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The Shell Game

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The UK, like much of the rest of the world, is in a dire financial mess.

Our government labours to conceal this, or at least ignore it, because it is in the nature of the financial system that the appearance of being in a mess causes all kinds of woes which make the mess worse. And, of course, because voters don't love governments which can't sort out the money, however appalling the situation they inherited.

We got where we are by buying into a kind of financial perpetual motion machine, forgetting the most basic rules of prudence and sanity and agreeing - tacitly or unknowingly in most cases, overtly in others - that we were just getting richer and that was how it was always going to be. Our hallucinatory world was one where a knife gets sharper when you use it and wearing a coat will turn it from cotton into silk over the course of time.

All this has been documented by writers vastly better qualified than I am to explain it; Michael Lewis's wonderful The Big Short (about the US end of the sub-prime madness) and its companion piece Boomerang (about Europe's even more looney version) are a great way to start, and from there one can move on to Mitch Feierstein's somewhat terrifying Planet Ponzi, in which the author is so ungenerous as to explain as many hidden and untallied costs as he can, and point out that far from being past the worst, we're just getting started on our feast of economic crow.

But all that is by the by, for my purposes - not that it's not important, because it is, and vitally so - it's just not what I'm bothered about right now.

What worries me is a sense that I've seen this before. My family has something of a special relationship with confidence tricks: my grandfather was a professional swindler. Since I was little, I've been surrounded by stories of his world - and this feels oh-so-familiar: I can't shake the feeling that we're playing the shell game, and, inevitably, we're losing. Or you could be more dramatic and see it as the end of The Sting, with Lehman Brothers as the grifter who dies.

The sub-prime bubble was effectively the creation of notional money, economic fairy-dust which blew around the system making us all paper rich on the ultimate basis of massively overvalued assets. It was as if the banks of the world had just decided to print a boatload of extra money. What intrigues me is what happened when the bubble burst. If we'd all taken the same hit, that would be a correction, the financial system acknowledging that things had got completely out of hand. But I don't think that is what happened. It seems to me that when it all came crashing down, financial institutions managed to sequester to themselves the money which was in some way 'real' - the stuff not made from fairy dust - and pass on the costs of catastrophe to the rest of us. In that case, the crash represents not an equal correction but a massive de facto transfer of money from ordinary investors and from governments (and therefore taxpayers) to the industry responsible for the whole thing.

If that's true, it's absolutely far and away the best payout in the history of the con.