3 December 2010

Render unto Ceasar

Now that we are officially in Advent perhaps it is inevitable that your mind turns to Jesus, or perhaps I am just trying to make up for the fact that we have a Toy Story 3 advent calendar in the house this year and I want to believe there is something more meaningful about our foremost national festival. Whatever it is, I thought I would share my growing suspicion that Jesus may have been a green economist.

Of his many quotable quotes perhaps my favourite is 'Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.' This message, like John Ruskin's 'There is no wealth but life', seems redolent of the awe for life's abundance which guides a green approach to the economy. It is also a message against the Protestant work ethic and in favour of a relaxed approach to provisioning that is necessary for the sufficiency economy we are seeking to build. And the beards, long hair and sandals were an obvious clue.

But what about the harder edges of economic life? Did Jesus have anything to say about those? I am partial to the bits of the bible where Jesus ceases to be the rather effete, kindly 'new man' emblazoned on so many Sunday-school walls and really loses his rag. When he rages against the money-changers for example, or berates his friends for dropping asleep when he was in his hour of soul-searching crisis at Gethsemane.

I think Jesus might have been rather smarter about money than he has been given credit for. Remember, 'Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s', Jesus's response when asked whether his followers should pay their taxes to the Roman authority. Last night we had Mary Mellor here in town and she adeptly explained why taxation and money issue are two linked roles of the state, and why Jesus was quite right to say that taxes should be paid back to the issuing authority.

As Mary explains it, you cannot start an economy unless you have something to circulate: issuance of money must precede deposit. The history of money is a history of political authorities from Croesus through Medieval kings right down to the Bank of England issuing money and then taxing it back. The problems we are facing today result from the failure to understand the role taxation plays in enabling circulation, and the privatisation of this right to issue currency (the right of 'seignorage') so that it now belongs to the banks.

Because money now originates in the private sector the public sector cannot exercise the seignorage function and so has to rely on taxation alone to fund expenditure. If the state issued money directly then taxation would be used to prevent excessive circulation and the resulting inflation, rather than being a means to acquire money for investment. Since the UK state will not widen quantitative easing to encompass this function, it can only initiate monetary circulation and enable economic exchange through going into debt itself. Osborne's ideological resistance to this basic economic fact and his determination to eliminate the deficit means that he will choke off limit monetary circulation and destroy the economy.

The other biblical story about currency was Jesus's outburst in the temple, when he attacked the money-changers. Here he was rather less on-message, since temple money might be seen as skin to a local currency. It was exchanged for the national currency but could only be spent within the temple precincts, much as the Stroud Pound can only be spent in Stroud. However, Jesus's objection seems to have been to the inflated prices that were charged for what the temple traders were selling - mainly animals doomed to unpleasant, sacrificial deaths - so as long as pounds sterling and Stroud Pounds are exchanged one-for-one we should stay on the right side of doctrine. Somehow, though, the thought of the advent of Jesus to the Stroud Pound stall, upturning our tables and throwing a wobbly in the middle of town is a peversely appealing one.

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