In a recent article, New battle for commanding heights I argued that:
The American economy has been on this slippery slope of government intervention in the economy since the start of the financial crisis, with huge segments of the financial sectors being ‘saved’ by Washington (or not being saved, like in the case of Lehman Brothers) as part of a process that doesn’t seem to suggest that officials in Washington know what exactly they are doing.
Hence, the US$700 billion bailout that was supposed to be used to purchase ‘toxic’ assets and is now being handed out to troubled banks, insurance companies, loan services and credit companies. It was not surprising that following in the footsteps of AIG, Detroit’s Big Three showed up in Washington, arguing that they are ‘too big’ to fail and want the government to also bail them out.
It’s clearly going to become very difficult for American officials and pundits to continue blasting Russia for its economic nationalist policies or call on China to accelerate the deregulation of its economy. Indeed, these days, it sometimes looks as though the Americans are following in the economic footsteps of the Russians and the Chinese.
And I quoted Cato’s David Boaz on the issue:
Back in the days of the Cold War, pundits used to talk about how the conflict between capitalism and communism would end with the “convergence” of the two systems, “blending the personal freedom and profit motive of Western democracies with the Communist system’s government control of the economy.” Well, it didn’t happen, right? Instead, communism failed, and the communist countries moved rapidly toward capitalism.
And then came the Bush-Obama era, and today we read in the New York Times that “the Kremlin seems to be capitalizing on the economic crisis, exploiting the opportunity to establish more control over financially weakened industries that it has long coveted.” Ouch. That’s a little too close for comfort.
And before you know, everone seems to be dicussing the convergence. Here is Ann Applebaum in the Washington Post:
In other cultures—maybe most other cultures—very rich people are suspect by definition. Recently, I met a wealthy Russian and automatically assumed he was the beneficiary of some shady scheme: How else would someone from that part of the world get rich? In fact, he turned out to be the CEO of a Western-owned company in Kiev, Ukraine, and totally above board. But I know why I made the mistake: I still remember—and Russians still remember—the fraudulent “privatization” deals and complex money-laundering operations that created so many Russian billionaires over the last two decades. I also remember the extraordinary saga of the MMM company, which in the 1990s defrauded some 2 million Russians of $1.5 billion, using what will now surely be known as the second-largest pyramid scheme of all time. Back then, we thought such blatant fraud could only take place in the lawlessness of the post-Soviet world.
We were wrong. Madoff’s pyramid scheme, far broader than anything MMM dreamed up, was made possible by our own tradition of lawfulness. And now he will help bring that tradition down. Here’s a prediction: In the coming years, American capitalism will become slower, more cautious, less productive, and less entrepreneurial. We’re still a long way from Eastern Europe of the 1990s or from the Latin America or Russia of the present. But maybe not as far as we think.
And here is Tom Friedman:
It is both eye-opening and depressing to look at our banking crisis from China. It is eye-opening because it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the U.S. and China are becoming two countries, one system.
How so? Easy, in the wake of our massive bank bailout, one can now look at China and America and say: “Well, China has a big-state-owned banking sector, next to a private one, and America now has a big state-owned banking sector next to a private one. China has big state-owned industries, alongside private ones, and once Washington bails out Detroit, America will have a big state-owned industry next to private ones.”
Yes, an exaggeration to be sure, but the truth is the differences are starting to blur. For two decades, a parade of U.S. officials came to China and lectured Beijing on the necessity of privatizing its banks, said Qu Hongbin, the chief economist for China at HSBC. “So, slowly we did that, and now, all of a sudden, we see everybody else nationalizing their banks.”
It’s depressing because China in many ways feels more stable than America today, with a clearer strategy for working through this crisis. And while the two countries are looking more alike, they appear to be on very different historical trajectories. China went crazy in the 1970s, with its Cultural Revolution, and only after the death of Mao and the rise of Deng Xiaoping has it managed to right itself, gradually moving to a market economy.
But while capitalism has saved China, the end of communism seems to have slightly unhinged America. We lost our two biggest ideological competitors — Beijing and Moscow. Everyone needs a competitor. It keeps you disciplined. But once American capitalism no longer had to worry about communism, it seems to have gone crazy. Investment banks and hedge funds were leveraging themselves at crazy levels, paying themselves crazy salaries and, most of all, inventing financial instruments that completely disconnected the ultimate lenders from the original borrowers, and left no one accountable. “The collapse of communism pushed China to the center and [America] to the extreme,” said Ben Simpfendorfer, chief China economist at Royal Bank of Scotland.
The Madoff affair is the cherry on top of a national breakdown in financial propriety, regulations and common sense. Which is why we don’t just need a financial bailout; we need an ethical bailout. We need to re-establish the core balance between our markets, ethics and regulations. I don’t want to kill the animal spirits that necessarily drive capitalism — but I don’t want to be eaten by them either.
Interesting (I think).