The Guardian reviews Joe Stiglitz’s new book:
The ancient Greeks had a word for it – pleonexia – which means an overreaching desire for more than one’s share. As Melissa Lane explained in last year’s Eco-Republic: Ancient Thinking for a Green Age, this vice was often paired with hubris, a form of arrogance directed especially against the gods and therefore doomed to fail. The Greeks saw tyrants as fundamentally pleonetic in their motivation. As Lane writes: “Power served greed and so to tame power, one must tame greed.”
Given shape, fluency, substance and authority by Stiglitz. He does so not in the name of revolution – although he tells the 1% that their bloody time may yet come – but in order that capitalism be snatched back from free market fundamentalism and put to the service of the many, not the few.
In the 1970s and 80s, “the Chicago boys”, from the Chicago school of economics, led by Milton Friedman, developed their anti-regulation, small state, pro-privatisation thesis – and were handed whole countries, aided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), on which to experiment, among them Thatcher’s Britain, Reagan’s America, Mexico and Chile. David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism describes how the democratically elected Salvador Allende was overthrown in Chile and the Chicago boys brought in. Under their influence, nationalisation was reversed, public assets privatised, natural resources opened up to unregulated exploitation (anyone like to buy one of our forests?), the unions and social organisations were torn apart and foreign direct investment and “freer” trade were facilitated. Rather than wealth trickling down, it rapidly found its way to the pinnacle of the pyramid. As Stiglitz explains, these policies were – and are – protected by myths, not least that the highest paid “deserve” their excess of riches.
In 2001, Stiglitz, a former chief economist at the World Bank, and arch critic of the IMF, won the Nobel prize for economics for his theory of “asymmetric information”. When some individuals have access to privileged knowledge that others don’t, free markets yield bad outcomes for wider society. Stiglitz conducted his work in the 1970s and 80s but asymmetric information perfectly describes the Libor scandal, rigging the interest rate at a cost to the ordinary man and woman in the street. Stiglitz details the profound consequences not just of the current financial meltdown but of the previous decades of neoliberal interventions on the incomes, health and prospects of the 99% and the damage done to the values of fairness, trust and civic responsibility.