When I read essays like Paul Gilding’s today and see the worldwide groundswell for a “new capitalism”, my overwhelming reaction is: “Uh oh.”

I think: this really is going to be a bad one.

Usually in credit-crunch induced recessions, firms stop spending because the banks shut up shop, but governments and households take over and the ship is righted.

That is, governments employ fiscal stimulus — direct spending on both consumption and investment — and individuals eventually respond to monetary stimulus by opening their wallets.

This time everyone has too much debt — firms, governments, households, banks — and the only ones that don’t care are the governments, because they’re mainly worried about the next election.

This time a profound shift is taking place in attitudes towards debt and consumer spending, partly manifested in the debate sparked by Paul Gilding.

His idea, in linking the debt bubble to global warming and calling it “The Great Dislocation” has struck a deep chord because it combines two visceral fears in one. Also the questions he poses at the end of his article this morning are good ones, especially the one about whether the “shop till we bounce” solution from government is the right one (it’s not, because it won’t work and will just increase government debt further).

More generally, there is now an emerging global conversation around the idea of a “new capitalism”.

For example the Financial Times has a begun series under that title, including a piece today by Richard Layard of the London School of Economics, in which he argues: “Our society has become too individualistic, with too much rivalry and not enough common purpose. We idolise success and status and thus undermine our mutual respect.”

I’m all in favour of a better world, so the idea of some kind of “new capitalism” is appealing.

But, but … let’s not apply a big solution to a smaller problem. And anyway, there is no such thing as capitalism. It was only a useful noun during the 20th century when some alternatives were being tried — socialism, communism, anarcho-syndicalism etc. Then capitalism was one of a variety of “isms”.

Now there is just freedom and a few brands of totalitarianism, including the teetering vestiges of socialism (China, Zimbabwe), militarism (Burma), hereditary monarchy (Saudi Arabia) and the new, violently ambitious one: Islamism.

So the idea of “new capitalism” can only involve the observation of change in western society, not the imposition of it, since that would mean the removal of freedom and the imposition of control — in which case it would no longer be capitalism but something else.

The one area in which capitalist governments are moving towards the removal of freedoms is in climate change, because they are persuaded that atmospheric carbon is threatening the planet.

But all of them are trying to use a market-based solution — emissions trading. Given the collapse and dysfunction of financial markets, and the difficulty in coming up with an emissions trading system that comes close to doing the job, there will presumably now be a debate about whether something more draconian is needed, such as a carbon tax or straight out legislation against carbon.

Or perhaps there won’t be a debate at all because a global depression will reduce carbon emissions anyway and we can all just concentrate on keeping, or getting, a job.

Which brings us back to economic growth, and Paul’s and Tom Friedman’s proposition that “we can’t do this anymore”.

Paul writes: “There are plenty who dismiss this idea, that we have a broader system problem, as a lack of understanding of the brilliance of the market. They believe we’ll soon bounce back and ‘resume normal programming’ i.e. growth, growth, growth.”

I like and admire Paul, but with this he is walking down the street with a sandwich board that reads: “Repent. The end is nigh.”

Economic growth is a function of population growth plus improving productivity.

GDP is simply a nation’s output: it must grow if the increasing population is to be fed, and because we are an endlessly inventive and curious species, stuff gets invented all the time and new ways of doing things are found. New technology constantly improves productivity, which means the same number of people can produce more stuff by doing less.

The only problem that occurred over the past ten years — the only one in my view — is that debt grew faster than economic growth.

That is, the present generation borrowed excessively from the future to pay for a better life today. It’s now payback time.

Many banks will be owned by the government and the “push-banking” of recent years, in which loans were marketed to susceptible, greedy individuals, will give way to utility banking — the old way in which credit used to be rationed.

And we will watch capitalism become new again.

Peter Fray

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