Saturday, August 6, 2011

Don't Panic, don't panic

This catch phrase of Corporal Jones in the archetypal comedy of my childhood, Dad's Army, comes to mind today as our global leadership wonder whether to abandon their beaches and 'do something' about our gathering global financial crisis. Jones, of course, was always panicking when adopting this phase.

Since they have patently failed to do very much that matters in the past, except apply band-aid and wishful thinking, the signs are not good.

What I continue to find extraordinary is that what they might do is restricted to more or less effectively responding to what 'the market' dictates. Since the 'market' is seriously dysfunctional, even an effective response is only a temporary measure.

No one appears seriously ready to restructure what is, after all, a human artifact, namely the market.

Today the Chinese have demanded that the US get to grips with its debt addiction. This is rather akin to a drug dealer deciding that their premier addict not, on any account, overdose.

It profoundly misses the point.

The need is to consciously, deliberately, and not without a degree of pain, restructure our financial system. We need to return finance to the function of a utility, aiming to support productive goods and services, and to localize it. Money should be attached once again to direct, known and communal transactions. The notion that money can make money out of money should be (as both true Islamic finance and Catholic tradition would suggest) relegated to a quaint footnote of historical accidents that we will not re-vist.

An approximate to this system was partially in place from the post second world war settlement to 1970. Incomes rose and were fairly distributed, equality was enhanced.  Money was cheap but difficult to attain, and relatively immobile. This architecture was sacrificed on the altar of greed: wanting to have one's cake and eat it or in this case wanting to fight a war and not sacrifice for it (the Vietnam war and the United States). The subsequent deregulation has fueled a world where slower wealth accumulation has been disproportionately allocated to the rich in ways that accelerate instability. Money is liquid but expensive, and feeds on itself.

Sadly, I have absolutely no confidence that there is any consensus to undertake such a reconstruction. We are not as the Chinese imagine addicted to debt, we are addicted to a whole system that we imagine as the 'only one'  as if we were mesmerized by Adam Smith's invisible hand, not knowing that it is a form of puppetry fashioned by us.

We imagine that we should manage its complexity by ever more sophisticated measures of risk management rather than by taking more and more complexity out of the system. We need a return to boring banking and the more challenging task not of making money but of sustainably making real things and actual services that will accommodate the needs of the world, without destroying it in the process. We need to be more aware of the limits of our knowledge and act with propriety within those limits.

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