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James Downey: Austerity isn't enough: we must reinvent capitalism


YOU remember Peter Mandelson. Who could forget him? Secretary of state for Northern Ireland, serial survivor of controversies and comebacks, arguably the man who invented Blairism before most of us had heard of Tony Blair.

Lord Mandelson, as he now is, operated in a different field this week. He popped up among the Lords of Human Kind at the World Economic Forum in Davos and took umbrage at a speech made by one of the many bankers present.

Those present, he said, did not want lectures from bankers on the flaws of the financial system. Quite right. Never mind the Lords of Human Kind. Humbler folk like ourselves have all too good reason to lament the contribution that banks have made, and are still making, to the crisis of capitalism.

The crisis of capitalism? Once upon a time, that phrase was often to be heard from the political left. Plenty of people thought that the capitalism system was a temporary phenomenon. One more catastrophic event and it would collapse, to be replaced by some sort of socialism.

But now, while we struggle to overcome a series of financial disasters fully equal to anything we underwent in the past, almost nobody with any sense imagines that we can replace capitalism with anything better. And almost nobody with any sense (I'm not sure about the bankers) imagines that our way of life can survive unless we take prompt and radical action.

The mood in Davos this week was reported as gloomy. The Lords of Human Kind had plenty to be gloomy about.

In advance of the meeting, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had issued a report with a worst-case scenario in the event of failure to overcome the European debt crisis. It said that in that event the world, not just the European, economy could contract by 4pc.

Now, 4pc may not sound very much, but the reality would be calamitous in terms of decreasing global trade, wealth destruction, poverty, social unrest, pessimism and a return to protectionism -- of which worrying signs have already appeared.

So it was no wonder that the founder of the World Economic Forum, Dr Klaus Schwab, summed it up in apocalyptic terms: "Capitalism in its current form no longer fits the world around us." We must, he said, transform it, and the transformation must start with "reinstating a global sense of social responsibility".

Strange words from someone in his position? Actually, no. He has allies: Bill Gates, for example. Mr Gates was in Davos this week. He said, without regret, that he is no longer "the richest man on the planet" because he has given away, so far, $26bn (€19.8bn) of his fortune. His message for the conference: "Remember the poor."

A more powerful person in the same camp is the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde. Like her predecessor in the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, she regards social justice as part of the organisation's mission.

Is there an echo here for Ireland? We have seen what looks like clear signs of differences between the partners in the Irish bailout, with the IMF and the European Commission taking a softer line than the European Central Bank, dominated by Germany. An important part of the argument is the question of "austerity versus growth". Is the view growing that austerity is not enough?

Mme Lagarde thinks so. She wants the funds available to the IMF to lend money expanded by €500bn.

This seemingly colossal figure comes into context when contrasted with the stupendous €3trn mentioned as capital for the European Stability Mechanism. That, however, is not to say that the entire €3trn would actually be spent on bailouts. The objective is to construct a "firewall" big enough to fight off any speculation against the euro currency or national economies.

Against it stands German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who repeated her opposition in Davos this week. Does she think she holds an unbeatable hand?

One can see the German point. If Greece is thrown to the wolves -- something that many people think inevitable anyway -- and other countries follow, Germany's position would become stronger, not weaker. But this is a simplistic argument.

The economic and political consequences of breaking up the eurozone are incalculable, for the Germans like everyone else. Frau Merkel would do well to consider the likely outcome of a series of devaluations and, in her own case, revaluation. An independent German currency could double in value almost overnight. What would that do for the sales of Mercedes cars in the US? Or poor old Portugal? Or poor old Ireland?

In poor old Ireland, we have quite enough on our plate. We must find a way to return to growth, and the conditions for growth are largely out of our own hands. We rely so heavily on exports that we cannot afford decline or stagnation in the major economies with which we trade. At the same time, we desperately need a reduction in our debt burden, which at present is growing, not diminishing, despite the austerity measures.

All these are commonplaces, but maybe we can take some courage from one of the oldest of the old hands in Davos.

Jean-Claude Juncker puts Peter Mandelson in the shade. He has been prime minister of Luxembourg since 1995, and he knows more about finance than any banker. He says that the interest rate on new Greek bonds should not exceed 4pc. Not too many people are willing to lend Greece money at any rate of interest, but that proposition sounds to me like a return to capitalist sanity.

Of course, it doesn't amount to a transformation of capitalism, or anywhere near it. Reasonable lending rates would merely make a start, along with balanced budgets, solvent banks, free trade and currency stability.

In the longer run, though, we won't achieve these desirable things -- and we stand to lose those we have already got -- unless the holders of economic and political power proceed with the sense of responsibility demanded by the founder of the World Economic Forum.

Davos gave us no assurance that the Lords of Human Kind are doing the right things. But at least some of them are saying the right things.