August 25th, 2009

Paul Krugman has proposed the term “economic purgatory” for the current situation of jobless recovery.

It’s a lost cause I know arguing with Krugman, but let me record a dissent for posterity. I’m no closer to to a mediaeval Catholic than he is, but Dante’s and Aquinas’ concept of purgatory is quite clear. It’s not a half-way house between heaven and hell. In hell you are damned for eternity; that is, if the soul of Hitler is made to reenact in real time the sufferings of all of his victims, for say 20 million man-years, this makes not the slightest dent in the amount of his future sufferings (for infinity – 20m hell-years = infinity). As the Calvinist Jonathan Edwards classically put this repellent doctrine:

When you look forward, you shall see a long forever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all; you will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.

Purgatory on the other hand is a time-limited state of remedial suffering, a celestial boot camp. The inhabitants are eventually saved, and pass into the eternal bliss of heaven. Purgatory will be closed down eventually, after the last mortal human has graduated. So far, the analogy is OK for Krugman: our jobless recovery does put us on the path to the paradise of full employment.

But the suffering in the Catholic purgatory is all necessary. It’s there to work off the stains of sin which almost all the saved still have on their souls at death. The choice of language therefore gives comfort to the moralisers, who like the liquidationist Andrew Mellon in the Depression still see economic misery as a necessary purgative or atonement for past excesses. Keynes and his disciple Krugman have rightly fought against this tendency to expand a commonsense observation about the business or financial cycle – if there’s been too much investment, in railways or fibre-optic cables, it takes a pause before demand catches up – into a complacent general legitimation of failed economic policies. Those who suffer are generally not those responsible for the excesses anyway, so their “punishment” is morally illegitimate, even to Edwards’ horrible God.

So please let’s stick with “jobless recovery”.

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