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.. . . . . .
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.
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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.
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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.
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Read the complete article in LRB