Wednesday, February 25, 2015

wisdom from unexpected places

Everyone has an opinion on the economy and its future. The trick is sorting the wheat from the chaff. I was surprised to read this in an interview in Saturday's Guardian with Crispin Odey, hedge fund king who manages £9bn of asset, who was giving his generally gloomy assessment of the weeks ahead,

'There is also a sense, Odey continues, that politics are moving faster than markets – as in Greece, where he sympathises with a country that no longer sees the point of continuing the “charade” of adding unpaid interest to an unpayable debt obligation. “It’s Leviticus. It’s the whole idea of jubilee,” he says. “Jubilee was every 50 years in Israel. All debts were written off because otherwise the financial economy strangled the real economy. God got it right.”'

You can read the whole interview here. It's striking not only for its gloomy tone but also for Odey's ability to take the long view of financial trends.

To hear a hedge fund manager calling for a jubilee and suggesting that 'God got it right' is as surprising as it is refreshing. It is not only right to point out that God's economics are better than ours, but also to assert that the financial economy strangles the real one. This is what's been happening for a generation; and we are still living in the fallout of when such arrangement crashes around our ears (as it did in 2008).

Truly wisdom is found in unexpected places!

Friday, February 20, 2015

A cautionary tale about someone's son

I've been pondering this story for a couple of days. It's been a bit stressful in our shelter but we had a good meeting with a senior council official on Wednesday - a pin-prick of light in a dark few days. I then read this story in the Guardian which reminded why I do this and keep shouting about the needs of those we serve through our little project.Then I got an email telling the story I am about to relate.

It concerns a guest of our shelter last year. He was a difficult person but had the prospect of getting his life together after a career as an alcoholic. The email I got was in response to a request for information as to his whereabouts. It told me he was back in prison, due to be released soonish, but he would get no support from the probation service because his sentence wasn't long enough, he'd get no support from the drug and alcohol service because they'd tried once, and the social worker who sent me the email was in the throes of securing an injunction to stop him returning to the one place that might give him sanctuary.

I confess I heard the sound of running water as I read it and pictured people queueing to wash their hands of this man.

Now the social worker might think he's doing the right thing in obtaining the injunction; the relationship between our former guest and the person said social worker is trying to protect is complicated and messy.But I wonder what the prospects are of a man coming out of prison with an alcohol problem, who hasn't worked for quite a long time and has nowhere to live.

It set me thinking about how the safety net we think exists for people like this is in tatters. Lots of hard-pressed people are trying to hold the line in a system that is chronically underfunded and under-staffed. But more than that, a system that is under-appreciated by tax payers - that's us. When I tell stories like this to members of my congregation they are deeply shocked that there is no help available for my friend. However low someone has fallen, there is a feeling that they should be helped to get back on their feet.

This man is someone's son, someone's brother, our neighbour, part of the community in which we live. Yet he's invisible to most of us and will probably be back in prison before the year's end, having committed a more serious offence because the only place offering bed and board is HMP wherever.

What's to be done?

Friday, February 06, 2015

A footnote to the previous post

My old economics teacher at school, George Stanlake, used to tell us that economics was the science of how resources are allocated in a society. That's true. But what you will notice about that definition is that it is very political (I suspect that was George's point, though I never saw it at the time!).

Economics has never been a pure science. It has always been as much a political tool as it is a method for understanding resource allocation.

Is this the reason why Christians have always disagreed on how the economy works, since economics is a footnote to the political stance that shapes the way we each see the world?


Distinctive voices on the economy

There was a flurry of conversation on twitter this morning among baptists about the economy. It arose in the wake of an excellent piece by Maurice Glassman in this week's Church Times (You can read that here). The question was asked whether baptists have anything to contribute to this debate.

Leaving aside the 'me-too' aspect of this, there is a fundamental question about whether any section of the church has a view of these matters. People talk about Catholic Social Teaching (capital letters and all), pointing to a centuries' long tradition of thought and reflection in this field. It might be churlish of me to point out that social teaching is different from, though it might include, economic thinking. But defining terms is quite important here. By economics I think we are talking about the way money is managed by individuals, companies and governments; how work is organised and rewarded; how manufacturing and trading take place; and, in our system, how capital relates to labour and the financial sector to the 'real' economy.

Anglicans published a book last month edited by John Sentamu and called On Rack or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain's Future. It contains some very good, though-provoking essays that could help churches inform their discussion of issues in the run-up to the election this year. In the book there's a good essay by Andrew Sentance, former member of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, who is currently economic adviser to PWC (the accountants who are today getting something of a drubbing from the Commons Public Accounts Committee!).

My feeling about his essay is that it reflects the views of Andrew Sentance (and there's nothing wrong with that) rather than the views of a 'tradition' that stretches back down the centuries. In particular he talks of three key principles that should guide our thinking: sustainable growth, shared prosperity and responsible business. In this, he is in the mainstream of economists in general and what he says invites careful thought - whatever our faith position - but makes no real claim to be distinctly Anglican or Christian.

It was suggested on twitter than we look for a baptist voice in this area. It was pointed out that we probably wouldn't have much to contribute. And there's some truth in that. But maybe a group of baptist economic thinkers would bring something distinctive to their thinking about  the economy derived from their distinctive theology of people and community. But pressed to say what that is, I would find myself floundering.

Last year, I wrote a booklet for Grove Books on Paul and Poverty reflecting on the apostle's distinctive ideas about issues that we would now call 'economic'. In particular, as a baptist who teaches New Testament to theological students, I would want to emphasise Paul's focus on equality among the people of God as an example to the wider society. Now, Andrew Sentance talks about growing inequality in the UK being a major issue facing our society today. He's dead right. But mechanisms for creating greater equality, beyond changes to the tax system, are largely lacking in his prescriptions for policy.

Is there room for a baptist reader in this area? The answer is probably 'yes'. But are there any baptists who could contribute to it? This brings us to the number of books that have been written by Christians of all hues about the economy over the past twenty or thirty years. It would be true to say that pretty much all of them reflect the view of the author rather than the tradition within which that author notionally sits.

I was going to come up with an exhaustive list but cannot think of too many at present. But here's a handful: Brian Griffiths wrote a trenchant defence of free markets from a Christian perspective (he was Margaret Thatcher's favourite economist); E. Philip Davis reflected on the economic crash  without talking about the jubilee which stands at the heart of a biblical understanding God dealing with debt (a fundamental cause of the crash); Jim Wallis weighed in with his astute analysis of the culture that gave rise to the crash; Peter Selby offered incisive reflections on the role of money in our culture. All these offer trenchant views but it's hard to fit any of them into a recognisable strand of Christian tradition; rather they each draw from the Bible and theology, as well as their understanding of economics (whatever strand of that 'science' they are wedded to) and create a unique view.

So, are there any Baptists out there working in the field of economics in universities, city institutions, think tanks or any other field of endeavour who are up for doing some baptist thinking on the economy? It would be really interesting to know...

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

An unexpected and lovely surprise...

Yesterday I discovered that the Churchman (an Anglican theological journal) had run a review of my book, The World of the Early Church. This was a surprise to me as my publisher had not mentioned it. Today I found the review and very nice it is too.

So, thank you to Matthew Crawford of Durham University for such a positive review of my book. I really appreciate it. If anyone knows Matthew, please pass on my thanks...

If you want to read the review it's in Churchman 127 issue 3 2013. Then, having been urged to consult my book, and having had your appetite for it whetted by Matthew Crawford, you could buy it from Wordery or Waterstones or any good bookseller for something less than the £20 cover price.

Thank you...