Tag Archives: bankers can do no wrong

The Corrupted Human Spirit

What economics lacks is the space to include other human sciences such as philosophy in the scope of its subject matter.  Philosophy has the grand vision that is usually lacking in economics, which is all too often a science of the minutiae of life. One concept outside the understanding of economists is Hegel’s zeitgeist or the spirit of the age. What Hegel means by this is that there is one overall idea that animates a period of human history. It is an idea which expresses the characteristics of an age, such as the ‘bélle époque’ of 19th century Paris. A Paris of the freeing of human spirit, painting was freed from the old conventions demonstrated in the art of the impressionists, the vitality of popular culture was epitomised by the exuberance of the ‘Can Can’ yet this was a freeing that also allowed the darker side of the human spirit, corruption and venality to thrive. French politics of this time was characterised by a series of corruption scandals. As a believer in the zeitgeist, I wondered what was the spirit of this age? What was the spirit that informed human behaviours in our contemporary world?

Usually this is seen as the age of Neo-Liberalism ,  yet that phrase needs explaining. According to its advocates the freeing of the markets will lead to a freeing of the human spirit. Yet the art of the age does not seem to embody the freedom of the human spirit, rather it embodies the spirit of reproduction or copying. One art work that epitomises this spirit of reproduction is an art work by Damien Hirst, it was a series of dots on a white background. These dots varied only in colour but not in any other way. They seemed to have been placed in lines on the screen only the colours of the dots seemed to be chosen at random. I as a viewer could see little creativity at work, it was a machine like picture, a picture that for me could only be produced by a machine. What it lacked was the spark of human imagination. Damien Hirst work demonstrative of an age that is lacking in originality and creativity.  A lack of originality that can be seen on any new housing estate, which consists of houses which are copies of those built for generations by the builder’s predecessors. They are inferior copies of the house of the past as they are being built of inferior materials and to much smaller dimensions. Houses that were built according to a least cost formula, a least cost that necessarily implies a lack of originality. Why go for the expense course of employing an architect to create a contemporary house incorporating new materials and bold design, when it is cheaper and easier to copy an old design?

What Neo-Liberalism has given to the age is a dominant mode of thought. Policy decisions are not to be made of according to values or any grand vision but according to a cost benefit calculation. A government project such as the High Speed Rail link from London to the North is made on this basis. Do the demonstrated costs outweigh the benefits in cash terms? This leads to all sorts of strange calculations to render values such the enjoyment of living in the undisturbed countryside in cash terms. Decisions can only be made on quantifiable or cash terms, this thinking leads to a diminution of the human spirit, as decision making is reduced to a process of calculation.  Human values have been reduced to a simple cash nexus, it is a corruption of the human spirit.

It is a world in which the heroes are the bankers and speculators, those who are the masters money. There heroic status derives from the fact that they handle vast quantities of money, money a product which is the holy grail of contemporary society, in that those who are greatest possess the most of this asset.  We know a footballer is a footballing genius as much through the income he commands as for his skill on the football pitch.

There is embodied in Neo-Liberal philosophy a realism of the most naive form. What is valued is what is tangible, what can be counted and weighed, not abstraction? There is the belief that abstract universal values have no place in contemporary society. What counts is the practicality of a belief or ideology. Neo-Liberalism is the most practicable of beliefs in that only those outcomes that can be quantified, the benefits be counted, are valued. Only those practices that have a quantifiable end result matter. The result is the target culture in the public sector, where performance is measured in terms of targets achieved. The emphasis is on ‘through put’ not on quality. In hospitals the target culture has damaged good practice. What matters is that the target is met, not the quality of service. This results in some bizarre practices, because there is a time limit set for treating patients in Accident and Emergency (A&E), patients will be deliberately kept waiting in ambulances, as by so doing the patient has not yet been admitted to A& and is not counted as an in patient. This means that the time they spent waiting in the ambulance does not count when it comes to measuring how successful the A&E department has been in meeting its  performance targets.

One of the most damaging aspects of the Neo-Liberal zeitgeist is to found in our schools. What is causing great excitement is the new stem subjects, the officially defined list of subjects in which students are expected to do well? These stem subjects are little more than a sophisticated version of the 3 r’s ‘reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetatic’ that formed the curriculum of many state schools in the 19th century. Dickens’ Wackford Squeers would feel very much at home in the new academies. This change has happened because schools are now measured by output. The output that matters is in that of the skills that business wants. Businessman want employees that are competent in the 3 r’s, if they do want painters it is a painter who can paint a wall, not an artist. There is in our schools a deskilling and narrowing of the curriculum. A deskilling in all that matters is those skills that can be quantified and measured, so creativity achieves a zero score while the rote repetition of the agreed answer gets the highest score.The narrowing the curriculum is caused by the downgrading of the creative arts, that is art, music and drama get few marks in the current system, so headteachers that wish to do well, discourage their brightest students from doing anything but the stem subjects.  There cannot have been a curriculum more designed to create a dull, boring and miserable education for children than the current one.

When economists look for reasons for the poor performance of the economy, the look the reasons that do not relate to the human spirit. The reigning zeitgist is one that is unimaginative, it only values the measurable and is one of uninspiring dullness.A corruption of the human spirit, one that discourages all that is best in the human personality. Are not some of the failings of the British economy to be found in a zeitgeist that discourages innovation and creativity. If economists raised their eyes from their desks they might see that there are studies pointing them in this direction. A recent study of the booming computer software industry in East London showed that one of the reasons for its success was that it was perceived as a ‘cool’ place to work and live and as a consequence attracts some of the best computer software engineers in Europe. Rather than worrying about how to make workers more productive, perhaps economists should look more to creating a zeitgeist that encouraged creativity and innovation. A zeitgeist that would drag the society out of its current doldrums.

Housing: an example of the misuse of government policy

I realised that on reading my essay through there was a repetition of themes in my writing. It is not the bad behaviour of the banks that drive me to write, but the attempt to explain why, in spite of the economy growing have we all become poorer, that is apart from a tiny elite. When I started work in the 1960’s there was full employment and everybody had the benefit of being housed well. Now that world has disappeared and neither of the last two statements are true. Why? I think an analysis of the housing market explains how this change occurred. When what was once seen as a necessity of the good life housing, is now seen as a commodity to be exchanged on the money markets. There has been a devaluation of human life.

After years of housing booms and busts it is impossible to believe that governments once took action to suppress house price bubbles. Their intention was to keep house prices at affordable levels. All these controls on the price of houses were scrapped by the Conservative governments of 1970 and 1979. Now the governor of the Bank of England is talking again of reintroducing such regulations to rein in future housing price bubbles.

The ending of any controls was in part a consequence of a long campaign by the banks and the rest of the financial community that chafed at any controls that limited their ability to make money. They could guarantee negative press headlines about credit squeezes, so making their cessation much easier. one phrase coined at the time of controls, was mortgage famine. The public were easily persuaded to that credit controls only had a negative impact. At the same time Social Democracy was going out of fashion in the political classes. This meant that controls and regulations that were an integral part of social democracy had to go. It was easy to claim that al the crisis’s of the 1970’s were consequent on having a Social Democratic system and the system that was the source of all our problems should be replaced by something better.

Why did the banks so hate directives and all the other controls that limited price inflation in the housing market? These self same banks at the same time campaigning for a control of inflation in the wider economy. The reason is quite simple, money was the asset in which bank’s traded and they wanted some stability in that commodity. Also inflation in the wider economy added to their costs, unlike house price inflation from which they could directly benefit.

What the banks wanted was the freedom to manipulate the housing market to benefit themselves. They wanted a rapid turnover of the housing stock at ever increasing prices. It was the activity of the usurer, buying and selling the same product over and over again at higher and higher prices. More houses were built each year but the number built fell far short of the ever increasing demand for them, so in it seemed as if same house was sold over and over again. The demand for houses was constantly pushed ever upward by the banks providing more and more money for ever higher mortgages. If this seems to be an over statement consider this example. I lived as a teenager in a small Sussex village and I can remember being told by an awestruck fellow villager in the mid 1960’s that certain new build houses were now selling for prices in excess of £3,500. Now such houses are selling for prices in excess of £250,000. The house in which I lived as a game keeper’s son was sold recently for a £1 million. I do not know how many times the houses on the village green changed hands.

Unfortunately the bankers greed led them to taking a series of foolish actions that led to the crash. In what were now the outdated building societies it was the savers money that was lent to out borrowers, but unfortunately relying upon savers meant that the money for loans was limited, much more was needed to finance the house price bubble. The banks had the solution which was to borrow on the wholesale money markets. If it had not been taken to extremes it would not have been a sound policy. The money borrowed had to be at a lower rate of interest than that lent out for mortgages to be profitable. Cheap money is that lent for short periods of time, sometimes for as short as overnight. To finance the ever expanding mortgage market the banks borrowed increasing large amounts of money from the short term money markets, while the banks lent out the same money for periods of up to 25 years. The banks were reliant on the short term money market to constantly replace the loans they repaid to finance their mortgage lending. Surprisingly this is not as irresponsible as it sounds, what was irresponsible was borrowing such disproportionate amounts in this way. The problem with financing mortgages in this way was that the profitability of such transactions is dependent on the price differential between money borrowed and money lent. The narrower the differential the less profitable was the mortgage business. At the height of the housing boom I was told by a banker that the banks did not make much money from the mortgage business. At first I was baffled, but I realised that the banks profit margins were being squeezed in two ways; first the huge demand for short term loans were forcing up the price (interest rates) of these loans and that competition in the mortgage market meant the banks could not increase their mortgage rates to compensate for higher loan charges for fear of losing customers to other lenders. Banks such as HBOS were having their profit margins squeezed and were at the same time over dependent on borrowed money. They were a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Banks such as HBOS depended for their survival on their ability to borrow billions on the short term finance markets to finance their mortgage trade. If they were denied those funds the bank would collapse. This happened in the period 2008 to 2009. The housing bubble burst and banks were suddenly unwilling to lend to each other, as they did not know which banks were financially viable. In the event no British bank was viable, but none were so indebted as HBOS. The rest of the story is well known, the government rescued the banks by giving them billions to keep them viable.

For the millions already impoverished by the banks playing the housing market it was a double whammy. Now not only did the ‘excluded’ have to pay exorbitant private high rents but they were further impoverished by the government’s austerity programme that reduced their incomes.

Having a nominally Social Democratic Party in power made no difference as Neo-Liberalism was so firmly entrenched as the governing political philosophy. Any action to regulate the banks to put them on a sound financial footing was deemed much worse than almost bankrupting the nation to bail them out. Without any justification the latter was deemed the better option as the default assumption is that the government is incompetent in economic matters and management of them such be best left to those ‘who know’, the bankers. It was no surprise when Gordon Brown appointed a banker, Lord Myner to clear up the mess left by other bankers.

Given that the financial sector seems to have effectively bought up Parliament; E.P. Thompson’s words are very prescient. He thought contemporary politicians are as corrupt and self interested as those of the eighteenth century. Parliament then was was part of the ‘old corruption’ in which the landed interest purchased control of government and he thought current parliaments should be viewed as part of the ‘new corruption’, as control of Parliament has been purchased by the financial interest, ‘the City of London’.

Unlike the majority of my fellow economists I believe than the solutions to economic problems lies with politics not economics. What is needed is political reform that removes the hands of ‘the City of London’ from around the throat of government.