Saturday, March 21, 2009

Zby comments, re: that last post :

As much as I feel the resentment myself - I hope you understand that finding a few scapegoats will never be the solution.

Agreed. I certainly don't believe in scapegoating people. That last question with the link to Global Guerrillas was slightly tongue-in-cheek.

Here's what I think is important though. If you read the first article, I think there's a very strong message.

There were very wealthy interests in the financial sector who used their money to lobby politicians into relaxing the regulatory regime in the US.

That, in turn, allowed them to make far larger and riskier bets than had ever been made before.

Now those bets have failed. And it looks like the consequences will be very bad for everyone. The US, the UK, most European governments are telling their citizens that they all have to chip in and rescue the world financial system ... and we can see why : we're totally dependent on the system.

But the disaster didn't "just happen".

It's not some kind of rare "black swan" event with an incredibly low probability.

It comes from a number of quite likely events - that house prices fall due to over-capacity, that people on low incomes can't pay back big loans - which had been packaged up and presented as though they were highly unlikely (low risk) events.

Then, having misunderstood or misrepresented the probability of these events, the financial institutions then used all our money to make bets about them.

They got to use *all* our money because the separation between investment and "high street" banking had been removed by the politicians, due to lobbying of the bankers. And all our savings were now going into the same pot of money.

So it's important to see the current crisis not as an unfortunate accident, but as a consequence of real human, political decisions. The decisions of bankers to invent instruments that they didn't understand (or in the worst cases, that they knew their clients wouldn't understand).

Remember one of the wisest heuristics : a market for risk is a mechanism for those who do understand risk to shift it onto those who don't or who can't avoid it. And the bigger and more active the market, the more of that is going on. Governments bailing out the banks == tax-payers with no choice, ultimately shouldering risk that was created and passed on to them from people who understood it very well.

It's also the about the consequences of decisions by governments : elected representatives who accepted campaign money (and we don't know what else) in return for proposing the deregulation. Some were just corrupt. Others were misled by their ideological belief that markets "regulate themselves". (A claim to which the intelligent hearer should respond with the question "regulate *what* about themselves" and drill down into the answer). Some were too stupid to imagine what it might mean.

Now we face a situation where everyone agrees that governments are going to have to bail out capitalism using our money. But there's still a massive vacuum of understanding or consensus, and inside that vacuum, the decision-makers within the government (who are often drawn from, highly connected to, and empathetic with, the high-financiers) are making ad hoc interventions, designed not to "fix the economy" in general, but to save the bank institutions (Goldman Sachs, AIG, Royal Bank of Scotland etc.)

Now, I'm the first person to say "don't blame individuals, look at systemic patterns". That's my definition of what it is to be "left wing". To the extent that scape-goating simply blinds us the patterns and focuses our energy in "empty condemnation", then it's worse than useless.

But there is a reason to pay attention to who is doing what and who is getting what. Not to make moral judgements of those individuals, but to assess their roles. If the bankers are, in general, lobbying for less regulation then they're part of the machinery that made this happen. As a type they're a cause of this problem. That doesn't mean crucify all the bankers. But it does mean challenge the very existence of this role within the network. If there are things that this role performs that we want to keep, then put the legislation in place to restrict that role to only those activities.

Similarly, if elected representatives accepted the arguments in favour of self-regulation, they were a point of failure. You need a way to fix that. Campaign funding reform. More transparency. Better education and support. New ways to prosecute and disbar corrupt politicians. Whatever it takes.

This is ultimately what I call "network shaped thinking" or "left netocracy". (Remember "crony capitalism" is the epitome of dark-side netocracy.) Right wing thinking offers you political analysis as a melodramatic theatre of individuals and their essential moral types (good, bad, lazy, industrious). It's methodological atomism. A naive left thinking can risk methodological holism, where everything is so interdependent that only a revolution that sweeps all before it seems to offer any hope.

A balance or synthesis is going to take into account functional roles and the specifics of their interconnections, and recognise that we can intervene at key nodes in the network. That requires us to look at individuals, even though we mustn't scapegoat them.

1 comment:

Scribe said...

I keep coming back to Matthew 21:12 here.

At some point, we decided banks are there not to look after value, but to create it. This is probably some kind of meta-war, like politicians deciding that politicans should have more power because they are in power. Some people call this "leverage". I think of it as recursion, but where each level deeper takes you further and further away from whatever allows you to recurse in the first place.

Markets are a "how". Money is a "how". Science is a "how". Value created by "how" is mostly just money converted from other "how"s. It is not a "growing" economy, it's just one that keeps putting one mask over another.

The "fix" is in returning to the "why"s and "what"s. That means re-questioning why we need constant growth, and why certain people benefit a *lot* more from it than others. It means re-examining what the definition of "money" vs "value" is.

I've started to think about this on an individual scale much more. Because trying to change things on a social level is a waste of personal energy so long as modes of thought and attitudes towards "value" don't budge. There's really no point in hoping politicians are going to get us out of this mess, because they're incapable of asking the "why"s and the "what"s without questioning *themselves*. It's like asking a crack dealer if going clean is probably a good idea in the long run.

If anything, the place to start blaming is with myself. So long as I realise I'm part of the system, then I really only have myself to hold responsible for getting taken down with it when the end comes. Bankers got away with what they got away with because everyone else got lazy. Laziness, or "unwarranted trust" perhaps, breeds its own "rewards".

Regulation isn't even the answer on an individual scale. There is no "answer". There is just effort and cunning. Mischief and mockery. Laughter and DIY.