When it pays to be crazy

In the irrational, out-of-control world of the financial markets, acting rationally loses money rath

As recent events indicate, financial markets seem incapable of self-regulation, and instead swing headily from irrational excesses to violent crashes. But it’s unlikely that governments could do a much better job of avoiding financial crises, as the job of creating wise and effective regulation may just be too difficult to perform. Nevertheless, when banks crash, it is the public purse that has to bail them out. The solution to this problem? Governments need to make sure that, during times of plenty, they make enough out of the financial sector to prepare for the bad times – for, as we’ve seen, days of plenty are always numbered.

The events of the past two weeks are instructive. Bear Stearns was a venerable Wall Street bank that kept on trading all the way through the Great Depression. In 2007, it was voted Fortune magazine’s “Most Admired” securities firm. Now, after the self-destructive excesses of the sub-prime mortgage bubble that has burst, it lies in ruins: sold over to JPMorgan Chase, via a government bail-out, at a mere $10 per share – a pale comparison to its market capitalization at $170 per share as recently as January 2007. The bigger problem is that no-one knows which venerable old institution will be next to implode.

The US Federal Reserve has had to stump up a massive $30 billion in order to smooth the sale of Bear Stearns, and who knows what kinds of additional largesse will be demanded of the world’s treasuries and central banks before the losses can be stemmed (if they can be). The financial system relies on trust; and once it is lost, trust – like innocence – is difficult to regain. Things could get much, much messier before they start to get better.

The origins of the current crisis lie in the short-sightedness, greed and poor regulation of the world’s markets in securitized credit instruments – the ever more exotic march of acronyms of CDOs (collateralized debt obligations), MBS’s (mortgage backed securities) and the like.

The world’s commercial banks have spent five years borrowing cheap money, lending it to (often poor) people for near-to-zero margins, and then marking their books with a repayment probability of 100 percent. Credit spreads narrowed to absurd levels, long term rates fell below short term rates (you actually got lower interest rates if you locked your cash up for longer) and the weakest, most brittle CDOs and MBSs could get an AAA rating from supine, eager-to-please rating agencies.

It was the fantasy world of “mark to market” accounting practices that destroyed Enron, and in consequence their file-shredding accountants Arthur Andersen, when the last bubble burst, but memories seem to be short when there’s money to be made.

It was obvious that the liquidity bubble was going to burst sooner or later. So, one might ask, why didn’t the grotesquely well-paid analysts at Bear Stearns and elsewhere urge caution instead of the full-steam-ahead lemming sprint to the cliff’s edge? The answer is a disturbing one – in an irrational market, rational behaviour loses money rather than making it. The first bank to have pulled in the reins in the credit markets would have lost out as everyone else made a quick killing from the irrationally-rising market.

When a price bubble is inflating, there is massive money to be made from buying high, but selling higher. There is a classic co-ordination problem here. It is rational to act ‘irrationally’ as long as the crazy folk around you keep driving the market up; it becomes rational to act ‘rationally’ only when your rationality is contagious, or when everyone can see that the cliff edge is now in sight.

Anyone who thinks that financial markets can be successfully self-regulating hasn’t understood the way that acting crazy can be the way to make massive profits, as long as you’re not the only crazy one. Added to this, of course, is the problem of the time horizons of the people who actually work for investment banks. They’re so well paid that they don’t need to care about their position in 7 or 10 years’ time. If this year’s bonus can buy a townhouse, then there’s no need to sacrifice current margins to vague concerns for future stability.

The truth is that the players in the world’s financial markets find themselves in a classic Prisoners’ Dilemma. It’s rational for any fund manager to join in with the latest unsustainable get-rich-quick scheme, because he’ll make more money than if he shows restraint. But if everyone joins in, then you create an unsustainable bubble, and everyone loses out in the end. It’s collectively rational for the financial market to show restraint, but individually rational for each of the players in that market to (within limits) throw caution to the wind (especially while everyone else is doing so and the bubble is inflating). But there’s just no way of getting from individual commercial decisions to the collectively rational and restrained equilibrium.

So, the financial markets are structurally incapable of self-regulation. The obvious alternative is state regulation. But there are two massive problems here. The first problem is one of technical know-how. The world’s investment banks spend billions on wages to get highly technically gifted people to devise ever more complex financial instruments and strategies. Crashes and bubbles can happen in unpredictable ways, and it would take even greater resources and expertise to design the surgical regulation needed to head-off every possible disaster. States lack the capacity to stay one step ahead of these out-of-control financial behemoths.

The other problem, of course, is that states face a Prisoner’s Dilemma of their own. Tighter regulation or higher taxes in London drives the banks to Geneva, and it’s better for the state to get inadequate scraps than nothing at all. It would be collectively rational for states to co-ordinate their tax and regulatory activities but, yet again, individually rational for each individual state to defect and undercut the competition.

Both these problems have solutions, though. If ‘surgical’ regulation is too difficult, then perhaps governments need to treat the periodic expansions and contractions of the financial sector as an unavoidable evil, and simply make sure that they extract enough in the way of taxes when times are good. (Although there’s no doubt that some forms of regulation that would have headed-off the current crisis are shockingly simple – for example, imposing a maximum income-multiple on new mortgages, with tighter standards for income certification.)

Moreover, governments are much better situated for co-operation than are private players in the financial system. If tax flight is a problem, then governments need to get their heads together, and do more to impose uniform tax treatments of financial institutions and their employees. Co-operation at the European level is especially urgent, and realizable. Some of these forms of co-operation could be politically popular throughout the continent. The EU would be much more popular if it was seen taking a stand against the cynical and leaching Swiss treatment of hedge funds, or Monaco’s scandalous position on tax exiles. It’s high time that the hard working people of the continent stopped being exploited by tax havens.

At the moment, we have a horrible imbalance of power. When things are going well, the bankers take the spoils. When they fail, the state – and its taxpayers – pick up the tab. If we can’t control the irrational oscillations of world finance, we should at least make sure that its benefits are distributed more justly.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood