In The Monthly out on 4 Feburary 2009:
From time to time in human history there occur events of a truly seismic significance, events that mark a turning point between one epoch and the next, when one orthodoxy is overthrown and another takes its place. The significance of these events is rarely apparent as they unfold: it becomes clear only in retrospect, when observed from the commanding heights of history. By such time it is often too late to act to shape the course of such events and their effects on the day-to-day working lives of men and women and the families they support.
There is a sense that we are now living through just such a time: barely a decade into the new millennium, barely 20 years since the end of the Cold War and barely 30 years since the triumph of neo-liberalism - that particular brand of free-market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and excessive greed which became the economic orthodoxy of our time.
The agent for this change is what we now call the global financial crisis. In the space of just 18 months, this crisis has become one of the greatest assaults on global economic stability to have occurred in three-quarters of a century. As others have written, it "reflects the greatest regulatory failure in modern history". It is not simply a crisis facing the world's largest private financial institutions - systemically serious as that is in its own right. It is more than a crisis in credit markets, debt markets, derivatives markets, property markets and equity markets - notwithstanding the importance of each of these.
This is a crisis spreading across a broad front: it is a financial crisis which has become a general economic crisis; which is becoming an employment crisis; and which has in many countries produced a social crisis and in turn a political crisis. Indeed, accounts are already beginning to emerge of the long-term geo-political implications of the implosion on Wall Street - its impact on the future strategic leverage of the West in general and the United States in particular.
The global financial crisis has demonstrated already that it is no respecter of persons, nor of particular industries, nor of national boundaries. It is a crisis which is simultaneously individual, national and global. It is a crisis of both the developed and the developing world. It is a crisis which is at once institutional, intellectual and ideological. It has called into question the prevailing neo-liberal economic orthodoxy of the past 30 years - the orthodoxy that has underpinned the national and global regulatory frameworks that have so spectacularly failed to prevent the economic mayhem which has now been visited upon us.
Not for the first time in history, the international challenge for social democrats is to save capitalism from itself: to recognise the great strengths of open, competitive markets while rejecting the extreme capitalism and unrestrained greed that have perverted so much of the global financial system in recent times. It fell to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to rebuild American capitalism after the Depression. It fell also to the American Democrats, strongly influenced by John Maynard Keynes, to rebuild postwar domestic demand, to engineer the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and to set in place the Bretton Woods system to govern international economic engagement. And so it now falls to President Obama's administration - and to those who will provide international support for his leadership - to support a global financial system that properly balances private incentive with public responsibility in response to the grave challenges presented by the current crisis. The common thread uniting all three of these episodes is a reliance on the agency of the state to reconstitute properly regulated markets and to rebuild domestic and global demand.
The second challenge for social democrats is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As the global financial crisis unfolds and the hard impact on jobs is felt by families across the world, the pressure will be great to retreat to some model of an all-providing state and to abandon altogether the cause of open, competitive markets both at home and abroad. Protectionism has already begun to make itself felt, albeit in softer and more subtle forms than the crudity of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. Soft or hard, protectionism is a sure-fire way of turning recession into depression, as it exacerbates the collapse in global demand. The intellectual challenge for social democrats is not just to repudiate the neo-liberal extremism that has landed us in this mess, but to advance the case that the social-democratic state offers the best guarantee of preserving the productive capacity of properly regulated competitive markets, while ensuring that government is the regulator, that government is the funder or provider of public goods and that government offsets the inevitable inequalities of the market with a commitment to fairness for all. Social democracy's continuing philosophical claim to political legitimacy is its capacity to balance the private and the public, profit and wages, the market and the state. That philosophy once again speaks with clarity and cogency to the challenges of our time.
Social-democratic governments across the world must rise to the further challenge of developing a practical policy response to the crisis that rebuilds shattered economic growth, while also devising a new regulatory regime for the financial markets of the future. This is our immediate challenge. But if we fail, there is a grave danger that new political voices of the extreme Left and the nationalist Right will begin to achieve a legitimacy hitherto denied them. Again, history is replete with the most disturbing of precedents.
We therefore need a frank analysis of the central role of neo-liberalism in the underlying causes of the current economic crisis. We also need a robust analysis of the social-democratic approach to properly regulated markets and the proper role of the state, in a new contract for the future that eschews the extremism of both the Left and the Right. And we must integrate this analysis with the unprecedented imperative for global co-operation if governments are to prevail in their task.
Around the world today, there is understandable public bewilderment at the speed, severity and scope of the unfolding crisis. While the causes of the global financial crisis are complex, a small number of simple metrics are capable of conveying its magnitude and the havoc it has wrought in financial markets, the real economy and government finances.
Financial markets have suffered the greatest dislocation in our lifetime. Global equity markets have lost approximately US$32 trillion in value since their peak, which is equivalent to the combined GDP of the G7 countries in 2008. Credit markets have all but dried up, with credit growth at its lowest level since World War II. And, at the core of the crisis, house prices are plummeting in many countries, with American prices falling at their fastest rate since modern records began.
The real economy is facing one of its toughest periods on record, with the IMF predicting that advanced economies will contract for the first time in 60 years, causing the number of unemployed to rise by 8 million across the OECD. In developing countries, the International Labour Organization predicts that the financial and economic crisis could push more than 100 million people into poverty.
Furthermore, the crisis is producing unprecedented costs and debts for governments which will be felt for decades to come. It is estimated that the 2009 deficit in the United States will be as high as 12.5% of GDP. And estimates of the combined (actual and contingent) liabilities from the array of bank bailouts and guarantees run to more than $13 trillion - more than the cost of all the major wars the United States has ever fought. What this means for future American international borrowing is equally unprecedented.
Bewilderment, however, rapidly turns to anger when the economic crisis touches the lives of families through rising unemployment, reduced wage growth and collapsing asset values - while executive remuneration in the financial sector continues to go through the roof, apparently disconnected from the reality of recent events. In 2007, S&P 500 CEOs averaged $10.5 million (some 344 times the pay of typical American workers). The top 50 hedge-fund and private-equity fund managers averaged $588 million each (19,000 times the pay of typical workers). In 2007, the ?ve biggest Wall Street firms paid bonuses of a staggering $39 billion - huge payments to the executives whose investment banks have since been bailed out by American taxpayers.
These are epic numbers, generated by a greed of epic proportions. For a bewildered and increasingly enraged public, they raise the following questions: How was this allowed to happen? What ideology, what policy, what abuses made this possible? Were there any warnings? And if so, why were they ignored? [First 1,500 words of Kevin Rudd's essay, The Global Financial Crisis,The Monthly online magazine,Feburary 2009]
Media reports on Rudd's essay: