CovidDiary Day 12 (Weds 1st April 2020)

A purse inscribed with the words, “Remember the Poore” (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: Feast and Fast Exhibition; Photo: Simeon Burke)

Reading the news about football clubs who are placing non-playing staff on furlough, I can’t help but reflect on the moral state of our contemporary economy. I am left feeling pretty depressed.

I’m depressed at the absolute prioritisation of profit over people. As Julian Knight (MP) has put it, “This exposes the crazy economics in English football and the moral vacuum at its centre…It sticks in the throat”.

We have made the acquisition of capital itself a virtue. At the same time, we appear to have abandoned those true virtues of philanthropy, generosity and helping one’s fellow man.

But I’m also saddened that it took a crisis such as the current one to reveal this order of things to me. I confess to an uncaring apathy. I don’t think it’s self-flagellatory to say that I am partly implicated in this mess as I have enjoyed and followed these clubs for many years.

I want to be clear that I am not against the acquisition of wealth per se. I also think that any salary that is offered to non-playing staff should be done so voluntarily. I could partly sympathise with Corbyn’s harsh words towards the billionaires in election season last year. While I am slightly wary of actions taken by the state on this front, I do wonder if our taxation system is working as it should, particularly as many avoid taxes through off-shore accounts and the like.

Nor am I, at this point, willing to say we should scrap capitalism altogether. It’s the best system that we have, which is not to say it is a perfect one. As one commentator humorously relayed today, “Coronavirustide is ‘capitalism’s Lent'”. Indeed, capitalism needs serious re-thinking and serious chastening through virtues like generosity and philanthropy.

Tom Holland discusses Basil the Great and his brother Gregory of Nyssa in his chapter on Charity (Image Credit: The Times).

The history of Christianity has much to teach us here. I am reminded of Tom Holland’s wonderful chapter on Charity in his book Dominion. Holland argues that with Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, we find examples of individuals who embodied charity. As Holland explains, the virtue of generosity they took up was established on a realistic anthropology:

Do not despise these people in their abjection; do not think they merit no respect…Reflect on who they are, and you will understand their dignity; they have taken upon them the person of the Saviour. For he, the compassionate, has given them his own person.

Gregory, On the Love of the Poor 1

God’s love for the poor and outcast, created just as much in his image as you or I, demands a similar ethic of love and generosity. For Gregory and Basil, this worked itself out, as Holland demonstrates, in opposition to the slavetrade. For Martin of Tours, it led to a life of poverty and associating with the lepers and lowly. For other Christians, it involved rescuing the most defenceless of all—unwanted children (often girls) exposed to the elements and left to die.

There are countless chapters of Christian philanthropy throughout the centuries (one of my favourites is the Earl of Shaftesbury). Uniting most, or all of these chapters, though, is the conviction of the inherent dignity of every human person, whether wealthy football player or casual catering staff. As the words emblazoned on the 17th century purse in the photo above remind us (echoing Paul’s own to the Galatians), “remember the poore”.

****

Returning to the subject at hand, I understand that billionaires often make their billions through a bright and novel idea that changes society. At the same time, there is nothing “bright” about doing so when one’s workers are on zero-hour contracts.

Thankfully, there are some very generous billionaires out there. I think of Bill Gates who, with other billionaires, plans to give all of his wealth away. In the context of sport, I am also gladdened when I hear that Juventus’s team and manager have chosen to freeze their wages for four months and Barcelona players have taken a 70% pay cut so that staff receive pay.

Amidst the greed of the “normal” status quo, then, are these some of the shoots emerging in this strange Spring of Change?

CovidDiary Day 11 (Tues 31st March 2020)

For all of us, the pandemic will be an experience to get through, to survive before things return “to normal”. We should all be involved in this effort to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, no question.

At the same time, and I don’t wish to say this callously, I think it is also important to consider that this pandemic is “not just a disaster to get through, but a moment to seize and change the world”.

OK, that’s perhaps a grand way of putting it. In less grandiose terms, perhaps, these times offer an opportunity to allow ourselves to be changed.

As I reflect on this shift in perspective—on the pandemic as a moment of change and opportunity—I think at one level of the massive structural changes that are happening in the UK:

  1. the intervention of the state and the medical and economic guarantees it has made (which I reflect on here)
  2. the changing nature of capitalism
  3. the public recognition of those we so easily took for granted, including NHS nurses and doctors, carers, restaurant owners, delivery drivers, cleaners. The scale of this recognition is at biblical proportions (“the last shall become first”).
  4. relatedly, our prioritisation of the elderly and vulnerable in public health policy

Other developments stare us in the face just waiting for those in power to do something. There is, for instance, a desperate need for a social stimulus to support charities and non-for-profits to carry out their important work in promoting social cohesion and care (for more on this, and the need for the government to let charities register more quickly and so receive gift aid status and to lessen the time for DBS checks, listen to Will Tanner between 19:00 and 32:00 here).

But at another level, I am thinking of transformation at the personal level. I have recently noticed a shift in my own habits, thinking and attitudes, and even some rare moments of moral insight.

The hesitant but unmistakeable wave to the bus driver on my morning walk. The conversation with the Sainsbury steward. The nod to the cleaner who passes my window in the morning.

I become more aware of people around me. Shared suffering creates this kind of solidarity. It reminds me of our inter-connectedness. Deeper still, it also offers an opportunity to create habits that work against the default mode of selfishness, to embody practices that go against the grain of modern life. In the time of the pandemic, there are more readily available, more pressing opportunities to look beyond myself and so challenge the prevailing individualism of late-modern life.

This condition naturally arises from a consciousness of shared fragility—the potential to be a carrier of the virus and so infect others, regardless of whether or not they are a stranger, is strong. As Peter Franklin puts it, “There’s nothing like a contagious disease to remind us that individual actions have collective consequences”.

So I give thanks for these moments of change amidst all the difficulty of this season in our national and global life.

******

Since starting these diary entries, I have reflected on whether the pandemic is an abnormal time or whether, in fact, we are living in “the normal times” (I was convinced more towards the latter point when listening to Rowan Williams discuss the plight of those in the majority world, for whom the conditions of the plague are, at least materially, no different from their daily reality; full episode here).

But I’ve now come to a different conclusion. Or at least, a different way of looking at the matter. What if strained times such as these offer us the opportunity to re-think and re-shape the normal?

This isn’t to instrumentalise the pandemic. Rather, it is to reflect carefully and candidly on the social, economic and spiritual implications of the situation in which we find ourselves.

Of course these are abnormal times with their sad but necessary blend of spatial distancing and social isolation. And we hope for a return to “peace time” and an end to the virus and the tragic suffering and loss of life it has caused.

What if, in the midst of the survival, the mitigation, the spatial distancing and self-isolating, we also took time to re-think the “normal” order of things?

To challenge our assumptions not only about how our world might look, but about how I, how we, might be in it?

I think we have the chance to not only re-imagine the macro-structures of our society and world, but to also re-conceive of the individual habits, attitudes and desires of our own hearts (more on that in this wonderful piece).

All along, we assume that things will return to normal. And in medical terms, we certainly hope that will be soon. But what if the new normal we return to, will in some sense, be new? How, then, would we want to shape it?

By all means, let’s first and foremost survive and protect lives.

But please forgive me if I am also interested to see what new shoots might be growing up…and consider how I might tend to them in the days ahead.

CovidDiary Day 6 (Thurs March 26th 2020)

LockdownTV from Unherd (Elizabeth Oldfield b-right)

A brief post to flag up the stimulating conversations happening over at Unherd on #LockdownTV. Today’s episode focussed on the virus and the environment. The climate is a fraught enough topic in normal circumstances without needing to throw in a global pandemic. In the anxious times we’re living in at the moment, it has been sad and frustrating to sometimes see the issues of the climate be handled so badly by some environmentalists. Take for instance the recent XR posters stating that “humans are the problem and Corona is the cure”. This is deeply disturbing, anti-human and frankly eugenicist stuff.

This was why I was encouraged by Elizabeth Oldfield’s strong contribution to the debate (see the video below). Oldfield rejected the approach outlined above but wisely cautioned against throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We can still use this moment to think about our personal individual decisions as well as the need for governments to re-think global capital’s reliance on fossil fuels.

On the point about individuals taking responsibility, I was encouraged and challenged by Liz’s bridge-building instincts (around 8:50) as she made reference to conservative doyen Roger Scruton’s writings on the environment (Liz makes reference to working transgenerationally and in local contexts that we call home). I also greatly appreciated her refusal to decide between the local and the global by making reference to the interdependence that has arisen so clearly in recent weeks between individuals within communities and between communities across borders.

Check out the video below and have a read of Liz’s most recent post on the issue here. It rightly avoids what she calls the “triumphalist crowing” from some in environmentalist circles just now, while still remaining faithfully and positively committed to the care of creation.

CovidDiary Day 5 (Weds March 25th 2020)

Today’s post is slightly more political so if you’re not into that kind of thing…then be sure to read it!

In the wake of Covid-19, libertarianism appears to be on the back foot. From tacitly enforced government social distancing and isolation, to top-down regulation and intervention in markets and business, it looks in many ways like we are witnessing the limits of the libertarian creed…

From my perspective, this marks a positive development. Before I go on, I want to state some of my premises and define my terms: I am wary of those who place unfailing trust either in the market or in the state—these two poles seem to have the common fatal flaw of misplaced trust and a poorly worked out anthropology. What usually functions as a spectrum moving from more statist solutions to more market-centric ones, on closer inspection appears to bend and meet where these two positions are concerned. And yet this is a broken world. The markets are broken, and the state is broken. Because people are broken. When all is said and done, that’s the baseline, the undercurrent of my thinking on the matter.

What sparked my thinking on libertarianism was seeing this piece from James Kirkup (of The Social Market Foundation) on Unherd today. Kirkup tackles the social elements of libertarianism and argues that it places too much faith in the human individual and, more particularly, errs by attributing too much rationality and kindness to the human agent. We have only to see the response of individuals, pre-lockdown, piling into pubs and ignoring government advice to remain socially distant and save lives. The cracks immediately begin to appear in the rational actor theory underpinning social libertarianism .

Libertarianism also reared its head in today’s first episode of Unherd’s new #LockdownTV, with Timandra Harkness and Tom Chivers discussing whether or not the government’s lockdown strategy is utilitarian (more on that another time…).

The other thing that got me thinking was an interesting virtual discussion I had today with a couple of friends today over the government’s handling of the crisis, particularly as it relates to economics and markets. Few topics make my blood run colder than economics (the maxim “man shall not live on spreadsheets alone” just about sums up my attitude on the matter at the moment). But I felt compelled to weigh in…

In the course of the discussion, my friends argued that the market operates as a super intelligence that should regulate itself. Why, they argued, is the government (particularly a Conservative one) intervening with high spending and borrowing when this will only lead to economic decline in the medium to long term? And surely this intervention will result in ineffective, bad businesses being kept alive through government aid when, if the markets were left to run their course, they would naturally and rightly die a death.

I want to engage in a bit of bridge-building here, first.

To begin with, I can agree and acknowledge that free markets have a way of showing up ineffectively run business. There might be some valid concerns here about who is being supported…should the whiskey shop or the boutique sunglasses store on my street receive the 80% government funding to cover wages, we might ask?

Then and again, these businesses (and many like them) are already facing difficulty as a result of being deemed non-essential. They might be able to pay their staffs salaries through the Job Retention Scheme, but the result of being shut for weeks, and probably months, will probably spell the end for them already. Are they to be punished for events outside of their control?

More gravely, Libertarian economics assumes that the market will unfailingly tell us what businesses should survive. But there are clearly some businesses that through no fault of their own have fallen into difficult times and require state intervention. The airline business is just one such example (though there are many). A halt on flights due to lockdown means that no one can fly; with no passengers due to the virus, airlines face severe losses. The UK government has unveiled £330bn of loans to airlines and has recently been considering buying equity stakes. The economic situation of airlines like BA is not the result of poor management but a freak virus.

So I have some practical doubts around the ability of the market to decide which businesses should survive.

But what about moral arguments that often circulate and have to do with liberty from state intervention? To be sure, I value liberty highly. We must remember, I think, that to place absolute faith in the state causes all sorts of problems, ranging from a loss of personal responsibility to more extreme forms of collectivisation that remove the dignity and individuality of the human person by apportioning to everyone the same product (usually having the quality of being equally substandard). I have family who grew up in the Soviet Union and believe me when they say they would rather not return to such a state of political economy.

But, as ever, there are two ways to fall off the horse. If we can place too much faith in the state, then we can also do the same with markets. The credo of economic libertarianism is the freedom of markets guided by the invisible hand. This is, of course, an overt reference to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

And yet, as Jesse Norman has powerfully argued, Smith is radically misunderstood when he is claimed as the father of laissez-faire economics (moreover, the invisible hand appears only once in The Wealth of Nations).

Smith, Norman argues, was a proponent of government regulation under certain conditions. In his thought (and in his time), markets operated differently, were embedded and embodied with a set of social norms rather than some calculating “super-intelligence”. As Norman puts it,

markets for Smith are very different to those of economists today. They are not the disembodied mathematical constructs of modern economics and policymaking, and his view of individuals is not that of a desiccated economic atomism. Rather — recalling his insights about language and ethics — markets are living institutions embedded in specific cultures and mediated by social norms and trust. They shape and are shaped by their participants, in a dynamic and evolving way. They often have common features, but they are as different from one another as individual humans are: markets for land and labour and capital, asset markets from product markets and all the innumerable rest of them. Yes, markets typically generate economic value, and they are unmatched in their ability to allocate goods and services and encourage innovation and technological improvement. But…what matters is not the largely empty rhetoric of “free markets”, but the reality of effective competition. And effective competition requires mechanisms that force companies to internalise their own costs and not push them on to others, that bear down on crony capitalism, rent extraction, “insider” vs “outsider” asymmetries of information and power, and political lobbying.

One of the biggest problems I have with libertarian absolute faith in the market, then, is that it’s lost what markets are for. To coin a phrase, markets are for people and people are not for markets.

Pre-Covid, I would have said that I am in favour of capitalism with safety nets (of course we need to define what we mean by capitalism—this article is a good place to start). I did, and still do, advocate greater regulation of companies like Amazon, Uber and Facebook.

But if governments should regulate free markets in “peace time” then a fortiori should they do so in extreme times such as ours, where perfectly good businesses are rent asunder by circumstances beyond their control.

Rather than placing all my faith in the state or in the market, I would want to espouse a realism that acknowledges the inadequacies of both, precisely because both are ultimately human, which is to say socially embedded, institutions. There is much to say here about a constructive view of the relation between market and state. I have already discussed one example above, but here and here are other, albeit different, attempts that are worth engaging with.

If I was to go one step further, and venture beyond economics and into theology, I would want to say that absolute faith is best placed in One who does not fail us. Even when market and state forsake us, He will take us up.

CovidDiary Day 3 (Mon 23rd March 2020)

A brief, isolated walk today was interrupted by this view…

A short post tonight. This evening marks the beginning of the lockdown. My mind is still reeling from the news and what all of this means…for family members, vulnerable friends and loved ones, those facing economic hardship and social isolation, all of whom will struggle immensely in the weeks and months ahead. Tough times await but I do believe this is for the greater good.

To be honest, it’s late and the best use of my time just now is to say my prayers and get to bed.