Capitalism in Crisis: The Code That Forms a Bar to Harmony

Greedy bankers, overpaid executives, anaemic growth, stubbornly high unemployment – these are just a few of the things that have lately driven protesters on to the streets and caused the wider public in the developed world to become disgruntled about capitalism. The system, in all its different varieties, is widely perceived to be failing to deliver.

Business in the leading English-speaking countries attracts misgivings. Fewer than half of the American and British people sampled in the 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer have faith in business to do what is right. The survey rates the US and the UK only marginally ahead of Russia on this score. So there is talk of a crisis of legitimacy and an erosion of business’s “licence to operate”.

This article, the first in a series on rethinking capitalism after the financial crisis that began in 2007, argues that popular acceptance – which is a basic condition for business success – has waned in the Anglosphere for good reason. At the heart of the problem is widening inequality. In a recent study, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the club of developed nations, declared that the wealthiest Americans “have collected the bulk of the past three decades’ income gains”. Much the same is true of the UK. In both cases, most of the spoils have gone to finance professionals and top executives.

As Stewart Lansley, author of a recent book on inequality*, puts it, the modern economy appears to consist of two tracks: a fast one for the super-rich and a stalled one for everyone else. Those in the slow lane enjoyed rising living standards before 2007, despite stagnant real incomes, thanks to increased borrowing on the security of their homes. Since the crisis, however, American and British homeowners have faced a long and deep squeeze on real living standards, while struggling to service an unprecedented level of indebtedness. At the same time, says Mr Lansley, finance has come to play a new role as “a cash cow for a global super-rich elite”.

In continental Europe, the increase in inequality is less pronounced and the legitimacy problem has more to do with the way imbalances in the eurozone are being addressed. Northern Europeans resent a monetary union that has permitted southern Europe to engage in what they see as fiscally profligate behaviour, while southern Europeans and the Irish are required to submit to extreme austerity programmes that exacerbate their sovereign debt problems.

As the German-led policy elite inches towards “more Europe” as a solution to the fissures in the eurozone, it is far from clear that more Europe is what the citizens of Europe want. Democratic legitimacy has been largely lacking from the outset of this gigantic monetary experiment. On both sides of the Atlantic there is now a risk that reasonable aspirations to equality of opportunity are being undermined, accompanied by a growing threat of political instability. Support for open trade and free markets is also being adversely affected.

Misery and money motive

The problem of consent in relation to capitalism is nothing new. In fact, it returns with nagging frequency. In the early years of the industrial revolution, average per capita incomes were slow to rise and the contrast between the plight of the working population and the lifestyle of rich manufacturers prompted savage diatribes such as that of Charles Dickens in Hard Times. Even when living standards did rise, David Ricardo and Karl Marx worried whether the free markets trumpeted by Adam Smith could produce an income distribution that was politically tolerable.

By the late 19th century the debate turned more heavily on the moral question posed by the unedifying behaviour of the American robber barons at a time of spectacular economic growth. The centrality of the money motive in wealth creation appeared to detract from capitalism’s legitimacy unless there was an implicit social contract between the rich and the rest of society, whereby the wealthy tempered ostentation and engaged in philanthropy.

Then, in the unstable 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s, the efficacy as well as the moral basis of capitalism was once again called into question. While F. Scott Fitzgerald chronicled the moral vacuity of jazz age capitalism in The Great Gatsby, John Maynard Keynes, who provided a theoretical basis for the mixed economy and a more humane form of capitalism, was notably acerbic on what he called “individualist capitalism” and the money motive. Such questioning was sharpened by the existence for the first time of a seemingly successful alternative to capitalism in the Soviet Union; also of competing models, such as the corporatist approaches developed in Germany and Italy.

What, then, is different about today’s outbreak of disaffection? Perhaps the most important difference is that it is not the product of despair. The people in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park and on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London had no need of soup kitchens and took to their tents out of choice, unlike many in the 1930s US who slept in cardboard box colonies – Hoovervilles – out of necessity.

If there is no proliferation of soup queues, it is because in all the economies of the developed world capitalism has been humanised to a greater or lesser degree by forms of social democracy and by bank bail-outs. Unemployment in the US has gone nowhere near the 25 per cent rate that prevailed in 1933. While there are exceptionally high rates of youth unemployment, especially in southern Europe, there is more of a safety net for the victims than in the Depression. And if today’s protesters articulate no coherent programme, it seems clear that underlying frustrations are to do with perceptions of unfairness, not immiseration.

Much of that frustration relates to the banks. In contrast to the 1930s, when banking was about deposit-taking and lending, modern bankers engage in complex trading that they themselves do not always understand and whose social utility is not apparent to ordinary mortals – or even to the likes of Lord Turner, head of the UK Financial Services Authority, who famously declared that many parts of the banking business had “grown beyond a socially reasonable size”. Many have shown a disregard for their customers, while fiduciary obligation has become a casualty of deregulation and the shareholder value revolution. There is a widespread conviction that these bankers constitute a protected class who enjoy bonuses regardless of performance, while relying on the taxpayer to socialise their losses when they have taken excessive risks. At the same time, the public is aware that top executive rewards more generally are poorly related to performance and tend to go up even when profits fall.

Human capital or ‘hand’

Such resentment is not completely new. It bears some resemblance to the hostility towards profiteers after the first world war, which prompted Keynes to remark: “To convert the business man into the profiteer is to strike a blow at capitalism, because it destroys the psychological equilibrium which permits the perpetuance of unequal rewards. The businessman is only tolerable so long as his gains can be held to bear some relation to what, roughly and in some sense, his activities have contributed to society.”** On that basis, no one can be surprised that the legitimacy of capitalism is currently in question. And it would be wrong to call it a “winner takes all” form of capitalism, because privileged losers appear to be making off with the prizes too.

What is unquestionably novel is the ferocity with which US business sheds labour now that executive pay and incentive schemes are more closely linked to short-term performance targets. In effect, the American worker has gone from being regarded as human capital to a mere cost, or what was known in the 19th century as a “hand”. Yet this pursuit of a narrowly financial conception of shareholder value may destroy value for the ultimate pension beneficiaries – because of the disruption that slashing and burning causes, and the cost and time involved in hiring and retraining when conditions improve.

That underlines the “agency problem” at the heart of the banking and boardroom pay sagas. The accountability of management – the agent acting on behalf of the highly dispersed beneficiaries of equity ownership – is fundamentally flawed. While the public may not be aware of the details of the weak chain of accountability, or the growing number of investors such as high-frequency traders or hedge funds that have no interest in playing a stewardship role, it sees the outcome, which contributes to the wider inequality story.

So what to do? It is not as if there are attractive alternative models. While the west is chastened by the rise of Asia, few would wish to adopt the communist Chinese mixture of state ownership, red-in-tooth-and-claw private markets, wholesale corruption and even greater inequality than the US. As for the cleaner authoritarian approach of Singapore, despite delivering high economic growth, it has started to lose its appeal with the island’s electorate. Nor would many in the west find free-market Hong Kong a comfortable environment.

The real question, as Keynes argued in the 1930s, is therefore how to improve the existing model of capitalism. The snag is that there is minimal flexibility in macro policy after the crisis, especially in the US where broadly centrist politics have been replaced by a polarised, stalemated debate. And in both the US and UK there is a greater mistrust of big government, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, than of business. Efforts to re-regulate the banking system, meantime, have failed to convince many experts that an even larger financial crisis can be avoided.

From distribution to decline

If Hyman Minsky, the expert on financial market fragility, provided the best route map for understanding events before the crisis, and Keynes offered the best guide to crisis management, Mancur Olson, a theorist on institutional economics, could now be a posthumous beacon on how to manage the aftermath. Olson argued that nations decline because of the lobbying power of distributional coalitions, or special-interest groups, whose growing influence fosters economic inefficiency and inequality.***

When he was writing, the main interest groups were trade unions and business cartels. Today, the pre-eminent interest group consists of finance professionals on Wall Street and in London. Through campaign finance and political donations, they have bought themselves protection from proper societal accountability. And they pose a continuing obstacle to the de-risking of banking of the kind recommended by the Vickers commission in the UK.

Tackling such interest groups both in the US and Europe is one of the biggest post-crisis tasks for policymakers and a key to addressing concerns about systemic legitimacy. The inchoate nature of the public’s complaints is another. Not the least of the difficulties, to reformulate Winston Churchill’s famous remark on democracy, is that capitalism is the worst form of economic management except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. The public relations problem implicit in that pale endorsement is an underlying reason why legitimacy crises recur.

* The Cost of Inequality, Gibson Square, 2011
** Quoted in Keynes and Capitalism, Roger E. Backhouse and Bradley W. Bateman, History of Political Economy, 2009
*** The Rise and Decline of Nations, Yale University Press, 1982