The Power of Yes, by David Hare

This play, which opened at the National Theatre in October is about the financial crisis or as Hare puts it, the four days when “capitalism ceased to function”. The author admits it is not a play but an attempt to tell a story. It is poor theatre in the normal sense. It is instead a type of intellectual journey in which the author attempts to discover why, on 15 September 2008 capitalism ceased to function.

David Hare is a veteran leftist playwright. He presents himself in the play as completely ignorant of the financial world. He is thus guided in his quest by Masa who escaped from Sarajevo as a girl aged 10, and was working for Lehman Brothers until its collapse. The interaction between Masa and the author is the only half theatrical relationship in the play. The bulk of the play consists of real banking, finance and government characters, being brought on stage to explain things, or comment on events. People ranging from the financier George Soros to the Nobel Prize winning academic Myron Scholes appear. The author becomes more and more bewildered and confused as the story progresses. From watching the play you get a feeling that David Hare did actually interview all these people and was utterly unable to make any sense of what he was told. In fact, the general impression we are left with is that everyone is confused about what has happened, not least the bankers and economists. Behind this confusion lies a complete intellectual bankruptcy. The title of the play appears to come from the ability of bankers and financiers to say “yes” to anything which they thought would get them more money, even when they knew the schemes, such as the sub-prime mortgages stunk. As Chuck Prince, head of Citibank says:

“As long as the music is playing you have to get up and dance.”

The reason, Ronald Cohen, a private equity pioneer tells us, is that you don’t dare stop because your clients will move their money and take it to another bank which is still dancing and meanwhile the building is falling down, the hall is slipping off the pier and no one has the wit to stop the marathon.

None of the bankers will admit that they have done anything wrong. The Royal Bank of Scotland was the biggest company in the world, with assets of £1900 billion, (more than the UK GDP), before its collapse.

However its chairman, Fred Goodwin, was very angry about what has happened and blames the markets for behaving irrationally.

The economist Scholes, who won the Nobel prize for his famous risk calculating equation, still maintains that he is correct. This is despite the fact that, as Masa tells the author, events, which the risk equation predicted would happen once in 10,000 years, were happening every 3 days during September and October 2008.

The play basically accepts the superficial explanation provided by the bankers at face value. Howard Davies, ex-chairman of the Financial Services Authority and now director of LSE explains that the Sub-prime loans led to a Liquidity crisis which led to an Unravelling of assets which led to a Meltdown which in turn caused the state to apply financial Pumping. His acronym for this is SLUMP. When Masa invites the author to sum up what he has learned he concludes he has witnessed the collapse of the liberal free market. This is about as far as the play goes. George Soros, who is presented very sympathetically, appears to agree with this conclusion and expresses admiration for China’s control over the market. He says that power is shifting to China. He has the last word of the play and recalls an interview with Alan Greenspan. Greenspan, who we are told is a great admirer of Ayn Rand, says that;

“the benefits of the market are so great that you have to live with the price.”

To which Soros replied;

“Yes, but Alan, the people who end up paying the price are never the people who get the benefits.”

This appears to be the conclusion of the play. The author fails to discover the real cause of the crisis because he never tries to dig below the surface of the phenomena he is dealing with. The real question which should have been asked was why did the financiers embark on an orgy of speculation and gambling instead of investing in industrial production. A hint of an answer comes at one stage when the private equity pioneer Ronald Cohen declares;

“the real reason that the boom lasted 17 years was because people in China were working for 46 cents an hour. That’s why.”

There is, however, no attempt to follow up this insight into where all the surplus funds for the financiers to invest were coming from, or why they did not invest them in productive industry instead of gambling them on sub-prime loans.

However, despite its weakness the play is filled with interesting facts and is worth seeing.


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