A little problem with capitalism

TheStar.com – Ideas – A little problem with capitalism: The financial crisis gripping the U.S. isn’t an anomaly. We just have short memories
September 27, 2008. Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist

What’s happening now on Wall Street is seen as a new story. It is not. It is a very old one.

Karl Marx wrote about it; so did John Maynard Keynes. More recently, tycoon George Soros has pronounced on it, as has the redoubtable Economist, a decidedly pro-free market financial magazine.

This old story is quite simple: Capitalism is unstable. It is an economic system that can be ruthlessly productive. But is also one of wheels within wheels – internal contradictions Marx called them – that can, and regularly do, spin out of control.

Marx, a German philosopher suffering from boils, saw these contradictions as opportunities; he figured that capitalism’s self-destruction would lead to a better world.

Keynes, a British economist who liked to speculate in foreign currency over his morning tea and toast, saw them as problems that could destroy a world he rather liked. The welfare state edifice that bears his name was designed in the post-1945 period to, literally, save capitalism from itself.

Banks would be regulated to keep financiers from scamming the economy into the ground. Labour unions would be encouraged, in order to give workers a stake in the status quo and inoculate them against radical politics.

The rich would agree to government tax-and-spend policies, knowing that – in the end – it’s always better to feed the poor than have them slit your throat.

It was a giant, unspoken bargain – forced by the Depression of the `30s, tempered by war and hammered into shape under the threat of Communism.

For a long time, it worked.

But the great bargain could never resolve those inconsistencies inherent in the world economy. Over time, new forces came into play.

The very foreign investment that allowed U.S.-based firms to prosper in the post-1945 world encouraged rivals to develop: first West Germany and Japan, latterly China and the European Union.

Throughout the industrial West, unionized workers cushioned by the full-employment policies of the welfare state demanded and won pay hikes that exceeded their productivity gains. Which is why, in the `70s, inflation took off.

Meanwhile, the collapse of Communism and the discrediting of revolutionary politics removed pressure from employers. Why bother forging a great bargain with your workers if they don’t pose a threat?

And so came phase one of the retrenchment – the destruction of the welfare state. In England, it began as Thatcherism, in the U.S. Reaganomics. Both leaders set out to limit trade union power in their respective countries. Both did so, Thatcher by facing down the miners, Reagan by firing unionized air controllers.

Their aim was not traditional fiscal conservatism. Indeed, under Reagan, U.S. federal finances spiralled into deficit.

Rather it was to alter the balance of forces within society. Reagan’s tax cuts were designed to help the rich; Thatcher’s monetarism focused on squeezing wages.

In Canada, we had Paul Martin and Mike Harris – similar policies but on a different scale.

As a result, the income gap widened throughout much of the industrial world. The rich got richer; the middling classes lagged; the poor got poorer.

Phase two involved the dismantling of the very financial safeguards erected after the debacle of the `30s. The specifics varied from country to country, but the aim was the same: Deregulate financial industries so they would centralize and focus their tremendous resources into new, more profitable areas.

In the U.S., financial deregulation involved scrapping laws that had protected small depositors – which led in the late `80s to the collapse of so-called savings and loans banks.

This in turn caused the U.S. government to engineer its first big post-1945 bailout.

In Canada, deregulation led to the scrapping of a system that had kept various portions of the financial industry isolated from one another. Under the new regime, insurers, trust companies and investment dealers merged and melded. Lending restrictions were eased.

Phase three was sparked, ironically, by the industrial world’s very success in fighting inflation. As inflation went down so did returns offered through standard investment channels. Investors seeking higher returns began to search out riskier – and better-paying – options.

And so came the fascination with so-called new financial instruments. Many households were satisfied with nothing more exotic than mutual funds. But for well-heeled individuals and firms, the new frontier was far more exotic: derivatives, hedge funds, index funds, collateralized debt obligations.

All worked on the venerable principle of leverage: Putting in a little in order to earn a lot. Alas, as we should have remembered from the `30s, leverage only works when the economy is going up. When things start to falter, a leveraged asset can become an intolerable millstone.

In the end, the private equity companies and sub-prime mortgage buyers were doing much the same thing: borrowing money they couldn’t afford to repay, in the hope that whatever assets they purchased would keep rising in value.

It was a gigantic ponzi scheme that couldn’t possibly last. And it didn’t.

So, now we’re back at square one. The system is near collapse. U.S. Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke may remember his history (he’s an authority on the depression of the `30s). But few others do.

On television, a baffled U.S. President George W. Bush resembles the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. Here in Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists that this country’s fundamentals are fine, a sentiment that, while true, is largely irrelevant in the context of a potential world collapse.

American taxpayers are understandably miffed at being asked to bail out the entire global capitalist system. Right now, their ire is aimed at Wall Street tycoons. But in their hearts, they recognize that this isn’t much of a deal.

The $700-billion (U.S.) bailout may save the financial system. But after ordinary people have anted up the cash, will their reward be nothing more than a return to the way things were? Even politicians are beginning to recognize that any lasting solution must deal with more than the barebones economics of the crisis.

Ironically, what they are groping for is the kind of solution that we’ve spent the past 40 years dismantling. It’s time for another grand bargain – not necessarily the one that gave us the post-war welfare state, but one that delivers a similar quid pro quo. And it will go something like this: We’ll save your damned old capitalism; we’ll let you have the big houses and big salaries (although not necessarily quite as big as they were). But in return, you’ll have to give us something back – on jobs, on wages, on the things that we need to live a civilized life. Nor will we let you destroy everything we hold dear just so you can make a buck.

And don’t give us all that free-market guff. Because we know, just as you know, that at times of great stress, the free market doesn’t work. This crisis has reminded us of that.

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