The Bankers

This post was published on Sunday 29 April 2012.

There possibly is no dirtier word in Britain at the moment than ‘banker’.  They have become villains of almost pantomime proportions, with people practically hissing whenever anyone mentions ‘the bankers’ on the BBC’s Question Time. People get so very angry, ‘The bankers caused this crisis,’ they say, ‘so they should pay for it - why should my taxes pay for their incompetence / greed / etc?’

The BBC recently published this article in their online magazine, explaining the maths behind the Black-Scholes equation which calculates the prices of futures and derivatives, and lies at the heart of many if not all investment computer systems.  One of the mathematicians who invented and developed it was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1997, two years after the other died.

The question is: whose fault is the crisis?  Is it the ‘greedy bankers’ who cheated and lied in their accounts, inventing clever ways of moving money around to make it look as though they were making a profit, selling debt as an asset, lining their pockets with wads of cash and driveways with sports cars?  Or is it the mathematicians who inadvertently derived a formula which now pretty much runs the world of investment banking (apparently)?

Or, is it the society which created them, the society which decided that greed is the primary and best motivating force for generating money (which it is), and that generating money is the primary function of an economy (which it shouldn’t be)?  Is it the society which wants ever improving healthcare and free education, the society which wants a constantly-improving standard of living (which is mathematically impossible to sustain)?

Is it, in fact, greed - not just the greed of the bankers, but the greed of all of us, wanting what we haven’t got and can’t afford?  In the U2 song Gone Bono sings a line: ‘What you thought was freedom just was greed.’  To me that line perfectly summarises the problem: unchecked capitalism does not create more and more freedom for society, but more and more greed.  And for that, we are all complicit, and therefore all deserve to pay the price.

Thankfully God’s economy of grace is a bit more forgiving than that..