Page last updated at 13:30 GMT, Friday, 6 February 2009

Alternative views of the economic crisis

Participants at this year's World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil

The dramatic downturn gripping the global economy has breathed new life into old questions about how best to run our economic systems.

Politicians, business leaders and policymakers searched for solutions at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos.

Meanwhile, different debates were taking place at the "alternative" World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil.

There, an eclectic mix of some 100,000 campaigners, thinkers, and working people came to starkly different conclusions about the causes of the downturn, and how best to address it.

We asked four participants from around the globe to give us their opinions. Click on the links below to read their arguments.

David Evan Harris
Director, Global Lives Project

Walden Bello
Focus on Global South

Myriam Vander Stichele
Researcher on multinationals

Marcos Arruda
Economist



David Evan Harris is executive director of the Global Lives Project and Research Affiliate at the Institute for the Future

A popular slogan at the Forums in the past has been "another world is possible". This year, at a moment of deepening global financial crisis, a global reconsideration and reshaping of economy and society seems to have moved squarely into mainstream debate. So the slogan may have to be altered to "another world is probable".

Forum participants who attended some of the hundreds of meetings on the crisis, argued that it was interrelated with the crises of food, climate and energy, and that any responses to the crisis must address these issues as well.

Toolkit

Wind farm
Participants called for massive public investment in the environmental sector
Solutions to the current crisis ranged from the global to the local, with many participants emphasising the importance of a "toolkit" of solutions rather than a single monolithic change.

  • Across countless Forum events, environmentalists and labour leaders alike called for a "green New Deal" based on massive public investment in the environmental sector to stimulate job creation as well as environmental preservation.
  • For more than a decade, forum-goers have been pushing the idea of the Tobin Tax - a tax on international currency transactions. Named after Nobel Laureate economist James Tobin, who first proposed the idea in the 1970s, the funds collected from the tax (a fraction of 1% of the transaction) would be used as a global fund for development, and for recovering from crises like today's.
  • The Bank of the South, launched in 2007 as a development bank by and for Latin America, was also touted as an important ingredient in the toolkit of solutions to the global crisis. Giving the region more independence from existing international financial institutions, the bank would also offer the region added insulation from global shocks.
  • "Food sovereignty" - a term adopted instead of the better-known notion of "food security" - was hailed by many as a key step for developing nations to become more resilient to emerging food crises. By focusing less on export-led agricultural policies and instead forging strategic local and regional agricultural policies, activists argued, nations would be able to better meet the nutritional needs of their populations.
  • Participatory budgeting - a programme for mass participation in municipal budget allocation - is another major ingredient in the toolkit. It was pioneered in the 1990s in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre where the Forum was conceived but has spread across the world. This experiment emphasises the democratisation of financial decision-making - giving every community access to and control over public banks.

Underlying much of the discussion was the sense that the current neoliberal economic model which privileges unbridled competition between nations, companies and peoples is not a sustainable path for the future.

Walden Bello is a university professor, senior analyst at Focus on the Global South, and president of the Freedom from Debt Coalition.

Week after week, we see the global economy contracting at a pace worse than that predicted by the gloomiest analysts.

We are now, it is clear, in no ordinary recession but are headed for a global depression that could last for many years.

The origins of the present crisis lie in the strategies adopted by economic and political elites to resolve the crises of stagflation - the coexistence of low growth with high inflation - which followed rapid growth in the post-World War II era, both in the G8 economies and in the underdeveloped economies.

Stagflation, however, was but a symptom of a deeper problem: the reconstruction of Germany and Japan and the rapid growth of industrialising economies like Brazil, Taiwan, and South Korea added tremendous new productive capacity and increased global competition, while income inequality within countries and between countries limited the growth of purchasing power and demand, thus eroding profitability.

Dilemma

This produced the dilemma of overproduction.

One "escape route" from the conundrum of overproduction, and for maintaining and raising profitability, was "financialisation".

Unsold Japanese cars in a UK showroom
Overproduction: many cars made, but no-one to sell them to
With investment in industry and agriculture yielding low profits as a result of over-capacity, large amounts of surplus funds have been circulating in or invested and reinvested in the financial sector - that is, the financial sector began turning on itself.

The result has been a divergence between a hyperactive financial economy and a stagnant real economy.

This was not accidental - the financial economy exploded precisely to make up for the stagnation owing to overproduction of the real economy.

Profits, not value

One indicator of the super-profitability of the financial sector is the fact that 40% of the total profits of US financial and nonfinancial corporations is accounted for by the financial sector although it is responsible for only 5% of US gross domestic product (and even that is likely to be an overestimate).

The problem with investing in financial sector operations is that it is tantamount to squeezing value out of already created value. It may create profit, yes, but it does not create new value - only industry, agriculture, trade, and services create new value.

Because profit is not based on value that is created, investment operations become very volatile and prices of stocks, bonds, and other forms of investment can depart very radically from their real value.

Profits then depend on taking advantage of upward price departures from the value of commodities, then selling before reality enforces a "correction", that is, a crash back to real values. The radical rise of prices of an asset far beyond real values is what is called the formation of a bubble.

Virus

We are far from over the worst of this crisis.

In the US real-estate sector, millions more mortgages are likely to go into default over the next few years.

Securities with a value of as much as $2 trillion dollars (1.4 trillion) have already been injected, like a virus, into the global financial system.

Massive injections of taxpayers' cash have failed to kickstart lending again. Not surprisingly, with global capitalism's circulatory system seizing up, it was only a matter of time before the real economy would contract, as it has with frightening speed in the last few weeks.

Globalisation has ensured that economies that went up together in the boom would also go down together, with unparalleled speed, in the bust, the end of which is nowhere to be discerned.

Myriam Vander Stichele is a senior researcher at the Amsterdam-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) and fellow of the Transnational Institute

Discussions at the World Social Forum in Belem focused on many aspects of the financial crisis that are not being publicly discussed at official or business level.

For instance, while strong calls for re-regulation are made, none of these proposals address the fact that the General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats) - a treaty created under the auspices of the World Trade Organization (WTO) - actually seeks to deregulate trade in services, including financial services.

These liberalising international treaty rules deprive governments of the right to intervene.

The calls for re-regulation would require a dismantling of the whole architecture of treaties agreed over the past 10 years, mainly through the WTO.

Governments' hands tied

Under Gats in the EU, governments cannot limit the size or the value of the financial services operations.

This prevents governments from intervening to ensure that a financial service company does not become "too big to fail" or have a destabilising effect on the country that hosts it.

Industrialised countries have gone further by committing themselves to more liberalisation and deregulation under a Gats annex that precludes regulation and opens the way for any new financial service, however speculative.

The banning by several governments of short-selling during the financial turmoil in September 2008 was thus contrary to that rule. If a WTO member took another WTO member to the WTO dispute settlement body over this issue, ultimately a panel of trade and financial experts could be asked to decide on sanctions.

Lobbying

Efforts to "re-regulate" will run counter to negotiations over Gats and other free-trade agreements which have been working towards opening up the financial sector, and which were backed by the US and the EU.

Pigeons against backdrop of City of London
The City of London's success was based on deregulation
These were subject to concerted and secretive lobbying of negotiators by financial corporations, resulting in negotiators collaborating closely with the financial industry.

The liberalisation of financial services was included in trade treaties without any guarantee of whether the right regulation and supervision was in place.

In fact, the EU requested many countries to eliminate particular prudential rules, some of which had been put in place after the Asian crisis.

The EU requests were clearly based on specific demands from the financial industry, who had easy access to the negotiation documents and EU negotiators.

By contrast, only after strong insistence were Dutch parliamentarians allowed to look at those hundred of pages of requests in a small room - and they were prohibited from taking notes!

Regulation 'uncompetitive'

Worldwide market opening and deregulation in favour of the financial industry through free trade agreements were part of the EU's Lisbon agenda to make the EU the most competitive economy in the world.

The EU financial industry needed to compete with US financial industry which was very profitable due to a large home market, sophisticated investment banks and a low level of regulation.

In the EU, regulation was seen as an unnecessary cost and barrier to competitiveness - particularly by the UK, which wanted the City of London to be able to compete with the under-regulated US financial industry.

This all contributed to the financial turmoil over the last months.

Meanwhile, warnings from academics, parliamentarians, civil society and others went unheard.

Taxpayers and citizens are now suffering from the economic downturn that followed the financial crisis.

At the World Social Forum, one of the issues we discussed was new governance structures that will ensure that the financial sector is no longer allowed to fuel ever more speculative finance without serving the economy, society, or financing solutions to the food, energy and climate crises which the world is confronting today.

Marcos Arruda is an economist at the Rio de Janeiro-based Institute of Alternative Policies for the Southern Cone of Latin America

Our economic system centres on profit and unlimited economic growth for companies and the material economy.

As long as the geographical area of the planet has permitted it to expand, it has advanced, multiplying and globalising goods, services, markets and the appetite for consumption.

This system that promotes greed and permanent competition among people, companies and nations has come to the beginning of the end - without managing to accomplish what it calls "development" and "progress" for all peoples and citizens, but plundering the best part of the Earth's natural resources and ecosystems.

We live at a point in human history when our civilisation - its cultural ideas and its mode of social, economic and political organisation - is heading for extinction.

Bail-outs won't help

At this point the emperor has no clothes: capitalism bares its chaotic real nature and there is imminent risk of elites resorting to war.

US Air Force A-10A Warthog drops away from a refueling tanker during a Nato Operation Allied Force combat mission in Germany in April 1999
Our current economic system makes wars more likely
The tsunami of unreal speculative wealth that has inundated the planet is destined, for better or for worse, to ebb. Nor can all the public monies in the world save it or cover the speculators' losses.

If the authorities try to do so, they will flood the world with another tsunami of unreal wealth. The authorities take decisions that barely scratch the surface of the problem.

The sponsors of solutions to the crisis fall into three types.

Firstly, there are those who restrict themselves to the surface symptoms and propose ad-hoc reforms "so that things return to normal as soon as possible". Their assumption is that "normal" is good for everyone.

Secondly, there are the social democrats of various persuasions who, echoing Keynes, advocate a state-controlled economy, at least as long as the crisis lasts. They talk about placing finance at the service of business and the citizenry.

And they plan to "refound capitalism" (French President Nicolas Sarkozy's words) by completely reforming the financial system.

Solidarity

Lastly, there are those, like me, who envisage a movement towards comprehensive development for humankind - individuals and society - that should be sustainable and based on solidarity.

That, in turn, entails global economic planning that begins at the level of the community. We need a new paradigm.



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