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Inside Economics

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This is a space for me to comment on Economics both in terms of the specific bits if economics, how the discipline works and the academic politics. I might also be tempted into talking about the economy!

Richard Strauss, Nietzsche and Christianity

Music, Uncategorised Posted on Sat, October 09, 2021 16:46:51

Strauss, Nietzsche and Christianity Richard Strauss Society Newsletter, October 2016. London 62, pages 16-20.

When during my stay in Egypt (1892), I became familiar with the works of Nietzsche, whose polemic against Christianity was particularly to my liking, the antipathy which I had always felt against a religion which relieves the faithful of responsibility for their actions (by means of confession) was confirmed and strengthened.  (Recollections and Reflections, 1949).

It is clear to me that the German nation will achieve new creative energy only by liberating itself from Christianity. Private Diary entry, after the death of Mahler (1911).

Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philologist and philosopher, best known today for his writings from the 1880s, which included “Beyond Good and Evil”, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “The Antichrist”.  His saying “God is dead” has become part of European culture.  He was an atheist who viewed belief in a supernatural God as a comfortable delusion.  Nietzsche had a particular harsh criticism of Christianity.    It was more “otherworldly”, rejecting this world more than other religions – for example Judaism or the Religions of Rome and Greece.  There have, of course, been atheists throughout human history. What differentiated Nietzsche was that he realised that without God, many other cherished beliefs of mankind, such as reason, rationality and morality were without the divine foundation that generations of philosophers (from Plato to Kant) had built upon. He was a controversial figure in the newly unified Germany at this time: his other “untimely” thoughts were a contempt for German nationalism and the anti-Semitism which often accompanied it.  Within less than a decade two composers set his ideas to music: Mahler in his third symphony, and Strauss in his tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, both completed in 1896. Why would any composer be so interested in and inspired by Philosophy?

In the second half of the nineteenth century, philosophy mattered for many German composers.  Composers worried about the aesthetic foundations of music, what made music valuable.  Nietzsche and Wagner had been friends, but fell out because of conflicting views on the nature of music. One dimension of this was the debate about whether music should be “absolute” or “programmatic”.   Nowadays, these debates may seem to be a fuss over nothing much.  However, it was different in the period before 1900.  The young Richard Strauss was part of these lively debates, which had many dimensions.  In the mid 1880s, Strauss had come to adopt a Schopenhauerian view of music as the purest expression of the human will.  He first came across Nietzsche on his Egyptian sojourn in 1893 (as mentioned in the quote) and was captivated and remained a Neitzschian for many years.   This manifested itself mostly in a rejection of the metaphysical ideas cherished by most of his contemporaries and fellow composers.   For example, in a works like Tristan and Isolde, Wagner had put forward the idea of redemption through love, and that love could find its resolution in death.  In Feuersnot, in contrast, love is consummated in the physical act of sex. Humans live in a physical world and there is nothing else.   Joy and fulfilment are to be found in appreciation of the world we live in, not some metaphysical otherworld.

How far did Strauss buy into the Nietzschean world view?  Well, he certainly had a negative view of Christianity. The second quote above says that both Mahler and Wagner both succumbed to the consolation of Christianity. For Strauss, his ideal was:” moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.”  He dedicated his Alpine Symphony to the memory of Mahler.  It is of course a celebration of nature, but also the life (and death) of an artist – the earliest sketches had the working title “Tragedy of an artist” (and also later the more explicitly Nietzschean “The Antichrist”).   In the mid 1890s, Strauss’s new world view is reflected in the company he kept.  John Henry Mackay, the poet who provided Strauss with the lyrics some of one his most successful songs “Morgen!”,  was an anarchist and sexual libertine;  Richard Dehmel, a socialist whose was convicted of blasphemy and his poems banned  (Strauss set  12 of his poems, including Befreit and Arbeitsmann).  Things had moved on a long way from the thirteen year old Strauss who had written a Mass in D Major for mixed chorus in 1877.

However, there is little evidence that Strauss bought into much more than the rejection of the metaphysical and celebration of the imminent.  More important than his love of nature was Strauss’s love of humanity, not in an abstract way, but a love of real human beings and the family.  This was a focus of much of his music: most clearly in the Domestic symphony, Intermezzo, and also in the Die Frau Ohne Schatten.  Indeed,  Willi Schuh’s  Strauss the Early Years starts with a quote from Strauss near the end of his life: “Why don’t people see what is new in my work, how in them, as is found only in Beethoven, the human being visibly plays a part in the work”. In two of his operas, Daphne and the Loves of Danai, the main character rejects the divine to love the mortal. The empress in Die Frau envies the love of the Dyer for his wife.

When Strauss does talk of the “divine”, he is invariably talking about music and art.  In his 1903 essay “on Inspiration”, Strauss wrote:

“Melody as revealed in the greatest works of our classics is one of the most noble gifts which an invisible deity has bestowed on mankind.”

“Mozart’s melodies, Beethoven’s symphonies, Schubert’s songs,  acts two and three of Tristan are symbols in which are revealed the most profound spiritual truths. They are not “invented”, but are “given in their dreams”to those privileged to receive them. Whence they come no one knows, not even their creator, the unconscious mouthpiece of the demiurge.”

 His use of the terms “invisible deity” and “demiurge” indicate a metaphorical use of the terms. The ideas come from “nowhere”. 

Explicit depictions of religion or religious ideas are rare in Strauss. The main exception is of course the opera Salome. However, the libretto is Wilde’s: Strauss’s adaption of the text of Wilde’s play consists of editing it down. In Die Schweigsame Frau, Aminta in her role as Timidia adopts the persona of a devout Catholic girl: the purpose here is one of caricature (both Zweig and Strauss poking fun at the Catholicism of their home towns), despite the fact that in Sir Morosus’s England open Catholicism would have been rare.  Few of the Strauss Lieder have religious content –  for example the Lutheran “Die Ulme zu Hirsau” (1899), but these are more often of classical content – for example the orchestral song “Gesang der Apollopriesterin” (1895).

Throughout his life Strauss read Goethe: towards the end of world war two he read through the entire life works of Goethe (during which time he composed Metamorphosen).  Goethe himself was not an adherent to Christianity (although raised as a Lutheran): he believed in the divine, but saw Christianity of the church as a “hodgepodge of fallacy and violence”.  He is best described as a pantheist and humanist. One can see Strauss’s worldview as being influenced by both Nietzsche and Goethe.  Both rejected the institutional religion of Christianity.  Nietzsche went further and rejected the idea of anything metaphysical, be it reason, truth or god.  Goethe was a child of the 18th century, and still had a general belief in the universal god, seeing it manifested in beauty and art.  Strauss shared the rejection of Christianity of both thinkers. Rejecting the metaphysical, he wanted to celebrate nature and humanity with his music. However, his philosophical views were somewhere in between the two when it came to art and beauty.   He uses the word divine when speaking of great music. Indeed, he uses the Kantian term “thing in itself” when writing about Mozart’s music in 1944:

“Untrammelled by any mundane form, the Mozartian melody is the “Ding an Sich”. It hovers like Plato’s Eros between heaven and earth, between mortality and immortality…”.

To me this indicates that towards the end of his life at least, his view had become perhaps more Goethean than Nietzschean.  He believed that there was something worthwhile and good in the universe: art. 

To conclude, Strauss was clearly not a Christian: he shared the criticism of Christianity of both of his mentors, Nietzsche and Goethe. Whether he was an atheist is harder to pin down. He certainly did not believe in the personal God of religion.  Religion was not a part of his world-view or outlook. However, there is some evidence that, at least in later life, he had the notion that there was something in art that was “not of this world”.  However, this should not be exaggerated.   For much of his life his attention was mainly on celebrating Nature and Humanity and this is what we find most in his music: it inspired Strauss to create his greatest works of art.



Monopsony and the Truck driver shortage.

General economics, Inflation, Uncategorised Posted on Sat, October 09, 2021 16:32:45

One of the big problems with supply chains in many countries across the world in 2021 is a shortage of truck drivers. However, this shortage is not new in the UK and has been building for almost 5 years. One explanation is the nature of the wage-setting process, which means that firms set the wages “too low” in order to maximise profits.

The term “monopsony” was first used by Joan Robinson in her book Imperfect Competition, published in 1932. In fact, she had asked a Cambridge classicist for a proper Greek term to replace the rather ugly “monopoly seller” which was in use previously. It soon caught on and enjoyed a boost with the theory of efficiency wages in the 1970s. Its sister term “oligopsony” is rather less commonly used. What has monopsony got to do with the current shortage of Truck drivers in the UK and across Europe and many other parts of the world? Why should the pandemic have made the problem suddenly so bad?

In a perfectly competitive market with perfectly flexible wages or prices, demand always equals supply and everyone can trade as much as they want to. For the perfectly competitive firm, marginal cost equals price. A monopolist, however, restricts supply so that the price increases. To maximize profits, the monopolist wants to equate marginal revenue with the marginal cost of production. Since the demand curve is downward sloping, the marginal revenue of an additional unit of output is less than the price. Hence, the monopolist chooses a price which is greater than marginal costs (there is a monopoly markup).  This results in equilibrium in a situation where there is (voluntary) “excess supply”, in the sense that the monopolist would be willing to supply more at the price it sets. It chooses not to supply more, because the ensuing reduction in price would cause profits to fall.

The monopsonist faces the mirror image of this problem. Let us take the example of the employer setting wages. The employer faces an upward sloping supply of labour. To get more workers, it needs to raise the wage. The demand curve for labour is the marginal product of labour employed (or marginal revenue product if it is a monopolist in the output market).  The cost of an extra unit of labour exceeds the wage: to get another worker you will need to raise the wage (assuming an upward sloping labour supply curve). This is called the marginal cost of labour MCL (not to be confused with the usual marginal cost curve).  The MCL lies above the usual supply curve for labour. The monopsonist equates the MCL with the marginal (revenue) product of labour.  This means the wage set is below the wage which equates labour supply with demand and there is an “excess demand” for labour. The firm would be happy to hire more labour at the existing wage. However, the monopsonist does not hire more labour because the MCL exceeds the wage (hiring more workers would increase the wage).

This creates a strange situation for the monopsonistic labour market. There is an equilibrium shortage of labour: firms are always short of labour. Many have argued that this model is especially applicable to low paid unskilled labour, the “Mac Job”.  If minimum wage laws are introduced and the wage is increases, this will result in both wages and employment increasing.

How does this apply to Truckers? Well, for the most part they are badly paid with low hourly rates and poor working conditions.  Employers continue to pay low rates even in the face of shortages of drivers.  In Britain this shortage was alleviated by the influx of drivers from Poland and Rumania prior to Brexit. However, even then many Eastern European drivers did not intend to stay for more than a few years.  After the Brexit vote Sterling fell against the Euro and the salary advantage of working in Britain was greatly reduced.  So, there was a shortage of drivers even before the pandemic. But in a monopsony market with low wage rates, it means that workers do not value their jobs and will look for alternatives. The pandemic gave many drivers the time and space to look for something else. That meant there has been an “exodus” of British drivers who have not returned ot their former occupation. 

The model of monopsonistic competition provides a model where there is an equilibrium shortage of labour. Truckers find themselves in such a market and for many years a low-wage occupation which can be unpleasant in many ways: unpredictable hours, poor facilities and low status. The average hourly rate is only around £11-13 per hour, which equivalent to an annual salary of around £20k with a normal working week.  With a minimum wage job such as stacking shelves paying almost £9 per hour, the skill premium for Trucking is negligible and hardly compensates for the working conditions.



CPI Month on Month inflation since January 1993: how to interpret the recent months of 2021.

Inflation Posted on Fri, October 08, 2021 14:57:04

We have over 340 months of “mom” inflation since January 1993, during which inflation has remained in the range 0-5% and most of the time in the range 1-3%.  We can summarise the data with the following statistics: Table 1 gives the standard statistics, Table 2 the deciles and quartiles.

Table 1 Stats for mom inflation 1993-2021
average 0.17%
median 0.22%
Variance 0.000013
St. dev. 0.003552
skew -0.7028
kurtosis 0.5912
Table 2: Mom inflation by Decile
and Quartile
10 -0.33% Quartile
20 -0.06% 25 -0.01%
30 0.03%
40 0.13%
50 0.21% 50 0.21%
60 0.29%
70 0.36%
80 0.45% 75 0.42%
90 0.55%
99 1.00%

As we can see, the average is 0.17% (to two decimal places), which is consistent with the long-run average annual inflation of 2%. The median is quite a bit higher, indicating that there is a bit more of a “down” tail with more low values, as reflected in the negative skewness. The Kurtosis is Pearson’s measure which is zero for the normal distribution: the slightly positive value (leptokurtic) reflects the fat tails. The mom inflation is noisy, as reflected by the large value of the standard deviation relative to the mean (the standard deviation is over double the mean): the inter-quartile range is 0.43. Figure 1 is the histogram for inflation in the period January 1993 to August 2021

Both the mean and the median are in the tallest column, which represents 24% of the total.  However, the bottom decile lies below -0.33% and the top decile above 0.55%.

Given these general statistics of mom inflation, what can we say about the recent experience of inflation in 2021? We have seen a few months of very high inflation since March 2021, which we show in Table 3.

Table 3:   mom inflation Percentile Annualised
Mar-21 0.29% 59 3.6%
Apr-21 0.64% 95 8.0%
May-21 0.59% 92 7.3%
Jun-21 0.50% 85 6.2%
Jul-21 -0.02% 29 -0.2%
Aug-21 0.71% 97 8.8%

As we can see, three out of the months were in the top decile. So this is a “rare” event, since in general, mom inflation is not significantly serially correlated from month to month.  Now, August was inflated by a clear policy induced “base effect”, the impact of the August 2020 “Eat out to Help out” and the hospitality VAT reduction which accounted for 0.4% of the increase. However, even the remaining 0.31% is still in the 62nd percentile.  This is clear if we take the annualised inflation rate, which represents the annual rate that would result if the mom inflation was repeated for 12 months (the figures allow for compounding). Apart from July, all of these are well above the Bank of England’s target rate of 2%.

We can look back at the last period of high inflation from the late 1980s to early 90s: the Lawson boom and crash. We can take the CPI data from 1988-1992. 

Table 4: mom stats 1988-92
Average 0.45%
Median 0.38%
Variance 0.000031
St dev 0.005546
Skewness 2.66
kurtosis 11.94

As we can see, the stats look rather different: the mean mom inflation is 0.45% (an annualised rate of 5.6%).  The skewness is positive and large indicative of a large up tail. (Excess) Kurtosis is also large, indicating a leptokurtic distribution with fat tails. These statistics are mainly due to the policy induced “Black Swan” of April 1991, when mom inflation was a stratospheric 3.4%. Since the period only has 47 months (Feb 1988 to December 1992), an outlier of this magnitude still shines through. The Budget of April 1991 was one of Norman Lamont’s emergency budgets with an increase in VAT from 15 to 17.5%  along with increases on alcohol and Tobacco duty. The histogram for this period of 4 years.

Figure 2 gives the Histogram for Mom inflation 1988-1992.

If we compare the two histograms, we can see that the long left tail in 1992-2021 is absent. Instead, we see the long right tail and of course the April 1991 outlier. 7 out of the 47 inflation figures were above 1%: in the period 1993-2021, out of 343 months only one exceeded 1% (April 1993). 

Headline Inflation is set to increase in the coming months: there are policy induced increases (reversal of VAT reduction for hospitality and Ofgem price caps) along side pressures from the supply chains and labour markets. However, the last 5 months have also been exceptional and very much on the high side historically. Whilst a “return to the seventies” may not be on the cards, a return to the period 1988-1992 may be a possibility.



It’s not the Matrix: it’s the Leontief Inverse.

General economics Posted on Sun, October 03, 2021 17:16:12

Everything in the economy is interconnected.

To an economist who understands things, everything is interconnected. Supply chains and production process link and combine all goods and services. If you just look at the surface, you will see the things you buy: a meal, a laptop, pants. It is a particular product at a particular place at a point in time. However, when you look deeper, you see a whole world of linkages underneath.  Unless you are a self-sufficient survivalist living in the wilderness of Montana, almost everything of economic value is linked to almost every other part of the global economy.

Take the classic example of a pencil. At its most basic, a pencil consists of wood, graphite and some paint. Of course, lots of other stuff is required to combine these ingredients to produce pencils (labour, capital, buildings, energy, transport).  However, let us stick to the three “ingredients”.  Let us go back to the wood.  This required a forest, trees being chopped down and processed to produce the wood, again using machines and labour and buildings. That was the easy bit. What about the graphite? This can be produced synthetically by the Acheson process which is described by Wikipedia “In the furnace, the silicon dioxide, which sometimes also contains other additives, is melted surrounding a graphite rod, which serves as a core. An electric current is passed through the graphite, which heats the mixture to 1700–2500 °C.” Alternatively, graphite can be mined and is extracted from gangue rock by a lengthy process of beneficiation. The mines are found in a few countries, the main ones being China, India, Brazil and Turkey. Clearly a lot of stuff goes into producing the graphite. What of the paint? Again,  this is a highly industrialised chemical process involving factories and using many ingredients.  So, even a simple product like a pencil has taken us to Graphite mines in India, Forests in Canada and chemical factories producing paint. Sand that is just the first step. We can go to stage two and ask: what is used in the production of graphite, paint and wood? And then back again. It is, in effect an infinite regress.  If we take any product or activity, there are always other goods and services involved in its production.

So, how can we make sense of all of this, apart from stand back in awe, and like Blake:

“To see a world in a grain of sand

And heaven in a wild flower

To hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And heaven in a wild flower

And eternity in one hour.”

William Blake…Auguries of Innocence.

Except in our case, we see infinity in a pencil.  The economist who captured infinity was Wassily Leontief.  He started from an input-output matrix. This just has the first stage of the infinite regress for each individual product. In the case of the pencil we simplified this as just three: graphite, wood and paint. So, suppose we have a hundred products: each product will have a row of 100 input-output coefficients, telling us which of the 100 products are used directly in the production of one unit of that product. The pencil will have row with 97 zeros, and the three relevant quantities used to produce one unit of pencils (per 1000 for example).  The matrix is simply the stacked rows for each product giving the direct inputs for each product.

What Leontief did was ask the big question: if these are the direct inputs, what are the total inputs, both direct and indirect?  Silicon dioxide is not used directly to produce a pencil, but it is used to produce the graphite that goes into the pencil. Each step back we regress looking at the inputs of inputs, more and more products are drawn into the production of final products and services. He solved this question with a brilliant answer which was just a simple bit of Matrix Algebra. First, he created a Matrix which had for each product a row in which there was a 1 for the product itself and subtracted the inputs using the input-output matrix.  He took the inverse of this input-output matrix, to obtain the Leontief inverse which sums up the infinite regress to give you the total input of each product in producing the pencil, direct and indirect.[1]

Now, it is a general property of this inverse Matrix that even if the original matrix has lots of zeros, the Leontief inverse will not have any zeros (except for some special cases). That is, everything is used to produce everything else, either directly or indirectly. Of course, we can see there are some types of product that are directly used in most if not all products: these are non-zeros in the input-output matrix. Such products include energy and transport and indeed labour of various types. However, there are lots of invisible links between products and services that are revealed by the Leontief inverse. And what this Leontief inverse matrix reveals is that all products and services are involved either directly and indirectly in producing every single product.


[1] In maths, if the input output matrix is A, the matrix giving the one unit of output less its inputs is the matrix [I-A].  The Leontief inverse is the inverse of [I-A], written as .



CPI inflation July 2021: looking at the items.

Inflation Posted on Thu, August 19, 2021 17:55:48

The Headline CPI for July 2021 was 2.0%, down from 2.5%. I have analysed what underlies this in my NIESR Blog of August 18th. As I argued there, the drop was due to the monthly “spike” in inflation the previous July 2020 dropping out of the headline figure. The “new” monthly inflation in July was just below zero (-0.02%).

In this Blog I just want to look a little deeper at the item index level. The CPI is constructed of many items, and the ONS published 733 of these alongside the headline figure. Each item index is constructed from an average of over 100 price-quotes, to capture prices in different regions and types of shop. In the figure above, I have calculated the month on month (monthly) inflation for all of the 733 items available in June and July. These have been ranked by the level of inflation expressed as a %. The highest monthly item inflation rate was 14.8% for ROADSIDE RECOVERY SERVICE; the lowest was -22.3% for MOBILE PHONE APPLICATIONS. The arithmetic average was -0.28%, with median 0.02%.

Figure 1

We can also look at the same distribution in Histogram form. There is clearly a skewness in the distribution (there is a big tail on the left), a high variance and standard deviation (the coefficient of variation is 0.36, indicating the variance is over one third of the mean). In addition to the “fat tails” there is also a dense middle, which explains the high (excess) Kurtosis figure. All of these stats are in the shaded box in Figure 1.

Figure 2

The actual CPI figure published by the ONS is a weighted sum of the item inflation rates (item weights being expenditure weights), and includes the “centrally collected” items not included in the published list. The monthly CPI inflation was -0.02% (the ONS publishes this as 0% because inflation statistics are published to just one decimal place.

However, the unweighted distribution does tell us a lot about the almost zero inflation observed. The median items were DOOR HANDLE-PACK FOR ONE DOOR and PORTABLE SPEAKER, which both experienced exactly 0.02% inflation. Just under half of the items showed monthly inflation in the range -0.74% and +0.45%. (the 306 item tall column in Figure 2). The NIESR inflation tracker looks at all of the over 100k published individual price quotes underlying the 733 price indices each month. For July, over 80% of prices were the same as in June, with no change month on month. Indeed, 48 out of 733 item indices indicated 0% monthly inflation.

Overall, July was like any month in the sense that there is a wide variation in price changes month on month. Some prices rise a lot and some fall a lot. The proportion of individual prices remaining unchanged was a about the same as average (81%). Looking at the item indices, 50% had a change of zero or less, 50% were strictly positive. However, the negative skewness of the monthly item inflation figures gives a mean of -0.28%, which is an annualised rate of -3.36%. The median at 0.02% is an annualised rate of just 0.24%. Thee were a lot more big falls than big increases in the data.

If we look above the item level to the COICOP expenditure categories, shown in Figure 3, we can also see how there is a fairly even balance of prices going up and down, with Transport the being the big positive outlier reflecting big increases in motor fuel from June to July. However, in 7 out of 12 categories, the inflation was negative.

Figure 3: monthly Inflation by COICOP expenditure division

However, note that the the number of items does not reflect the expenditure shares. Some types of expenditure have lots of items. The main one is Division 01, FOOD AND NON-ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES (FNAB). The ONS collects many more food items relative to overall expenditure share. One might therefore expect this to mean that the item average and was lower than the CPI figure (since division 01 FNAB had -0.34% inflation). This is indeed the case (average item inflation was -0.28% as opposed to CPI of -0.02%).



Pelagius: the first British author.

The meaning of Life Posted on Thu, May 28, 2020 15:45:46

“a natural sanctity in our minds…which favours honourable and upright actions and condemns wrong deeds…by a kind of inner law”

            Pelagius is the first British author for whom we have surviving literature. He was active in the period 390-420 and is well attested in contemporary sources: primarily Jerome and Augustine of Hippo, but also others. He is best known for giving his name to the “heresy” of Pelagianism.  His works are known both through the writings of his contemporary opponents and in surviving texts (although, as in most texts from this period, “authenticity” of any particular text is always an open question, since our earliest copies are from long after they were first written).   His date of birth and death are unknown. Birth would have been in the middle of the fourth century, 350-360. His date of death would be 419 or layer, at an unknown location (although Egypt seems a plausible possibility).

Christianity in Pelagius’s Britain.

            Christianity was well established in Roman Britain by the time of Pelagius.  Whilst the details of its earliest arrival in Britain are unknown to us,  there is a wealth of archaeological and historical evidence that indicates that by the fourth century there was a long-established Church in Britain with Bishops which were linked to the continental Churches. From the archaeological evidence, we have the Hinton St Mary Mosaic from a wealthy Roman villa dated to the early 4th Century, along with various Chi-rho iconography around Britain and the Sator Squares in Lancashire. From Pelagius’s own time we have the Church at Vindolanda. However, it is in the written text that we find many references to Christianity in Roman Britain.  Second century church fathers Tertullian and Origen wrote of Christian communities in Britain. In the fourth century, British Bishops attended the Council or Arles (314), and the Councils of Serdica (343) and Rimini (359).  We also have a letter to Flavius Sanctus, the Roman Governor of Rutupine (Richborough) from the middle of the 4th Century attesting to his Christianity.  Jerome writes about British pilgrims coming to Bethlehem in one of his letters which is contemporary with Pelagius .  Magnus Maximus was proclaimed Emperor in Britain and became effective ruler of Gaul and Britain in the period 383-8. He had a very orthodox view of Christianity and it was he who was behind the condemnation of the Priscillian heresy and first ever execution of a “heretic” (Priscillian), albeit under civil not church law (in fact the execution was opposed by St Martin and Ambrose who disagreed with the spilling of blood).[1]

            That Pelagius was British is stated by several contemporary sources.  He was obviously well educated and highly literate so almost certainly came from a high-ranking family.  Apart from patronage, there were at the time few paths to an education unless you were born into a well-off family. It is possible that he might have had an ecclesiastical education. He is also sometimes referred to as a lawyer, which may mean he was trained as such.  Jerome referred to him as being Irish (Scotti).  This is almost impossible. The establishment of Christianity and the Church in Ireland was to happen in the fifth century and knowledge of literate Latin would not have been available in Ireland in the late fourth century. Jerome’s comment was a put down, meaning that Pelagius was “beyond the pale” and his views were not to be taken seriously.  In fact St Patrick may well have been a contemporary of Pelagius, although born somewhat later. His Irish Mission is usually dated to the mid 5th Century and was certainly post-Roman.

Pelagius’s life.

At some time in the 380s, Pelagius made the journey from Britain to Rome. This was a common path for educated intellectual provincials in the western empire. His future critics Augustine and Jerome both made the journey from their home provinces to Rome in the late 4th Century.  There was lots of potential for giving classes to the sons and daughters of the wealthy. Also, wealthy families and individuals in Rome were keen to have Christian spiritual guides.  They sought advice on how to bring up children, how to behave and how to interpret the scriptures. These included Senatorial families who had converted to Christianity after the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD, when Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the Empire’s state religion.   Whilst he might have started his career as a lawyer, by the 390s is described (by Jerome and Augustine at least) as a “Monk”. Pelagius made some very good connections whilst in Rome, including some of the same families who were connected to Jerome. The fact that he was criticised so extensively indicates that his message was popular and influential.  He also had several followers who were influential in their own right, and who became leading figures in the Pelagian controversy.  Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to disentangle what was said by Pelagius and what by his “followers”. Two of the most prominent of these were Celestius who was active in Africa and described by Augustine and Jerome as Pelagius’s pupil and Rufinus of Syria. Rufinus was based in Rome in the period 399-409 alongside Pelagius. 

When Alaric the Goth came to besiege Rome in 409, Pelagius fled along with many others. He went to Africa, via the land route of southern Italy, crossing the Mediterranean to Sicily and then on to what is now Algeria, where Augustine was the Bishop of Hippo. He arrived in Palestine sometime before 413, where he came into conflict with Jerome.  The ideas of Pelagius and his followers certainly had a popularity in many Christian communities.  This probably explains the strong response of parts of the Church against Celestius, Rufinus and eventually Pelagius himself.  Pelagius was charged with heresy at the synod of Diospolis in 415 before The Bishop of Jerusalem, John. He was acquitted after disassociating himself from some of the “extreme” views of Celestius. The African Bishops appealed to the Bishop of Rome to overturn the judgement, and a condemnation of Pelagius was issued by Bishop Innocent[2], who then died and his successor Bishop Zosimos reviewed the decision in 418 and replaced it with an ambiguous opinion.  The African Bishops then appealed to the Western Emperor Honorarius based in Ravenna and Zosimos finally condemned both Pelagius and Celestius in his 418 Epistula Tractoris. Having been condemned in the Western Church, the Eastern Church finally condemned “the opinions of Celestius” at the Council of Ephesus 431.  The decision of Zosimos in 418 was influenced by the emperor Honorius’s condemnation of Pelagius and riots in Rome by “Pelagians”. Pelagius, based in Palestine, attempted unsuccessfully to get Bishop John of Jerusalem to dissent from Zosimos and so he would have had to leave Palestine. Egypt is put forward as a possible ending location since the Bishops there might have been more sympathetic. He may well have died as early as 420, or possibly just kept a low profile and we hear nothing of him after that date.

The Writings of Pelagius.

What writings of Pelagius have survived? There are a series of 18 letters, or essays, on a variety of subjects, although some or most of these might be by his followers.  Of these, seven are more or less complete and others fragmentary. We also have the transcripts of Pelagius’s evidence given at the Synod of Diospolis. In some cases we know approximately when the letters were written. There is also a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans. In terms of style, Pelagius was a very clear and articulate writer with a direct style. This contrasts to the prolix, wordy and repetitive Augustine and the harangues of Jerome.   Even the venerable Bede recognised that although Augustine won the debate, Pelagius was the better writer.

The Letter to Demetrias, written in 413-14 is the best known of the letters and is almost certainly written by Pelagius himself . Demetrias was a 14 year old daughter of one of the elite families that had left Rome in 409 and who had decided to devote her life to virginity and to cancel a wedding that had been planned. The mother Juliana wrote to both Pelagius and Jerome to ask for their advice: both replies have survived. Pelagius’s letter is something of a tour de force and puts forward his theological views in a very clear and succinct manner. God made Man in his own image, free to act – “he left him free to make his own decisions” (Ecclesiasticus).  Pelagius says “”God wished to bestow on the rational creature the gift of doing good of his own free will…the capacity to do evil is also good – good I say because it makes the good part better by making it voluntary…not bound by necessity but free to decide for itself.”  Pelagius thought that there is an innate goodness in people: “a natural sanctity in our minds…which favours honourable and upright actions and condemns wrong deeds…by a kind of inner law”.  It was this inner law that enabled men to be righteous and pleasing to God even before Moses.  In particular, he quotes the Lord as saying of Job “there is none like him on earth, a man against whom there is no complaint, a true worshipper of God, keeping himself away from all evil”. Indeed, Pelagius holds up Job as an ideal example:

What a Man Job was! A man of the gospel before the gospel was known, a man of the apostles before their commands were uttered! A disciple of the apostles who, by opening up the hidden wealth of nature and bringing it out into the open, revealed by his own behaviour what all of us are capable of and has taught us how great is that treasure in the soul which we posses but fail to use and, because we refuse to display it, believe that we do not posses it either.”

How does the life and death of Christ alter things for Pelagius? He writes:

“…long before the arrival of our Lord and Saviour, some are reported to have lived holy and righteous lives. How much more possible must we believe that to be after the light of his coming, now that we have been instructed by the grace of his and reborn as better men. Purified and cleansed by his blood, encouraged by his example to pursue perfect righteousness, we ought surely to be better than those who lived before the time of the law, better even than those who lived under the law, since the Apostle says “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under Grace” (Rom 6.14).

We can see that Pelagius had a positive view of human nature. We have an innate goodness in our nature. Whilst we are free to choose evil, we are also  we are also drawn towards the good and he old Testament provides examples of men viewed as righteous by God.

The argument with Augustine and Jerome.

            The argument with Augustine took some time to develop.  As we know from his autobiography, Augustin had converted to Christianity as an adult, very much inspired by Bishop Ambrose of Milan. He was very well acquainted with the “pagan” literature (philosophy) and had been a Manichean prior to becoming a Christian. The argument with Pelagius developed after 410 and played a part in the development of Augustin’s own world view. I do not seek to provide a detailed summary of Augustin’s views. However, there were two main planks involved in the debate with Pelagius. The first was his own idea of “original sin”.  The idea that humanity had suffered a fall from grace (been expelled from the Garden of Eden) was a core belief of both Christianity and Judaism.     Augustine took a much stronger view the fall of man meant that he was unable to live without sin unless there was Grace.  Secondly, since God was omnipotent and all knowing, this led him to believe in predestination: those who were to receive Grace were chosen from the beginning of time. Now of course, these views were very much flavour of the reformation a millennium after Augustine (both Luther and Calvin were inspired by him), but in the early 400s they were largely new and took to their logical conclusions some of the views found in St Pauls letters when combined with a well-articulated theology in terms of Gods omnipotence and omniscience.

            The central issue of the Pelagian debate was whether human nature was inherently sinful (Augustine) or had some innate goodness (Pelagius).  Pelagius believed that humans were able to choose good over evil even without Christianity, but with Christian faith and the grace of the holy spirit it was even more achievable and baptism could wash away any sins that we did commit.  I think it is best to see Pelagius as a moral teacher and motivator. He was shocked by the immorality he found in Rome and sought to stress that to be a good Christian you needed to behave in a moral manner.  Augustin was a Bishop of some authority and influence. Pelagius was at something of a disadvantage and destined to be outgunned by the Bishop of Hippo once Augustine had finally decided that the views of Pelagius contradicted his own views.

            Jerome, like Augustine, also had a pessimistic view of human nature. Furthermore, in siding with Augustine he was hoping to absolve himself from his own views as a young man. The Council of Constantinople in 381 had “completed” the council of Nicaea (which had adopted the consubstantiality of God the father and Jesus) by making the Holy Spirit part of the Holy Trinity, what then became a core Christian belief (as reflected in the verse it added to the original Nicene creed, which had not mentioned of the holy spirit).    Jerome had devoted much of his younger years to translating the works of the second century Church father Origen.  The concept of the Trinity was not part of Origen’s cosmology and so his works came to be viewed as heretical around the 400s. By association, Jerome came under suspicion and we can see fro his letters that he moved to distance himself from Origen.  Jerome needed to demonstrate his orthodoxy, and what better way than supporting Augustin against Pelagius.

            It is interesting to note that Pelagius and Jerome shared many views, and indeed some of Pelagius’s writings were later wrongly attributed to Jerome.  For example, they both encouraged virginity as an ideal state (and celibacy within Christian marriage). However, Jerome idealised mortification of the body and rejection of the worlds pleasures whereas Pelagius taught a more practical view that morality could be lived in normal life. There was also some personal beef between Jerome and Pelagius. Some of Pelagius’s followers trashed a monastery where Jerome was staying in Bethlehem and he had to flee for his life (on this, we only have his testimony however).

Pelagius the first British author.

In the end, Bishop Augustine prevailed and Pelagianism became the name of a heresy. From the perspective of modern Christians, I suspect the majority would side more with the optimistic Pelagius than with the deep pessimism of Augustine.  At the time, Pelagius was obviously a well respected and popular thinker. We know this because he had followers and both Augustine, Jerome and other opponents of “Pelagianism” first targeted his followers and only after the fall of Rome did they target Pelagius himself. Probably, once he left Rome he lost his network of influence amongst the powerful.

            However, Pelagius was the first British author whose writing survives.  He is an important figure of late antiquity who was well educated and who shows the strength of Christianity and Roman culture in late fourth century Britain. The next two authors who survive in Latin are St Patrick from later in the 5th Century and Gildas from the 6th century.  Whilst the theological debates Pelagius became involved in are of little relevance to life today, his optimistic view of human nature and the possibility of us being able to choose the right and moral path should still inspire us.


[1] Maximus himself died in battle in 388 with the eastern Emperor Theodosius at Save (modern day Croatia), ending his bid to become the Emperor of the west.

[2] In the Papal listing, he is known as Innocent 1st.



To “ise” or “ize”

other things, Uncategorised Posted on Sun, March 01, 2020 18:13:14

Just a quick note. I was chatting with colleagues about whether “realize”, “generalize” etc. are British spellings. Bill Gates and the Microsoft spell checker seem to think that these are “American” whilst “realise”, “generalise” are British. Also, various British media outlets also started to use the “ise” version as their default (starting with the Times in the early 90s, but now followed by other newspapers and the BBC). This has always puzzled me, as I have always used the “ize” spelling. “Nationalize”, “Optimize”, “Privatize” and so on.

The truth is that “ise” is un-American and almost 100% of US publications use “ize”. However, in Britain has been more complicated. In my family, the arbiter of correct spelling was the Oxford English Dictionary. When I look at my fathers 1951 OED edition, the only spelling of realize, generalize, nationalize etc. is the “ize” version. However, in current editions it states that whilst “ize” is preferred, “ise” is an alternative. The truth is that British English has always used both versions. However, if one looks at written British over the last few hundred years, for most of the time the “ize” was the most common usage and indeed still is. However, there was a brief 50 year period , from around 1875 to 1925 when “ise” became more common. The ratio of 2:1 held before 1840 and has held since 1950 (that is two “ize” for every “ise” for words such as realize and generalize). The situation was reversed for a very brief period 1900-1914 (two ise for every ize), but between 1840 and 1950, two were more equal (exact equality being in 1875 and 1925).

So, now in 2020 we have the odd position where in the media, the use of “ise” predominates, whereas in the wider corpus the “ize” has it by a large margin. The myth that “ize” is un-British is very common, even amongst my educated fellow Academics. I personally blame Bill Gates and Microsoft for perpetuating the myth that “ise” is the correct British spelling. In reality I will stick to viewing “ize” as the correct spelling and “ise” as a second rate alternative. Alas, journal editors do not always see it that way. When my paper on the generalized Taylor economy was published in the Economic Journal in 2012, they type set it as “”generalised”. Cambridge University Press has always been contrarian on this issue. I am sure that in the long-run the Times and the BBC will eventually come to their senses and realize that the good old British “ize” has it. The fact that it is the same as in American English is surely even better.

If you want to look at the usage of words and alternative spellings, the Google Ngram is a great place to start!



Prevarication and Procrastination

Monetary Policy Posted on Sun, June 24, 2018 19:27:47

Well, not much has happened in terms of interest rates since
my last post in November: interest rates still stuck at 0.5%. However, excellent news that Jonathan Haskell
is to join the committee. Well, there has been prevarication and
procrastination. Interest rates were set to rise, and then not. Mark Carney
continues to have a depressing effect on Sterling. His latest magisterial
intervention was the interview with Kamel Ahmed on the BBC on 19th
April. Prior to that expectations had
been gathering for a 0.25% increase in interest rates. In the interview he stressed the possibility
that increases might happen later rather than sooner. Sterling was then at
$1.43. After that interview, Sterling fell
and has continued to fall, reinforced by the May 9th MPC decision to
keep interest rates fixed. Sterling is now at $1.33. The “Blame Brexit” P.R. campaign has been
kept up. Of course, Brexit and weak
growth have had an effect on Sterling, but I would suggest that Carney’s
interventions have (as usual) talked down Sterling. Andrew Haldane voted for a rise in rates on
20th June (joining Saunders and McCafferty), leading to speculation in the press that maybe
there will be a rise in August.

When I contrast the lack of forward guidance and clarity in
what the MPC policy is, the contrast with the FED is complete. As early as
2014, the FOMC (the US equivalent of the MPC) had clearly laid out a plan. Raise interest rates, and then start to run
down the holdings of Treasuries accumulated under QE. The interest rate rises started in December
2015, with the rate hitting 2% in June this year, with the possibility of more
in the pipeline. The FOMC has regularly updated its policy statements on the
issue and indeed at the end of 2017 it has started to slowly unwind QE by
letting its holdings of treasuries and Mortgage backed securities decline. In contrast, the MPC has not issued a formal
statement on interest rate policy and unwinding QE.

History will not judge the Carney governorship kindly. However,
to look on the bright side, the Bank has started to talk about real interest
rates. Gertjan Vleighe gave a speech
talking about them last November. Excellent news. I am not sure I buy his idea that “low rates”
can be a normal state of the economy (the
example of world war two and the years just before and after has little
relevance for today). However, once you
accept the idea that the equilibrium real interest must be non-negative, it at
least puts a floor on sensible nominal rates (they should be no less than
inflation). Assuming inflation will be
on target, that would imply nominal
interest rates of at least 2%.

Also there is talk of Carney’s successor. Luckily the menopausal Broadbent has ruled
himself out. In my opinion, the idea of a Goldman Sachs alumnus as governor of
the Bank is not a good idea. There are
some excellent people for the job: Sir Charles Bean (Mervyn King’s number 2) to
name one. But why not go for a non-banking person. Kate Barker would make an excellent choice in
my opinion. She is a leading business economist and was on the MPC from 2001 to
2010.



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