These are tough times for bankers. It takes a lot of determination to hang on in the financial business, after all the castigation in the public sphere ever since the American property bubble burst. Who, after all, likes to be decried as the personification of evil? Of greed? Of ignorance? Of irresponsibility? In the course of the dramatic financial meltdown, a tsunami of distrust and disenchantment has washed over bankers and free markets, financial or other. Politicians have swiftly taken advantage of their sudden glory as the saviours of the world. Public opinion has followed suit.
While this hostility has spread around the globe, accusations seem especially acrid in Germany. As the crisis began to be felt, Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück lashed out against "unfettered capitalism" with the bankers' unlimited "greed for ever more yield", echoing Marx's prognosis that ultimately, "capitalism will eat itself up". Ever since, Steinbrück and Chancellor Angela Merkel, the dream-team of the grand coalition's financial crisis fire brigade, have been administering heavy moral suasion, urging the banks to stand up and "do their duty". In a recent speech, Merkel declared: "As the financial sector transforms savings into productive capital, it delivers a necessary service to our whole system ... But service - and that is the task of the financial sector - really has something to do with serving people. The agents in the financial markets must realise that it is their role to serve." This is the new, remarkably moralistic, language of the dirigiste state that has risen from the ashes of the financial crisis. Banks have duties. They serve a higher purpose. They need a new ethics of responsibility - not for their shareholders, but for the country. For the common good.