Quaking in their Gucci boots

… as George Monbiot described the bankers the other day[1], writing about the British government’s utterly supine response to the banking crisis and those who caused it. Apparently Brown and Darling have declined to learn the lesson Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggested last April – that ‘People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus’. In fact it’s pretty hard to identify even one of Taleb’s ‘ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world’ [2] that has found its way into public policy.

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small. Nothing should ever become too big to fail.
2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains.
3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.
4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks.
5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity.
6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning.
7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”.
8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains.
9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement.
10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs.

No, as far as I can see it, not one of these lessons has been learned. Well done, chaps. Apparently, say Brown and Darling, it is ‘impractical’ to change the system so that we can exercise any control over it. Which can only mean that that system is out of control, but we are not worried enough about its unintended effects to do anything about it.

But is Taleb’s own prescription enough?

Let us move voluntarily into Capitalism 2.0 by helping what needs to be broken break on its own, converting debt into equity, marginalising the economics and business school establishments, shutting down the “Nobel” in economics, banning leveraged buyouts, putting bankers where they belong, clawing back the bonuses of those who got us here, and teaching people to navigate a world with fewer certainties.

But even if we did all this (personally I love the one about abolishing the Nobel prize for economics), would Capitalism 2.0 really be the answer? We got into the present crisis by allowing capitalism’s basic rules – the structures and interests that underpin all forms of capitalism, which Taleb and other critics from within show no inclination to criticise, even in the name of Capitalism 2.0 – to play themselves out with unprecedented freedom. This particular ‘black swan’ was no improbable mutant but the entirely predictable (and predicted on both right and left) effect of capitalsm’s most basic causes, that was only inconceivable to those of the Thatcher/Reagan generation of politicians and the idealists of economic theory for whom, no matter what the question, unbridled capitalism was the right – no, the righteous – answer.

Meanwhile, George Monbiot’s own diagnosis – that no one bears more responsibility for the current mess than Gordon Brown and Alan Greenspan – essentially that this was a crisis induced by political irresponsibility and weak regulation – has some merit, but by focusing on the individuals or even on rather secondary functions of the economy rather than the structure of the economy itself – distracts attention from the real problem. The crisis was not created by poor management of our economic system; no, it was created by the very nature of that system.

So what are we looking at here? Both capitalism’s intellectual critics and its would-be political masters are unable to see what got us into this, or that there is no version of capitalism that will not, eventually, pull the same trick.

Not that capitalism is an unqualified disaster. Far from it – it is after all only through capitalism that the modern world, with all its fabulous wealth and freedom, took shape at all. But it must be understood that capitalism is rather like adolescence: a huge improvement on its predecessors, but not something to be hung on to for its own sake. There is life after the teens, and there is history after capitalism.

[1] ‘The Great Cop-Out,’ Monbiot.com, 8 September 2009.
[2] ‘Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world’, FT, April 7 2009.

More of RJ Robinson at http://richardjrobinson.blogspot.com/

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