Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Casino tail wags the environmental dog

The press is full of banking this week. The Barclays LIBOR scandal has reminded all of us that banking reform is unfinished business - just what the bankers want it to stay. Two things should be obvious:
  1. The banking system has created the current recession and will create another unless reformed.
  2. The culture of the major banks tolerates, even encourages, fraud. Customers cannot trust their banks.
The first hardly needs evidence. In support of the second I'd mention LIBOR, interest rate collars, payment protection insurance and pension mis-selling. A financial journalist could doubtless triple that list without drawing breath. So what's needed is comprehensive systemic change embracing regulation, leadership, culture, bonus structures, risk management systems, compliance and much else.

But what has this to do with climate?

Let's go back to basics. Human life depends first on our abilities to find water and to gather food and then, in most societies, on getting fuel with which to cook it. After that we need safety, shelter, clothing and warmth. For all these things we need a supportive community and once they're secured we'd like some luxuries.

We have had some of these things for tens of thousands of years but in the last two hundred years we have created an extraordinary industrial system that provides them in abundance to many - though far from all - of the Earth's now greatly increased population. Industry and industrialised farming provide food, clothing, housing and many luxuries. To support both we have a large service sector and this includes financial services such as cheques, savings, loans and insurance.

Now in getting to this point we've moved a fair way from picking apples and herding sheep, or even making cars; that is from the activities that meet people's needs and wants. But there is still a connection. I pay a shop for my groceries. I take out a mortgage to buy a house. I borrow money to buy a new lathe for my business. I save spare money for retirement. Financial services facilitate activities that meet needs and wants. So the businesses and people who provide these services have to have some understanding of the ordinary activities they enable.

But attached to ordinary banking we find casino banking. Casino banking is essentially very high stakes betting in which successful traders are highly rewarded for using other people's money to bet against each other. Volumes are enormous and almost unrelated to the activities that meet most people's needs and wants. Casino banking is a parasite on farming and industry, even on ordinary banking itself. It draws money from these businesses to deliver huge profits to its owners and huge bonuses to the most successful traders and executives. Casino banking has become so profitable that it increases inequality and holds governments to ransom. It lobbies vigorously for policies that suit it. The casino banks are not merely too big to fail - they are also too big to regulate!

The dominant position of casino banking should be offensive to all democrats and to anyone who wants avoid being victimised by the banks but it's particularly offensive to anyone who cares about our environment. For it distracts attention away from the real economy and the real environment. It fixes attention on a fantasy world made real only in computers. And it has corrupted ordinary banking - substituting clever 'products' for real understanding and making profit the only measure of value.

Neither a healthy environment nor a healthy economy matters to the casino bankers or to ordinary bankers who see the money they make. If money is the master measure, the only true goal, then everything else - customer service, social responsibility, ethics, even the health of the planetary environment - seems trivial. That's the exact reverse of the values we need to reverse climate change.

To misquote John Dunning, 1st Baron Ashburton, "the influence of the banks has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished".

1 comment:

Bill Linton said...

Out-of-control casino banking is just one aspect of the overall culture in which personal gratification is taken to be the natural - indeed the only - target to aim for. It's that 'culture of entitlement' that Cameron, Osborne and their Tory friends like to bang on about, except they're actually referring to a something entirely different and largely their own invention.

The real 'culture of entitlement' is the pernicious sense that they and their millionaire friends have that they are entitled to run things for their own benefit. Somehow - I don't understand how - they persuade enough people to vote for them to get away with it.

What Dave, Gideon and Co are talking about is really a culture of lack-of-entitlement, the denizens of which are understandably frustrated at not being able to join in the spending spree.

What has this got to do with climate? Well tackling the climate change problem would mean fewer profits for the rich. That's just not a possibility that exists on the radar of the posh boys. They've always been in charge and got their own way - and that's the way it will always be.

Intellectually, some of them at least must know the game's up, but it doesn't penetrate through to the decision-making aparatus.