Saturday 17 January 2009

Shaming the rich is way to moralise markets says Toynbee

The recession has not led to a sea change in public opinion towards the super rich, said Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee in a panel discussion at the Fabian New Year Conference on the “haves, have nots and have yachts.”

"There is no sign whatsoever of people changing attitudes about bonuses at the top. The re-moralising of the rich is not beginning and the government is not promoting it.”

But the blame doesn’t just lie with the government:

“What depresses me is: where is the rage? Things are out of control and the financial collapse shows that. But where is the absolute fury against bankers who have stolen people's pension money? Outrage can change moods enormously. People agree that it is not right but where is the spark?”

“I know Fabians are gradualists, but we should send out a hit squad shaming the rich."

Also on the panel was Treasury Minister Angela Eagle, who responded by recognising – as has been the general theme of government speakers at the Fabian Conference – by recognising that we have entered a new era and that new systems need creating.

“It is end of the Thatcher/Reagan era and it has come not a moment too soon. The unfetterred 'market knows best' attitude has gone."

Eagle said the next era would be built on curbing excess and seeing government policy "more holistically", as well as a more balanced and more collective approach that is not so strongly based around the individual.

"We need markets in some sense, but believe they need morals,” she said. A problem of the present system has been that "we are now subject to the risks created by the weakest links in regulation."

"We are now in a third era since World War Two, and it must be built on progressive values and fairness."

But Toynbee criticised Gordon Brown’s reliance on outside business figures for the government's restructuring of the financial system, meaning it is being designed by the very people that got things into such a mess in the first place.

"BERR is run by goats; and Peter Mandelson is an honoury goat," she said.

Digby Jones was singled out for particular criticism.

"He came along for one year, took a nice peerage and now rubbishes Labour and the civil service" she said.

"He is a know-nothing idiot."

The likes of Will Hutton, Robert Skidelsky, John Kay, and session chair David Coats were suggested by Toynbee as better bets to radically recalibrate the system and avoid ending up with "minor tinkering".

1 comment:

Alex said...

Toynbee's failure to discriminate between "the rich" and "the bankers" (or whoever else is responsible) capitalises on current disdain for the latter, and smuggles in justification for a tarring of the former. It smacks of an infantile "not fair!" jealousy- but doesn't really make much sense.

Had Toynbee been as patronising about the poor ('all you asset-less borrowing need re-moralising!') she'd be heckled off the Fabian stage. Emotive insults always were easier than concrete suggestions for regulatory reform.

Bankers did not steal people's money. Current legislation forbids pension funds from investing in anything but the most secure assets. The problems were laid in Basel decades ago with dubious ratings agencies- leading to improperly rated investments. It would be more accurate to suggest bankers stashed our pension money in a ship- and then inadvertently sunk it whilst trying to paint go-faster stripes on it.

If the bankers stole the money; we are the ones in possession of stolen goods. Bad practice across the board - from Woolies to MFI - of endlessly leveraging and endlessly insuring against anything (basically hedging by another name) has artificially inflated our own economy- and we the consumers never complained.
Even as I write, as a NINJA student I can access tens of thousands of pounds of credit (besides that which the government's graduate tax provides) without getting up from my desk.

"Hit squad shaming" almost alliterates, but doesn't even come close to making sense: naming names won't fix broken windows. Making the have-yachts feel guilty (should such a bizarre suggestion be tenable) wont prevent the unstoppable adjustment to the hyper-inflated value of our economy. Even enforcement of no-bonus rules for failing traders wouldn't correct the underlying fundamental weaknesses in our financial sector.

The implicit suggestion is that it was purely morally deficient bankers who created our mess, extending hands full of easy credit (and not the fault of consumers and companies who gladly accepted it, under increasing legislative protection for the bankrupt). If that is the case (rather than poor fiscal policy or regulation, as most economically informed commentators suggest) - how can government intervention (or anything else Toynbee neglects to suggest) make a difference?

The banking system is set up so that bankers take risks (with possible losses) with our money. Toynbee makes the mistake of thinking that the bankers take off with our money. It's emotively appealing, but stupid: a chronic gambler would be a more correct analogy than a petty thief, a gambler whose past gains were shared with we who lent him our savings.

Toynbee makes a living from pedalling half-baked opinion badged as fact: a quaint character to be throwing mud at goats.