More Thoughts on the Financial Crisis
Another philosophical issue underlying the current financial crisis is the collective inability of our financial institutions to discern value. Lacking discernment they bought huge quantities of complex assets that turned out to be worthless, and now they require the tax-payer to bail them out.
One of the complex financial instruments whose actual value the banks failed to discern is Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO’s). Sub-prime mortgages were packaged up as CDO’s and bought by the banks, creating the toxicity which the Paulson plan aims to hoover out of the US system, and which is undermining the British banking system so much that it needs to be partially nationalized at a cost of at least £50bn.
Banks were spectacularly unable to discern the actual value of CDO’s, and the risk which attached to them. With the absence of discernment, the herd mentality dominated the financial markets, first in the form of greed as banks bought and sold the toxic assets in great quantities because everyone else was doing it and earning fat bonuses, and now in the form of fear as inter-bank lending has completely dried up, with no bank trusting another.
For me, an interesting analogy is provided by the Australian aboriginal Achilpa tribe. The tribe possesses a sacred pole which connects heaven and earth:
“During their wanderings the Achilpa always carry it with them and choose the direction they are to take by the direction towards which it bends. This allows them, while being continually on the move, to be always in “their world”, and, at the same time, in communication with the sky . . . For the pole to be broken denotes catastrophe; it is like “the end of the world,” reversion to chaos. Spencer and Gillen [two anthropologists] report than when the pole was broken, the entire clan were in consternation; they wandered about aimlessly for a time, and finally lay on the ground together and waited for death to overtake them.” (from ‘The Sacred and The Profane’, Mircea Eliade, pub. Harcourt Brace (1959))”
The last sentence is an apt description of the current behaviour of financial institutions.
The human race’s unique nature is to be simultaneously in communication with the ground and the sky, earth and heaven. This is the meaning of the Taoist yin-yang symbol, where yin represents earth, yang represents heaven, and the human race’s job is to keep the two in harmony. Another way of saying the same thing is that human beings are composed of spirit and body, and that health and well-being, individually and collectively, come from correctly aligning body to spirit.
To relate such considerations to the financial crisis might invite derision from some quarters, yet it is precisely the correct alignment of spirit and body, heaven and earth, which enables us to discern value in the world. Without a spiritual axis there is no way to discern the beautiful from the ugly, the good from the bad, the valuable from the worthless. Without a spiritual axis all we are left with is the herd mentality: we blindly follow the rest of the herd and when that fails we lie on the ground waiting to die.
If any more proof were needed of financial wheeler-dealers’ inability to discern value or beauty, look at the current success of Damian Hirst, who cannily sold his remaining stock of embalmed sharks while the hedgies still had some money left. Look to the art market for the next set of ‘assets’ to be revealed as worthless, and for the next herd to lie on the ground bleating. Fortunately the tax payer won’t be required to bail them out.