Haruspicy, Haruspices and Macroeconomic Policy

“This new learning amazes me, Sir Bedevere. Explain again how sheep’s bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes.” – King Arthur

Time for a brief lesson in Roman history. I promise that I will make it down to Earth and interesting for those of you who’ve no patience for the subject. It is important that you understand certain facets of antiquity, as they are entirely necessary for a firm understanding of orthodox views of recessions, unemployment, extreme income inequality, financial crises and poverty. Lastly, before we begin, it is important to note that many ancient cultures practiced Haruspicy, or various forms of it. Solely for the sake of brevity, our focus will be on the Roman culture.

The Roman religion consisted of many gods and goddesses. There were the major deities that most of you are familiar with, like Jupiter, Neptune, Mercury, Venus et al., and there were also various other gods and goddesses who performed micro functions. Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, was especially worshiped by gladiators. There was Occator, the god of hoeing – in case farmers had a particularly troublesome time with weed growth in their crops, Pomona, the goddess of fruit, Febris, the goddess who helped to alleviate fevers, Victoria, the goddess of victory and Segetia, the goddess of grain crops that ripen only aboveground, but not below. If there were a grain crop that ripened below ground somewhere, then that was another deity’s territory. In fact, there were so many gods and goddesses, quite a few borrowed from the Celts, Egyptians and other peoples, that they cannot all be listed here. You might think that having so many deities, especially for weird things like one whose only purpose was a one off – causing Hannibal to retreat from the city gates of Rome, is nothing short of ridiculous. But, you know how today we say “There’s an app for that”? Well, the Romans would say “There’s a deity for that” and in the case of Hannibal retreating from the city gates of Rome, that deity was the aptly named Rediculus. Believe it or not. Before we continue with the main point, let’s have a quick look at Roman calendars and festivals just for fun and as a point of interest.

Like most people today, the Romans could count. Furthermore, since they had many gods, festivals and words to describe seasons, they devised a naming convention for the months of the year that we still use today. Originally, the Roman calendar contained ten months. The last four months were simply referred to by numbers. In Latin, the numbers seven through ten are:

septem – 7
octo – 8
novem – 9
decem – 10

hence, September, October, November, December – September being the seventh month of the year, October being the eighth and so on. However, ten months was entirely wrong, so when a fellow whom we all know named Julius Caesar came along, he reformed the calendar in 46 BC and in this new form, the calendar had 365 days with every fourth year having 366. Smart guy. Julius Caesar, as a person, might have been many questionable things, but one of those things he wasn’t was stupid – except, of course, for ignoring the warnings from his wife and that guy about the Ides of March. But, we won’t get into that here. Incidentally, the month of March was named after the god, Mars: March – Mars. He added two months, the seventh month, July, was named in honour of him: Julius – July. Caesar adopted a young man named Octavius who, upon Caesar’s death and after a successful war with Marc Antony for power, became the first Roman emperor and his name was then changed to Augustus Caesar. In 8 BC, the eighth month was named in his honour: Augustus – August. Since the Romans believed that the emperor was a god in human skin, when they died the emperors were worshipped. Thus, the naming convention of the months didn’t violate precedence. So, in summary:

January: Janus, the god of doors and gates

February: Februalia, the Roman festival of purification. Sacrifices were made to atone for sins.

March: Mars, the god of war

April: Aperire, Latin verb – “to open” meaning flower buds, tree buds

May: Maia, the goddess of plant growth

June: Junius, Latin for the goddess Juno

July: named in honour of Julius Caesar

August: named in honour of Augustus Caesar

September: septem, Latin for the number seven

October: octo, Latin for the number eight

November: novem, Latin for the number nine

December: decem, Latin for the number ten

And there you have it. Not macroeconomics, but you now know, if you didn’t beforehand, why the months are named the way they are. Fun!

Anyway…

The Romans held a myriad of festivals and other goings on throughout the year to honour and worship the gods. The two most relevant events to modern mankind occurred in December of every year. The first was called the Festival of Saturnalia quickly followed by the birthday celebrations of Sol Invictus.

The Saturnalia festival began on December 17th and ran through December 23rd. It was a major holiday for the Romans beginning with sacrifices at the temple of Saturn. There was gift-giving, drinking, gambling and an array of celebratory fervor. Slave owners even provided service for their slaves at the supper table. Everything was upside-down and awesome. And so, that was fun. Everyone looked forward to the festival for obvious reasons. It was “the most wonderful time of year” where cries of “Have yourself a merry little Saturnalia!” were heard everywhere. It was “jingle bells” throughout the city of Rome. The festival was so anticipated that two weeks prior, people would “deck the halls”. Strangers from foreign lands, or those afflicted with chronic depression, would ask others why they were so damn happy and the happy people would reply, “’Tis the season to be jolly!” Witnesses to the preparations observed: You know, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Saturnalia everywhere you go!” I tell you, between the 17th and the 23rd of December, Rome truly became a “winter wonderland”.

After the Saturnalia festivities came the 24th of December which was the eve of the birth of Sol Invictus, followed by the Day of Sol Invictus on the 25th of December. Sol in Latin is “sun” and “invictus” means unconquered. Thus, December 25th was the birthday of the sun god Sol Invictus, the “unconquered sun”. Change the vowel “u” in the word sun to an “o” and you get the birthday of the unconquered “son”, or in modern terms, “Christmas Day”. Christ – Jesus. Mas – Mass. Hence, the Day of Christ’s Mass – His birthday celebrations. In layperson’s terms, and without wandering too deep into events, when Rome became Christian which made it safe to be Christian, Christians wished to convert pagans to Christianity. (Whew! That was a mouthful, wasn’t it?) Pagans were reluctant to just give up their deeply held religious beliefs, much like mainstream economists. By keeping the pagan holidays and the sun god intact, but simply claiming that Sol Invictus was, in fact, Jesus, the unconquered Son of God, many pagans were quite satisfied with the explanation and accepted the deal. So, thanks to these outreach efforts, today, when December rolls around, Christmas time is here again and everyone celebrates the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December, the birthday of the sun god Sol Invictus, even though Jesus is not the sun god and was most likely born in some other month entirely. This is not to say that Jesus is a pagan god, but rather, the Christmas season itself and Christmas Day are pagan holidays, renamed to evangelize pagans who have been dead for nearly 2,000 years. And so, there we have that. Now then, back to the point.

There were many requirements for worship of the gods, interpreting omens and their will for humans. To interpret omens, the Romans consulted a person trained in examining the calls, flight and behaviour of birds for clues; a practitioner called an augur. There was also another profession lower on the scale of religious significance than that of an augur, yet necessary to determine the will of the gods by inspecting the entrails of birds and certain animals like sheep. The entrail specialist was called a haruspex (plural: haruspices). His profession, like an augur, was also that of a mystic, and this mysticism was called Haruspicy. The Roman Haruspicy school of thought and its set of instructions for how the will of the gods should be divined, was directly handed down from the Etruscans to the Romans who then left it largely intact. The Etruscan School of Haruspicy thus became the mainstream (orthodox) haurspicy viewpoint until Rome cast it and all pagan religious practices aside when it converted to Christianity many years later. However, the practice itself did not cease, persisting well into the middle ages.

The Romans considered extraordinary events in nature to be omens, defining the events as “portenta”. Should an extraordinary natural event occur, such as a lightning strike on one’s home, earthquake, violent storm, a comet or asteroid impact, the Romans consulted the haruspex for assistance in determining the meaning of the event in question, and afterwards, the haruspex gave them advice on how to avoid the pitfalls or evil of the event. It was the will of the gods that the event occurred and so, one needed to know how to avoid the wrath about to set down on one’s head, you see. The haruspex would sacrifice a bird or sheep then open the body and examine the insides: of particular interest was the liver. Only the trained eye of the haruspex could examine the condition of the entrails and understand what that condition suggested. Knowing the will of the deity, he could then create policy for the person to follow. Any attempt by members of the general public to interpret the entrails was disregarded as ignorant tomfoolery.

Divining the will of the gods took serious education and study. It was a complex, serious business and Haruspicy wasn’t something that just any person could understand. Certainly, a person might grasp the basic concepts, but actual interpretation of and policy derived from the liver of a sheep or the bowels of a duck was the sole purview of the professional haruspex. It was so complex and so important that even political officials sought the advice of haruspices to determine appropriate policy.

The Roman senate, by decree, required that ten Etruscan youths of the principle families from each of the states be educated in the profession, ensuring that there would be no future shortage of advisors.

Later on in the imperial days of Rome, the practice sort of waned and the emperor Claudius sought to revive its practice and so ordered the Roman Senate to decree that religious professionals must examine the profession and determine what the most important elements of it were, so that it could be kept alive. Thus, the roots of what would eventually become modern mainstream macroeconomics were solidified. Of course, people will think I am being a bit facetious or abrasive when I say that. But I would ask you to consider a few things.

What is modern mainstream economic thought? It is mysticism and nothing more elegant than that. A quick look at DSGE will reveal to any sane person that DSGE is mysticism. You take one single man and call him the representative agent. He knows everything. He knows when to buy and when to sell. He knows exactly when the right time is to buy a home and when not to. He knows what he wants at all times. Oh, and there’s no money in the economy, but the government manages to deficit spend, tax and borrow, and the central bank can create inflation.

Mysticism!

How about this: Japan’s economy experiences a downturn. Krugman instinctively sees this as “portenta” – an omen of the market. Krugman inspects the entrails of his models and the bowels tell him that what Japan needs to do is some QE to boost inflation and kick start the economy in order to overcome the pitfalls associated with the omen. Never mind the reality that banks cannot lend out reserves. He tells Japan to go for it and it doesn’t work. Fiscal policy comes into play and deficit spending lifts Japan out of the problem, but Krugman fails to acknowledge the reality, claiming that the effects of fiscal policy were really the effects of QE and, therefore, his “predictions” were accurate after all. The entrails of his models revealed the truth.

Mysticism!

You have economists out there telling us that there is only so much “money” in the world and “money” is just a veil over the economy that hides the economy’s true nature and that nature (the will of the market) must be uncovered. They tell you that US Dollars don’t come from the US government, but that they arise mysteriously out of nowhere when the market gods increase GDP. You have economists that completely ignore the fact that human beings are affected by economic policy – “Poverty is the will of the gods, you know. We can’t do anything about it. We all must sacrifice.” They create these ridiculous models which are nothing more than mathematics applied to complete and utter fantasy and then derive policy which affects each and every one of us. When it fails, they say, “Nothing to do with me.”

Mainstream economists as a rule, first and foremost, assume that government is almost always bad. Then they teach students that the national government is the evil, dark god of the underworld and the market is the god of prosperity. Business is the many minor gods. It is the will of the market and business that must be uncovered and to do that, you have to inspect the entrails of economic models before one can derive proper macroeconomic policy and avoid the pitfalls of ill omens that the market gives off.

Mysticism!

Mainstream economics is the modernized Etruscan School of Haruspicy. It is a religion – not science. And the religion of economics has several denominations, from Austrian to Neo-Keynesian. I wish to be clear, so I’ll state the following as a paragraph all its own:

Instead of sacrificing an animal and examining the entrails to uncover the will of the gods when extraordinary natural events occur and then deriving policy from the investigation of the bowels, mainstream economists consider recessions and financial crises to be the will of the market gods. They are extraordinary natural events (bad omens) and economists must examine the entrails of their models to uncover the will of the market and from that nonsense, they derive absolutely worthless economic policy which then sacrifices humans, instead of birds and sheep, to the inflation god NAIRU – human sacrifice which manifests as involuntary unemployment.

That is mysticism. That is modern Haruspicy. It is not science. It is not macroeconomics.

It baffles me that liberals cry, “Science! We need science!” concerning everything in politics, but for something so utterly important as economics, mysticism and pagan beliefs in market gods and ill omens are quite acceptable. I mean, seriously – are you really willing to trust your job, family and future to this mystical bullshit? Think about it. Mainstream economists are nothing but pontifices of a pagan religion, or more accurately, haruspices. Nothing to do with reality, nothing to do with science, everything to do with mysticism.

Paul Krugman is a haruspex.

“This new learning amazes me, Sir Krugman. Explain again how QE might be employed to create inflation.” – (Insert name of President here)

I, on the other hand, am not a haruspex. MMT crosses the line into science – a place where pagan mystics like Paul Krugman simply refuse to go.