How will we resist another decade of low-hanging fruit?

openDemocracy's first decade opened and closed with economic and financial crises. The first gave us the tools that will be needed to reorganise our politics to avoid more of the same; the second should give us the confidence that seemingly powerful institutions are flawed social mechanisms that ought to be within our control. If openDemocracy's economics coverage can help to reinforce these lessons, we can contribute to building a better second decade

Low-hanging fruitWill we be able to enjoy the fruits of the forest of the future, will humanity be able to enjoy the bounty of life in the way many of us have even while others starve?

There is something irresistible in the image conjured by the cliche: the bounty of nature, serendipity, of something you happen on and that almost effortlessly solves what everyone had until then thought were the hard problems that lay ahead. It reminds me of an episode from my childhood. Christian - my neighbour and elder by a couple of years - and I were about our usual explorations in the woods behind the house and we happened on a tall tree covered in grillottes - small, usually bitter wild cheries. But maybe the summer was particularly warm, or the variety unusual, but these were sweet and delicious. We enjoyed the low-hanging ones; we jumped for branches to pull down on when we had run out of those. Christian - heavier than me - would hang from a branch, and I would pick. We'd share the proceeds, of course. When that technique ran its course, Christian fetched an axe from his mother's woodshed and we proceeded to strip the tree bare in our effort to make more and more of the fruit "low-hanging".

This is the standard story of environmental spoliation, of course. You privatise the gains from consuming nature's bounty - the energy, the natural resource, the forests, the wilderness, the grillottes - and you socialise the loss. Whoever had enjoyed them before; whoever might enjoy them in the future; or whoever was enjoying the poorly-understood goods  that the resource delivered in its previous, under-exploited state – like the Carbon scrubbing service that the rainforest performs, for example.

But the past decade shows us how much the desire for low hanging fruit has permeated our relationship to each other and to social goods as much as to natural and environmental goods. Take 10 years of finance. We start the period with the bursting of the technology bubble.

Clearly, there was technology fruit to be eaten in the 1990s. The Californian-based military industrial complex based around San Francisco, Berkeley and Stanford had been starved of funds thanks to the Bush Snr. "peace dividend". Creative engineers transformed a lot of the technology that had been developed for military uses - communications hardware, the Internet, specialist computer chips that gave us powerful graphical workstations; operating systems etc. ... - into wonderful civilian applications. This really was a remarkable "swords into ploughshares" moment in history, and we continue to enjoy the fruits of it today. Indeed, the diet of that fruit is yet to be digested.

Early days, openDemocracy 2002, courtesy Ian Christie

The technology of the Cold War was the soil from which the low-hanging fruit of the 1990s was nourished. The tech bubble came from the impression that small investments were producing huge transformations - that the $100,000 check to Google that its first investor gave the company on the spot on first seeing the 2 students' presentation could in one fell swoop organise the world's digital information and produce value of billions. It did produce that value, of course. At least in some accounting sense it did. But actually, it might be more accurate to say that Google harvested a great deal of value that had been under-monetised in the hardware, software and telecoms infrastructure investments of the Cold War. 

Low hanging fruit indeed. The truth is that the fruit that hung so low was the result of decades of military,  monopoly telecom, and taxpayer/consumer funded investment. When you turn the nation's army's swords into ploughshares, who, one might ask, do the ploughshares belong to?

That question aside, private investors were lured into the belief that they could transform the world with the leverage of a little capital which, by good fortune, they happened to be the guardians of. This led to the comedy of the worst of the dotcom mania: investors not being able to tell the difference between a project, like Google's, Sun's or Cisco's, that really did privatise some of the gains of years of Cold War investment and those - like boo.com or WebVan - that tried to compete with investments in the bricks-and-mortar world whose gains were not up for grabs in the same way - that value had been grabbed already.

There is no denying that a great deal of hugely useful capital equipment, research and development and invention was done as a result of investors' taste for "low hanging fruit". But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that most of the wealth that appears, in accounting terms to have been created in this process had been created and paid for before. The lasting technological transformations of the last decade are the results of the privatisation of the gains of a peace dividend.

Financial markets' taste for low hanging fruit survived the technology bust, and Greenspan's low interest rate response to the end of the bubble and till 9/11 fertilised the soil for another spectacular crop. If professional investors had had trouble distinguishing real from illusory value in the world of high technology, maybe that was because they did not understand it. Surely domestic real estate would be better, then?

We are now very familiar with the story of the privatisation of the gains from cheap, socially guaranteed money. Financial innovators discovered that they could convince regulators that their mortgage products were - quite literally - safer than houses and that they could therefore increase their leverage - the degree to which they created money and close money substitutes - to spectacular levels. Money creation on this huge scale led to high levels of demand, much of it satisfied by cheap consumer goods from the emerging world, especially China. Western consumers felt rich - and their bankers and credit card companies reassured them that they were - while emerging economies allowed for increased production with falling prices.

For many consumers in the West, this seemed like a truly miraculous crop of low-hanging fruit: low savings rates, growing wealth because of growing house prices, falling costs of goods and a vast array of new technological goodies that further enhanced lifestyles. (It is hard not to believe that a little bit of planning - just a bit of industrial policy - would not have done a better job at providing direction for this great increase in economic activity). The odd taste in this particular fruit came from the fact that it apparently required the relatively poor households of China to lend on a massive scale to the rich households of America – because the revenue from the goods sold, accruing in China, needed to be transformed into demand for those goods, which was coming from American credit expansion. That was the way of maintaining low prices and high demand levels for Chinese exports.

As long as it seemed to be stable, it was easy not to mind that a small elite of the financial sector seemed to be getting a particularly large share of the bounty. Those in the right positions in the extraordinary flow and amplification of funds this economy created creamed off their small percentage, a sort of legitimate, besuited bakshish. It was hard to see who, exactly, was not benefiting to some extent, in some Rawlsian way, from their alchemy: government revenues were high, public services improving, unemployment low, more and more homes being owned for the first time, all of them cherished and filled with wonderful new comforts and toys. Even the environment, one might have thought, was being protected by a circus of inter-governmental and multilateral activity. And in the emerging world, there was an unprecedentedly large movement out of poverty.

While the dotcom boom privatised the gains of past generations of taxpayers who had funded the Cold War's technology investments, the housing/credit bubble privatised the gains from the future generations that will bail out the bad debts.

Martin Taylor an industry insider who is now on the UK's Independent Commission on Banking panel with John Vickers, had a telling insight at the height of the crisis:

All business people know that you can carry on for a while if you make no profits, but that if you run out of cash you are toast. Bankers, as providers of cash to others, understand this well. They just do not believe it applies to their own business.
In general, banks have no measures of cash flow that work for banking.

Let me unpack this: banks have been given by society the privilege to make promises that everyone knows they collectively cannot keep. They borrow money and take deposits while promising to pay them back - on demand in the case of deposits - in the common knowledge that they would not be able to keep the promise if everyone required them to do so. Fine - it is in the social gift to permit this special sort of promising. But one consequence has been the one Taylor notes: that banks never have to worry about cash flow. Like the barber who should never have to worry about being unshaven, the bank never faces a real budget constraint - except when disaster strikes. And when it does, the taxpayer bails you out.

There is something especially odd about society going about building its material future - investing - in this way. Bankers ultimately make investments in companies and are charged with the task of looking like hawks to make sure that the money is well spent. The way of doing this is the budget constraint: what does the company say it needs? what does it think it will make? does reality match promise? are expectations fulfilled. The businessman who fails to deliver what the bankers expect is punished. But note that the basic instrument of control - cash flow - is exactly the one that the bankers themselves are not subject to. No wonder they feel - as they still now do - as if they are a caste apart, a chosen elite that because of its special skills can be entrusted with the important freedom from the cash constraint.

The financial sector, as we now know, abused its special freedom from the cash constraint - who wouldn't - and has passed its debts straight onto the public sector, which is also in a good position when it comes to this particular freedom. The ability to tax, to create money and to borrow means that governments face softer budget constraints than most - a fact that irks the right just as much as the left dislikes the freedom that the bankers have. It is, of course, exactly because government's budget constraint is even softer than bankers' that the credit crisis was solved by the issuance of large amounts of sovereign debt and liquidity creation by the monetary authorities.

The two economic crises that have marked our decade were crises of low hanging fruit. The first was about fleecing the past, and the second fleeced the future. What does this mean for the decade to come? One might hope that it means we have run out of options for fleecing and that we will return to a saner, more sustainable model.

Of course, it means nothing of the sort. There are all manner of low-hanging orchards being planted out there. One that requires particular vigilance is the appetite of the gluttons for public sector service business. Private Finance Initiative style contracts have been very great money earners, especially since the crash. Revenues are guaranteed by taxpayers' willingness to pay; terms and profits are set in cosy negotiations with public servants. All that is left for the supplier to do is to optimise around a set of rules that they have probably had a good hand in drafting to their advantage - optimisation which more often than not involves reducing quality, destroying an ethos for public service, and employing lots of managers to monitor progress on fleecing.

It is the perfect emanation of an MBA culture: no need for fundamental innovation or creativity; no need to honestly persuade a customer to buy something that they need ("sales", a difficult skill, is beneath most Masters of Business Administration); and every opportunity to game the system. The seeds for these orchards of low-hanging fruit are being planted all over the world in the name of increasing the efficiency of public services. Policy wonks in think tanks, public administrations and multilateral bodies are flattered that they are designing the perfect administrative mechanisms while financial geniuses make sure that the fine-print works out OK for the bottom line. The business and financial sectors may have made peace with large-scale public sectors in the past two decades. How much, I wonder, has come as a result of making the public sector the taxpayer-funded sales-arm of their private-contractor operations?

More than just vigilance, there is positive opportunity for the decade ahead. The abuses we have seen over the last ten years arise from the mismatch of our political institutions to the circumstances of the new century. Centralised, technocratic government created business and finance in its own image. Large-scale, transnational business and finance in its turn invited stronger, bigger, more distant government.  A mimetic race developed that built uptechnocratic power, institutions that exist for their own ends and own survival, that have lost a real connection to their purpose. This has happened in government agencies, multilateral organisations as much as in mega-corporations and their mega-banks. The threat ahead comes from the fusing of the people and cultures that animate  these huge businesses and the captured states they operate within.

The opportunity ahead comes from a rediscovery and re-empowerment of the groups purportedly being served by these institutions: citizens, consumers, future generations. The first bubble of the last decade gave us the technology with which we can take back power, we can organise as never before. The second bubble ought to give us the confidence of seeing the powerful institutions around us as flawed social inventions, ones whose functioning is there to be improved.

From time to time, there really is low-hanging fruit to be had. Technology, ingenuity, innovation - social and material - allow for progress. But progress without checks, without organised, wise and motivated citizens, will be abused by gluttons.

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com