Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Systemic faults in Capitalism & Democracy

Brief synopsis of my book "Subverting Capitalism & Democracy"

A consensus is emerging that the crisis of 2007-09 was primarily caused by following seven factors: the property bubble; explosion in debt; fragility and dominance of financial sector; weak risk assessment; monetary policy errors; saving glut in developing countries like China; and complacency and incompetence of regulators including rating agencies. The scale of the damage has been attributed to a perfect storm – a concurrent failure of all the above factors. However, we should ask why these factors emerged in the first place and why did all of them fail simultaneously. These are symptoms of a structural decay of the democracy-capitalism system. 

Finance sits at the top of the bargaining power hierarchy. Through a multi-tiered incentive structure, financiers influence virtually every aspect of corporate decision-making. The financial innovations, riding atop asset bubbles, pushed expected returns higher. It pushed the corporates to take even more risks on their balance sheets as Wall Street cheered on. High leverage, currency exposure, cross-country acquisitions, unrelated diversifications, exposure to exotic products, reduced R&D spending, experimenting with buyouts and share buybacks, etc left corporate balance sheets vulnerable. These dynamics fanned the property bubble and led to an explosion of debt. 

The concentration of power is not a design feature of the capitalist system. Our transaction-based economic system is fractal in nature and the concentration of power was simply an emergent property, an unintended result, of this fractal system. Over time, as countless transactions aggregated, the bargaining power concentrated with the financiers. Occasionally when bargaining power does aggregate with certain economic agents, the democratic set-up is supposed to provide the counter-balancing force. Governments or regulators step in to level the playing field. 

But, government waited for markets to self-regulate. To understand government behaviour, we have to view government and markets as competing systems addressing citizens’ needs. Governments create services for few and charge everyone through taxes. Markets are efficient, they charge as per usage. Hence, in good times, there is pressure on government to step back. At times, governments even abandon areas where markets are ill developed. Only in a crisis do we realise the distinction between the two. Markets are exclusive, accessible to only those who have measurable value to offer. Conversely, governments, by definition, are inclusive. Government is the right of the citizen while market is just a privilege. Naturally powers of the government supersede those gained by markets. The question therefore arises, why didn’t government use its powers? 

The root of government problems lies in the broken political system. The political system had the incentive to be silent. The cost of politics has increased. It is kept high artificially to restrict the access to political office. Naturally, the politician is now very attentive to her campaign financers. In the process voters are being denied their right. Voters choose their candidate from amongst those pre-selected by influential contributors. The voters don’t have a real choice. 

Governments, globally, have a strong election focus. The lack of genuine upper house in parliaments may have caused this short-termism. In a bicameral legislature, the role of upper house was to bring strategic focus and act as a check on the lower-house populism. Sadly, many nations have actually abolished the upper house. Where it exists, the upper house has become an instrument to repay political debts. 

The surrender of politics compromised the government and the regulatory machinery. The laws have become vague allowing room for interpretation and, consequently, rent-seeking. Laws can be compromised using, what is called, the necessary and sufficient condition problem. No matter how elaborately necessary conditions are written, there will always be a loophole. For example, imagine a case where mugging is defined as stealing at gunpoint. Gun is the necessary condition for mugging. Now if a victim is mugged at knifepoint, can the thief get away just because he used a knife instead of a gun? This is exactly what is happening in financial crimes. That mugging happened is sufficient condition. Laws must be based on sufficient conditions. We are about to make similar mistakes when developing a regulatory framework for too-big-to-fail institutions. 

The intent of the law can also be compromised within the details of the wording. No matter how finely you read the law, if the intent is compromised, the wording is meaningless. During the crisis, many financial firms have abided the law in letter and violated it in spirit. Some have even blatantly violated the law by paying an insignificant share of profits as fines. The legal system has not shown true appreciation for the intent of the laws. Hence the weakened legal system must also bear part of the blame for the crisis. 

Finally, blame for the crisis must also be allocated to the observer i.e. the media. It was the responsibility of media to explore and expose the possibility of this crisis. It is clear that media needs to be cleaned up. We must separate journalism from what is essential gossip reporting. The power of media, the access, the privileges, should be limited to journalists. We also need new business models to fund journalists. The current business models create harbour conflicts of interests similar to rating agencies. The democracy-capitalism system was envisaged as a self-preserving, counter-balancing structure protecting the interests of citizens or commoners. The factors we discussed above structurally weakened the system. This system is definitely not going last this decade. Now is the time to set it right.