Neoliberalism ignorant toward investing in more than economy

By Deborah Orr  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Tue, Jun 11, 2013 - Page 9

The IMF has admitted that some of the decisions it made in the wake of the 2007-to-2008 financial crisis were wrong and that the 130 billion euro (US$171.5 billion) first bailout of Greece was “bungled.” Well, yes. If it had not been a mistake, then it would have been the only bailout and everyone in Greece would have lived happily ever after.

Actually, the IMF has not quite admitted that it messed things up. It has said instead that it went along with its partners in “the troika” — the European Commission (EC) and the European Central Bank (EBC) — when it should not have. The EC and the ECB put the interests of the eurozone before the interests of Greece, the IMF says.

The EC and the ECB, in turn, clutch their pearls and splutter with horror that they could be accused of something so petty as self-preservation.

The IMF also admits that it “underestimated” the effect austerity would have on Greece. Obviously, the rest of the troika takes no issue with that. Even those who substitute “kick up the arse to all the lazy scroungers” whenever they encounter the word “austerity,” have cottoned on to the fact that the word can only be intoned with facial features locked into a suitably tragic mask.

Yet, mealy-mouthed and hotly contested as this minor mea culpa is, it is still a sign that financial institutions may slowly be coming round to the idea that they are the problem.

They know the crash was a debt-bubble that burst. What they do not seem to acknowledge is that the merry days of reckless lending are never going to return; even if they do, the same thing will happen again, but more quickly and more savagely.

The thing is this: The crash was a write-off, not a repair job. The response from the start should have been a wholesale re-evaluation of the way in which wealth is created and distributed around the globe, a “structural adjustment,” as the philosopher John Gray has said all along.

The IMF exists to lend money to governments, so it is comic that it wags its finger at governments that run up debt. And, of course, its loans famously come with strings attached: Adopt a free-market economy, or strengthen the one you have, kissing goodbye to the “Big State.”

Yet, the irony is painful. Neoliberal ideology insists that states are too big and cumbersome, too centralized and faceless, to be efficient and responsive. I agree. The problem is that the ruthless sentimentalists of neoliberalism like to tell themselves — and anyone else who will listen — that removing the dead hand of state control frees the individual citizen to be entrepreneurial and productive. Instead, it places the financially powerful beyond any state, in an international elite that makes its own rules and holds governments to ransom. That is what the financial crisis was all about.

The ransom was paid, and as a result, governments have been obliged to limit their activities yet further — some setting about the task with greater relish than others. Now the task, supposedly, is to get the free market up and running again.

However, the basic problem is this: It costs a lot of money to cultivate a market — a group of consumers — and the more sophisticated the market is, the more expensive it is to cultivate them. A developed market needs to be populated with educated, healthy, cultured, law-abiding and financially secure people — people who expect to be well-paid themselves, having been brought up believing in material aspiration, as consumers need to be.

So why, exactly, given the huge amount of investment needed to create such a market, should access to it then be “free?”

The neoliberal idea is that the cultivation itself should be conducted privately as well. They see “austerity” as a way of forcing that agenda. However, how can the privatization of societal welfare possibly happen when unemployment is already high, working people are turning to food banks to survive and the debt industry, far from being sorry that it brought the global economy to its knees, is snapping up bargains in the form of busted high-street businesses to establish shops with nothing to sell but high-interest debt? Why, you have to ask yourself, is this vast implausibility, this sheer unsustainability, not blindingly obvious to all?

Markets cannot be free. Markets have to be nurtured. They have to be invested in. Markets have to be grown. Google, Amazon and Apple have not taught anyone in this country to read. However, even though an illiterate market would not be so great for them, they avoid their taxes, because they can, because they are more powerful than governments.

And further, those who invest in these companies, and insist that taxes should be low to encourage private profit and shareholder value, then lend governments the money they need to create these populations of sophisticated producers and consumers, berating them for their profligacy as they do so. It is all utterly, completely, crazy.

Recently, British Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health Anna Soubry suggested that female doctors who worked part-time so that they could bring up families were putting the National Health Service under strain. The compartmentalized thinking is quite breathtaking. What on earth does she imagine? That it would be better for the economy if they all left school at 16?

On the contrary, the more people who are earning good money while working part-time — thus having the leisure to consume — the better. No doubt these female doctors are sustaining both the pharmaceutical industry and the arts and media, both sectors that Britain does well in.

As for their prioritizing of family life over career — that is just another of the myriad ways in which British Conservative party neoliberalism is entirely without logic. Its prophets and its disciples will happily — ecstatically — tell you that there is nothing more important than family, unless you are a family doctor spending some of your time caring for your own. You could not make these characters up. It is certainly true that women with children find it more easy to find part-time employment in the public sector. However, that is a prima facie example of how unresponsive the private sector is to human and societal need, not — as it is so often presented — evidence that the public sector is congenitally disabled.

Much of the healthy economic growth — as opposed to the smoke and mirrors of many aspects of financial services — that Britain enjoyed during the second half of the 20th century was due to women swelling the educated workforce. Soubry and her ilk, above all else, forget that people have multiple roles, as consumers, as producers, as citizens and as family members. All of those things have to be nurtured and invested in to make a market.

The neoliberalism that the IMF still preaches pays no account to any of this. It insists that the provision of work alone is enough of an invisible hand to sustain a market. Yet even Adam Smith, the economist who came up with that theory, did not agree that economic activity alone was enough to keep humans decent and civilized.