The meltdown: a digital catastrophe?

Is the October 2008 global financial meltdown the same old all-too-human story of greed and easy credit that has repeated itself throughout economic history? Or has the digital revolution changed the rules of economic risk to make today's financial markets more vulnerable to global booms and busts?

John Cassidy knows a thing or two about irrational exuberance -- his Dot.con: How America Lost Its Mind and Money in the Internet Era being the definitive history of the first Internet boom. Appearing as a guest on Jim Goodale's Digital Age tv show, Cassidy -- who now writes about economics for the New Yorker and Portfolio -- suggests that today's crisis has been caused by both the old causes of easy credit and greed and by the new digital reality of a global financial market driven by mind-numbingly complex computer generated financial products.

Cassidy believes that today's crisis couldn't have happened in the pre digital era. He describes the crisis as the failure of the new financial numerati -- sophisticated digital-era traders who created products that the older generation of Wall Street executives (like Stan O'Neil, the former CEO at Merrill Lynch) were unversed. This led, Cassidy explains, to a generational divide on Wall Street in which senior people were misled by dishonest trading numerati who lied about the high risk nature of their strategies.

But the complexity of today's computerized global financial markets doesn't mean that there aren't also simpler ideological explanations for the crisis. Cassidy sees Ayn Rand disciple, Alan Greenspan, with his utopian faith in the intelligence of the free market, as the father of the October '08 meltdown. It was Greenspan's hostility toward any kind of governmental regulation of the market, Cassidy argues, that created the conditions for both the speed and depth of today's crisis.

The implications of Cassidy's analysis is that the digital revolution should be accompanied by more rather than less governmental supervision. Today's perfect economic storm has been created by a speculative financial numerati operating in an anarchic global market. Multiplying the digital revolution with human greed has created a terrifyingly contagious financial meltdown. This is the first viral crisis of global digital capitalism; unfortunately, it won't be the last.