the economics of misery

It is agreed, by academics and politicians, if the poor are always to be with us, it had better be grinding poverty.

Last week I spotted an interestingly titled “A strong faith ‘can weaken the economy‘” in The Times (22/8/2013, p. 25).  This was reporting on a recent academic article1 in “Social Psychological and Personality Science” (it is ‘science’ so must be true.).  The first sentence of The Times report reads:

“Too much religion can harm a society’s economy by undermining the drive for financial success, according to study.”

(N.B. see coda below for what the academic article actually says.)

I at first thought this must be some sort of study looking at different countries’ rates of growth vs religiosity or something like that, maybe a counter to the ‘protestant work ethic’.  However, it was instead a study of happiness. basically religious people are happier in general, but most critically poor religious people were, in some cases, most happy of all.

Critically for the non-relgious, richer people are a lot happier than poorer people. Yep, surprise, surprise; despite all those worries about which new SUV to buy, or watching the uncertain future of their stock portfolio, rich people’s woes do not compare with wondering where you are going to find the next meal for your children.

From this The Times report’s conclusion follows, that religion is clearly bad for the economy, because poor people have less incentive to become richer.  I guess this is neo-lberal equivalent of Marx’s “religion is the opium of the masses”.  Well, something that Thatcher and Trotsky could have agreed on.

Strangely, given the rich are happy, surely it would be better if they were less happy and therefore more incentivised to be even richer and thus work harder to grow the economy.  Maybe a better headline would be “Happy rich people ‘can weaken the economy'”?  I wonder why the The Times didn’t report that.

On a similar theme, in yesterday’s Times, on the front page, another episode in the long running feckless poor saga, with a headline “Benefits fuel workshy culture, says pensions czar” (27/8/2013, p.1), reporting on a statement from Lord Hutton, who was once part of the Blair government and now a cross-party peer and the coalition’s pension advisor.

Yes, it is official, poverty is not enough, the only route to economic regeneration and growth is grinding poverty and misery to boot.

Coda — what the academic article actually says

I found a copy of the full article on Southampton’s eprints server.  The actual words in the conclusion, from which The Times makes its summary are:

“Consequently, as long as religiosity fosters anti-wealth norms, it may undermine financial strivings and success both at the individual- and culture-level. This may be a mixed blessing: religiosity may curb ever-needed economic growth but may also thwart individuals and cultures from making risky financial decisions.”

Ignoring the implicit assumption that growth is ‘ever-needed’, it is interesting that The Times headline did not read “A strong faith could have prevented financial crisis“.

Furthermore, the phrase in quotes in the headline ‘can weaken the economy‘ does not actually occur anywhere in the pre-print of the paper.

Two other things were interesting to note.

First, despite the paper’s title and abstract that mentions “religiously diverse cultures“, in fact the study is of 11 European countries (not including the UK)), only one of which (Turkey) is not predominantly Christian.  Interestingly Turkey is one of the countries (with Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands) that showed the opposite trend to the norm.  Given this, maybe The Times headline should have been “Muslim faith can ‘strengthen the economy’“.

Second, it was interesting to note the superficial knowledge of actual religious teaching evidenced in the article.  Following the general European-Christian theme, all the quotes in the paper are Judeo-Christian, and quite rightly the paper numerous cites texts that comfort the poor and warn of the danger of riches (e.g. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”, Mark 10:25).

While this Biblical ‘Bias to the Poor’ (as the late David Shepherd put it), is accurate, the article also cites Moses’ destruction of the Golden Calf in Exodus, which the paper deems to be a parable about gold.  Of course, the point of the story is not about the fact that it is gold but that they are worshiping an idol not the true God, this would have been a problem were it made of gold, clay or Brighton Rock.  Indeed later, the Ark of the Covenant, where the tablets of the law brought down by Moses are stored, incorporates gold and other precious materials (Exodus 25).

Interestingly, given The Times doctored a quote from the article, the article doctors a quote from God, inserting the word ‘golden’ into his command to Moses to go down from the mountain (Exodus 32:7-10).  To be fair, being good academics, the word ‘golden’ is in square brackets, academic speak for “I know it doesn’t really says this, but I’m inventing words to make my point anyway, and hoping you read it without noticing”.

You see, we academics are honest about our deceit. … now I’m sure there is something in the Ten Commandments about that …

  1. J. E. Gebauer, A. D. Nehrlich, C. Sedikides and W. Neberich. The Psychological Benefits of Income are Contingent on Individual-Level and Culture-Level Religiosity. Social Psychological and Personality Science. September 2013, vol. 4 no. 5, pp.569-578.(published online before print December 20, 2012), doi:10.1177/1948550612469819.  abstract at SagePub, full text at Southampton eprints.[back]