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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009

Are we ready for a new form of capitalism?


MELBOURNE — Is the global financial crisis an opportunity to forge a new form of capitalism based on sound values?

So French President Nicholas Sarkozy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair appear to think. At a symposium in Paris last month titled "New World, New Capitalism," Sarkozy described capitalism based on financial speculation as "an immoral system" that has "perverted the logic of capitalism." He argued that capitalism needs to find new moral values and to accept a stronger role for governments. Blair called for a new financial order based on "values other than the maximum short-term profit."

It is surprising how readily politicians of all parties — even strong ideological defenders of the unregulated market — accepted the idea that the state should bail out banks and insurance companies when they got into trouble. With the exception of a small number of ideologically committed defenders of free enterprise, few were willing to take the risks inherent in letting major banks collapse.

Who knows what the consequences would have been? Many feared mass unemployment, a tidal wave of bankruptcies, millions of families evicted from their homes, the social safety net strained to breaking point and perhaps even riots and a resurgence of the political extremism that brought Hitler to power in Germany during the depression of the 1930s.

The choice to save the banks from the financial consequences of their own errors indicates a shift in values away from belief in the wisdom of the market. Evidently, the market got some things — like the value of certain financial securities — horrendously wrong. But will the downturn also produce a deeper shift in the values of consumers?

It is no accident that the "New World, New Capitalism" symposium was held in France, where some critics have seen the global financial crisis as necessary and desirable precisely because it is producing this change in values. In the newspaper Le Figaro, a section on how to scale back one's expenses predicted a "revolution in values" and claimed that people will put family ahead of work. (Americans think the French, with their shorter working hours and longer vacations, already do so.)

The French have always been less likely to go into debt — when they pay with plastic, they tend to use debit cards, drawing on funds they already have, rather than credit cards. Now they see the current crisis as a vindication of the value of not spending money that you don't have.

That means, in many cases, less luxury spending — something that is hard to reconcile with the image of France as the country of fashion, perfume and champagne. But excess is out of style, and there are reports of cutbacks in luxury goods everywhere. Richemont, the Swiss luxury goods company that owns the Cartier and Montblanc brands, has said that it is facing "the toughest market conditions since its formation 20 years ago." But does this mark an enduring change in values, or just a temporary reduction, forced upon consumers by investment losses and greater economic uncertainty?

In his inauguration speech, U.S. President Barack Obama said, "The time has come to set aside childish things" and instead to choose the noble idea that "all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness." It would be an excellent thing if the global financial crisis restored a proper sense of what is important.

Could the crisis remind us that we buy luxury items more because of the status they bring than because of their intrinsic value? Could it help us to appreciate that many things are more central to our happiness than our ability to spend money on fashion, expensive watches, and fine dining? Could it even, as Obama suggests, make us more aware of the needs of those who are living in real poverty and are far worse off than we will ever be, financial crisis or no financial crisis?

The danger is that the potential for a real change in values will be co-opted, as has happened so often before, by those who see it as just another opportunity to make money. The designer Nathalie Rykiel is reportedly planning to show the new Sonia Rykiel collection in March not in the usual vast rented area, but in the smaller space of her own boutique. "It's a desire for intimacy, to go back to values," she said. "We need to return to a smaller scale, one that touches people. We will be saying, 'Come to my house. Look at and feel the clothes.' "

Ah yes, in a world in which 10 million children die every year from avoidable, poverty-related causes, and greenhouse-gas emissions threaten to create hundreds of millions of climate refugees, we should be visiting Paris boutiques and feeling the clothes. If people were really concerned about defensible moral values, they wouldn't be buying designer clothes at all. But what are the chances of Nathalie Rykiel — or the affluent elites of France, or Italy or the United States — adopting those values?

Peter Singer's new book, "The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty," will be published in several countries during the coming months. For details, see www.thelifeyoucansave.com. © 2009 Project Syndicate


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