“Money is not a force of nature. It is a concept, an idea, a figment of the human imagination. And it is real only to the extent that we allow it to rule our lives and our relationships with one another.” — The Coming Global Coalescence, page 4, print edition
Inasmuch as the global financial system is dependent upon the universal acceptance of the concept of money and the rules by which it is utilized to control the real economy, it is more than passing strange that the preeminent global financial newspaper, the Financial Times, would run a series of articles under the title CAPITALISM IN CRISIS. Note the missing question mark. In other words, the series will not be about whether capitalism is in crisis: CAPITALISM IN CRISIS? No, it will be about the fact of capitalism’s crisis.
The practice of capitalism — or more properly, moneyism — requires that the practitioners have confidence that they understand how capitalism works and that it will keep functioning reliably and predictably. Therefore, if the FT was willing to acknowledge that capitalism is in a crisis, despite the danger that doing so could erode that confidence, one must assume that the objective of the series was to examine the crisis, explain it, and offer a cure, thereby bolstering confidence.
The series of 15 articles that the FT ran recently over a two-week period examined the crisis, tried to explain it, but remarkably, failed to offer anything close to a cure that matched the magnitude of the crisis.
The first article, by John Plender, announced that the series would be focused on “rethinking capitalism” because it was losing its popular acceptance as a result of “widening inequality.” The only suggestion Plender had to offer was to tackle the special-interest groups and their lobbyists. Not a new idea. The question remains: How?
Lawrence Summers followed by offering the automobile as a metaphor. Nothing wrong with the car, just the alternator. The car doesn’t need to be replaced or even overhauled. Just a minor repalir. He even suggested that “efforts to reform capitalism are more likely to divert from the steps needed to promote demand than to contribute to putting people back to work.” Joining in the effort to rethink capitalism, Summers rejects reforming capitalism but chooses to reinvent it instead. He ends with: “It is not so much the most capitalist parts of the contemporary economy but the least — those concerned with health education and social protection that are in most need of reinvention.” The question nags: How?
Next, John Gapper takes the banks to task for their sins, which are well enumerated, but suggests they are the consequence of shareholder demands for short-term earnings. He then concludes with the opinion: “If shareholders are willing to accept lower returns, banks may be able to regain some social legitimacy.” Fat chance.
Then John Kay and Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citigroup, chime in with their articles under the title “Capitalism is the wrong target — but we can refine it.” Rethink, reinvent, refine, reform, whatever. Kay argues that it is not capitalism itself but the marketplace that should be under consideration, and that if we thought more clearly about the distinction between the two we would better understand the strength of the market and the role of capital. Pandit calls for more transparency in the banking industry, concluding that “we could go a long way … by making the system more transparent, by clearing some of the obscurity that causes people to believe the system is a game rigged against their interests.” In other words, if people could only see how the system works they would realize that it is not a rigged game. Sure.
Next in line is Samuel Brittan who declares that “the market still has no real rivals.” Nevertheless, he immediately acknowledges that “there is no need to pretend that market rewards reflect personal merit.” He then offers as an overriding benefit that the marketplace offers personal freedom in the choice of goods and services. But overriding that freedom is the market’s dysfunction including the disconnection between merit and reward so widely manifested in the growing inequality. Brittan refers to a book he authored nearly 25 years ago, Capitalism and the Permissive Society, and reports with some satisfaction that upon a recent rereading he found nothing that he would now withdraw. Then, astonishingly, he later admits regret that he “did not discuss the financial sector and how its activities could undermine the capitalist order,” which in fact it proceeded to do. A rather serious omission, I would say. Since there is no alternative to the market, how does Mr. Brittan propose to preserve the freedom part while repairing the dysfunction? “Improvement here may justify not merely international regulation but the retention for quite a long time in public ownership of banks and other institutions that have had to be rescued by overnment.”
And finally, under the title, Caught between apathy and anger, Edward Luce presents a masterful summary of recent events, perfect reading for the person who has been in a coma for the past four or five years and wants to be brought up to date. However, what is disappointing is that there are no judgments made, no blame assigned, and no solutions offered. It brings to mind the following from Bertrand Russell: ‘The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.”
End of Part One; Part Two to follow.
Meanwhile, I don’t hesitate to suggest that my latest book, The Coming Global Coalescence, does state the problem in a way that allows a solution. Click THE BOOK tab above and order a paperback or e-book version from Amazon, or download a free pdf version.
Bing Crosby highight’s the market’s dysfunction in “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”