Curious George Talks the Market

Curious George Talks the Market

The epic, slow-motion crisis unraveling the global economic system continues to gather momentum, taking down Southeast Asia, Japan, Russia, now Brazil. Who’s next?


The epic, slow-motion crisis unraveling the global economic system continues to gather momentum, taking down Southeast Asia, Japan, Russia, now Brazil. Who’s next? The cross-hairs are targeting Germany and other European economies, China and the irrational exuberance under way in the US stock market. Since our political leaders refuse to face this crisis honestly and explain the confusing drift of events, citizens must turn to unauthorized loners like George Soros to understand the portents for global catastrophe.

This book, of course, cannot be separated from who the man is–the rogue financier admired, feared, reviled on every continent–because George Soros as author clearly, even poignantly, wishes to become more than his awesome wealth and reputation. The sober tone and didactic discourse reveal a statesman-thinker yearning to be recognized as such. I think, on the whole, this brave book entitles him to that status, despite some obvious evasions and pretensions.

Before he tells us how to save the world from economic ruin, Soros insists on first teaching the elementary philosophy of his worldview–reiterating themes of the Enlightenment and the “open society” values he learned as a young man from Karl Popper. As he has done before, the financier explains with urbane detachment and elegant abstraction the actual secret of his success: When others became enthralled by Milton Friedman, Soros remained the confident nonbeliever. He always saw the illogic of market theory and regularly bet against it.

Readers may experience growing impatience with his teaching style, since what we really wish to hear from Soros are the bloody, insider details of how he broke the Bank of England or why he lost $2 billion last summer in Russia. The pedantry invites ridicule, and Soros has gotten some from learned reviewers. It does sound arrogant for this man, of all people, to play omniscient professor offering to teach us universal values for a global society.

In addition to money, Soros has accumulated a mogul’s share of egotism, and it is unfortunately embedded in his prose style. The manner of delivery–important insights unintentionally rendered to sound bromidic–is complicated by his Eastern European sense of paradox. He steps on his own lines, muddies his central points with too-frequent reminders that every idea is inherently flawed, every reform is bound to fail eventually and even George Soros is fallible. These disclaimers are true, of course, but will tempt a reader to skip ahead to the second half, “The Present Moment in History,” where Soros outlines his program for reforming the global system before it is too late.

I would urge patience and respectful attention to what this man is saying, all of it. It is an important book for this confused moment in economic history, and Soros is a rare voice, willing to risk his own legendary status and speak directly, authentically, to the crisis before us. Put aside any residual biases; you will learn much from him.

We have arrived at a watershed in economic thought. The reigning conservative orthodoxy is breaking down, crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions, smashed by the realities of disorder and suffering that laissez-faire principles are generating. Soros fully understands the intellectual origins of “economic disintegration,” while US governing elites and the economics profession remain in denial.

His brooding sense of alarm ought to invigorate anyone who has shared skepticism about the “market fundamentalists,” as he calls them. His reasoning can equip those who have been on the political defensive for a generation, freeing them to think anew about refashioning the future in more equitable, humane, progressive terms.

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.

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.”

Among other things, what Soros is suggesting are the outlines for a global political strategy. Build an alliance of democratic nations, rich and poor, in which all roughly agree on the common values of free speech, freedom of assembly and religion, the right to human dignity. Then begin to recapture the failed international institutions, like the United Nations, in which tin-pot dictators and totalitarians are treated as equal partners. This alliance would accept the need for patience–we are not all on the same pageof history and development–in order to nurture those countries struggling in the progressive direction (and to exclude those that trample on our shared values).

I think this approach is entirely plausible (though it does sound visionary alongside our own small-minded, ad hoc foreign policy). It will succeed, however, only if social reality is fully integrated with the rules and mechanisms of a reformed economic system. As Soros himself emphasizes, the two realms of market and society are now treated as separate entities, one based upon raw, unregulated, self-interested energies of commerce and finance, the other on our collective responsibilities to community and one another.

Fusion is the great uncharted challenge of our time (although teaching capitalism about humanity is a very old struggle). Soros is much too sketchy about how this might be accomplished, but I am not sure that’s a fair complaint. He is painting a big picture of the future, a vision now widely disparaged as unnecessary and unworkable, even dangerous to our well-being. When a financial titan known for his brutal market plays is willing to articulate a progressive social vision sure to draw ridicule from his peers, I think we should congratulate his courage, not search for quibbles.

I have a similar reaction to his ideas for reforming the international financial system. These are bold and heretical strokes toward re-regulating global financial markets, but they might be more persuasive if fleshed out more precisely. One yearns for more detail and is disappointed.

The crucial point, however, is that Soros proposes a “new architecture” far beyond anything being discussed now in the timid debates among governments. He envisions the reintroduction of national controls that would dampen speculation and the “hot money” of short-term lending, impose new regulatory obligations on both banks and hedge funds, and extract penalty costs for the errant behavior of creditors, instead of the usual bailouts when they get into trouble.

The most ambitious (and most obviously flawed) idea in his catalogue is the tentative outline for an international central bank–a global credit-insurance agency that would offer loan guarantees to cross-border lenders and regulate credit flows by withdrawing those guarantees whenever a developing nation becomes dangerously overextended in its commitments.

I admire his boldness, but the concept is suspect on many levels. It sounds a lot like a new security blanket for the creditor classes. If the function is assigned to the International Monetary Fund, as Soros suggests, it would end up serving the same old crowd and probably injuring the same victims.

Soros says nothing about the crucial question of governance. Why should any citizen, here or elsewhere in the world, be expected to trust a remote and powerful governing institution that narrowly defends the values of finance and takes its cues from major financial players? In an interview for Rolling Stone, I asked Soros this question and he seemed mildly puzzled by it. His answer suggested a patrician’s shallow grasp of democracy.

“I don’t think the broad swath of Americans are sitting in a very good position to control the credit stores in the world,” he replied. “I mean, it’s a pretty specialized and technical thing.”

His opacity sounds like elitist evasion, but I suspect Soros really hasn’t thought much about questions of popular sovereignty in economic life. The example illustrates what Soros failed to accomplish in this book–a full and convincing integration of the social and economic spheres. One exists as an abstract realm of sincere good intentions, requiring a decent respect for humanity, while the other remains a place where big boys play hardball and make lots of money.

In short, he wants a stable financial system and an equable social order and believes they can emerge, but he is not a small-d democrat and doesn’t think like one. Given his personal history and enormous power, it’s perhaps unrealistic to expect otherwise.

Still, what one also senses in this man is a tortured yearning to reconcile his wealth and power–his own brutal conquests in the marketplace–with the humane social values he also genuinely embraces. That’s an admirable struggle, not yet as resolved as he seems to think.

Embedded in this book is another intriguing story–a very old human drama–that readers must tease out for themselves, because George Soros seems to be searching for his own soul. He brings up the personal sparingly, now and then, without fully examining the anxieties he is disclosing. One must infer the depth of his anguish despite his wealth and triumphs, despite his talent and egotism.

Managing a hedge fund is “extremely painful,” he confesses, because it is driven by emotions–doubt and fear–as much as brainy analysis. “I had moments of hope or even euphoria, but they made me feel insecure,” he writes. “By contrast, worrying made me feel safe. So the only genuine joy I experienced was when I discovered what I had to worry about.”

Being George Soros does not sound like a total blessing, described in those terms. The self-revelations make him seem more sympathetic.

His civic values are confirmed by the hundreds of millions he has devoted to fostering democratic reform movements in Eastern Europe and the Open Society Institute here in the United States. Soros finances such unpopular causes as dismantling the insane “war on drugs.” He provides seed money for campaign-finance reform advocates and many other progressive issues.

When I asked if he feels personal tension between his social values and his enormous wealth, Soros replied: “I have spent practically my whole life trying to reconcile these considerations…. As a competitor or as a participant [in financial markets], you look out for your individual interests. But as a citizen, or as a member of society, you really should put the interests of society ahead of your own personal interests. And you should do that–and this is crucial–even if other people don’t do it.”

His personal struggle, in his words, is to stare down the “wide gap between my public persona and what I consider my real self.” He tells us he has succeeded, has actually “dismantled the mechanism of pain and anxiety that used to guide me.”

I rather doubt the claim. But I do admire the confession and hope he pushes forward with the search.

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