So, I gather I’m not the only one sensing this? An impending Chernobyl of financial corporate capitalism? The economic fallout could be truly ugly if we are not prepared, or don’t respond effectively to it. There are many in positions of powerful influence in America today who have always truly hated how FDR responded to the previous global crisis with the New Deal. They much prefer Mussolini’s ideas for addressing these issues, both economically and politically.
Lesson number one is that the financial and social causes are linked. Lesson number two is that what links the City banker and the looter is the lack of restraint, the absence of boundaries to bad behaviour. Lesson number three is that we ignore this at our peril.
Currency markets lost their anchor in 1971 when the US suspended dollar convertibility. Over the years, financial markets have lost their moral anchor, engaging not just in reckless but fraudulent behaviour. According to the US economist James Galbraith, increased complexity was the cover for blatant and widespread wrongdoing.
Looking back at the sub-prime mortgage scandal, in which millions of Americans were mis-sold home loans, Galbraith says there has been a complete breakdown in trust that is impairing the hopes of economic recovery.
“There was a private vocabulary, well-known in the industry, covering these loans and related financial products: liars’ loans, Ninja loans (the borrowers had no income, no job or assets), neutron loans (loans that would explode, destroying the people but leaving the buildings intact), toxic waste (the residue of the securitisation process). I suggest that this tells you that those who sold these products knew or suspected that their line of work was not 100% honest. Think of the restaurant where the staff refers to the food as scum, sludge and sewage.”
Finally, there has been a big change in the way that the spoils of economic success have been divvied up. Back when Nixon was berating the speculators attacking the dollar peg, there was an implicit social contract under which the individual was guaranteed a job and a decent wage that rose as the economy grew. The fruits of growth were shared with employers, and taxes were recycled into schools, health care and pensions. In return, individuals obeyed the law and encouraged their children to do the same. The assumption was that each generation would have a better life than the last.
This implicit social contract has broken down.
There is strong ideological resistance to the policies that make decent wages in a full employment economy feasible: capital controls, allowing strong trade unions, wage subsidies, and protectionism.
But this is a fork in the road. History suggests there is no iron law of progress and there have been periods when things have got worse not better.
Together, the global imbalances, the manic-depressive behaviour of stock markets, the venality of the financial sector, the growing gulf between rich and poor, the high levels of unemployment, the naked consumerism and the riots are telling us something.
This is a system in deep trouble and it is waiting to blow.