Economists and Latin

Image: David Pimentel
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By LUIZ SERGIO CANÁRIO*

Economics is too important a thing to be left in the hands of economists and their language for starters.

Latin, as everyone knows, was the language spoken in the Roman Empire. The Catholic religion, having been born in that empire, soon adopted Latin as its official language. Masses were spoken in Latin from the 1960th century until the XNUMXs, when the Second Vatican Council abolished the obligation of Mass in Latin. In addition to the language, another curious aspect is that the priests said mass with their backs to those present.

A Bible, sacred book of Christians and other religions, was translated from several ancient languages ​​into Latin in the fourth century and was only translated into another language between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century is what frees the Bible from Latin and allows it to be translated into the language that is spoken.

A Christian in the Middle Ages went to mass every Sunday, but he didn't understand anything the priest was saying, because it was in Latin, and he was talking backwards. Also, if he could read, could he not himself have known what was written in the Bible because I couldn't read Latin. Believers at that time had to believe priests and scholars about the content of their faith. And since it was the priests who understood God's designs, the lives of the faithful were controlled by a church that he had no idea what he was saying and writing.

The less the people understood about all that, the easier it was to convince them that there was the truth. If god was the light, the priests were the ones who held the lantern illuminating which path should be followed. But, despite illuminating the path supposedly chosen by god, the priests were at the service of the powerful. The illuminated path was what interested them.

Next to this is the relationship of economists with society today. They see themselves in the role of priests of a mystical universe with rituals and scriptures that only they and the initiates are capable of understanding and interpreting for the rest of humanity.

Let's see a small excerpt from Petrobras' communiqué dealing with the new pricing policy, detached from international fuel prices, certainly written by a learned economist, a great connoisseur of the intricacies of fuel prices: “The commercial strategy uses market references such as: (the ) the customer's alternative cost, as a value to be prioritized in pricing, and (b) the marginal value for Petrobras. The customer's alternative cost includes the main supply alternatives, whether suppliers of the same products or substitute products, while the marginal value for Petrobras is based on the opportunity cost given the various alternatives for the company, including production, imports and exports of the said product and/or of the oils used in refining”.

Did you understand? Apparently this was not written so that an ordinary person, a literate citizen, would understand something. It is written in a strange language, the language is Portuguese, but it could be written in Latin. The effect would be the same. We commoners need someone to translate this into something we can understand. In the same way that twelfth-century Catholics needed priests and scholars in the evangelicals. Whatever that means, it is of no use for us, the people, to understand Petrobras' commercial strategy.

Another illustrative passage is this statement by the Executive Secretary of the Ministry of Finance, Gabriel Galípolo, in an interview with Infomoney on March 27, 2023, talking about the new fiscal rule: “The rule of offering some predictability about spending offers, in a smart way, this kind of anticyclicality by reflexivity. As you are not going to spend more when you are growing or cut expenses when you are falling, it is countercyclical playing at a standstill”.

Following the medieval tradition, economists often feel that they are the guides who bring the light that illuminates the paths, just like the tenth-century priests. And the role of the economist is to bring to light the consequences of each of society's choices”.

The economic rule, like the Bible in Latin, it is who determines the size of democracy. And who are the guardians of that rule, beyond the reach of the commons? It could be the medieval priests, but it's the economists. And, like the priests of the ninth century, they are the ones who bring sunlight to illuminate the consequences of our choices.

In some situations economic decisions are technical, so they can only be conducted, interpreted and produced by those who master the techniques. Like those who knew the Bible. Roberto Campos Neto, current president of the Central Bank, in an interview for Gazeta do Povo on 17/05/2023: “The Central Bank acts in a very technical way and, since 2019, expresses itself in its minutes when it verifies a fiscal vulnerability”. still he does not Infomoney of 25/05/2023: “The Central Bank has a technical horizon of action that differs many times from the political cycle, but which maximizes the result for society in the long term”

The old and good way of mediating conflicts and making decisions in society, politics, does not contaminate the technical decisions of the independent and autonomous BC. As if that could be true and was possible.

In the book Thinking like an economist, US professor Gregory Mankiw writes very illustratively: “Why economists disagree: Economists often give conflicting policy advice. They sometimes disagree about the validity of alternative positive theories about the world. They may have different values ​​and therefore different normative views of what policy should try to accomplish. However, there are many propositions on which most economists agree.”

“Propositions on which most economists agree (and % agree): The gap between Social Security funds and expenditures will become unsustainably large over the next fifty years if current policies remain unchanged. (85%). A large federal budget deficit has an adverse effect on the economy. (83%). A minimum wage increases unemployment among young and unskilled workers. (79%). Effluent taxes and tradable pollution permits represent a better approach to pollution control than the imposition of pollution caps. (78%)”.

This preamble is not so that economists will be taken as dishonest deceivers. Just as we cannot say that all the priests of the Middle Ages were. The issue is that both, keeping the due differences in science, method and history, tend to think that their respective knowledge is not within the reach of common people's understanding. And they speak a quasi-dialect of their own, or Latin, to keep ordinary citizens away from discussions and decision-making.

It turns out that the economy, unlike religion, which is a matter of faith, does not interfere in the mystical sphere, in each one's beliefs, but in our material lives. Therefore, it is inescapably completely immersed in the political sphere. Regardless of the economist's affiliation with one or another current of economic thought, his ideas, if taken up by the government, affect the lives of all of us. So we need to understand them in detail.

Decisions about public policy, including economic policy, are obviously always political, not technical. These are always decisions that have to be taken by some instance of the government. And that is why they can and should be made public, by the people, so that the government and parliament can be pressured to make the decision that is most fair and meets the interests of the people.

We cannot leave concentrated economic decisions in the hands of economists. And this has happened because there is the idea that economics is a very complicated subject and that nobody can understand in order to have an opinion. This helps to create a common sense that leaves the debate on issues of interest to society in the hands of economists. Like the priests of the Middle Ages, an important part of the economists of our time generally shed light on, or bring sunlight to, the policies that are of interest to a certain sector of society. Or social class.

This creates myths such as fiscal responsibility, a spending ceiling, a spending state, limits on government debt, interest rates to lower inflation and so on, so popular and proclaimed daily by the National Journal.

For each of these myths there are debates among economists themselves. If neoliberalism, the dominant economic theory in capitalism today, speaks of a minimal state, those who are based on the economic theory proposed by Keynes speak of a state capable of promoting the economy, intervening in economic decisions. Keynes's theory was a guide for public policies after the 1929 crisis, which resulted in post-World War II economic growth. It made it look like capitalism might manage to bring well-being to the entire planet. The crises inherent in capitalism showed the limits of Keynes' theory, which was replaced by neoliberal theory, which also showed its inability to resolve crises.

It should be noted that the apparent contradiction about the role of the State is indeed apparent. In practice, these are two different views of where the heavy hand of the state should be present. For neoliberals, the state must intervene heavily to guarantee the freedom of the market, which needs to function freely to fulfill its role. Keynesians understand that the state induces growth and must intervene to invest and guarantee a minimum of rights to the people. Even if it imposes limits to the free functioning of the market. This vision resulted in the construction of welfare states, mainly in Europe.

On the issue of public debt, the theory known as MMT, which stands for Modern Monetary Theory, says that there are no limits to the growth of public debt in countries that issue their own currency, such as Brazil. The theory that has been central to economic policy decisions states that the country cannot borrow more than 80% of GDP. Taking one course or the other is a political decision. There are theoretical and practical references to follow in one direction or another. If you don't understand what one and the other represents in order to be able to participate in decisions, those who understand make the decision for all of us.

Economics is a social science. There are many ways to see the world. The decision about what form we will state as the one that will guide government decisions is a political one. An exact science only admits one answer to each question. Economics is not an exact science. Nor is it something impenetrable like the mass and Bible in the Middle Ages. Economists and policy makers cannot talk with their backs to the people. They have to speak head-on and speaking a language that allows society to understand the decisions that are being taken and can interfere in the debate, however profound it may be.

Someone once said that economics is too important to be left in the hands of economists. Catholics got rid of Masses in Latin and the Bible in Latin and the priests speaking with their backs turned. Let's demand that “Latin” ceases to be the language spoken by economists. We need to participate in the entire public policy debate, including economic policy.

*Luiz Sergio Canario is a master's student in political economy at UFABC.


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