From the department of weird: “Fewer confessions and new sins“, from BBC News. Apparently the Catholic Church has made up some new sins.

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into Hell”. The new mortal sins were listed by Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti at the end of a week-long training seminar in Rome for priests.”

So here they are:

“Environmental pollution
Genetic manipulation
Accumulating excessive wealth
Inflicting poverty
Drug trafficking and consumption
Morally debatable experiments
Violation of fundamental rights of human nature”

I’m trying not to blaspheme here, but what a minefield. Let’s try to ignore from the start the problem that all the things that they’re trying to avoid here are covered by the good ol’ seven deadlies. Right off the bat, “morally debatable experiments” is semantically identical to “experiments”, so science is a sin. At least “genetic manipulation” fits with the ethos of the Church. I have no idea how one “inflicts poverty”. Define “drug”. Define “rights”. Define “excessive”. Ugh.

Anyway, the economics-related point here is that this made me think of the “value of income” stuff from yesterday. Is it OK to “accumulate excess wealth” if you use it to alleviate poverty, or are we to be banned from accumulating wealth altogether? Is the Church guilty of ignoring the righteous consequences of an expansion in the amount of stuff to go around? If we can’t do productive stuff, will that “inflict poverty”? I feel like this in an implicit damnation of capitalism, but the moral judgment of capitalism – just like the moral judgment of socialism, anarchism or indeed anything – is not that easy.

I actually think it makes it worse that this comes from an obviously traditional institution. It’s great that there are forces out there trying to promote social awareness and conscience, but that list is ridiculous. Give me pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth, and stop trying to be trendy.

Economics is not about money

“The most common misunderstanding about economics is that it is only about money and commerce.”

The beginning seems like a good place to start, and the beginning of the misperception of economics is surely the popular notion that it’s all about money. Where did that arise?

The quotation is from “What Economics Is Not” by Llewellyn Rockwell. Unfortunately, the essay also says:

“This is a confusion sown by economists themselves, who postulate something called “economic man” who possesses a psychological propensity to always behave in ways that maximize wealth.”

Economics is social science, so we have to include an idea of how people behave. One way we do this is to suppose people have some likes and dislikes that their choices seek to satisfy. We suppose our “economic man” will behave in ways that maximize satisfaction.

That seems better than having “economic man” behave randomly: who could argue that we don’t, in fact, try to make the best of what we have? Our problem is that it’s very difficult to decide what people like or dislike. We know that many things affect the way we feel – a new car, sunshine, helping a stranger, being smiled at – and, of course, no two people are exactly alike.

To make matters worse, how would we even know if our “economic man” is striving to maximize satisfaction if we don’t really know what makes him tick? What a huge philosophical question it is, and what an obstacle for economics to have to work with something so elusive as human satisfaction!

How can we recover? Economists often tried to make life much simpler by assuming that people only cared about wealth. Most people probably care about wealth to some degree, and wealth is, mercifully, more measurable than satisfaction, so this assumption shouldn’t be way off the mark. Sadly, once we use the wealth proxy for satisfaction, our “economic man” looks like Rockwell’s, and the misperception deepens.

Why was it deemed necessary to make the wealth-maximizer assumption? That is a question for another day. So, too, is how “economics” came to mean money, wealth or finance in its popular usage. Economics is to the stock market as physics is to your electricity bill – it’s not unrelated, but it’s a big stretch…