Although by the conclusion of this noteworthy Newsweek article George Soros predicts that America “will pass a very severe test and actually strengthen the institution,” he sounds a tad less optimistic in the rest of the piece. Soros, who has a new book, Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States coming out next month. seems quite worried about the world economy in the short term. As his career in finance has proven, the guy’s gut instinct is legendary, so maybe his warnings are worth taking seriously…
Sitting in his 33rd-floor corner office high above Seventh Avenue in New York, preparing for his trip to Davos, he is more concerned with surviving than staying rich. “At times like these, survival is the most important thing,” he says, peering through his owlish glasses and brushing wisps of gray hair off his forehead. He doesn’t just mean it’s time to protect your assets. He means it’s time to stave off disaster. As he sees it, the world faces one of the most dangerous periods of modern history—a period of “evil.” Europe is confronting a descent into chaos and conflict. In America he predicts riots on the streets that will lead to a brutal clampdown that will dramatically curtail civil liberties. The global economic system could even collapse altogether.
“I am not here to cheer you up. The situation is about as serious and difficult as I’ve experienced in my career,” Soros tells Newsweek. “We are facing an extremely difficult time, comparable in many ways to the 1930s, the Great Depression. We are facing now a general retrenchment in the developed world, which threatens to put us in a decade of more stagnation, or worse. The best-case scenario is a deflationary environment. The worst-case scenario is a collapse of the financial system.”
Soros’s warning is based as much on his own extraordinary personal history as on his gut instinct for market booms and busts. “I did survive a personally much more threatening situation, so it is emotional, as well as rational,” he acknowledges. Soros was just 13 when Nazi soldiers invaded and occupied his native Hungary in March 1944. In only eight weeks, almost half a million Hungarian Jews were deported, many to Auschwitz. He saw bodies of Jews, and the Christians who helped them, swinging from lampposts, their skulls crushed. He survived, thanks to his father, Tivadar, who managed to secure false identities for his family. Later, he watched as Russian forces ousted the Nazis and a new totalitarian ideology, communism, replaced fascism. As life got tougher during the postwar Soviet occupation, Soros managed to emigrate, first to London, then to New York.
Soros draws on his past to argue that the global economic crisis is as significant, and unpredictable, as the end of communism. “The collapse of the Soviet system was a pretty extraordinary event, and we are currently experiencing something similar in the developed world, without fully realizing what’s happening.” To Soros, the spectacular debunking of the credo of efficient markets—the notion that markets are rational and can regulate themselves to avert disaster—“is comparable to the collapse of Marxism as a political system. The prevailing interpretation has turned out to be very misleading. It assumes perfect knowledge, which is very far removed from reality. We need to move from the Age of Reason to the Age of Fallibility in order to have a proper understanding of the problems.”
Understanding, he says, is key. “Unrestrained competition can drive people into actions that they would otherwise regret. The tragedy of our current situation is the unintended consequence of imperfect understanding. A lot of the evil in the world is actually not intentional. A lot of people in the financial system did a lot of damage without intending to.” Still, Soros believes the West is struggling to cope with the consequences of evil in the financial world just as former Eastern bloc countries struggled with it politically. Is he really saying that the financial whizzes behind our economic meltdown were not just wrong, but evil? “That’s correct.” Take that, Lloyd Blankfein, the Goldman Sachs boss who told The Sunday Times of London at the height of the financial crisis that bankers “do God’s work.”
Soros has publicly sided with the Occupy Wall Street movement, and has derided the bailouts and wealth disparity in this country:
Occupy Wall Street “is an inchoate, leaderless manifestation of protest,” but it will grow. It has “put on the agenda issues that the institutional left has failed to put on the agenda for a quarter of a century.” He reaches for analysis, produced by the political blog ThinkProgress.org, that shows how the Occupy movement has pushed issues of unemployment up the agenda of major news organizations, including MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News. It reveals that in one week in July of last year the word “debt” was mentioned more than 7,000 times on major U.S. TV news networks. By October, mentions of the word “debt” had dropped to 398 over the course of a week, while “occupy” was mentioned 1,278 times, “Wall Street” 2,378 times, and “jobs” 2,738 times. You can’t keep a financier away from his metrics.
As anger rises, riots on the streets of American cities are inevitable. “Yes, yes, yes,” he says, almost gleefully. The response to the unrest could be more damaging than the violence itself. “It will be an excuse for cracking down and using strong-arm tactics to maintain law and order, which, carried to an extreme, could bring about a repressive political system, a society where individual liberty is much more constrained, which would be a break with the tradition of the United States.”
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George Soros on the Coming U.S. Class War (Newsweek)