One of the most striking things about the reaction to the current financial meltdown is that, as one of the participants put it: ‘No one really knows what to do.’ The reason is that expectations are part of the game: how the market reacts to a particular intervention depends not only on how much bankers and traders trust the interventions, but even more on how much they think others will trust them. Keynes compared the stock market to a competition in which the participants have to pick several pretty girls from a hundred photographs: ‘It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligence to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.‘ We are forced to make choices without having the knowledge that would enable us to make them; or, as John Gray has put it: ‘We are forced to live as if we were free.’
Joseph Stiglitz recently wrote that, although there is a growing consensus among economists that any bailout based on Henry Paulson’s plan won’t work, ‘it is impossible for politicians to do nothing in such a crisis. So we may have to pray that an agreement crafted with the toxic mix of special interests, misguided economics and right-wing ideologies that produced the crisis can somehow produce a rescue plan that works – or whose failure doesn’t do too much damage.’ He’s right: since markets are effectively based on beliefs (even beliefs about other people’s beliefs), how the markets react to the bailout depends not only on its real consequences, but on the belief of the markets in the plan’s efficiency. The bailout may work even if it is economically wrong.
There is a close similarity between the speeches George W. Bush has given since the crisis began and his addresses to the American people after 9/11. Both times, he evoked the threat to the American way of life and the necessity of fast and decisive action to cope with the danger. Both times, he called for the partial suspension of American values (guarantees of individual freedom, market capitalism) in order to save the same values.
Faced with a disaster over which we have no real influence, people will often say, stupidly, ‘Don’t just talk, do something!’ Perhaps, lately, we have been doing too much. Maybe it is time to step back, think and say the right thing. True, we often talk about doing something instead of actually doing it – but sometimes we do things in order to avoid talking and thinking about them. Like quickly throwing $700 billion at a problem instead of reflecting on how it came about.
On 23 September, the Republican senator Jim Bunning called the US Treasury’s plan for the biggest financial bailout since the Great Depression ‘un-American’:
Someone must take those losses. We can either let the people who made bad decisions bear the consequences of their actions, or we can spread that pain to others. And that is exactly what the Secretary proposes to do: take Wall Street’s pain and spread it to the taxpayers … This massive bailout is not the solution, it is financial socialism, and it is un-American.
Bunning was the first publicly to give the reasoning behind the GOP revolt against the bailout plan, which climaxed in its rejection on 29 September. The resistance was formulated in terms of ‘class warfare’, Wall Street against Main Street: why should we help those responsible (‘Wall Street’) and let ordinary borrowers (on ‘Main Street’) pay the price for it? Is this not a clear case of what economists call ‘moral hazard’? This is the risk that someone will behave immorally because insurance, the law or some other agency protects them against any loss that his behaviour might cause: if I am insured against fire, for example, I might take fewer fire precautions (or even burn down my premises if they are losing me money). The same goes for big banks, which are protected against big losses yet able to retain their profits.
That the criticism of the bailout plan came from conservative Republicans as well as the left should make us think. What left and right share in this case is their contempt for big speculators and corporate managers who profit from risky decisions but are protected from failures by ‘golden parachutes’. In this respect, the Enron scandal of January 2002 can be interpreted as an ironic commentary on the notion of a risk society. Thousands of employees who lost their jobs and savings were certainly exposed to risk, and had little choice in the matter. However, the top managers, who knew about the risk and also had the opportunity to intervene in the situation, minimised their exposure by cashing in their stocks and options before the bankruptcy. So while it is true that we live in a society that demands risky choices, it is one in which the powerful do the choosing, while others do the risking.
If the bailout plan really is a ‘socialist’ measure, it is a very peculiar one: a ‘socialist’ measure whose aim is to help not the poor but the rich, not those who borrow but those who lend. ‘Socialism’ is OK, it seems, when it serves to save capitalism. But what if ‘moral hazard’ is inscribed in the fundamental structure of capitalism? The problem is that there is no way to separate the welfare of Main Street from that of Wall Street. Their relationship is non-transitive: what is good for Wall Street isn’t necessarily good for Main Street, but Main Street can’t thrive if Wall Street isn’t doing well – and this asymmetry gives an a priori advantage to Wall Street.
The standard ‘trickle-down’ argument against redistribution (through progressive taxation etc) is that instead of making the poor richer, it makes the rich poorer. However, this apparently anti-interventionist attitude actually contains an argument for the current state intervention: although we all want the poor to get better, it is counter-productive to help them directly, since they are not the dynamic and productive element; the only intervention needed is to help the rich get richer, and then the profits will automatically spread down to the poor. Throw enough money at Wall Street, and it will eventually trickle down to Main Street. If you want people to have money to build, don’t give it to them directly, help those who are lending it to them. This is the only way to create genuine prosperity – otherwise, the state is merely distributing money to the needy at the expense of those who create wealth.
It is all too easy to dismiss this line of reasoning as a hypocritical defence of the rich. The problem is that as long as we are stuck with capitalism, there is a truth in it: the collapse of Wall Street really will hit ordinary workers. That is why the Democrats who supported the bailout were not being inconsistent with their leftist leanings. They would fairly be called inconsistent only if we accept the premise of Republican populists that capitalism and the free market economy are a popular, working-class affair, while state interventions are an upper-class strategy to exploit hard-working ordinary people.
There is nothing new in strong state interventions into the banking system and the economy in general. The meltdown itself is the result of such an intervention: when, in 2001, the dotcom bubble burst, it was decided to make it easier to get credit in order to redirect growth into housing. Indeed, political decisions are responsible for the texture of international economic relations in general. A couple of years ago, a CNN report on Mali described the reality of the international ‘free market’. The two pillars of the Mali economy are cotton in the south and cattle in the north, and both are in trouble because of the way that Western powers violate the same rules that they impose so brutally on Third World nations. Mali produces cotton of the highest quality, but the US government spends more money to support its cotton farmers than the entire state budget of Mali, so it is small wonder that Mali can’t compete. In the north, the European Union is the culprit: the EU subsidises every single cow to the tune of five hundred euros a year. The Mali minister for the economy said: we don’t need your help or advice or lectures on the beneficial effects of abolishing excessive state regulations; just, please, stick to your own rules about the free market and our troubles will be over. Where are the Republican defenders of the free market here? Nowhere, because the collapse of Mali is the consequence of what it means for the US to put ‘our country first’.
What all this indicates is that the market is never neutral: its operations are always regulated by political decisions. The real dilemma is not ‘state intervention or not?’ but ‘what kind of state intervention?’ And this is true politics: the struggle to define the conditions that govern our lives. The debate about the bailout deals with decisions about the fundamental features of our social and economic life, even mobilising the ghost of class struggle. As with many truly political issues, this one is non-partisan. There is no ‘objective’ expert position that should simply be applied: one has to take a political decision.
On 24 September, John McCain suspended his campaign and went to Washington, proclaiming that it was time to put aside party differences. Was this gesture really a sign of his readiness to end partisan politics in order to deal with the real problems that concern us all? Definitely not: it was a ‘Mr McCain goes to Washington’ moment. Politics is precisely the struggle to define the ‘neutral’ terrain, which is why McCain’s proposal to reach across party lines was pure political posturing, a partisan politics in the guise of non-partisanship, a desperate attempt to impose his position as universal-apolitical. What is even worse than ‘partisan politics’ is a partisan politics that tries to mask itself as non-partisan: by imposing itself as the voice of the Whole, such a politics reduces its opponents by making them agents of particular interests.
This is why Obama was right to reject McCain’s call to postpone the first presidential debate and to point out that the meltdown makes a political debate about how the two candidates would handle the crisis all the more urgent. In the 1992 election, Clinton won with the motto ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ The Democrats need to get a new message across: ‘It’s the POLITICAL economy, stupid!’ The US doesn’t need less politics, it needs more.