15 September 2008

By the waters of Leman . . .

So here we are again. Financial journalists and politicians trying to make sense of a world they have long reassured us could never come again. A world they vaguely remember from old men's stories and scratched black-and-white moving images. A world where banks collapse and stockbrokers commit suicide - well scrap the last part because there was at least some honour amongst thieves in the 1920s which appears strikingly absent today.

Because nobody believed this would ever happen again nobody has a plan to deal with it. We are all dredging around for what we can remember reading in the work of Galbraith, deliberately written to prevent us taking the same path towards economic destruction caused by financial irresponsibility. A path we have stumbled along in recent years with increasing speed as memories of the last significant financial crash have faded.

Vince Cable managed to dredge up the name of the Glass-Steagall Act, which I also recall from undergraduate economics. A lesson well learned from the last crash which required the creation of a wall between commercial and domestic banking activities and was designed - if memory serves - to prevent the risky behaviour of venture capital investors from dragging down the small saver - precisely what appears to be happening now as a result of the Act's repeal.

Clearly re-regulation of financial activities is crucial and urgent, but it isn't sufficient. Boom and bust is not an inevitability, it is merely the periodic consequence of an economic system which creates money in an irrational and undemocratic way. Without monetary reform we will only be storing up more problems in the future. The suited chaps who will bear the brunt of public opprobrium in the coming months were bound to create ever more ingenious ways to persuade people to borrow their unreliable money, because otherwise the whole system would have seized up. It is the system, not the greed it generates, that is at fault.

That is not to say that we should allow these city rogues to retire to their recently acquired country estates. The artificial value they created in the financial sector has been translated in many cases into real value as they bought up land, gold and other safe assets. We should use the money laundering legislation to trace the path this money took and claim it back through windfall taxes. This is the only way that the pain of recession can be fairly and democratically shared. Money generated from these windfall taxes can be used to fund the Green New Deal that leading environmentalists are calling for.

And because this is a blog which strives for erudition as well as political insight, here is a stanza from T. E. Eliot's The Wasteland which was dredged up from my memory:

THE river's tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept...
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.


  1. Great post Molly!

    some key points made..love your mention of glass steagal, vincey cable and a bit of T.S. elliott chucked in

  2. I have just discovered that stories of brokers leaping from windows in the 1929 Crash are nothing but an urban myth – even Galbraith apparently found the suicide rate during October and November 1929 disappointingly low. Perhaps we all have believed this because we rather feel that, well, these people deserved to die.

    This makes me ponder what we feel the appropriate personal consequences for today’s guilty financiers should be. Swift defenestration is too good for them. My answer may not be one they like much: let them be slapped with lifetime ASBOs which require them to live on benefits on council estates in, well, somewhere like Scunthorpe. Let the people of 2087 look back and know that we spoke as we felt.

  3. Why penalise the people of Scunthorpe?

  4. Great post Molly.
    Take a look here: http://green-monetary-policy.wikidot.com/start
    Add to the green financisl crisis wiki!