Curious George Talks the Market | The Nation


Curious George Talks the Market

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What Soros is ambitiously trying to construct is a post-Friedmanite way of understanding the world and our common moral responsibilities. He is explaining why the utopian idea of self-regulating markets was always bound to fail, why it must be forced to yield to society and its larger values, how perhaps we can accomplish this in both economics and politics. "A society without social values cannot survive and a global society needs universal values to hold it together," he writes.

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William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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Federal prosecutors want to put one in prison for taking kickbacks for doing political favors. The other has been richly rewarded for defrauding investors and saving fellow bankers from criminal prosecution.

A Dallas hedge-fund operator says he's going to attack the pharmaceutical industry for over-pricing drugs.

If that sounds obvious, it constitutes the fundamental heresy of our present circumstances. Until quite recently, the theoreticians and missionaries of globalization assumed that the value-free marketplace would deliver us by wealth creation alone, that poor people everywhere would eventually become middle-class, small-d democrats (more or less modeled after Americans) once they had bank accounts and cell phones of their own. In the meantime, we must not interrupt the gross brutality and random destruction. This mantra was alluring because it allowed players to put aside conscience and common sense and enjoy the action.

"It is time to recognize that financial markets are inherently unstable," Soros says. "Imposing market discipline means imposing instability, and how much instability can society take?" Thus, his gloomy outlook rests upon the assumption that if the global system is not torn apart by deflation or depression, it will be undone by political rebellion.

Soros muses: "I can already discern the makings of the final crisis.... Indigenous political movements are likely to arise that will seek to expropriate the multinational corporations and recapture the 'national' wealth. Some of them may succeed in the manner of the Boxer Rebellion or the [original] Zapatista Revolution. Their success may then shake the confidence of financial markets, engendering a self-reinforcing process on the downside."

Much of the philosophy underpinning these prophecies will seem familiar if one has read The Alchemy of Finance or other books in which Soros has explained the illusions and fallacies of the "efficient market" theory. What fortifies this discussion is his effort to sketch a broader historical framework for the social understandings that are now pushed aside by the unregulated marketplace. If you approach this book with overwhelming skepticism, you may be surprised to find that this financial titan expresses basically hopeful and progressives beliefs about humanity.

I won't attempt to summarize, but Soros's perspective might be crudely described as social democratic with libertarian inclinations. He believes in the potential of individualism and maximizing freedom--the core values of Friedman's marketplace--but he demonstrates why these will lead only to atomizing conflict and crisis without an overarching framework of common values and collective action. The market cannot possibly defend (or even recognize) those values unless forced to do so.

Unlike the facile cheerleaders for globalization, Soros insists on the existence of universal human values. He sees no difficulty in identifying "a universally valid code of conduct" that could be applicable across nations and cultures, despite differences of race, religion, wealth and poverty. These views, he agrees, may sound like naïve idealism. "Idealist I may be, but naive I am not."

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