Seeds of its own destruction

Martin Wolf – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
…Yet a huge financial crisis, together with a deep global recession, if not something far worse, is going to have much wider effects than just these.
Remember what happened in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment rose to one-quarter of the labour force in important countries, including the US. This transformed capitalism and the role of government for half a century, even in the liberal democracies. It led to the collapse of liberal trade, fortified the credibility of socialism and communism and shifted many policymakers towards import substitution as a development strategy.
The Depression led also to xenophobia and authoritarianism. Frightened people become tribal: dividing lines open within and between societies. In 1930, the Nazis won 18 per cent of the German vote; in 1932, at the height of the Depression, their share had risen to 37 per cent.
One transformation that can already be seen is in attitudes to pay. Even the US and UK are exerting direct control over pay levels and structures in assisted institutions. From the inconceivable to the habitual has taken a year. Equally obvious is a wider shift in attitudes towards inequality: vast rewards were acceptable in return for exceptional competence; as compensation for costly incompetence, they are intolerable. Marginal tax rates on the wealthier are on the way back up.
Yet another impact will be on the sense of insecurity. The credibility of moving pension savings from government-run pay-as-you-go systems to market-based systems will be far smaller than before, even though, ironically, the opportunity for profitable long-term investment has risen. Politics, like markets, overshoot.
The search for security will strengthen political control over markets. A shift towards politics entails a shift towards the national, away from the global. This is already evident in finance. It is shown too in the determination to rescue national producers. But protectionist intervention is likely to extend well beyond the cases seen so far: these are still early days.
The impact of the crisis will be particularly hard on emerging countries: the number of people in extreme poverty will rise, the size of the new middle class will fall and governments of some indebted emerging countries will surely default. Confidence in local and global elites, in the market and even in the possibility of material progress will weaken, with potentially devastating social and political consequences. Helping emerging economies through a crisis for which most have no responsibility whatsoever is a necessity.
The ability of the west in general and the US in particular to influence the course of events will also be damaged. The collapse of the western financial system, while China’s flourishes, marks a humiliating end to the “uni-polar moment”. As western policymakers struggle, their credibility lies broken. Who still trusts the teachers?
These changes will endanger the ability of the world not just to manage the global economy but also to cope with strategic challenges: fragile states, terrorism, climate change and the rise of new great powers. At the extreme, the integration of the global economy on which almost everybody now depends might be reversed. Globalisation is a choice. The integrated economy of the decades before the first world war collapsed. It could do so again.
On June 19 2007, I concluded an article on the “new capitalism” with the observation that it remained “untested”. The test has come: it failed. The era of financial liberalisation has ended. Yet, unlike in the 1930s, no credible alternative to the market economy exists and the habits of international co-operation are deep.
“I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more,” said Dorothy after a tornado dropped her, her house and dog in the land of Oz. The world of the past three decades has gone. Where we end up, after this financial tornado, is for us to seek to determine. …
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