Nine wishes for 2009 #4: An end to “money for nothing”

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I’ve spent days resisting blogging this wish because, quite frankly, I don’t think it will happen. But it certainly is a dearest wish, so it makes the cut.

What I mean by “money for nothing” is the tendency of the late 20th and early 21st century to look at everything as if it were capital to be exploited, and yet at the same time to think that capital doesn’t behave like capital any more. When the classical economists wrote about capital, they were, in the main talking about widgets – things you build. They can make you a lot of money but they always break, rust or wear out in the end, and then you have to buy new widgets. Stocks and shares were part ownership of big widgets, and ultimately behaved by the same laws.

(As an aside, my reading of Locke’s definition of “property” is that it informed and is essentially the same as the classical economist notion of “capital” – it is one of the reasons I despair about this modern vogue for rightwing libertarianism in which people invoke Locke only to insist that when he talked about “property” he was referring to everything you might happen to “own” even though it contradicts his whole argument about rights to “property” coming about due to self ownership.)

We’ve been moving away from that model for 200 years, but in the last two decades it accelerated. Everything, from homes to public services to loans, became capitalised. Intellectual property, at the same time, has become less like capital as the limitations of copyright get extended and patents become renewable (I ended 2007 by declaring the 21st century to be dominated by IP Wars – we ended 2008 with the government capitulating and agreeing to extend recording copyright). Speculation, speculation on speculation and even speculation on speculation on speculation has become a central part of our finance system. All talk about “value” – financial value never mind ethical or social value – has become lost.

I’m not convinced that much will happen to change. The Lib Dems’ Green New Deal is very welcome indeed, but we don’t appear to be saying very much to ensure that the economy changes course – we aren’t arguing for much more than a greener, kinder version of the status quo. Brown just seems to be firing off in entirely random directions and even though I’m not convinced that piling up the national debt is the big problem the Tories keep claiming it is, my mind does boggle how he can keep coming up with more and more spending commitments with no idea how he intends to pay for it all. As for the Tories themselves, well, they appear to have looked at Japan in the nineties and said to themselves “we’ll have some of that!” Having got us into this mess, dragging the rest of the political class in the mire with them, their new approach seems to simply be to wallow.

Like I say, I don’t expect this wish to be fulfilled. Yet strangely, almost every day I seem to hear a new person expressing it. Are we looking at a longer term shift in attitudes? Either way, we won’t know for sure by the end of 2009.

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