Amartya Sen on what went wrong in financial markets

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Amartya Sen has an essay in the New York Review of Books (thanks for the tip, pneogy) that I really like. First, he neatly dispenses with the notion that we need to ditch or entirely reinvent capitalism:

[D]o we really need some kind of “new capitalism” rather than an economic system that is not monolithic, draws on a variety of institutions chosen pragmatically, and is based on social values that we can defend ethically?

Then he offers a clear account of what went wrong in finance:

Historically, capitalism did not emerge until new systems of law and economic practice protected property rights and made an economy based on ownership workable. Commercial exchange could not effectively take place until business morality made contractual behavior sustainable and inexpensive—not requiring constant suing of defaulting contractors, for example. Investment in productive businesses could not flourish until the higher rewards from corruption had been moderated. Profit-oriented capitalism has always drawn on support from other institutional values.

The moral and legal obligations and responsibilities associated with transactions have in recent years become much harder to trace, thanks to the rapid development of secondary markets involving derivatives and other financial instruments. A subprime lender who misleads a borrower into taking unwise risks can now pass off the financial assets to third parties—who are remote from the original transaction. Accountability has been badly undermined, and the need for supervision and regulation has become much stronger.

And yet the supervisory role of government in the United States in particular has been, over the same period, sharply curtailed, fed by an increasing belief in the self-regulatory nature of the market economy. Precisely as the need for state surveillance grew, the needed supervision shrank.

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