Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Magnitude of the financial crisis

I know I've been posting European stuff lately. But I'm on a visit to Austria and, as they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or when you're in Ried-im-Innkreis, Austria, too.

Fortunately, the German-language press hasn't suffered anything like the kind of collapse in quality that the American press has. (Athough that might sound like "damning with faint praise"!) And, probably not coincidentally, German-language newspapers appear to be doing very well business-wise, in contrast to the American "old media".

One of my favorite (ex-)politicians and commentators is Joschka Fischer, former German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor who was for years the head of the German Green Party. He writes a weekly online column for the Die Zeit. His Oct. 6 column, Der Blitz hat eingeschlagen (Lightning has struck), he writes (translations mine):

Wo vor wenigen Wochen noch Reste von Vertrauen auf den Finanzmärkten vorhanden waren, herrscht heute nur noch Panik. Auch hierzulande wird, wie zuvor in den USA, nichts anderes mehr bleiben, als entweder das gesamte Finanzsystem zusammenbrechen zu lassen, was keine tatsächliche Option ist, oder aber de facto das gesamte System zu verstaatlichen.

Where a few weeks ago there still remained some trust in the financial markets, today there is only panic. Ever here at home [Germany], as before in the USA, nothing else remains than to either let the whole financial system fall apart, which really is not an option, or to de facto nationalize the entire system.
By chance, his "today there is only panic" turned out to be literally true on Monday, when the stock markets around the world nose-dived.

European commentators aren't so allegic to using the obviously descriptive term "nationalization" as our American commentators are. Even though with the federal takeovers of Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and AIG, the Bush administration just put through the largest set of nationalizations ever undertaken outside the Communist world. Fischer expressed darkly amused astonishment at that fact in his Sept. 22 column (Sozialismus à la George W. Bush!):

Wenn die Realität die Gags der Kabarettisten müde und alt aussehen lässt, dann wird es meistens bitterernst. Das Mutterland der Marktwirtschaft verstaatlicht sein Finanzsystem und die Immobilienkredite! Und das alles geschieht unter einem republikanischen Präsidenten! Wenn die Lage nicht so ernst und gefährlich wäre, könnte man darüber ja durchaus lachen.

If the reality of the situation makes the gags of the comedians seem old and tired, then things have become deadly serious. The motherland of the market economy is nationalizing its finance system and the mortgage credit! And that is all happening under a Republican President! If the situation weren't so serious and dangerous, one could could really laugh at it.
In the current column, Fischer frames the current situation as follows:

Hinter der Bankenkrise droht bereits ein globaler Rezessions-Tsunami für die reale Wirtschaft.

Innerhalb zweier Jahrzehnte geschieht es nun zum zweiten Mal, dass ein globales Ordnungssystem zusammengebrochen ist: Nach dem System der Bipolarität des Kalten Krieges kollabiert jetzt die Unipolarität der alleinigen Weltmacht USA. Damit endet die Epoche eines ungezügelten Finanzkapitalismus.

Behind the banking crisis a global recession tidal waves for the real economy already threatens.

Within two decades it has now happened for the second time that a global system of order has fallen apart: After the Cold War's system of bipolarity, now the unipolarity of the lone world power, the USA, is collapsing. With it ends the epoch of an unrestrained finance capitalism.
Fischer is no idle theoretician; he tries to take a realistic look at practical realities even when it's inconvenient for his preferred ideology (which is part of why I compare him with California's current Attorney General Jerry Brown, who as been known to exhibit a similar talent). And he's not predicting the imminent collapse of world capitalism. He's referring to the fact that "neoliberalism" promoted by the US for the last three decades or so as the "Washington Consensus", which included the insanity of assuming that there could be a "free market" in capital that would work like the nice little supply-and-demand charts in our college eocnomic texts, is now throoughly discredited. Although ideology-besotted true believers, I suppose, we will have with us always.

Fischer is actually a great admirer of America and our democratic traditions, though obviously no one anywhere who genuinely supports democratic traditions can have much admiration for the Cheney-Bush crew and their misdeeds. Fischer writes:

Es wäre zwar kurzsichtig, die Erneuerungsfähigkeit der USA zu unterschätzen und sie abzuschreiben. Die amerikanische Macht wird reduziert werden, aber sie wird ein zentraler Faktor bleiben. Die Anpassung an die neue Realität wird jedoch schmerzhaft sein und ihre Zeit brauchen. Anschließend wird die Welt nicht mehr so sein wie zuvor. Die alleinige Dominanz des Westens und seiner Vormacht wird mit dieser Krise wohl endgültig der Geschichte angehören.

It would certainly be short-sighted to underestimate the USA's capability for self-renewal and to write it off. American power will be reduced, but it will remain a central factor. Adjustment to the new reality will nevertheless be painful and will takes its time. In the end, the world will no longer be as it was before. The sole dominance of the West and it leading power will certainly end at last with this crisis.
I heard Fischer speak to the San Francisco World Affairs Council in 2007, and he formulated a similar idea in terms of foreign policy particularly in the Middle East as follows: It's not the case that the United States is everything, but without the United States everything is nothing. European politicians trying to sound "anti-American" don't formulate things that way.

Fischer's main immediate point is to encourage a common European approach to regulating financial markets as a long-term matter, not just as an immediate response. "Gutes Krisenmanagement allein wird jetzt ... nicht reichen", he writes. (Good crisis management alone ... will not suffice now.)

From our domestic media, here is a thought-provoking video from Business Week chief economist Michael Mandel. His comments are a reminder that when you have the kind of enormous trade dificit that the US does and rely as we do on massive foreign borrowing, reckless financial practices that put the repayment of those debts in some doubt were not such a good idea.

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