Morality and the Markets

Capitalism and ethics make uncomfortable bedfellows, thinks Giles Fraser.

In his fascinating introduction to the long-awaited St Paul's Institute report on morality and the City (PDF here), outgoing Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser tells a by-now familiar tale of how ethics in the financial markets were subverted by a combination of de-regulation and computerisation following the Big Bang of 1986. What was lost, he thinks, was the salutary effect of face-to-face communication that was basic to that prelapsarian world of old school ties, when an Englishman's word was his bond. He sounds positively misty-eyed about those far-off days:

The old City may have been an exclusive and inward looking club -- but the benefit of clubs is that members often have a better developed sense of values and are able to hold each other to account for failing to live up to the club's standards. As Albert Schweitzer put it: "Ethics is a state of solidarity with other human beings."

Put this another way: moral behaviour is bound up with empathy, and you're likely to feel more empathy with another person when you can see the whites of their eyes. No system of regulation can fully compensate for that. There's a truth in here, which is that human beings have a pronounced tendency to respond more warmly to people than to abstractions. Personal relationships engage the conscience, and also ancient and probably innate human instincts of loyalty and shame.

The moral Prime Directive underlying all this is that of reciprocity: as it is often expressed, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This sounds religious. It has been discovered and claimed as their own by all major world religions. But it is in fact pre-human, an evolved response to the problem of survival. Vampire bats are the standard example from nature. It is in the interest of bats to share the fruits of their bloodsucking with other, less advantaged bats, because the night may come when they themselves will have to rely on the generosity of a fellow bat. From such humble beginnings may derive our ethics and the most valuable insights of religion.

Yet human personal relationships have always been vulnerable to less wholesome passions: hatred, resentment, revenge, one-upmanship, herd mentality, contagious fear and intrigue. Giles Fraser admits that the pre-Big Bang City was not a paragon of virtue. He mentions the Guinness scandal as a case in point. His argument is that such problems are magnified when personal relationships are replaced by purely "transactional" ones, and the market itself becomes a source of virtue:

Appealing to the market as an independent authority, unconnected with human decisions about 'housekeeping', has meant in many contexts over the last few decades a ruinous legacy for heavily indebted countries, large-scale and costly social disruption even in developed economies; and, most recently, the extraordinary phenomena of a financial trading world in which the marketing of toxic debt became the driver of money-making -- until the bluffs were all called at the same time.

But there's a paradox here. For whatever the virtues of personal relationships the great moral insight of the market economy derives from its very impersonality, which for the first time made possible a kind of objective ethics. And the market is reciprocity in action. As Adam Smith famously said, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

The title of the St Paul's report, Value and values, is a reminder of how much of our moral vocabulary consists of metaphors derived from the marketplace. Value is a measure of what something is worth. And a "worthy" person is morally an upright one. If someone does you a favour you are in their debt, you owe them. And there's no such thing as a free lunch. Sooner or later will come payback time. You will be held to account for your actions. Respect, in life, has to be earned. Conversely, we believe that criminals should "pay" for their crimes, that betrayal is a sell-out and that politicians who lecture the rest of us while enjoying the privileges of office are morally bankrupt.

The moral language of the markets is as old as the Bible. The Old Testament reports that a king of Babylon was "weighed in the balance and found wanting", and tells us that the price of a virtuous woman is "far above rubies". In the "parable of the talents" (a talent being a large quantity of silver), Jesus speaks of spiritual capital as a sum of money with which you should speculate to accumulate. As for Muhammad, he worked for most of his life as a trader.

What all this suggests to me is that the trading relationship that developed in the first market economies enabled people to think about ethics and morality in new and interesting ways, and has thus been a source of moral progress.

Before the formalisation of relationships in the marketplace, there were "primitive", intuitive forms of social relationship: parent and child, sexual partnership, the wider kinship systems of the tribe, and the relationship of subordinate to superior in a dominance hierarchy. All such "natural" relationships are mediated by, and encourage, pre-moral forms of repriprocity: bribes, threats, genetic claims, feelings of social solidarity, etc.

Such relationships may contain the seeds of morality, but by themselves are not moral; in fact they can impede morality as we now understand it. We think it's wrong to bribe or threaten others or promote our relatives against better-qualified non-relatives, for example. For most of human history, and in some places even today, this would not have seemed obvious. That it seems obvious to us is one of the moral lessons of the market.

"Personal relationships good, impersonal market forces bad" is thus at best a simplification and probably highly misleading. A properly functioning market will expose and punish underhand behaviour. The main problem with today's financial markets is that they have become dysfunctional.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496