Thursday, January 23, 2014

What's so secular about secular stagnation?

Larry Summers. (Wesley Mann, CNN)
Secular stagnation has been in the news a lot lately, ever since Larry Summers made a remark at the International Monetary Fund's Fourteenth Annual Research Conference in Honor of Stanley Fischer dropping the two words:
I wonder if a set of older and much more radical ideas—ideas that, I have to say, were pretty firmly rejected in 14.462, Stan—a set of older ideas that went under the phrase secular stagnation, are not profoundly important in understanding Japan’s experience in the 1990s, and may not be without relevance to America’s experience today.
(To clarify, "Stan" is the eponymous MIT economics professor Stanley Fischer; the construction of the conference's title leaves unclear whether the IMF holds a conference in his honor every year, or only this year. 14.462 was the advanced macroeconomics class he taught, whose alumni include Summers, Olivier Blanchard, and Kenneth Rogoff.)

Secular stagnation, as I understand it after an half-hour of Googling, is a theory that claims that economies can suffer long periods in which not enough capital is being invested by firms because they lack opportunities to invest their capital—especially when technological innovation has not created a need to replace old technology with new technology, or "capital goods": things that you use to make other things. (Economist friends, please correct me if I'm completely wrong about this. I'll gladly revise this description.)

There has been a bit of an uproar because secular stagnation is closely aligned with a Keynesian view of economies, and such views get the blood roiling of (on one hand) monetarists and (on the other) doctrinaire conservatives who have heard that Keynes wanted governments to spend more to fix unemployment and object strenuously to any such conclusion.

But I am not concerned with such matters here. No, I am here to address another question that has gone largely unattended in the middle of the macroeconomic uproar, which is: what is "secular" about secular stagnation?

The term does not seem to be the same as the "secular" in "secular state," "secular humanism," or "secularism." (Though the very word "secular" can't be much help in selling the notion to conservative politicians.) That is by far the most common use of the word "secular": to denote something wholly apart from the church or religion, secular as opposed to ecclesiastical.

But "secular" is a word—rather like "critical" and "sanction," which I shall write about on some other occasion—that evolved into two very different meanings over time. On one hand, there is the meaning of "secular" as "non-religious." On the other, there is a less common meaning of "secular": that which is related to a long period of time, synonymous with the word epochal. It's the last meaning that applies in the case of "secular stagnation": stagnation that endures over a generational length of time.

So why do they share the same name? Well, this isn't a case of mere accidental homonymy, like "I left" and "Go left." It's because both come from the Latin word saeculum, meaning something like "generation" or "century." The original Latin denotes something slightly richer: a saeculum was the period of time it took for everyone who was alive during the previous saeculum to die. After no one was left, a new saeculum was declared, and the age officially began again.

Thus, the festival held to honor the end of one saeculum and the beginning of another was called the Secular Games, Ludi Saeculares. Augustus Caesar revived this tradition after it had fallen into some disuse; he commissioned the poet Horace to write an occasional poem for the event, which we now call the "Carmen Saeculare"—a poem which may take the title of best ever occasional verse.

In early Christendom, saeculum was used as a translation of the word aeon (αἰών) to render St. Paul's idiosyncratic Greek phrase for "eternity," εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων: "into the ages of the ages." In Latin, this became in saecula saeculorum, a phrase common to anyone who has spent time around Latin liturgy or sacred music.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the adjective "secular" began to denote that which was worldly because temporal, and therefore not eternal and divine. Thence came its second meaning, and our present situation of apparent homonymy between two dissimilar concepts.

Saecula persisted into the Romance languages, where it evolved into Spanish siglo, French siècle, and so forth. So when we speak of the Spanish Siglo de Oro, or in French of the fin-de-siècle, it's the radical concept of secular as "epochal" that we're drawing on.

Why not listen to the canon that Vivaldi uses to set the text "In saecula saeculorum" in his setting of the hymn Dixit dominus, Psalm 110? (And I have no idea what's up with the kitschy painting of the four apocalyptic horses in this YouTube video.)


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