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Interview with George Soros, Chairman, Soros Fund Management

Click on the video button to see an interview with George Soros, Chairman, Soros Fund Management, conducted by journalist Mark Schapiro on Tuesday, September 5, 2000.

by Mark Schapiro

George Soros, Chairman, Soros Fund Management
George Soros, Chairman, Soros Fund Management

Historic figures tend to wait into their waning years before reflecting on their own thinking about the system that brought them to prominence; few attempt to do so in real time, when their comments might actually make a difference. In the arena of finance, George Soros has come to command attention not only due to his considerable philanthropic works, but also due to the fact that at the height of his powers, he continues to issue a critique of the capitalist system that has made him a billionaire. The more than ten billion dollars in assets controlled by Soros' Quantum Fund and Soros Fund Management qualify him as being one of the 'sovereign' financial powers whose interests transcend national borders, and can influence the evolution of political and social systems through investment priorities.

Over the past ten years, Soros has channeled more than two billion dollars into creating a network of non-governmental organizations and activist groups in more than 30 countries. His contributions in Russia, the other countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were responsible for creating, almost overnight, a civil society; recently, his philanthropic activities have expanded into southern Africa, Haiti, Guatemala and the United States. But it is has been his critiques of capitalism that have sparked the attention of the broader financial community: A book he authored two years ago, The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered, predicted, on the heels of the Asian financial crisis, the imminent "disintegration of the global capitalist system." This year, Soros is critiquing his own critique in a new book, Open Society: From Global Capitalism to Global Democracy, in which he admits to underestimating the self-correcting mechanisms of U.S. financial institutions, and the force of the high-technology industry. In this book, he also offers an elaborated vision of the need for a strong civil society sector as critical to a strong democracy, and as a hedge against violent conflict. In the past, Soros has responded to criticisms of the disruptive impact of his own currency speculations on national economies by distinguishing between "making the rules" and "playing by the rules." His comments at the State of the World Forum this week were focused on changing the rules by reforming an international financial system that, he claims, has created gross inequities, and continue to help fuel deep social divisions that can lead to violent conflict. On Wednesday, he proposed the establishment of a global body which, with enforcement power rivaling that of the World Trade Organization, could enforce global environmental standards. "We must," he said, "mobilize civil society in favor of international law and international institutions."

At the Forum, he met for the first time former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, co-convener of the Forum, with whom he discussed participating in a new Council for Responsible Globalization to represent citizens' interests on the global stage. In an interview on Thursday with Mark Schapiro and Gabrielle Kelly, a documentary filmmaker, Soros called for greater public participation in the international financial institutions that over the past week have been the leading target of criticisms at the U.N. Millennium Summit, at a day of protests sponsored by a coalition of progressive groups and at the State of the World Forum.

Soros has a broad face, with eyes deep in their sockets, conveying a mix of wry bemusement and intensity. He still speaks with a thick Hungarian accent. He spoke to us on the fourth day of the State of the World Forum.

Mark Schapiro: This week at the Forum you and numerous others have spoken repeatedly on the theme of the inequities created by globalization, and the potential public backlash to come if they are not addressed—as we've already seen in Seattle, and expect to be seeing later this month during the IMF/World Bank meetings in Prague. How do you respond to the accumulating criticisms of globalization in its current shape? Your comments this week have focused on the inadequacy of international institutions to respond to those criticisms. What do you mean?

George Soros: What I mean is that there is a disparity between the economic arrangements and the political arrangements, because what we really have now are global markets, particularly global financial markets, and they dominate the economic life of each country….These arrangements have been brought about by market fundamentalists, mainly the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, that really allowed global markets to develop. I think there's a lot of merit in an international economy and global markets, but they're not sufficient because markets don't look after social needs. Markets are designed to allow individuals to look after their private needs and to pursue profit. It's really a great invention and I wouldn't under-estimate the value of that, but they're not designed to take care of social needs.

Whereas we do not have political arrangements to match the markets, globalization has reduced the capacity of the state to take care of social needs. [Nations] haven't lost their sovereignty; they are in charge of, you know, affecting real life and death, within their country, within their borders. But their ability to control capital is diminished because that capital can simply go away and go to the environment where it is least harassed, so you can't impose taxation, you can't impose regulations. That's a great limitation on the powers of the state. So, the social needs need to be met now by international institutions and that is where, I believe, we don't have the appropriate international institutions.

Mark Schapiro: What do you have in mind?

George Soros: This is where the problem is, because the United Nations was meant to be an international institution, to preserve peace and the very noble goals stated in the Preamble of the [U.N.] Charter. But the Charter was drafted in terms of nation-states and, therefore, they are subordinated to the interests of each state. Each state is guided by its interests, not by some nebulous concept of common interest. And not many states are even democratic. So, you have a problem with the concept between international institutions and sovereignty.

To my mind, there is a solution which has to do with democracy, because democratic governments are subject to the will of the people. So, if the people will it, you can actually create international institutions through the democratic states. For that reason, I advocate an alliance of democratic states, with a dual purpose. One, to promote what I call open society. I talk about an alliance of open societies which would first foster the development of open societies within individual countries, because there's a lot that needs to be done in that effort. And secondly, to establish basic international law and international institutions that you need for a global, open society. So that's my sort of broad concept. Now, I have not worked out the details, because I don't think it's for me to work out the details. It's for them to work out the details.

Mark Schapiro: You know well how capital moves, I'm sure you know a great deal about that. Much of the talk here has been about the distorting influences of international capital on developing countries. How do you begin to channel those funds in a more sustainable, less destructive direction?

George Soros: [Existing] international financial institutions were designed at a time when there was [little] movement of capital. The International Monetary Fund was set up in 1945, I think, with Bretton Woods, when you couldn't really transfer money from one country to another. The IMF was designed to provide short-term financing to countries in trade deficits, and the World Bank was designed to provide longer-term loans for development, which was appropriate to that time. Now, the IMF has to become more of a lender of last resort, on an international scale, but that's sort of a very tricky problem. Instead of increasing the Fund's capacities, the IMF is being cut down and constrained, very much based on this market fundamentalist position that we should leave it to the markets. That, I think, is very dangerous, because markets are, in fact, unstable and they do need guidance from something like a central bank. So, I would like to see the IMF develop into a direction of an international central bank, but very few people share that view today.

Mark Schapiro: You've written some very acute observations about capitalism; now you're reassessing some of your previous assessments. What you seem to be speaking about is the directing of public monies, through the World Bank and IMF. What about private funds, which of course are the bulk of investments we're talking about?

George Soros: The job of the IMF would be to regulate the capital flows, the capital market, and be a lender of last resort in case of a crisis. You would also need adequate regulation of the banking systems in the various countries that would probably fall outside the capacity of the IMF; it would be more appropriate to the Bank of International Settlements of Oslo, to set standards and so on. So, that's for regulating the market. Now, I think that the World Bank has to be developed as an institution that would make public monies available for creating a more level playing field—because you have some income maldistribution within individual countries—and that's very much part of a democracy, creating equal opportunities, ensuring people that they can have access, for instance, to education. Now, internationally, that is, at the moment, not available. So, I would like to see the World Bank develop in that direction, as a creator of a more even playing field.

Mark Schapiro: Who would be the political power that would authorize the World Bank to take that role?

George Soros: It has to be the shareholders and I don't think you can get away from that. Actually, these institutions work better than the United Nations, because the shareholders actually control the institutions. [Voting in the World Bank is weighted according to each country's financial contribution.] So, inevitably, this would mean domination by the rich countries and I don't think it's appropriate to change that, provided the monies are used for creating that more level playing field. And provided the institution is more insulated from the specific interests of particular shareholders, because the way the World Bank has worked out, you have certain countries that have a stake in a [particular] project and they push it, and it's done more for the benefit of the donor than the benefit of the recipient. Most international aid is more to benefit the donor than the recipient. So you have to insulate the World Bank from that interest much more than it has been. But I would not put it under the control of the developing countries, because there is a donor relationship and the donor should be in charge of the funds that she is donating. I'm in favor of, let's say, greater foreign aid, if you like, provided it is directed to benefit the recipient and not the benefit of the donor.

Mark Schapiro: You mentioned the other day the unholy alliance between government and business, and how that contributes to corruption and human rights violations in different nations around the world. Zimbabwe, Peru, Malaysia and Burma were among the countries you identified as examples illustrating the intertwining of corrupt economic and political interests. How would such a body address that kind of abusive situation?

George Soros: I have not defined how this would work, because it's something that has to evolve. First of all, you have one alliance of democratic states, and that's NATO, but that's a military alliance. Now, I think, we need a military alliance, but by the time it comes to military action, it's too late. So, to prevent clashes from emerging, from developing countries, you need to engage in prevention, and prevention means constructive engagement. Either way, I am actually engaged in crisis prevention, having the network of foundations trying to build open societies, in the way of preventing factions from developing. By building open societies you reduce the chances of needing military intervention. So, I'm not opposed to NATO, but I am arguing for a constructive alliance that actually engages in creating this more level playing field. For instance, providing universal education in each country. Women's empowerment is the way to bring populations under control.

[These efforts are often] much more inefficient than when people work for profit, and yet, I think, you can make it more efficient if you give more scope for an entrepreneurial approach. On that, I have actually changed my view. I used to be opposed to the idea of social entrepreneurship. I said, you know, let business be business, and philanthropy be philanthropy. Keep the two separate, don't mix it up, and this is what I did, and I did that rather successfully, but I now recognize that actually you do need to mix it up and I think there is room for social entrepreneurship [establishing business principles to the organization of NGOs]. It's more difficult, you know, to bring about positive change than it is to make money. It's much easier to make money, because it's a much easier way to measure success—the bottom line.

When it comes to social consequences, they've got all different people acting in different ways, very difficult to even have a proper criterion of success. So, it's a difficult task. Why not use an entrepreneurial, rather than a bureaucratic, approach. As long as people genuinely care for the people they're trying to help, they can actually do a lot of good.

Gabrielle Kelly: I'd just like to ask you a personal question, if it's all right. How does your experience as a businessman, at using the tools of the financial system, inform your philanthropic work—which often supports groups and movements that criticize the very financial system in which you've so succeeded? What has that experience meant to you?

George Soros: Well, you know, I was a human being before I became a businessman. In my capacity as a human being, I actually argue that [businessmen need] to separate their business interests from their interest as citizens. So, I argue that it's appropriate for people to pursue their profit motive in business. If you want to change that, you're going against human nature. But when it comes to setting the rules or creating the institutions, then you should have the general interest at heart, even if it conflicts with your personal interest. Now that may be a little too much to ask, but when your vital interests are involved, you should be allowed to plead the Fifth Amendment. But if you do express an opinion, I think you should be concerned with the common good, [in] that [way] you can act as a citizen. So, if you vote, you vote your best judgment of the common interest rather than, let's say, pay off your representative to make him represent your interests. Then I think you'll have a better-functioning democracy and then the political process will work better. But, coming back to the specific, you know, these things interested me before I became a businessman and I kind of neglected them during twenty, twenty-five years, while I was engaged in making money, because running a hedge fund takes, you know, a hundred percent of your attention on Saturday morning, and so I didn't get involved in these issues very much. It's only when I was rather successful at it and I've made enough money for my personal needs and to look after my family that we established this interest and, by now, it is more important to me than my business. Although I want to make sure that my business runs properly, but I'm not myself [as] engaged in it.

Gabrielle Kelly: You spoke yesterday here at the Forum about the Internet, which you expect will be playing a more significant role in your philanthropy. Why?

George Soros: Well, you know, I'm in a very peculiar position, because I don't use the Internet, now. I don't want to access to information, I want to restrict people reaching me, because there's too much. I need to protect myself. I'm like a tribal chieftain, you know, that recognizes the benefits of lightening, but doesn't actually learn how to light. He describes the theory of how to do the lightening. But I did spearhead the introduction of the Internet in countries like Russia, the former Soviet Union, because it is a very open system of communication. I think it has great potential for self-organization and self-organization is very much at the heart of an open society. The Internet is sort of a medium of open society. However, it can also be a medium of control and so we have to be careful it doesn't destroy you. The same thing happens with the Internet and, you know, in China they are trying to control it and it could actually be an extremely intrusive control, because as you know, anything that moves through the Internet can be traced. Before the Internet, you had to take a walk in the garden if you didn't want to be overheard by the spies. Now, it's going to be much harder if you use the Internet. The Internet rules beyond any regulation. I think you will have to be very, very careful to have the regulations that will protect freedom.

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