Wednesday, September 24, 2008

‘Are we all France now?’

That’s what Jon Stewart asked his guest Bill Clinton on the Daily Show a minute ago. They were discussing the proposed 700 billion (!) bailout for the financial industry proposed by the Bush administration today.

This is inspiring stuff. Who would have thought that the government most committed to reinstall freedom of markets, low taxes and ‘small government’ is now intervening directly in the economy in an unprecedented way. We blogged about similar cases in the UK and France recently – but what the US government intends to do here eclipses all the others.

We find it interesting from two perspectives. First, it is one of the classic examples of an ethical problem. On the upshot, yes, the financial industry is in trouble and the effects of further bank collapses would be massive - for the economy in general, but more concretely for jobs, home owners and ‘hard working’ Americans (and beyond). But on the other hand, why bail out an industry which has enjoyed fairytale profits in recent years, not to talk about bonuses and executive salaries far beyond imagination?

From a ultilitarian perspective (see Chapter 3 of Crane & Matten) maybe everybody would be better off by the bailout. But what about fairness and justice - providing healthcare for children has been anathema for the US government so far, yet would have cost much less. Or from another perspective, what about the consent of taxpayers to spend what amounts to $5,000 each in tax dollars for this massive bailout package?

The second aspect hints at the political role of private corporations. To have enough to live of in old age (i.e. pensions) and having a roof above your head (i.e. homes/mortgages) are obvious issues: access to these for a long time was considered a basic civic entitlements of citizens. That’s why welfare states in Europe still provide (or tightly regulate) access to these commodities. The US though has been at the forefront of creating markets for these things. As we see, the corporations in charge have failed at administering them – maybe because they shouldn’t have been in charge of these issues in the first place. And that’s why the government now feels it has to step in. The bailout now is an attempt to help out as a one-off. But it raises the general question we have discussed at length in our just published recent book: if corporations are now responsible for administering basic entitlements of citizens would it not be just fair to apply the same rules of transparency, accountability and democratic control as we do to governments? It is fascinating to see this debate and we guess it is far from over.

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