A Global Economy Won’t Make the World Go Round in Peace

A Conversation Between Shimon Peres and George Soros
Los Angeles Times

SHIMON PERES, the former Israeli prime minister, met recently with financier and philanthropist GEORGE SOROS to discuss globalization and the new shape of the world order.

SHIMON PERES: Whenever a nation moves from being preoccupied with politics to economics, it moves from belligerency to peace. Politics is about politicians and nations seeking glory. Economics is about people seeking food.

This what has happened to Europe since the last war. It is at peace because it has, more or less, left national politics behind.

GEORGE SOROS: The question is: Do you need some structure to preserve peace or will the interests of the global economy be enough to achieve it? I don’t think they are. I agree that today you have less military conflict between states, but you have more of it inside states, as in Bosnia or Rwanda.

And there is no effective international structure to contain those conflicts. It was a tremendous failure of the international community to allow the bloodshed in Bosnia. it could have stepped in at almost any time and didn’t.

PERES: That is because the trains are still moving on the old rails.

SOROS: This the problem. The prevailing bias, politically and economically, remains in favor of competition and conflict. Methods of cooperation -- the U.N. and its bodies -- have so far failed. They are inefficient and cumbersome, devious and political.

The reality is that cooperation has failed in this world. And yet this one-sided emphasis on competition, this belief that economic and social Darwinism can be the guiding principle of our society, this is also false. This is nowhere more evident than in global financial markets.

PERES: What you say is critical because financial flows are the key elements of the global economy now. Trade is only one-tenth of the value of financial markets globally.

SOROS: The global capitalist system -- the primary characteristic of which is the free flow of financial capital -- is base on the false premise that if competitors are left to their own devices, the whole system will tend toward equilibrium. Well, as the Asian crisis demonstrates, this is just not true.

The reality is the opposite: The system tends to break down. And it is not unstable due to some exogenous shock; it is inherently unstable. The idea that free markets will tend toward equilibrium is a theoretical construct from classical economics. But experience shows that as much as it may apply in the case of ordinary goods, it does not apply to financial markets.

That is because there is a two-way interaction between events and expectations. When you buy a share, you are expressing a prediction, but your prediction affects the future to which it relates. In the financial markets, judgments about the value of an investment profoundly affect the actual value of that investment.

In all human events, our thinking about the events we participate in has an impact on the course of those events. In all human mechanism that changes reality as you go along. I call this “reflexivity.”

Markets can be self-correcting. Participants discover that events fail to correspond to their expectations, and they can correct the error in their thinking. That is why the market economy is better than central planning. In financial markets, there is also a danger of initially self-reinforcing, but eventually self-destructing, developments. Biased views and half-truths can validate themselves and reinforce the bias until it becomes unsustainable. The consequences can be catastrophic. The invisible hand does not necessarily work like a pendulum. As we have seen in Asia, it can act more like a wrecking ball, knocking over one country after another.

PERES: The market can knock down walls. It can create links. It can produce wealth. But it can’t preserve stability. And the global capitalist system also cannot be made responsible for the health of a child or the pension of an old person.

SOROS: I agree. Market values are wholly inadequate for society. market values only express what one market participant is willing to pay to another in a free exchange. Market values have penetrated into areas of society where they do not belong. They have conquered areas not previously subject to it, most notably medical care.

Medical care was never supposed to be a business, but a profession. In America, where money has become an end, instead of a means to an end, it has become almost purely a business. Market values have assumed an importance that is excessive and in conflict with professional values. The reason for this, of course, is that the social institutions supposed to deliver care have been even more deficient in providing health services than the market.

PERES: One of the reasons this is beginning to happen in the rest of the world as well is that public institutions no longer can afford to pay for social services. It seems that activities that can make money are privatized, and what remains in the hands of government costs more. For that reason, most of the governments of the world have deficits, while most of the companies have profits. What about social justice?

SOROS: I like the capitalist system, but I recognize that it is imperfect. I am particularly concerned with the freedom of movement of capital around the globe. This makes it much more difficult to tax.

This has greatly reduced the ability of the state to provide social services. What can governments do if they don’t want to drive capital away? Of course, the state can still tax people because they are less mobile. Entrepreneurs can move. They are enterprising.

All these factors contribute to increasing the gap between rich and poor. The poor clearly get taxed more today, while the rich escape.

PERES: This is where we come together. Unless you recognize that there are social goals that require cooperation -- stability, social justice -- you are lost.

Recognizing that markets are more efficient than states, they first economized their social policies. Now they are socializing their economic policies. You cannot do one without the other.

SOROS: Here I would endorse Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who says: “The market is concerned with exchange values, not ethical values. That is not a shortcoming. Responding to this challenge is what democracy is about.”

This has become difficult to achieve on a national level because of globalization. There are certain things that can only be done internationally. We cannot have a global economy without building a global society.