She wasn’t psychotic. Her narrative was coherent, as if she’d practiced it; and despite her rising volume the staff took little notice, as if they were used to her. But, realising that I couldn’t mollify her, I finally told her that if it made her feel better, I’d join her while she made her report to the store management.

So off we went. I accompanied her as she marched purposefully through the store, never relenting in her stream of criticism. Yet as we turned this way and that, it gradually dawned on me that we weren’t headed to any manager’s office – or anywhere in particular for that matter. We were merely prolonging this conversation.

I then recalled another peculiar feature of Brixton that an old friend of mine, the Jamaican novelist Kei Miller, once put me onto. It is that Jamaicans here – and Brixton is the heart of Jamaican Britain – display an unusually high degree of schizophrenia. Just why is a mystery. Some research, including that done by my former University of the West Indies colleague Fred Hickling, attributes it to their own historic marginalisation in British society. The social isolation caused by racism may induce the sort of stress that aggravates the onset of mental illness, while the experience of marginalisation may reinforce paranoid tendencies that might otherwise remain latent and subdued in a less unfriendly environment.

But Kei added an interesting observation. He speculated that mental illness surfaces when Jamaicans arrive in Britain because back in Jamaica, it can find relatively safe spaces in which to express itself. He reminded me of the ways in which people who suffer hallucinations which are diagnosed as psychotic episodes, are sometimes credited with prophetic or mystical powers in the religious landscape of Jamaica.

Early in my conversation with this woman, I’d ascertained that she was neither Jamaican, nor from the Caribbean. But she was clearly someone who felt marginal, even in this community. Moreover, it was obvious to me that whether or not she believed her accusation, she got a sense of power from stopping someone – someone who she regarded as more powerful, perhaps better-connected – and making him listen to her and take her seriously for a while. I finally told her I’d go wait for her in the café while she went off to find the manager, knowing full well as I walked away that would be the last I would ever see of her. My departure had put an end to her moment of power.

Investing mental illness with power isn’t necessarily a more enlightened approach than treating it as a disorder. One man’s prophet is another’s demon, and Kingston street people often bear the scars of attacks from people who misunderstood their psychotic outbursts. But it does reveal the social dimension of mental illness – that diagnosis is aimed not merely at helping the individual, but with regulating their public behaviour.

I once had a colleague who, after repeated psychotic outbursts, was forcibly interned and put on medication. He also happened to be a genius who, during his episodes, sometimes experienced moments of stunning insight during which he produced brilliant mathematical formulations. He refused his medication, saying they’d kill his creativity. Told he was a threat to others, he pointed to his small frame and asked them to produce a police record of an incident in which he hurt anyone. Told then he was a threat to himself because he’d invite the sort of retaliation that maims some Kingston street people, he said that was his risk to take.

And here’s what struck me. When he accused his psychiatrists of behaving like medieval exorcists, their exasperated ‘But you’re not well!’ didn’t sound to my ears all that different from the ‘But it’s Satan speaking!’ of a Jamaican preacher.

 

Image: Storm clouds gather over the Lahn, Hessen, Germany

I Know Who Washed My Dishes

We’ve all heard the story about the American military psychiatrists who discovered that helicopter pilots in Viet Nam suffered greater stress than bomber pilots, even though the latter caused more destruction. Helicopter pilots could see the faces of the people they were killing.

Concentration-camp inmates during the Second World War were given numbers, because removing their identified made it easier for their guards, many of whom otherwise thought of themselves as moral beings, to put distance between themselves and their victims. Research on mass sadism like the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide also stresses the role played by ideology in dehumanising the targeted victims. By feeding people a steady propaganda diet depicting the victims as inhuman, otherwise decent folk can be persuaded to engage in horrendous deeds.

Nevertheless, the most important way ‘moral monsters’ have found to give themselves carte blanche is to use that ancient bit of wisdom: out of sight, out of mind. In his study of the Holocaust, Tzvetan Todorov concluded that there were surprisingly few such monsters in Nazi Germany. Instead, what paved the way for the commission of a monumental evil was that most people were persuaded to look the other way.

You’d be surprised how common this is. I lived much of my life in the developing world, in Africa and the Caribbean. There, the lower average wages and high cost of imports put many of the conveniences we take for granted in the West beyond the reach of all but a few. However, the one thing which was relatively affordable was, obviously, labour. Thus, instead of having a dishwasher in your kitchen and a vacuum-cleaner in your cupboard, you had a housekeeper.

Many of the visitors who came from back home would blanch at the sight of someone being paid to wash my dishes. ‘We’ve evolved beyond having servants’ they would say, their principal exposure to domestic employees hitherto being in British Edwardian period pieces or the whispered tales of hedge-fund households with their nannies and housekeepers (the new serfdom, as one Atlantic writer put it a few years ago). I, however, would always point out that the only difference between me and them was that I knew the name of the person who washed my dishes. They had hired some factory-worker they would never meet in a far-off city they might never visit, and paid them to build a dishwasher that ran on the electrical power-supply yet another stranger maintained.

Marx described this as commodity-fetishism: assigning intrinsic value to an object in such a way as to conceal the labour – and more importantly, the identity and personality of the labourers – which went into producing it. Certainly, in the developing countries I’d lived in, I came across many domestics who were underpaid, abused or mistreated by their employers. Indeed, it happened from time to time that I came across a moral monster of sorts who seemed sadistic or even sociopathic in the way he or she delighted in exploiting or degrading the household staff.

But ask yourself, when was the last time you bought something – say, a mobile phone, or a new item of clothing, or some perfume – but first inquired of the working conditions of those who made it? We’re not that different from the wartime German villagers who reckoned something potentially troubling was going on in that camp up the road, but preferred to not to ask questions since doing so was inconvenient. In fact, we’ve perfected the art of dehumanisation, distilling the identities of all those who laboured to produce our goods into serial numbers. Got a problem with a product with a flaw since some sleep-deprived worker’s eyesight was getting worse? It’s now between you and a customer service department.

The difference between us and the Third-World employers we criticise for their poor treatment of labour is merely that they see the faces of those they exploit. We’ve figured out how to out-source exploitation, thereby creating a veil of contented ignorance. That, in turn, has enabled us to intensify our exploitation. For instance, as I write in my latest book, the nineties US boom which progressives remember so fondly as the fruit of Democratic policies was due in no small measure to the punishing austerity the Clinton administration imposed on poor countries after the Asian financial crisis – policies which enabled Americans to literally party as, and because, others died.

The populist turn against globalisation we now see across much of the West is largely a negative force. However, were it to bring us closer to those who produce our goods, it might yet yield a more moral – if somewhat poorer – world. A promising instance of this renewed localisation has been the shift, particularly noticeable among millennials, towards what is sometimes grandly called the ‘locovore’ movement, whereby people try as much as possible to buy local foods. That means paying a premium, which some are willing to do because they feel better knowing the farmer has a decent life.

It’s a modest step. But so too were the casual looks the other way during Nazi Germany. Small steps can make a huge difference.

 

Image: At home in London

The only thing worse than Trump in the White House, is Trump out of the White House

Years ago. I worked in an office whose head one day got religion about gender equality. To prove his feminist bona rides, he announced he would henceforth hire only women. I told him he wasn’t doing his bit at all. Having benefited from his male privilege, he was now giving back with someone else’s job.

I didn’t last very long there. But I find myself thinking of that conversation a lot these days, each time I see one of the rallies or marches that have become a sad feature of life in the Trump era. It’s all too easy to get smug and dismissive about angry white males. Just as it was all too easy for my colleague to reverse centuries of oppression in time for happy hour. If the dismissal is coming from someone who availed himself (or herself) of all the white privilege on offer before deciding to make the world a better place, it rings rather hollow. Beware of strangers bearing gifts.

Let’s start with the obvious. By definition, any ‘fine person’ would leave a crowd as soon as it started chanting ‘Jews will not replace us.’ Nothing can excuse the tiki torch-bearers of Charlottesville. But in amidst the predictable long beards and shaved heads one would expect to see at a white-supremacist march, there were a few young men who looked like button-down naifs that wouldn’t have appeared out-of-place at a suburban PTA. Who knows, that could even be where some of them might have opted to spend the evening, had they the chance.

I have a quiet admiration for the online campaign to out the march protesters, and cheered silently when I read of one who lost his job after his pic went viral. But let’s be honest: if we think losing a short-order cook his job at a burger joint is going to end white supremacy, we may well be its dupes: the real legacy of white supremacy persists among the Berkshire billionaires in their monochromatic communities who tut-tut about deplorables while reaping the fruits of centuries of oppression.

The left fell for the gift-bearing strangers who dressed up in progressive clothing to sell their neoliberal potions, in no small measure because their wares suited this technocratic elite. They told us redemption was free, or that it might even make us richer. I recall the speeches Bill Clinton used to give in the 90s, when he said the way to eradicate poverty was to chase profit-opportunities in depressed communities, or Al Gore’s insistence that investment in new technology would both save the planet from global warming and make us wealthy beyond compare. Well, both gentlemen made off pretty good from their shtick. But as we know, relative deprivation continued to worsen in America and as for the environment, the fact remains that the best years for the global climate have been those in which recessions slowed emissions output (but that’s a story for another day).

No, morality requires sacrifice – and we shouldn’t hesitate to make it. The neoliberals had merely found a way to pass the tab onto others. As I’ve written before, the economic policies of the Reagan years, subsequently championed by Clinton and his successors, essentially reallocated economic output in such a way as to preserve the lifestyles of the upper and middle classes at the expense of workers. That’s why I’ll go out on a limb and guess that at least some of the people attending these dark rallies might have yet become fine people had they been given the opportunity their elders received. If the others who went before them aren’t now minded to make the sacrifice needed to make the world a more just place, why should they?

Trump’s White House days are numbered. As Nate Silver has been chronicling, beneath the surface dips and rises, his net disapproval rating has steadily worsened throughout his presidency. Eventually he’ll reach the point that even Republicans consider him expendable. Internally, his administration is barely functional. I had drinks this week with a former student of mine who was in London on business – a highly-placed executive who speaks regularly with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. After Trump’s bizarre defence of neo-nazis, he asked Mnuchin how much longer he could last. Mnuchin, who is Jewish, replied ‘Me and Gary (National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, who is also Jewish) have to stay: we’re the only grownups here.’ Everyone else on the White House team is apparently ‘aghast’ with a President who, to their knowledge, never, ever reads a book.

The odds of the Trump presidency collapsing thus rise by the day. However, all the angry young men to who Donald Trump gave hope, however false, have had a taste of power. They will bitterly resent if their hero is forced from office. The resistance needs to peel the potentially decent folk away from the genuine deplorables with a narrative that offers them something more promising than the ridicule we now deliver. Most importantly, it needs to lead by example, demanding that all of us who benefited from white privilege ‘tithe’ some of their gains so that the angry young men, if still receiving fewer benefits than previous generations, aren’t actually forced to pay everyone else’s tab as well.

Usain Bolt’s Redeeming Finale

I remember the day years ago, sitting in an auditorium at the University of the West Indies as a gangly teenager was summoned to accept a scholarship, having just become the youngest person ever to win the world junior championship. Although he was then barely out of boyhood, Usain Bolt had to have already known that this was a prize he would never claim, superseded as it clearly was going to be by many others. It was a measure of his grace that he not only showed up to accept it, but held it aloft with that ‘Really, me?’ look he would go on to make world-famous.

That humility amid extraordinary achievement was perhaps what the world loved best about Usain, and it overturned a sport that until then had been defined by testosterone-pumped triumphalism. Other sprinters shouted they would kick your ass and mop the track with you. Usain said he’d see you at the party afterwards.

It is a paradox of the sort that defines his homeland, a country that abounds in them. I lived in Jamaica for much of my life (and have the certificate of naturalisation to prove it!). When I first moved to the island to accept a lecturing position at the university, expecting to do a few years then move on to other things – it turned out the island had other plans for me – I came across an odd trait among my students. In their seminar groups, they’d digress into long diatribes against the evils of their country, its corruption, its abundance of thieves and criminals and layabouts and liars; yet their rants would always conclude with an un-ironic ‘How I love this place.’

I didn’t understand how people could describe a country that seemed so worthy of disdain, yet cling to it like a wayward but beloved child. I didn’t understand it until, after a few years, I found myself using the same phrase. You have to live it to get it: you have, as Jamaicans say, to be a ‘sufferer.’ But at its heart is a belief that everyone, and everything, is capable of redemption.

‘Jamaica no problem’ may have been a clever bit of branding, but the slogan invented to lure tourists to the island has never captured the essence of life for its residents. Life in Jamaica is not a trip to the beach. It is hard, demanding and filled with moments of rage and even despair. Yet throughout it all, you encounter a relentless generosity of spirit, a yearning to live in the moment since you don’t know what will come tomorrow, and a recognition that those who have much, have much to give.

Bolt, and perhaps even moreso the many sprinters that cleared the path for him, embodied that. Asafa Powell, Melaine Walker, the universally-loved Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, to say nothing of the legions of great runners past and present, have all embodied a humility and sense of duty to their families and communities. For all the ‘boassiness’ of Jamaicans, those who triumph tend to recognise that they did not so much create their greatness, as build upon what others did for them.

They could hardly do otherwise. There’s an unspoken rule in Jamaica that no matter what your celebrity or achievement, when you return to the island, you get to revert to your quiet life. I’ve sat on airplanes alongside Sean Paul and Beanie Man and watched as passenger after passenger files past, clearly noting the person in their midst but doing little more than smile. Usain Bolt’s global achievement pushed this rule to its limit. Nevertheless, when visitors to the island would say it was their lifetime dream to see the great man in the flesh, all I had to do was take them for a stroll down to the grassy field in the valley where you could see him in training, all while middle-aged ladies strolled by on their evening constitutionals.

Jamaica is an island that not only allows you to go home, but insists you remember you where you came from. And at heart, since you were once an innocent child, that means you can be so once again. Probably nobody booed more lustily at Justin Gatlin’s shock victory in Saturday’s race than Jamaicans. But most of them will grasp the generous spirit shown by Usain Bolt. If Gatlin will kneel before the great man, who are we to judge his plea for redemption?

We will never resign ourselves to him. But we had our say, and now it’s time to move on. As for Usain, he’s earned the right to return to a hero’s welcome. But when the party’s done, some elderly aunt will no doubt remind him that for all the trouble he gave them as a boy, it’s the least he could have done.

 

How Money Has Become Our God

The recent publication of an excerpt from my newest book in London’s Guardian newspaper set off a huge amount of discussion on social media, blogs and news sites around the world. Not surprisingly, opinion divided. Among economists in particular, those outside the mainstream welcomed it as a breath of fresh air, those closer to the neoclassical orthodoxy repudiated it as a cheap diatribe against their profession.

It isn’t quite that. Oh sure, some economists come in for their share of criticism. Yet my book is really a challenge to all of us to examine the way we think about money and the doctrines associated with it. You see, we in the West like to think of ourselves as modern. Declaring ourselves atheists because we don’t need a god to do what we can do for ourselves, we have abandoned the old religions. Instead, we say, we trust in science.

But this is just one of those reassuring stories we tell ourselves. Take one currently-popular narrative, popularised by the ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins, which maintains that Charles Darwin’s discovery of evolution eliminated god’s role in creation and shattered the Biblical narrative. In its place came a new, enlightened narrative based on facts.

In truth, although fundamentalism emerged in reaction to evolutionary theory to assert the old gospels, most churchmen actually embraced Darwin’s theory. Famously, Darwin himself did not consider it incompatible with the old religion, becoming an atheist only when his beloved daughter died and he lost his faith in a caring god. Even today, research on ‘scientific literacy’ has found that few of us know much if anything about science and the way it works. One British survey discovered that half of this highly secularised country believes that humans and dinosaurs coexisted (apparently we we got our paleontology lessons from Flintstones reruns).

No, what really enabled us to put aside belief in god was that money stepped into the breach left by the decline of the old religions. Money has become our god. I don’t mean that in a new-agey, self-help kind of way. I’m merely speaking about the function it performs in our lives. Our ancestors looked to the heavens for health, wealth, security and justice, we look to money to buy us all that.

Fittingly, therefore, we organise our lives around money. If you’re like the average person in a Western country, you spend about three hours each day thinking about how to get money – how to pay your debts, invest wisely, get a new job or increase your savings. You then pass roughly the same amount of time spending the money, online, in shopping malls, paying bills, sitting on the phone with your bank or cable provider or some other help-line which is probably managing to elicit as many religious oaths out of you as a defrocked priest. Add it all up, and you probably devote nearly half of your waking life to pondering money, and most of the rest to making it. Our ancestors mortified their flesh to gain access to heaven, we’ll take a job we can’t stand or add more hours we don’t need to our workday if it enables us to rise the income-ladder and thereby gain more status.

Money is virtually as old as humanity, but it only assumed this godlike quality in the modern period. What made that possible was capitalism. The development of capitalism, in turn, was inseparable from the rise of empire – the European empires at first, and latterly the US-dominated global order. The improvements in technology and organization that helped facilitate the explosion in living standards of the last three centuries were real, but at the base of our prosperity lay a good deal of oppression, even barbarism, as I document in the book. But rather than acknowledge this as a breach with the Christianity that had shaped the West, we opted for a new moral narrative which attributed our wealth to our superior creed and efficiency. Economics thus grew up alongside the empires, giving us a new code for living.

But here’s the funny thing.  Although economics devotes itself to the study of money, as David Orrell indicated in one of his contributions to the discussion around my book excerpt, few economists actually understand money. In most models, it is a numeraire, a representation of underlying value, a mere medium of exchange that exists to lubricate transactions.

However, money is more, so much more than that. And when you really begin to understand it, many economic models begin to break down. For as I write in Twilight of the Money Gods, money is both a personal relation and an act of faith. Economists emerged as the modern priests who would help us improve our access to that spiritual entity, but of late, we’ve begun to suffer a crisis of faith. That makes ours a troubling time – but also an exciting one.