Saturday, August 20, 2011

you've been warned, the system is ready to blow


Video - Nixon ends Bretton Woods international monetary system

Guardian | For the past two centuries and more, life in Britain has been governed by a simple concept: tomorrow will be better than today. Black August has given us a glimpse of a dystopia, one in which the financial markets buckle and the cities burn. Like Scrooge, we have been shown what might be to come unless we change our ways.

There were glimmers of hope amid last week's despair. Neighbourhoods rallied round in the face of the looting. The Muslim community in Birmingham showed incredible dignity after three young men were mown down by a car and killed during the riots. It was chastening to see consumerism laid bare. We have seen the future and we know it sucks. All of which is cause for cautious optimism – provided the right lessons are drawn.

Lesson number one is that the financial and social causes are linked. Lesson number two is that what links the City banker and the looter is the lack of restraint, the absence of boundaries to bad behaviour. Lesson number three is that we ignore this at our peril.

To understand the mess we are in, it's important to know how we got here. Today marks the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon's announcement that America was suspending the convertibility of the dollar into gold at $35 an ounce. Speculative attacks on the dollar had begun in the late 1960s as concerns mounted over America's rising trade deficit and the cost of the Vietnam war. Other countries were increasingly reluctant to take dollars in payment and demanded gold instead. Nixon called time on the Bretton Woods system of fixed but adjustable exchange rates, under which countries could use capital controls in order to stimulate their economies without fear of a run on their currency. It was also an era in which protectionist measures were used quite liberally: Nixon announced on 15 August 1971 that he was imposing a 10% tax on all imports into the US.

Four decades on, it is hard not to feel nostalgia for the Bretton Woods system. Imperfect though it was, it acted as an anchor for the global economy for more than a quarter of a century, and allowed individual countries to pursue full employment policies. It was a period devoid of systemic financial crises.

Finally, there has been a big change in the way that the spoils of economic success have been divvied up. Back when Nixon was berating the speculators attacking the dollar peg, there was an implicit social contract under which the individual was guaranteed a job and a decent wage that rose as the economy grew. The fruits of growth were shared with employers, and taxes were recycled into schools, health care and pensions. In return, individuals obeyed the law and encouraged their children to do the same. The assumption was that each generation would have a better life than the last.

This implicit social contract has broken down. Growth is less rapid than it was 40 years ago, and the gains have disproportionately gone to companies and the very rich. In the UK, the professional middle classes, particularly in the southeast, are doing fine, but below them in the income scale are people who have become more dependent on debt as their real incomes have stagnated. Next are the people on minimum wage jobs, which have to be topped up by tax credits so they can make ends meet. At the very bottom of the pile are those who are without work, many of them second and third generation unemployed.