Adair Turner has done public debate (and Prospect magazine) a big favour by spelling out carefully and coherently what many people have long felt intuitively about the British financial system. He may not be correct in everything he said (although he has been most commonly attacked for something he didn’t say: that the British authorities should unilaterally impose a Tobin tax, instead he specifically said that such a tax would require a global agreement). But he has helped to broaden and deepen a debate that had become ensnared on the narrower issue of bankers’ bonuses. The scale of the reaction to his comments caught us at Prospect, and probably Turner too, by surprise. I had certainly expected a few headlines on his Tobin tax comments but not a news deluge—perhaps it was down to a sense that this was a financial insider articulating the thoughts of many if not most people in Britain.
In any case, Turner has once again proved himself a very useful public intellectual and a good advertisement for both intellectual self-confidence (oh, that we had more politicians like him!) and the old mandarin generalist principle. The fact that he has seen the business and financial world from so many different perspectives—McKinsey man, banker, head of the CBI, chairman of the pension reform commission—gives extra weight to his words. He is also a real intellectual with a wide range of interests—see, for example, some of his Prospect essays on environmental issues and his brilliant polemic against the pessimism of John Gray. I have long been meaning to read his political economy magnum opus, Just Capital. I will now pull it down from the shelf and start.