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.

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Whether or not He Wants to, President Trump Now Owns Obamacare

After the failure of the Republican Congress to replace Obamacare with their own health bill, President Trump said they should now just let it fail. He says that when it does – and there are a variety of measures Mr Trump can use to ensure it collapses – Democrats will cry uncle and will come on board with some sort of new replacement legislation.

And if they don’t? If the Democrats hold fast and refuse anything which repeals rather than merely repairs Obamacare? President Trump predicts that Americans will blame Democrats, since they are the ones who crafted Obamacare in the first place. ‘I’m not going to own it,’ Trump said, ‘I can tell you the Republicans are not going to own it.’

Seem fair enough, right? They built it, they own it. Yet while, as a matter of principle, Mr Trump may be correct, unfortunately for him that’s not how things work in politics. It instead lives by the old adage of every gift-shop owner: you break it, you own it. That might not be fair, but who said politics was fair?

As a rule, Presidents get credit, and blame, for the state of the country when they’re in office, regardless of their actual responsibility for the outcomes on which they’re judged. Economists have correlated various economic indicators with presidential approval ratings and found that, by and large, if people are feeling personally good about their economic situation, they approve of the President’s job – regardless of what they they might actually think of the President.

Back in the 1990s, Americans routinely said they found President Bill Clinton to be something of a scumbag, but with the economy going strong, they stood by him throughout his impeachment scandal. Republicans then groused that the booming economy of the 1990s owed more to the legislative and policy changes that had taken place a decade earlier, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Be that as it may, nobody wanted to mess with success, and Hillary was still trumpeting Bill’s economic achievements when she ran for office last year.

And it’s not like Republicans haven’t benefited from this game. Since Donald Trump was elected last November, the stock market has risen by nearly a fifth. This stellar performance has little to do with anything Mr Trump or Congressional Republicans have actually done. Indeed, other than a bit of deregulation, the main planks of Mr Trump’s economic programme have yet to be put in place. His plans for a big spend on infrastructure, for tax reform, for a repeal of Obamacare (and with that a fall in taxes) so far lie in wait.

Nevertheless, the mere hope that big changes might be afoot has caused investors to bid shares up to the sky. Whenever there is talk of a Trump rally, I don’t exactly hear folks in his entourage saying ‘hold on now, that’s just wishful thinking, we haven’t delivered yet.’ On the contrary, they point to the market as a measure of the success of Trumponomics, and most people give him the benefit of the doubt. So it goes for anyone who has found a job, or received news that the job they were going to lose will now be preserved. Most of those people credit Trump.

However, as it is on the way up, so it is on the way down. The stock market is a discounting mechanism. You call sell the sizzle, but sooner or later investors will demand to see some steak. The failure of Obamacare under Trump’s watch will cause hardship to millions; few of them will blame it on Obama. Worse, if Mr Trump’s legislative agenda continues to be tied up, as it has been over the failure to repeal Obamacare, soon the shine will go off his Presidency. Should the market then turn south, don’t expect much indulgence from investors as they watch their portfolios shrink.

No, whether or not he likes it, Obamacare is now Mr Trump’s. If he works with Democrats to repair it, his base may resent him for selling out – or they may reward him from being pragmatic. But if he really does try to speed its collapse so as to engage in a game of chicken with Congressional Democrats, he’ll probably find them holding a steely calm as he heads for the cliff. Because if Obamacare goes down without any kind of replacement, Mr Trump is likely to go down with it.

Brexit is Now a Sentence without a Subject

Since last month’s British election, when Theresa May got walloped and lost her Conservative government’s parliamentary majority, there’s been no official change to the rhetoric around Brexit. The sentence is the same – its object is Brexit and the verb is ‘will implement.’

The problem is, the subject has disappeared. There is no longer a ‘We’ in ‘We will implement Brexit.’ Say all you will, but Brexit can’t, at least for the time being, go ahead. For while we know what the action and its intended consequences are, there is no actor. A tree falling in the forest can’t make any noise if there’s no tree.

Theresa May can put on a brave face, but she and her government are no longer the ‘we.’ With her slender majority in parliament, propped up by a small Northern Irish party that has her just where it wants her, she’s hemmed in. If she tries to proceed with the hard Brexit her party’s Eurosceptics demand, her party’s Europhiles will rebel and join the opposition to bring down the government. If she tries to please that lot with a softer version of Brexit, the Eurosceptics will do likewise.

There had been some talk of turning to Labour to help shore up her support, since the party promised in the election campaign to respect last year’s referendum result. But that idea lasted the better part of a day before Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pointed out that he could deliver Brexit himself – as soon as the next election puts him in Downing Street.

Fearing just that eventuality, the Tories have rallied around Mrs May. All the same, her days are numbered. She will be replaced, quite possibly before year’s end. That’ll hardly help matters, though. It’s not clear that any other Tory can unite the divided party, let alone win an election in the foreseeable future. Any eventual replacement may well end up biding his or her time in the hopes the party’s numbers improve and it can risk another poll – a gambit which could, of course, backfire, as it did for Mrs May. And all the while, with the future outlook so unclear, ministers openly contradict and even mock one another, each advancing his or her own vision of the future.

Every minute that the government is frozen in such inertia, the future shape of Britain grows murkier. Businesses, which hate such uncertainty, have begun to suspend long-term planning until they can get a clearer picture of what Britain’s future economic and trading arrangements will be. Investment drops, and with that economic activity. At the time of last year’s referendum, Britain’s was the fastest-growing developed economy, and could plausibly claim Europe was holding it back. Today, it is the slowest-growing of the bunch, and the gap between it and Europe looks set to only widen further.

That’s because the clock is ticking on the two-year countdown that began when Britain formally gave notice it was quitting the EU in March. It was always hopelessly optimistic that Britain could negotiate an exit, agree a new trade deal, and replace the mountain of EU legislation that will expire, all in just two years. Every day that passes with no clear direction, that hopelessly optimistic task moves further into the impossible column. Yet since nobody can offer a plausible route forward, the economic uncertainty only deepens.

As the economy worsens, support for Brexit will weaken, making it even harder for a new ‘we’ to emerge to complete the sentence. Many of the voters who chose Brexit in last year’s referendum did so in the expectation it would make Britain richer – £350 million a week richer, if they believed Boris Johnson’s campaign bus – or at least no worse off than it was within the EU:  as Mr Johnson added, just to further elongate his nose, we’d get to eat our cake and still have it. It’s a wonder anyone still listens to Bojo (though to judge from the regularity with which his cabinet colleagues slap down his remarks, maybe they don’t).

With the new reality dawning, some Leave voters are starting to lose faith. Coincidentally, the 52-48 margin by which the Leave vote won last year’s referendum happens to be the same seat-margin that US Republicans, who are trying to pass an equally divisive health-care bill, have in their Senate. They know all too well that if just a few senators are peeled away, the whole enterprise fails – and that is with someone directing the process.

However in Britain, it feels like we’ve all gone to the circus to see a much-hyped high-wire bicycle stunt, only to find that when the spotlight shines on the platform, the bicycle sits empty. We’ll shuffle around in our seats and eat popcorn for a little while. But sooner or later, if nobody turns up, we’re going to want our money back.

 

Now in bookstores: ‘Imagine one day you went to a cash-machine and found your money was gone. You rushed to your branch, where a teller said that overnight people had stopped believing in money, and it all vanished. Seem incredible? It happened, and it could happen again.’

Canada Turns 150

Born in Canada of British parents, I grew up speaking French, and went to school with Portuguese and Italian kids. For me, that always captured the essence of a country which remains, in a way, an experiment: Hybrid, perhaps a little unsure of itself, but certainly open to new things. Somehow, the country makes it from one year to the next against improbable odds – surviving and, of late, thriving.

It’s hard to overstate what a remarkable achievement this is. If two centuries ago a soothsayer had predicted a major conflict on the North American continent without specifying where it would break out, few would have guessed at an American civil war. It was Canada that was then riven with divisions. The French and British were historically enemies, and with the arrival of British refugees from the American Revolution in what had been French colonies, they now lived cheek by jowl.

Canada survived this inauspicious birth by taking a unique approach to consensus-building: you could celebrate your culture in the home, but had to leave it behind when you entered the public square. That agreement didn’t come without a price. Canada is, yes, famously boring, restricting all but the most anodyne of cultural expressions to close quarters. The first Canadian commandment is, be nice, and don’t offend. If the Brits are like a glass of warm bitter and the Greeks a shot of ouzo – flavourful, but not to everyone’s taste – Canadians are a glass of water: everyone likes it, but won’t exactly write odes to it.

You see, negation lies at the heart of Canada’s existence. A Canadian is an American in denial. If you doubt that, just ask a Canadian audience to define their identity. They’ll reel off a long list of the things we do better than the Americans, from looking after our sick to keeping our streets safe and clean. But it’s more nuanced than the inevitable inferiority complex that comes from being – as one Prime Minister put it – a mouse sleeping next to an elephant.

Created when the British settled American refugees in lands they’d recently taken from the French, the English settlers of Canada were from the start culturally and linguistically American. But the ‘Loyalists’ wanted to keep the monarchy and strong state, and the French settlers left behind when Paris vacated its North American colonies were willing to go along. To this day, therefore, Canadians have an attachment to the state and its institutions – public health-care, public broadcasting, public schools, state universities, the police and the laws – that can look supine to American eyes. But that unity around the state’s institutions has proved sufficient to bond peoples with disparate, even at times contradictory cultures. Wave the flag, pay your taxes and respect the laws – and boy, do Canadians respect their laws; the Swiss look rebellious by comparison – and you pass the citizenship test.

When I fly back for visits, I now enter a country I barely recoginise from my childhood, but which in ways never really changes. One time, I found myself in an airport queue behind a group of women, some of whom were veiled, all of whom spoke in Canadian accents and were keen to get home to see the Canadian hockey team play their arch-rivals, the Americans. And while politicians will occasionally try to make people reveal their true colours, nativism seldom gets far. In the last federal election, for instance, the Conservative government tried some dog-whistle politics by proposing a ‘Barbaric Cultural Practises Hotline’ to out Muslims engaged in dark deeds (critics pointed out drily it already existed: dial 911 and ask for the police). Challenged on whether a terrorist could keep his citizenship, then-opposition leader Justin Trudeau replied ‘a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian’ and left it at that. The rest, as now-Prime Minister Trudeau can tell you, is history.

Of course, for this compact to work, there must also be a healthy dose of denial. The country is, after all, built atop what is essentially stolen land. Not surprisingly, many First Nations Canadians are foregoing the weekend’s celebrations. Similarly, for all the warm embrace Canada gives its refugees, the fact is they have first been subjected to a vetting process that would make Steve Bannon blush. Canada picks and chooses from among the finest and most endowed, leaving the poor, huddled masses to other countries. It’s all very well to say the world needs more Canada; the country doesn’t actually intend to offer that much of it.

However, what you can say about Canadians is that more than most other peoples, they do recognise that their country is still a work in progress, complete with its design flaws. Amid the rising ethnic populism and cultural insecurity of the Western world, Canada serves as beacon that perhaps the greatest legacy the West offers the world is its institutions. So raise a glass to boring, stable Canada, for it shows that politics can still be a noble endeavour.

 

 

 

The Youthquake Begins

I always get a chuckle whenever I hear someone ‘of a certain age’ ask innocently why their children and grand-children are worse off than them, as if they don’t already know. ‘It’s because you ate all their pudding’ I tell them.

The baby-boomers defined the politics of the postwar West. Born amid peace and prosperity, when the generosity of the welfare state reached its highest point, their sheer numbers made them the dominant cohort once they started reaching voting age in the 1960s. They demanded, and got, freedom, choice, and ever-improving well-being.

As I write in my new book, governments were able to meet these demands for as long as economic growth could generate the tax revenues needed to fund them. But once growth began slowing at the turn of the century, the well started running dry.

By then, the promises the boomers had made themselves, via the politicians they’d elected, had become a bit dear. When Western governments introduced public pensions early in the twentieth century, for instance, the average time a person spent in retirement was about a half dozen years. Today, you don’t have to look hard to find someone who has spent, or will spend, more of their life collecting a pension than they did paying into it.

The model was plainly unsustainable. But rather than accept a change in their lifestyles, the boomers elected politicians who cut spending elsewhere to maintain their share of the pie. The obvious target was young people – numerically a smaller group, and prone to skipping polling queues on election day.

Governments preserved spending that targeted the boomers – like pensions and health care – and slashed spending on young people, like tuition subsidies at university or entry-level jobs. Private employers most often followed that cue, cutting entry-level wages so as to squeeze enough revenue to keep funding ever-more expensive pension-pots – all while restricting generous defined-benefit pensions to the boomers, telling younger workers they’d have to be make do with more meagre defined-contribution schemes.

Unions generally went along, their membership – and leadership – tending to still be dominated by older members. They thus began negotiating differential contracts, whereby older members got to retain their privileges but new hires had to accept lower wages and less-generous pensions.

When the financial crisis hit a decade ago, many young people saw it as an exciting time of possibility. New blogs and websites, from Lena Dunham’s chronicle of life in the recession to radical mags like Jacobin started to crop up. There were bold experiments in communal living, the sharing economy emerged and above all, the collapse in property and share prices now made it possible to contemplate finally affording a house or starting a business.

Fat chance of that. Whatever renewal might have resulted from low asset-prices, existing asset-owners in the older population, and the institutional investors – pension-funds included – that serviced them were going to take a huge hit. So, central banks flooded the markets with cheap money, buying both government and corporate bonds in order to restore asset values. As a result, while today real wages for young people continue declining and the dream of owning a house is once again a distant prospect, the baby-boomers are now more than £2 trillion richer than they were before the crisis started. That buildup of debt will in turn sap future growth – in effect, robbing from future generations to spoil the present one.

But now, quite suddenly, young people have decided they’ve had enough. In the recent US and British elections, participation by first-time voters surged, tipping the balance towards a new, more radical left, most notably in Britain. While Theresa May was correct to say there’s no ‘magic money tree’ to pay for all the promises Jeremy Corbyn has made, she was also being just a wee bit disingenuous. Her government has been robbing young people for years in order to pay the rich – the pensioners who vote Tory consequently being the only group in Britain whose real incomes have risen since the Great Recession.

If you’re just settling into a quiet retirement and looking forward to a couple of quiet and prosperous decades, you can always hope the life-cycle effect, whereby people grow more conservative as they get older, kicks in. Then this youthquake might dissipate as everyone finds their favourite chair. However, the life-cycle effect is largely a function of the fact that as they get older, people accumulate assets, including houses, thereby augmenting their investment in the status quo. But with a generation now priced off the property ladder permanently, that effect may no longer operate.

Instead, as it becomes clear there is no magic money tree to feed everyone, the rising cohort of younger voters may decide it’s now time to turn the tables. I’m going to go out on a limb and make a prediction. If things continue the way they’re going, in another decade or so, we’ll still have populists like Donald Trump roiling our politics. But instead of  ‘Mexicans’ or ‘Muslims,’ they’ll substitute the word ‘pensioners’ in the angry speeches they make.

 

The Macron Revolution: New Bottles, Old Whine?

When the great lion of the European project, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, died on the eve of French President Emmanuel Macron’s landslide legislative victory over the weekend, many could not resist the apparent symbolism. It was as if one generation of European integrationists was passing the torch to the next.

Mr. Kohl, a classic pragmatist, led his country through the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, German reunification and the launch of the Euro. By the end of his tenure in 1998 he had, most notably through his partnership with French President François Mitterrand, forged a closer European union than would have been conceivable in his war-torn childhood.

Yesterday, Emmanuel Macron got the electoral mandate he needed not merely to consolidate that much-maligned union, but to actually advance it. Mr. Macron’s huge majority in legislative elections, winning six of every ten seats in the National Assembly, gives him the backing he needs to proceed with his bold plans. Moreover, the fact that most of those elected are political novices – a deliberate outcome, since Mr. Macron created a new political movement in order to renew the French political system (and lord knows it needs it) – means that his legislators should remain quite disciplined for now. Without independent power-bases or portfolios stuffed with pledges and favours, his people in parliament will fall in line.

However, that creates risks for Mr Macron. Without detailed scrutiny within his party, any unforced errors he makes could go unchecked. Just ask Theresa May about the risks of over-centralisation. Much will therefore ride on the soundness of his plans to open up the French economy. At present, it resembles a China shop with an idiosyncratic owner, odd opening hours, long vacation closures, and staff that are in no particular rush to please (since it’s not in their contract). But it has its charms, and any China Mr Macron breaks will be his to own.

Record abstention levels on Sunday also put an asterisk next to that landslide. Nearly six in ten voters chose to take in the sun rather than queue outside polling stations, underscoring just how much Macron’s agenda divides France: a substantial minority love him and look to him to save their country from its worst instincts, a third loathe him and his plans to destroy what they love about France, and the remaining third are very much in a wait-and-see mode.

Voters from working-class districts, which disproportionately support politicians from the far left and far right, like Jean-Luc Melenchon and Marine Le Pen respectively, abstained in particularly large numbers. Mr Melenchon, the leader of France Unbowed, a coalition of communist and other radical groups, thus infers that what they chose not to do at the polling station, they might yet do on the streets. This will be where Mr Macron encounters his greatest opposition. Strikes and protests have stymied French presidents trying to change the country’s hidebound system before. If the unions decided to oppose his agenda en masse, they could conceivably bring the country to a standstill, regardless his parliamentary majority.

However, lest Mr Melenchon and Madame Le Pen make too much of the low turnout, the exit polls suggest it was as much complacency as hostility which kept French voters at home in the final round of the elections. Turnout by Macron supporters fell from the first round of voting to the second, with many seeing the election outcome as secured (something about which they were not, of course, mistaken). Melenchon and LePen supporters, by contrast, having stayed at home the previous Sunday, turned out in larger numbers for fear their parties might not make it into the assembly. That surge rescued the places in parliament for France Unbowed and Mrs Le Pen’s National Front.

Thus, Mr Macron has a clear mandate, but it is not unconditional. His task is clear. He has to move very quickly on enacting his agenda, then hope his German ally Angela Merkel wins a strong mandate in Germany’s autumn elections. Thus, as the pain of his adjustment bites, as workers lose some job guarantees in order to reduce the costs of new businesses setting up, he has to keep prodding Mrs Merkel’s government to loosen Germany’s purse-strings. Most economists agree that Germany has become too prudent of late, and is living off exports to its weaker European neighbours. If Mrs Merkel is able to get her finance minister, the notoriously tight-fisted Wolfgang Schauble, to loosen spending to encourage European growth, Mr Macron might get a favourable wind in the sails of his ship.

All the while, he will need to find a way to keep his compatriots on board as the inevitable pushback to his reforms roils the streets. It will be a very tall order indeed. Happily for him, though, with the European economy on an upswing, there should be some external relief to France’s pain. And hey, he ain’t Theresa May, so things look comparatively bright for him.

 

 

Is This The Bonfire of Regulations?

We’ve all heard the stories of island natives who built ever-greater idols to their gods while despoiling their environment and ultimately destroying their society. The true tales of Easter Island join the wondrous legends of virgins thrown into volcanoes or holocausts to vengeful gods.

Last Wednesday morning, I rose to see an odd cloud formation hovering over London through my window. I quickly realised it was not a cloud, but a dense plume of smoke drifting westwards on the wind. Switching on the television, I saw images of the massive fire in Grenfell Tower, a high-rise residential just to the north.

The final death toll is still not known, and police say they may never be able to identify all the bodies they find in the wreckage. To universal acclaim, the emergency services responded with speed and courage, just as they had in the recent terrorist attacks. The community has opened its arms to the hundreds of victims, offering them food, clothing, shelter and money, via a fund-raising drive sponsored by a local newspaper. And the government has promised an inquiry, to get to the root of the fire’s cause.

However, very quickly, it emerged that residents had been warning authorities for years of the building’s dangerous conditions, to no avail. Experts had cautioned that the cladding used in the tower’s recent renovation, and many other high-rises, was a fire risk. Repeatedly, their calls went unheeded. While safer material would have raised the refurbishment cost by a paltry £5,000 – or less than £100 per life lost so far – politicians appear to have either resisted measures to restrict the use of cheaper materials, or taken a light-touch approach to enforcement, so as to encourage investment.

Such regulations and constraints on the movement of private business have been in the crosshairs of politicians for the last generation, with every instance of deregulation seen as an act of liberation from an oppressive state. Whether they speak of draining the swamp, as Donald Trump does, or of ‘bonfires of regulations,’ as has been the preference in the UK, politicians have taken to describing regulations as evil curses that must be purged. Yet as we now see, the market’s Savonarolas can extract a high price in human suffering.

After the fire, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for some of London’s vacant luxury homes to be requisitioned in order to house the hundreds of people left homeless by the fire. This measure was opposed on the grounds it would violate the legal rights of the owners. You get the logic. But take a step back and imagine yourself living in another time and place: a future anthropologist, beholding an ancient civilisation that left people in the streets rather than violate the sanctity of empty homes.

Of course, the argument for maintaining market principles at all cost is that they will lead to faster economic growth, ultimately benefiting us all. Yet even if we believe that, the conviction makes us resemble those ancient island natives much more than we would like to think. There was a rationale to the sacrifice of human lives before their idols, and for as long as the people believed their gods were happy, social order was maintained . So it goes today. For as long as we all believe in private property, the market can function. The wage of that faith is that sometimes, human lives must be sacrificed. 

In my new book, Twilight of the Money Gods, I look at the record of modern history, in which such things as famines were allowed to run their course on the grounds that to intervene would have distorted the market’s emergence. When our modern campaigns to create market societies are compared to the religious crusades of old, we reveal ourselves to be as willing as our ancestors to sacrifice human lives in the defense of the beliefs and principles we hold sacred.

As with any religion, our code justifies itself by saying that the sacrifice will serve us well. Islamist martyrs blow themselves up to attain eternal life, we accept that some people may burn in towering pyres. Stick with it through the pain and suffering, we hear time and again, for then like the ancient Jews we will pass through the sea to a Promised Land of abundance.

‘The sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath’ Christ told his followers. It’s a useful bit of wisdom for latter-day apostles of market fundamentalism. The market was made for man, and the notion that we should always adjust our lives to fit market dictates is just that, a notion. Clinging to it at all cost will lead the way of Savonarola. Like any religion, the message of our economic doctrine will only take root if the soil which receives the seed has been made receptive. If it is barren, the seed dies. And today, the people who can still see the Promised Land dwindles by the year, as our slavish devotion to the miracle of the free market leads us to tolerate societies in which inequality worsens by the day, and the poor are left to fend for themselves. If the market fundamentalists ignore the omens, they may one day find everyone starts looking for new gods.