Who's to Blame for Market Failure? Clue: Not the Bankers
When money's being made, the denizens of the financial system are responsible. In a downturn, it's the collective 'we'
How extraordinary it is, that representatives of the great names in global finance that have recently bitten the dust were lately paraded on television as the supreme experts on the global economy. Until today, few serious programmes on TV about the financial outlook were complete without some hireling from Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers or Merrill Lynch pontificating on what governments should do, on how to ease the tax burden, on ensuring the health of the economy, on the fundamental soundness of the system, and so on.
Free markets, the Washington consensus, liberalisation - ideas that have resounded around the world - are suddenly shredded, although the fortunes made in their benign shadow have no doubt been carefully stashed away in unreachable "havens". Where governments had been pleased to acknowledge their relative unwisdom in the presence of the superior knowledge of the markets, they are now being bidden to "step in", to re-regulate, to tame the beast they were so proud to unleash, and in the presence of whose "performance" they were only too willing to efface themselves.
It seemed to the fallen experts and discredited knowalls that government had become an obstacle to the further creation of wealth. Guilty of imposing stealth taxes, inhibiting the free play of market forces, governments were spoilsports, shackling enterprise and undermining business. Obligingly, governments sought to withdraw with becoming modesty, avowing themselves powerless in the presence of such mighty forces, in order that the financial system should work smoothly and effortlessly for the benefit of everyone, including the poorest, who would be wafted to plenty on the coat-tails of the super-rich. The daily plebiscite of free choice in the marketplace seemed a reasonable substitute for a democracy in which quarrels over how to run the economy had been laid to rest.
What a beautifully simple and plausible story it was, the rich miraculously transformed from grinder-down of the poor into their philanthropic rescuers - a metamorphosis that coincided with the rehabilitation of capitalism and its own mutation into something called "the economy". Wealth itself became the oracle, and people listened avidly to fairytales of win-win, economic miracles, market magic and the supremely precious life of geese that laid golden eggs.
Attempts to assimilate the workings of capitalism to the equivalent of a natural phenomenon have been so successful that even the words used to describe the present "downturn borrow a lustre from primeval nature: we hear of mortgage famine, credit drought, floods of bankruptcies, contagious insolvencies, epidemics of repossessions: the language evokes biblical plagues and last days. Is not nature red in tooth and claw? Or was that capitalism?
Perhaps even more telling, images are also taken from the realm of nuclear warfare - there is economic meltdown, a chain reaction of business failures, consumer confidence at a critical level, while the fallout is incalculable. It would be difficult to evoke a more apocalyptic scenario.
All this is of course, calculated to ensure that debate is securely contained within the fraying parameters of a capitalism to which no alternatives now exist. It would not do for people to become too inquisitive about the nature of a system which has been so closely identified in recent years with human nature itself. The fiction must be maintained, at all costs, that there is no other way of ordering our affairs. We are like medieval cartographers, beyond the boundaries of whose known world lay only monsters and dragons.
To forestall any such unpleasantness, the friendly first person plural is employed. This places the responsibility of what has happened on a collective that is absent when profits are being taken and the money made. It is "we" who have allowed the wheelers and dealers, the shady operators in the world of sub-prime loans, derivatives, futures and options, to get away with it. We have not held our governments to account sufficiently to curb the markets' excesses. We have been remiss. In other words, we are to blame; and if our nest-egg is annihilated and our savings are turned to dust, we were always warned in the small print that investments can go down as well as up.
This is puzzling to those who cannot read the hieroglyphs of economic discourse. We have been told that the markets know best. You can't buck the markets. You can play them, appease them, measure their sentiment, coax them out of volatility or nervousness. But all the financiers and experts, the no-nonsense acuity of the personnel of now-defunct institutions were doing was within the sacred space of what the markets would bear.
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The same people (at least those who have not gone under with their venerable institution) who were soothing us with the wisdom of deregulation are now sagaciously offering up their analyses that more stringent oversight of financial transactions is required. A "rules-based" system must be observed. The operations of investment banks must once more be separated from those of high street banks, to avoid their high-risk investment with our money. Regulation, restraint and watchfulness are the new remedy. At least until the next time.
Capitalism, which had coyly hidden itself beneath the voluminous drapery of prosperity and luxury, now thrusts out its face from the faded finery to look once more on a "real world" it has laid waste - on lives ruined, security trashed and hope trampled. A generation brought up to believe that affluence represents some existential truth about our lives will, inevitably, be disoriented and angry. If the coming impoverishment brings about an increase in violence, crime, racism and breakdown, who will bear those costs, who will bail out a bankrupt society? Certainly not the makers of fortunes whose activities we were until recently expected to admire as the acts of heroes and demi-gods.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008