When Abba proclaimed that ‘it’s a rich man’s world’, they were simply repeating what has been complained about for thousands of year. The prophets of the Old Testament had less of a bias to the poor and more of a bias to telling the rich to use their wealth and power for the common good and the protection of the weak. The Psalmists constantly complained about the injustice of a world in which ‘the wicked prosper’ and the ‘godly’ just keep getting a bum deal. So, there’s nothing new in moaning about rich people running the world.
But it seems to me that it isn’t good enough simply to moan about the current recession and the global financial crisis, scapegoating ‘greedy bankers’ – even if they deserve it. It is all too easy to be wise after the event and there are loads of smug people slinging the dirt around at the moment.
Andreas Whittam-Smith brings some wisdom to the situation in today’s Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/andreas-whittam-smith/andreas-whittam-smith-we-are-angry-so-tell-us-what-went-wrong-at-the-banks-1513373.html). The natural search for revenge (usually dressed up in the language of ‘accountability’) will get us nowhere and will solve nothing. But, as charity trustees in the UK would demand an inquiry into where the system had gone wrong with their charity, so ought the British Government establish an independent inquiry into how the world’s economic and financial systems were able to go so awry.
People like me will be able to offer a limited perspective. I have three adult children and all of them have been through university – indeed, one is still there. They emerged with massive debts and begin their working (and married) life with an assumption that living in debt is the only option – the norm. For those of us who have spent our lives trying to live within our means, this has always looked wrong. It was not rocket science to realise that the endless offers of credit cards, loans and debt-consolidation schemes from banks were unsustainable. Lending money indiscriminately to people without any scrutiny of their future ability to repay – also the problem with sub-prime mortgages – was always bound to end in tears. But, when everything is going well and the general standard of living is high, we all-too-easily assume that the experts must know what they are doing. Now we know they didn’t. Or, if they did, they were criminally selfish.
The point about an inquiry is that it would re-tell the story in the cold light of day and expose where the system and decision-making went wrong. And I suspect it would make the fantasyland activities of the banking sector look embarrassingly stupid. But at least it would help us to learn and learn and learn.
I suspect that we would end up questioning the values that have underpinned the economic and banking system in the past thirty years. I would not be the first to suggest that money doesn’t actually exist – that it merely represents an arbitrary system of relative values that only pertain if everyone agrees to the same assumptions about where ‘value’ lies. That is surely why the system, founded on trust and confidence, collapsed so quickly when trust and confidence evaporated. The uncritical assumption that economic growth is eternally sustainable and can only generate winners now looks like the Emperor’s new clothes.
But this situation now provides us with a unique opportunity not only to try to get the economy going again, but also to re-think the values and assumptions that underlie it. It enables us to ask (without embarrassment) for whom the economy and the banks exist – and whether the system is there to serve the people whose money it uses or if the people are merely there to serve the system and those who run it.
Coincidentally, the Independent today also has an interview with Jerome Kerviel, the French banker who lost Societe Generale in the region of five billion Euros. He describes the unreality of the gambling he was involved in and the lack of scrutiny by his superiors as long as he was making vast profits. His (and their) negligent hubris led to disaster. He describes his joy at making huge profits out of events such as the 7/7 Tube bombings in London and the 9/11 attacks in the USA, exposing the hard fact that some people love crises because they are able to make huge amounts of money from them.
Although I think I understand why Gordon Brown is taking us further into almost inconceivable amounts of deeper debt (to get the credit flow going so that we can gradually resume the lending and borrowing that allows businesses to function as well as grow), I have a possibly simplistic suspicion that it might not be good to sort out a debt problem by going further into debt. We cannot and must not simply try to resume ‘business as usual’, if that means returning to the same old fantasies that have dominated the last couple of decades and not learning that a fundamental review and repositioning of values is essential to the future construction of a fair economy.
Abba’s cynicism will always be there, whatever system is shaped in the future. But whatever happens next, the world cannot re-dress the Emperor in the same old new clothes.