Sunday, 1 January 2012

Moral capitalism - where the purpose of banks is to support industry, not gamble

An interesting article from the Guardian ...

"To convert the business man into the profiteer is to strike a blow at capitalism … The business man is only tolerable so long as his gains can be held to bear some relation to what, roughly and in some sense, his activities have contributed to society."

Can we create a morally acceptable form of capitalism; and if so, what would it look like? Faced with a decade of hardship apparently caused by the greed of a few, people are asking whether bankers are no more than profiteers, and whether inequality has risen too far. Even the former US treasury secretary, Lawrence Summers, and former head of the CBI Richard Lambert, have said we need to do better on inequality.

The quote above, however, comes not from anyone today but from John Maynard Keynes, in 1923, during the postwar turmoil in the financial markets. There was hyperinflation in Germany, a collapse of the Mark, chaos on the foreign exchanges as prices had gone up and down, and violent fluctuations in employment.

Like many of those who turned to communism and fascism, Keynes had strong moral objections to capitalism – but he consistently repudiated socialism, communism, and fascism, for he believed that capitalism was essential both to create high standards of living and to guarantee personal liberty. In effect he sought a capitalist revolution.

For Keynes, the sustainability of capitalism was not only a technical question but a moral question – because if capitalism is to survive, people have to believe it is a system worth supporting. His priority was to eliminate unemployment. It was also a moral priority to design an international monetary system that would reduce the chances of capitalism descending into chaos again. And to do that, economists had to grapple with difficult technical details, but their motivation was a vision of a better capitalism.

We face the same challenge today – to develop a morally acceptable form of capitalism. As Keynes feared might happen, much business is now seen as no more than profiteering. Many people object to the bonus culture of the banking system because they don't believe those bonuses are earned. We have also learned that inequality not only undermines the legitimacy of capitalism (that was Keynes's concern) but it has corrosive effects: unequal societies are unhappier, less healthy, and have more crime.

We cannot wind the clock back, but we should not be afraid to look to the past for ideas. It is hard to make a clear distinction between profiteering and legitimate business activity and yet, throughout history, there have always been limits on what can be bought and sold in the market. Perhaps the boundaries between legal and illegal activities need to be reconsidered; perhaps derivatives need to be better regulated – or simply banned from banks' portfolios. Creating a more stable banking system so that banks do not need bailouts would help maintain high employment and tackle inequality.

We can also look abroad. A decade ago it was common to look to Scandinavia or Germany and to compare their institutions with ours. Now "Anglo-Saxon" capitalism has lost its shine, perhaps we should reconsider whether we can learn, for instance, from Germany, with its system of industrial democracy and a banking system geared up to support industry, or try to find out why the gap between rich and poor is much narrower in most of Europe.

One reason for the problems we face today is that we have stopped seeing taxes as an essential institution in a capitalist economy for if taxes could be raised, especially on those who can most afford to pay them, public services would not have to be cut. We should see taxes as an integral part of a moral capitalist economy, providing health, education and social care outside the market. People should not be afraid to join Warren Buffett in saying the rich should pay more tax. The "Tobin tax" on financial transactions should not be seen as a way to raise funds for the euro, but as a tax that could help stabilise the financial system and as a "Robin Hood" tax.

Such changes need to be analysed carefully, for technical details do matter, but they need to be on the agenda: if we are to save capitalism, as we must if we want prosperity and liberty, we must face up to its moral failings. Unless we do this, we will be unable to imagine a better future, let alone work out how to achieve it.

... and IMHO with the collective actions of UK bankers summarised as legalized counterfeiting, robbery, extortion and gambling ... coupled with their continual threats and heavy handed lobbying/bribery of politicians, it is going to take a sea-change for any morality to enter Britain's banks ... German leaders do not stand for it (and look at how they are prospering, despite having to prop up the rest of Europe!) so why do we? Well I guess the answer to this revolves around the fact that these legalized 'muggers' can only mug 'mugs'!

Right Wing Liberty: 'Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows'

Extracts from a great article recently published by George Monbiot that's well worth a read ... if you value your freedom:

'Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation. Throughout the rightwing press and blogosphere, among thinktanks and governments, the word excuses every assault on the lives of the poor, every form of inequality and intrusion to which the 1% subject us. How did libertarianism, once a noble impulse, become synonymous with injustice?

In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.

Rightwing libertarianism recognises few legitimate constraints on the power to act, regardless of the impact on the lives of others. In the UK it is forcefully promoted by groups like the TaxPayers' Alliance, the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Policy Exchange. Their concept of freedom looks to me like nothing but a justification for greed.

So why have we been been so slow to challenge this concept of liberty? I believe that one of the reasons is as follows. The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side, and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other – has been mischaracterised as a clash between negative and positive freedoms. These freedoms were most clearly defined by Isaiah Berlin in his essay of 1958, Two Concepts of Liberty. It is a work of beauty: reading it is like listening to a gloriously crafted piece of music. I will try not to mangle it too badly.

Put briefly and crudely, negative freedom is the freedom to be or to act without interference from other people. Positive freedom is freedom from inhibition: it's the power gained by transcending social or psychological constraints. Berlin explained how positive freedom had been abused by tyrannies, particularly by the Soviet Union. It portrayed its brutal governance as the empowerment of the people, who could achieve a higher freedom by subordinating themselves to a collective single will.

Rightwing libertarians claim that greens and social justice campaigners are closet communists trying to resurrect Soviet conceptions of positive freedom. In reality, the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms.

As Berlin noted: "No man's activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. 'Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows'." So, he argued, some people's freedom must sometimes be curtailed "to secure the freedom of others". In other words, your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. The negative freedom not to have our noses punched is the freedom that green and social justice campaigns, exemplified by the Occupy movement, exist to defend.

Berlin also shows that freedom can intrude on other values, such as justice, equality or human happiness. "If the liberty of myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral." It follows that the state should impose legal restraints on freedoms that interfere with other people's freedoms – or on freedoms which conflict with justice and humanity.

These conflicts of negative freedom were summarised in one of the greatest poems of the 19th century, which could be seen as the founding document of British environmentalism. In The Fallen Elm, John Clare describes the felling of the tree he loved, presumably by his landlord, that grew beside his home. "Self-interest saw thee stand in freedom's ways / So thy old shadow must a tyrant be. / Thou'st heard the knave, abusing those in power, / Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free."

The landlord was exercising his freedom to cut the tree down. In doing so, he was intruding on Clare's freedom to delight in the tree, whose existence enhanced his life. The landlord justifies this destruction by characterising the tree as an impediment to freedom – his freedom, which he conflates with the general liberty of humankind. Without the involvement of the state (which today might take the form of a tree preservation order) the powerful man could trample the pleasures of the powerless man. Clare then compares the felling of the tree with further intrusions on his liberty. "Such was thy ruin, music-making elm; / The right of freedom was to injure thine: / As thou wert served, so would they overwhelm / In freedom's name the little that is mine."

But rightwing libertarians do not recognise this conflict. They speak, like Clare's landlord, as if the same freedom affects everybody in the same way. They assert their freedom to pollute, exploit, even – among the gun nuts – to kill, as if these were fundamental human rights. They characterise any attempt to restrain them as tyranny. They refuse to see that there is a clash between the freedom of the pike and the freedom of the minnow ...

... Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty. By this means they have turned "freedom" into an instrument of oppression'.

Blaming rogue traders ... so the bankers can continue to counterfeit and gamble

Vince Cable recently referred to the City as a "source of systemic instability, unfettered greed and industrial-scale tax dodging" but appeared to blame the problem on a small number of rogue institutions. The use of a minority scapegoat to cover up wide spread illegality, immorality and abuse of power is a particularly favoured tactic in the financial sector (alongside threatening behaviour).

The figure of the rogue is evoked to apportion blame and ask for forgiveness. It's always just one or two rogue individuals, states or institutions that emerge as the unique source of blame for an entire system's failure. The rogue is blamed but ultimately the system that produces it is forgiven.

When the figure of the rogue is evoked, it stops us asking more challenging questions. What if the rogue institutions in the City that caused the financial crisis of 2008 and now avoid paying their taxes are simply the best, and most profitable, example of everything that is wrong with capitalism today; merely the product of a system that rewards greed and exploitation?

Let's hope that the rogue institutions of the City are not allowed to fulfil the promise of their epithet – for their transgressions to be forgiven and ignored. These rogues are products of greater forces at work. Let's stop treating them like inexplicable anomalies and start to understand the conditions that make them and their misdemeanours possible. Then, perhaps, we can do away with the figure of the mischievous but forgivable City rogue altogether.