The culture of financialised capitalism

After the righteous fury that pervaded Royal Commissioner Hayne’s interim report on the financial system, the final recommendations came as a letdown to everyone (except of course the insiders who bid up bank shares in anticipation of the news).

This ought not to have been a surprise. Hayne correctly identified greed and dishonesty as the key drivers of wrongdoing. But greed (or, more politely, incentive) is the guiding principle of financialised capitalism as is seeking profit to the limits of legality, even when this involves what would ordinarily be called dishonesty. In these circumstances, it’s unsurprising that those limits are regularly breached, particularly given that most such breaches go undetected, and the few that are detected go largely unpunished.

The financial system is at the core of the problem but, as Bernard Keane observes in Crikey (paywalled, I think) its effects are pervasive. As he says, it’s not individual industries, it’s our system. Ross Gittins is also good on this. Even Eugenie Joseph of the Centre for Independent Studies has noticed that there is a big cultural problem here.

The only thing that will change the culture of greed and dishonesty is a reversal of the policies of financial deregulation that produced it.

38 thoughts on “The culture of financialised capitalism

  1. Nobody has pulled me up on my reference to The Alaska Permanent Fund so I will do it myself. My reference was intended as an example of giving resource rents to all citizens (effectively making citizens owners of the resources, at least from the income angle). However, it is a strategy fraught with certain dangers. In the case of The Alaska Permanent Fund most or all of the revenue comes from oil. One could view this method of distributing resource rents directly to the people as a subterfuge to buy voter agreement for an environmentally damaging policy, namely that of pumping oil. Also, it might be better in general for resource rents to go into consolidated revenue and be available for social programs.

  2. Gregory, ‘unbounded’ means there are no edges in the Edgeworth box diagram (try to find a solution on a bleeding edge sheet of paper).

  3. This is very interesting and well worth reading.

    “Capital as power:Toward a new cosmology of capitalism” – Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan

    http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue61/BichlerNitzan61.pdf

    Perhaps people should read that paper, of only 20 pages or so, before reading on below.

    Here is a key quote from the paper:

    “Political economy, liberal as well as Marxist, stands on three key foundations:
    (I) a separation between economics and politics;
    (II) a Galilean/Cartesian/Newtonian mechanical understanding of the economy; and
    (III) a value theory that breaks the economy into two spheres – real and nominal – and that uses the quantities of the real sphere to explain the appearances of the nominal one.”

    I think Bichler and Nitzan are on the right track in a number of ways but I still do have some key disagreements with them. To illustrate these disagreements I will re-write the statement above in what I regard as the more correct form.

    “Conventional economics stands on three key foundations:
    (I) a separation between economics and politics;
    (II) a Cartesian/Newtonian mechanical understanding of the economy; and
    (III) a value theory that breaks the economy into two spheres – real and nominal – that uses the quantities of the real sphere to explain the appearances of the nominal one (ideological justification) and that then uses the quantities of the nominal sphere to manage those of the real sphere (as an instrumental, formalised reason system for the purpose of deriving, in a sense, quantised values for the real).”

    To explain these changes;

    (I) By definition, political economy does not separate economics and politics. Even using the original definition of political economy which meant national economy, the operations of government and politics are implicit in the definition. It is conventional economics which artificially separates the complexly conjoined, but far from identical, “twin” spheres of politics and economics. Political economy in general and Marxism in particular attempt to deal with the entire twinned system. This is not to say that any existing form of political economy, including Marxism, has fully investigated and properly explicated the “cosmology” of this twinned system. Indeed, they have not.

    (II) This point is clearer if only Cartesian-ism and Newtonian mechanics (classical physics) are mentioned. The issue with Cartesian-ism is (substance) dualism which is very arguably a fallacious metaphysics and ontology. The argument is a long one of which more later, at another time. Suffice it to say here that modern physics and complex system science lend weight to the stance of a form of Priority Monism which we might term Complex System Monism where the whole known system (the cosmos) is prior to its parts. Its “parts” in turn are sub-systems which can include, or rather exhibit, emergent and evolutionary complexity. The problem with taking the viewpoint of Newtonian mechanistic physics (and the mathematics which goes with it) is in the very application of mechanistic science (and maths) to complex emergent and evolutionary systems. Conventional economics remains, for the most part, mired in mechanistic and deterministic models. These are wholly inadequate for complex emergent and evolutionary systems.

    (III) It is true that conventional (classical) value theory, even Marxist value theory, breaks the economy into two spheres – real and nominal. However, classical theory is not quite so bereft of analytical and pragmatic use in this arena as is suggested by Bichler and Nitzan. The market, however constituted and however imperfect, is the social and economic instrument of measurement of real value in nominally comparable value terms. How good, representative, true or useful the nominally comparable value terms are is another question. Individual humans, as agents, are the agent-actuators of the collective instrument that is the market. The market is a collective and cooperative instrument that is used for the competitive game or rather the pseudo-competitive quasi-rigged game of market economics. This fits within the theory of cooperative-competitive games. Of course, it is still possible, at least in theory, that we could find a better instrument than the market. It is is also possible that we might not.

    Breaking the world into real and nominal spheres (or sometimes real and virtual spheres) is something we humans do all the time. It is not unique to classical economics. Every ideational system, every mathematical system is a model or map (in nominal or formal form) of the real world. Every interaction of a human agent (a human being) with the real world (the physical or material external world in substance philosophy terms) is mediated and managed by our mental models. Even our sensory data is modeled in the brain into a virtual representation (in the brain) of all that which we sense. This virtual representation is a model or a set of models. Modelling is the way, the entire way, in which the human agent (the human person) interacts with the world in any purposive, endogenously directed fashion: modeling and modeling only.

    In the above sense, the broad agent model of modern economics is not wrong, not misconceived. We model values and we build cooperative-competitive instruments (markets) to collectively model economic values as a community. There are of course other ways to model values from religion to moral philosophy to science (oftentimes these are widely differing kinds of values of course).

    However the representative agent model is wrong or inadequate in two specific ways. Individual agents (humans) are dissimilar enough, because of their internal complexity and complexities of their individual histories of socialisation, that they cannot be validly aggregated in many ways. Also, the representative agent model takes no proper cognizance of emergent behaviors.

    Where all this ontological investigation and theorising gets us is not clear at this stage. The investigation, theory and testable theories (hopefully) would have to be carried on and developed. But certainly it is necessary to return to ontology (what is real, how it is real and how do these real things or real processes interact?) before we solve (partially but more than so far solved) the “wicked” problem of economics, or rather of political economy.

    My main criticism of conventional economics and even of Marxism and Capital as Power theorising is that they are all too incomplete and none of them has yet developed a consistent and supportable ontology. They can never be completed of course but surely they can be extended further than their current development. The way to do this is to return to ontology as I say. If we don’t get the basic ontology right we will get nothing else right.

  4. Thanks Ernestine.
    In my mind the “bleeds off the edge of the paper” can be infinity. Again, some human in some culture in some context has the power to effect a bound effecting me.

    I certainly do not want you to teach me via an answer, but if any of my questions below trigger an insight or story we would all be appreciative. And I have always haboured a want to see policy scenario generation “under the flesh and muscles”. And the ‘devide by infinty’ stuff ups. So easy at a technical level to hide from society.

    “Early history of the Edgeworth box diagram 
    “Economists hail it as “a powerful tool,” “a work of genius,” and “one of the most ingenious geometrical constructions ever devised in economics.” It graces the pages of countless textbooks on price theory, welfare economics, and international trade. It is associated with some of the greatest advances ever made in economic theory. It elegantly depicts the two fundamental welfare theorems that are absolutely central to modern economics. In short, it ranks with the preeminent schematic devices of economics since it illuminates the most important ideas economists have to offer. It is none other than the celebrated box diagram used to illustrate efficiency in exchange and resource allocation in hypothetical two-agent, two-good, two-factor models of general economic equilibrium.”
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgeworth_box#cite_note-5

    “While on other hand, general equilibrium analyzes interactions of different markets. Shift of the supply curve from SS to S’S’ has been caused by the rise in wage and reduction in supply. This is the feedback effect. This can be analyzed further to study market in a more intensive way

    https://www.chegg.com/homework-help/edgeworth-box-diagram-also-used-show-production-possibility-chapter-10-problem-9p-solution-9781111784300-exc

    I can cope with the box diagram to “the further analysis of S’S’.” Yet a myriad of confunding effects, markets, laws, players and that big word culture, would seem to confound any semblance the box diagram ever making a specifc policy effect or decision. However genius, only a result in a model.

    I understand econ text books use it. Why have I never, as an easy graphic to intuitively grasp which, although it “elegantly depicts the two fundamental welfare theorems that are absolutely central to modern economics.” but a systemically deceptive communication device (one result in a given model) have ‘we’,  ever see them in the msn, this blog etc please.

    Any answers appreciated. If it used by say dept of x in Australia;

    Q1.- anyone ask say productivity commision what box diags they used in wage price determinations? Did they?

    Q2- what freedom of info requests would say a brave fool ask to deliver such basic evidence of ‘simple markets’ vs ‘feedback effects on S’s'”. 

    Q. Have you or JQ asked for such?  Or an example of where my life has been and is being effected today.

    Q3 – would a bank use it as money vs housing development. 

    Q4 – Not a 1,000+n to 1,000+n to n arrayed spreadsheet or LaTex math model or other. Is this how you and JQ would see econometric gdse / operational models?

    Q5. What the would be the best question to ask govt re why are we still not able to publish a human readable model of market feedbacks and policy presumptions and scenario generation.

    Q6. What year and how long would this be studied at economics at uni. I’m getting old.
    I want to see under the flesh and muscle please. 

    I’d ask it for the whole systems model and data and assumptions to be delivered in an constant visual interactive interface. A feedback loop diag (instant visual conveyance of size and complexity of model and roadmap of links to be validated or altered) Human readable step functions. Dashboard so I could manipulate and drive my own scenarios. 

    I also think from the tomatoes market box diag example in chegg above, you and JQ must wince when buying tomatoes, and at only 2 outlets – woolies and coles – to buy them! 

  5. Ikon you are right, the Bichler Nitzan paper is very interesting. We should stop looking at life in such a binary fashion.

  6. KT2, the Edgeworth box diagram is a diagrammatic exposition of the simplest conceivable general equilibrium model involving 2 individuals and 2 physical commodities (with a fixed supply, which, together with the quantities of each commodity owned by each individual gives the boundaries of the box), who trade only once. Quantities of each of the 2 commodities are measurable in real numbers (excluding lumpy things) and the preferences of each individual for the consumption of the 2 commodities are typically assumed to be strictly convex, as represented by the smooth level sets.

    My comment was addressed to Gregory, making an assumption, possibly a wrong one, as to which word may have been unfamiliar but being quite sure that he will know the Edgeworth box diagram. So I used the Edgeworth box diagram to illustrate the meaning of a word. I suspect this will be sufficient for you to answer most if not all of your questions.

  7. Anonymous,

    Yes, I think Bichler and Nitzan’s approach is very interesting and useful. I am however a little puzzled by their rigid insistence that “Capitalism is not a mode of production. It’s a mode of power.”

    To me, it is clear that capitalism is both a mode of production and a mode of power. The extensive fact is that both activities are intrinsic to its overall operations. Imagine we asked a question about bees. Are bees producers of honey or pollinators of flowers? The answer is that they are both. Both functions are intrinsic to their overall activities. One activity is an intermediate goal (the final goal being feeding young for reproduction purposes) and the other activity produces a byproduct service from the point of view of wider ecology. A person may focus on the study of one activity or the other but a study focus should not mean that one overlooks the wider system embedded nature of the activity or process being studied.

    I suspect the issue is really a definitional one. If one defines, or at least closely identifies, capitalism with the operations of financial capital then capital itself will appear as a mode of power. But it is only the proximal source of power. Ownership, symbolically signified and proved at law by possession of nominal quantities (shares and dollars), is the legitimation for manipulating real quantities. Ownership in turn is backed by state laws and the state’s monopoly on violence. Violence, real, implicit or threatened, is always the final underwriter of (political and biological) power.

    In one important way, Bichler and Nitzan follow Veblen in dividing economic activity into industry (actual production) and business (buying, selling, manipulating and even sabotaging industry). This too is a useful way of looking at things. These different methods of looking at capitalism are prisms to view it through. They split capitalism up in different ways into different apparent constituent components. But after all reductionist analysis, the key is to put a model of the whole system back together conceptually. This is the most difficult task and perhaps even impossible for a truly complex system.

    One component of capitalism which must not be forgotten is the state. The state too is a component of capitalism and (paradoxically perhaps) statist activity heavily underwrites oligarchic capitalism. The rule of (capitalist-favouring) law, backed by the state’s monopoly on violence, is a key component of capitalism. State subsidies also underwrite capitalism, or a least our current form of capitalism. Most successful, established, capital intensive industries, even when in private hands, are heavily underwritten by state subsidies. We only have to look at fossil fuels (massive subsidies), industrial agriculture (massive subsidies), banks (massive subsidies), armaments production (massive subsidies). This conformation of state activity to the interests of large capitalist holdings (big government to big business) probably explains why China finally made the transition to “statist capitalism” so easily. It’s a natural fit under the current system.

  8. The policy to get rid of trailing commissions to mortgage brokers and to force consumers to pay upfront for services rather than the banks paying seems the policy recommendation in Hayne with most punch. This would, I think, reduce the profitability of the mortgage broking industry since customers would not pay thousands of dollars for a service (a cost currently hidden from them). Haynes suggests capitalising this cost into the value of the loan but the cost would still be visible to the borrower. This model, apparently, has been tested in the Netherlands and works.

    The only argument I have seen for leaving mortgage brokers untouched is in yesterday’s AFR (p. 47). Mortgage brokers are claimed to reduce consumer search costs and to provide scale economies in lending opportunities for smaller lenders. If banks are forced to clearly advertise their rates then the search issue seems trite to me – choose the cheapest mortgage. I am unsure about the scale economies issue – mortgage brokers face a conflict of interest issue when, as now, they are paid by the banks. They will favor the bank that most benefits them rather than the mortgage-buying customer. Moreover most loans are now based in the large banks.

    Unfortunately Hayne’s strong recommendation, on the mortgage brokers, was immediately rejected by the LNP. Labor have pledged to enforce it though there is a fair bit of time for under the table deals between the brokers and Labor before the latter’s likely electoral success. I can imagine the argument: “there are thousands of small businesses out there….offering broking services etc”. The LND have already swallowed this.

    The surge in bank share prices some claim is due to the expectation of extra profits from reduced competition when the mortgage brokers disappear. I doubt this because I cannot see why there would be less competition and one layer of transactions costs would be eliminated – Hayne stlll sees the necessity of banks charging fees for setting up a loan. There are many parts of the report that go easier on banks than was initially envisaged so shareholders are relieved at that.

  9. Is finance more dishonest than other sectors of the market economy? Abuses have always been common – false weight, adulteration, non-delivery, unfitness for purpose, misrepresentation.. But when business is ultimately about material objects or services, there is a reality check that doesn’t apply to disembodied information, which is what finance sells. Even music and literature is embodied in physical substrates. The closer finance gets to the material world, as with insurance, the cleaner it generally seems to be.

    Cryptocurrencies support this argument. They are shady as all get out; but they don’t come from the traditional worlds of finance capitalism, but from the intersection of computer science and libertarian ideology. They quickly reached the same place as the creators of bundled subprime mortgages.

  10. James Wimberley,

    That’s a good question. Perhaps, as you suggest, finance has more scope to be dishonest. Where there is more scope to be dishonest, more dishonesty arises. In turn this raises the issue of regulation. The main issue brought to the fore is that self-regulation does not work. The customer-voter needs to continuously apply pressure to government. Government in turn needs to regulate industries adequately. The costs of regulation can be considerable. However, we should never forget that failure to regulate can incur high costs too. There must, in theory, be an approximate regulatory “sweet spot” for each industry, in terms of costs and benefits.

    Even more interesting, to me, is your statement beginning with the mention of material goods and material services. You note “Even music and literature are embodied in physical substrates”. This is a very important observation which is true from the physicalist or materialist standpoint. We can extend this and note that even financial services are embodied in physical substrates. Physical computers, wires, energy etc. are all used to deliver financial services. What is delivered, in the first instance, by music, literature and financial services is information, as defined in information science. A slightly older term is “data”. The human being receives sense impressions from screens, pieces of paper, speakers etc. and these convey information to the brain (via the nervous system).

    Thus, in this sense, financial services are not different from music and literature. They are all delivered as information embedded in and transmitted by physical substrates and energy consumption. Our reactions to music and literature, on the one hand, and to the detail of financial services are usually quite different. With music and literature we experience enjoyment of our favorite forms and our eyes glaze over with boredom at non-favoured forms. With financial services our eyes universally glaze over when confronted by the detail unless we are one those “special” persons who are both avaricious AND numbers-orientated. There can be bad art aesthetically and even “dishonest” art ethically or ideologically but it is hard to call original art, be it good or bad, (excluding fake reproductions) dishonest in the economic sense.

    Thus financial services and art evoke different reactions from us. Financial services are formally calculative and full of tedious formulas and clauses which often provoke avoidance of detail and shutdown on our part. With art we enjoy, there are subjective rewards in every step of the detail and this keeps us engrossed. Clearly, the purveyors of financial services recognize the twin benefits of detail which serves to tie people up legally and also makes their minds glaze over so they give up on reading the fine print and just sign on the dotted line.

    I could write much more on the overall topic (real systems, formal systems and human agents) because it bears, eventually, on the ontology of economics. It gets very interesting once we begin to consider human agents as entities who use formal systems to manipulate real systems and to consider how this happens and works out. All formal systems are still real in one sense, the very sense we have discussed above. They consist of information embedded in, transmitted by and even manipulated by material substrates and material systems (up to and including computers and human brains). These formal systems don’t exist anywhere except in these physical substrates. As I say, I could write much more on this topic but I have found in general that people want to discuss economics without first discussing the ontology of economics. In my view that is precisely why orthodox economics is to date a failed research program.

  11. $55 million of “All RIGHT at the ABC”. CIS flood watch.

    I heard a touch of Eugenie. As a human I was not impressed. The ABC will now be able to hold an enquiry showing the pendulum has swung.

    “The Right Rev Robert Forsyth, a senior fellow at the CIS, appeared on God Forbid, a religion program hosted by James Carleton; Carlos d’Abrera, a psychiatrist and research associate at the CIS, was on Amanda Vanstone’s Counterpoint to discuss the libertarian view on homelessness; and the John Bonython lecture hosted by Switzer at the centre last year was featured on Big Ideas. The lecture by the Brexit supporter Daniel Hannan was titled How Identity Politics Are Undoing the Enlightenment.

    Nick Cater, a former editor of the Weekend Australian and now executive director of the Menzies Research Centre, also made an appearance on the show.

    This week Eugenie Joseph, a senior policy analyst at the CIS, was a panellist on Big Ideas.

    A few months ago Wayne Swan said the right had invested “huge sums of money” on getting a seat at the table of ideas. Labor’s federal president said the Institute of Public Affairs had revenue of $6.1m in 2016-17 and had raised $29.9m since 2009, and the CIS had revenue of $3.9m in 2016-17 and had raised $25.9m.

    “Which means that since the global financial crisis, those two organisations alone have raised over $55m to argue for less government, less financial regulation, less power for working people, less equality and less action to combat climate change,” he said.

    An RN spokesman said the network’s program teams “ensure they follow theABC’s editorial policies”.
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/15/daily-telegraphs-attempt-at-humour-tanks-with-nauru-v-auschwitz-graphic

    I’d ask jq to do a serious rebuttal but it seems he has said it so many times his fingers are stumps.

  12. Gee! What could go wrong? Odds firming on another banking rc by 2030. Submission suggestion: “Stop Innovating and Start Regulating”.

    “Cross-border testing pilot for innovative firms open to applications ”

    “”ASIC today announces the launch of the Global Financial Innovation Network (GFIN). As part of its launch, GFIN is inviting applications from firms to be part of a pilot to test innovative financial products, services or business models across more than one jurisdiction. “‘

    https://asic.gov.au/about-asic/news-centre/find-a-media-release/2019-releases/19-017mr-cross-border-testing-pilot-for-innovative-firms-open-to-applications/

  13. iko: Your point about the material substrates of financial instruments passed through my mind or brain too. I suggest there is a distinction. The song or symphony we hear and “consume” is necessarily an instantiation in performance, except for a minority of musicians who can respond to a score. In the case of a film, it’s impossible to experience the bitstream directly. The same goes for reading, on paper or e-reader. Contrast a share in a company. The stock certificate is simply evidence of ownership of an immaterial bundle of rights: to dividends, a share of the assets in case of liquidation, a vote at the AGM etc. I gather that few shareholders bother with the physical stock certificates Victorian entrepreneurs took such trouble over, and most are content with depositary receipts.

    The trend is longstanding. There is a nice passage in Huizinga IIRC about the origin of the word luxury. This was connected to lust, and points to the sensual pleasure of mediaeval wealth: the weight and glitter of a cascade of gold coins, the touch of silks and furs, the sheen of a pearl necklace on the breast of your young mistress. The richest man in the world today, Jeff Bezos,has a beautiful young mistress too, and all he sends her are dick photos.

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