The free market and piggish capitalism
It's a rotten system and pigs will always be around. But it's the best system there is
They say on Wall Street that bulls make money, bears make money, but pigs get slaughtered.
The Wall Street traders will have to come up with some new sayings, though. About pigs, that is. But not the pigs above, which referred to the little insatiable man, in over his head.
No, financial market players will have to add new sayings to their repertoires about the pigs of capitalism, pigs who insatiably took advantage of market economics to get rich at other peoples' expense.
Let's start with the bad news. Do you harbor hope that the capitalist pigs who orchestrated the merry times in the financial markets will be the ones to get slaughtered, now that the financial markets have collapsed? You hope in vain.
True, some of them, the ones who were driven mad by greed and began to believe in the junk they were pushing, will lose much of their wealth. The CEOs of Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros were practically billionaires, and overnight they were reduced to run-of-the-mill millionaires.
But most of the bankers and other merrymakers in the financial system who sold gorgeously packaged junk to the public (and to each other) will never return their gigantic bonuses, taken in cash, or options that they turned into cash, or into yachts or into homes on the French Riviera.
The ones who face slaughter are the investors, and the taxpayers, whose money the governments will be using to rescue the financial system.
The financial and banking system in general and Wall Street in particular are the symbols of capitalism and free economics. But they are just symbols, not the thing itself.
The financial system failed, and the failure has many reasons and fathers. But at the end of the day it boils down to one thing: greed. They wanted more and more.
A banker told me last week, "Greed killed the system. They lost their minds." But then he recalled the bonuses he'd made in the last decade and added, "We were all greedy, some in small numbers, some in big ones."
The collapse we witnessed this year and will be watching unfold over time was not one of capitalism in general. It was mainly of the financial system.
The financial system is an important part of the economic system. It is the pipeline of economics and when the pipeline gets clogged or broken, it hurts the entire economy, not only itself. If it seizes up completely, as happened in the last two weeks, it can cause vast damage to the entire economic body.
Financial systems, unlike the rest of the systems, are doomed to break down. They fluctuate and are far riskier than the rest of the economy's parts.
That is why the financial system, unlike the rest of the economy, must be tightly regulated. No part of it can remain "private" because when the crisis comes, everything becomes public. It all rolls onto the taxpayer.
But "capitalism" is not shares, bonds and bankers cutting coupons. Capitalism is the belief that the best way to advance the fortunes of countries and peoples is through competition, creativity and excellence.
Encouraging these produces prosperity. It promotes the economy, science, medicine - all our achievements of the last century.
The absolute majority of the public believes in the free market, in competition, in innovation, in encouraging excellence. The piggishness, the excesses are what caused the growing hostility toward the free market.
Advocates of the free market don't think government should be excluded. Adam Smith, the patriarch of the free market theory, ruled that government involvement in the economy is essential. Without it, true competition and social good cannot develop.
The government plays a vital role in the economy: in supplying services and caring for the weak. But only governments that believe in the free market will have the resources to care for the weak.
Even after the collapse of its financial system, the United States, one of the most competitive countries in the world, still has the highest standard of living in the world. The U.S. has to enact the toughest restrictions on immigration because millions of people from other countries want to move there.
The failure of the financial system is certainly a serious black eye for the free market. Every novice economist knows that the free market tends to lose its balance, to develop bubbles, to break down. History is rife with examples, and the last one is the mother of them all.
But the financial meltdown is not unique to the U.S. The Americans are now trying to study the first western economy to encounter a similar banking meltdown 20 years ago - Sweden.
Yes, Sweden, that so-called bastion of anti-capitalism. Sweden actually encourages competition and believes in the free market. Its financial system failed not because of capitalism or anti-capitalism, but because financial systems fail sometimes.
In recent weeks the world's economic leaders had been railing against American market economics, only to realize that their own systems had the same diseases.
Most telling was the attack by Russian president Vladimir Putin. But Russia's boom in recent years relied entirely on foreign money - most of it American - buying its oil and stocks.
American capitalism has the shortcoming of leaving a lot of people behind. Putin's system is simpler: Half the country's wealth was divided up in the last decade among a few dozen oligarchs who play by Putin's rules.
The free market is not Wall Street. The free market is industry, high-tech, services and construction, and dozens of sectors that flourished in the last 50 years.
The free market, the capitalism, is piggish and ugly. It is the job of the regulator and media to fight the piggishness. The most dangerous of the piggish capitalists are the ones who argue that they're doing it all "for the people": They are "creating jobs," they are "contributing to the community," but they're also fighting like tigers against government or public supervision. Never forget that the biggest enemies of capitalism are the capitalists.
Governments and regulators failed in their job of supervising the financial systems. Extensive U.S. government intervention in the market - keeping interest rates low and encouraging the mortgages market while allowing regulation to weaken - was key in the development of the bubble.
We must hope that after what happened, the public will force the governments to mend their ways. But the solutions aren't simple, and some will have the reverse effect. We will see a lot of trial and error, mistakes and flops. And no regulation can create a perfect system. There will always be room for pigs and excesses.
But don't forget the tremendous achievements of the free market, for which no better alternative has ever been found. And remember that all the countries that adopted it did better.