Tuesday, 14 October 2008

From goose to snake

Watching Newsnight's 'trial' to examine who was to blame for the near-collapse of global capitalism last night, I could only wonder at the sheer quantity of bad faith on display.

The programme began with the results of a telephone survey, showing that the vast majority of the public blamed speculation in particular or banks in general for their irresponsibility, with s smaller proportion blaming the government, and five per cent each blaming regulators and the borrowing public.

The various 'accused' explained why it was not their fault. Paul Mason, the usually sensible Newsnight Economics Editor, talked in horror-struck tones of bankers being motivated to lend recklessly by the "personal enrichment" that could follow (as opposed to the altruism that usually prevails in financial services), and Will Hutton lambasted banks for not unilaterally cutting back their remuneration to a level that could be described as sane (and would no doubt lead to a swift leakage of skilled personnel).

So, the mess we're in is all a result of these evil institutions, which apparently operate in an entirely parallel universe from the rest of us? No. The simple truth, however unpalatable, is that - whenever we have rejoiced in cheap mortgages, easy credit card transfers or stockmarket gains - we have added air to the bubble. We may wriggle to avoid blame (and everyone else involved is, so why not?), but most of us were complicit in the system.

But now, less than a year after we were worrying about the terrible implications of asking rich people to pay tax, when all the talk was of killing geese that lay golden eggs, we stand astonished that financial institutions have been playing as fast and loose as they can, in order to maximise their profits.

Perhaps it's because I am a child of the Thatcher years, but I can't find it in my heart to expect capitalist institutions to be anything other than ruthlessly - and even recklessly - self-interested. You may not like it (and I don't much), but it's the world in which we live. As Michael Foot recently observed (a footnote to this), there was an alternative, but we chose a different path 25 years ago.

I'm reminded of Al Wilson's Northern Soul classic, The Snake: a kindly woman takes in and looks after a snake that is dying of cold. Recovered, the snake duly bites her. As the venom takes hold, the woman complains of how her hospitality has been repaid, but the snake is having none of it:
"Oh shut up, silly woman", said the reptile with a grin.
"You knew darn well I was a snake before you took me in!"