Thursday, October 9, 2008

An Idiot's Guide to Money - 1. Secrets and Lies

President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room of the White House.Image via WikipediaThere's part of me that gets very excited about the financial crisis. I was a young teenager when the cold war was at its hottest, and the prospect of nuclear war was in people's minds. I remember feeling both fear and excitement - it would be terrible because people would die, but also exciting because the world would change forever. I guess my excitement over the financial crisis comes from the same place in my head. Of course, I would never tell anyone this - I'm only saying it here because I trust you not to tell anyone. As a grown-up you have to keep secrets. There's certain things you don't discuss in front of the kids.

Banking is all about secrets. As crunch turns into crisis, these secrets are being exposed. The shock we feel is akin to a child witnessing a primal scene - 'you have to do that, to make me?'. The modern banking system has been pretty good a keeping its secrets covered up. Our governments have no real choice but to collude with the banks. Human beings always seem to need someone to lie to them. Whether its preachers, politicians, or bankers we need someone to take on the responsibility of allaying our fears. Post WWII its worked well; long periods of feeling safe, punctuated by occasional bouts of fear (but with the sweet pill of someone to blame).

The soundbite of the moment seems to be the 'real economy'. Poe-faced pundits have hauled out this old chesnut to attempt to put some distance between the firms who deal in money and the firms who deal in stuff. It's bit like saying 'make love' rather than 'have sex'. And its a rather pernicious lie. If the making and doing part of the economy did really separate from the financial part, we'd have real problems. I'd find myself trying to swap 10 minutes driving for a loaf of bread. Money acts as medium of exchange. Its the oil for the economic engine. Try running your car without oil if you want to test the analogy ;o)

U.K.Image via Wikipedia
It might seem odd to you but I have a lot of sympathy for bankers and politicians. We need secrets. To protect secrets we need lies. And to tell lies we need liars. The people I don't have too much sympathy for are the 'morally outraged'. This might sound harsh, but if you've spent your working life taking a wage from a government agency or institution and the value of your pension has just dropped by 30% - tough. If your home is losing more value each day than you earn - tough. If you're worried about the future - join the club, Sherlock. The greater your faith in the words of the false prophets - of Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, and Mervyn King - the harder events will hit you.

And even if you lose all your money and your house - and I do know how that feels - you'll still be better off than most people in the world. Do you remember the debt relief campaign? The combined US and UK bailout is about $1.5 trillion ($700m plus £500m). The combined debt of world's poorest 49 countries - over which Sir Bob and Bono made such a fuss - is a mere $375 billion. (Thanks to Some French Guy for bringing this to my attention). I'm sure most people would find this outrageous. Personally, I don't think its that simple. The US itself has a national debt of $10 trillion (some people reckon its nearer $60 trillion when you account for social spending). You could look at that and say that the level of debt of a country is directly related to the wealth and well-being of its population. In other words, the higher your debt, the better off you'll be. The logical conclusion is that to improve the lot of it's people the world's poorest nations should take on more debt, not less.

I studied Economic History at the London School of Economics - the same place many of the bankers and politicians would have learnt about economics. At the end of three very enjoyable years I was more aware than ever that no-one really knows what money is. Seriously. Myself, I think it's a magical, wonderful, beautiful phenomenon that brings us both pleasure and pain. Its not just figures on a bank's books, nor the pieces of paper and metal we hand over the bar. Its much more than that. We each have a deep relationship with this unique power. And we're a long way from understanding it. In the end, maybe that's why we need all those secrets and lies.
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  3. More debt is good if it's spent on infrastructure or things that will increase wealth. At the personal level, a house mortgage is better than a car loan. Government debt to finance early childhood education and preventative health has a much higher ROI than simple over-spending.

    For the most part those 49 countries have odious debt. If you lend money to a dictator that will use it to repress his population's democratic aspirations, it's not fair to ask them to pay the debt after they've overthrown him.