Posts Tagged ‘Marginal Revolution’

Theories of the Financial Crisis: The Government Did It!

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

The first person out of the box promoting the idea that the current financial crisis was actually caused by the government (specifically Democrats in the government – and even more specifically Barack Obama) was Rush Limbaugh. On the day Lehman fell (this crisis’s equivalent of September 11), Rush Limbaugh was already trying to exploit it for partisan gain – claiming “Capitalism Isn’t the Problem: Government Caused This Crisis.” On this date of crisis, Limbaugh had already unveiled in a near-complete form what was to become the Republican party’s position on the crisis. He embraced positions that had previously been associated with the Austrian School of Economics – but without much of the ideological baggage they had with them. He only embraced as much of them as was politically convenient – and he applied them only so far as they made Democrats look bad. He also began blaming Barney Frank for this crisis – something which many other right-wingers picked up on. Though I for one find it hard to see how this person who was a member of a Congressional minority had so much power to influence the entire economy and cause this severe crisis and the causal chain has never been made clear. At least to me.

Within a few days of the near-collapse of the financial system – with the crisis still causing panic – Limbaugh was already trying out names he could use to brand the crisis – from the “Democrat-Caused Financial Crisis” to the “Obama Recession.” None of them quite caught on as most people with common sense found it hard to blame Barack Obama for a crisis that occurred before he had won the presidency. But the right faithfully repeated this meme. (It has often seemed to me that Rush Limbaugh – with his vast influence via memes and love of pranks – is a forerunner of and competitor to 4chan.)

I need to say two things going into this: (1) for my analysis, I am merely standing on the shoulders of economists more knowledgeable than I – when it comes to economics especially, I am – clearly – just an interested amateur; and (2) I came to this issue biased against this theory of the financial crisis – although not with my mind closed to it. The best expression of why I started out biased against this idea is probably the analogy Tyler Cowen used while debunking it. Cowen invoked the legal principle of the “thin skull” – in which someone at fault is considered responsible for all the damage caused by their actions, even if a person without a thin skull would not have been seriously hurt by such damages. For example, if you were responsible for a car accident and the other party was injured seriously as they had a thin skull which was damaged much more than a normal skull when it banged into the side window, you would be responsible for even the extraordinary damages resulting from that individual’s medical condition. Cowen explains that those seeking to blame the government for the business cycle and/or the current economic crisis:

…are postulating a very thin skull for markets and then blaming government for the disaster which results from government’s glancing blow to that skull.

A surprising amount of the debate over what caused the current crisis centers around the causes of and solutions to the Great Depression. The reason for this is not because there is widespread disagreement about this among historians or economists – but because the Republican party has embraced recent revisionist histories to make their case against the current intervention. The traditional understanding – between Keynesian and members of the Chicago School is that the Great Depression was made worse by the application of variations of this “thin skull” theory – as Herbert Hoover heeded advice to do little or nothing to combat the financial crisis – preferring to allow the market to fix itself. As Paul Krugman describes (from a 1998 Slate column):

The hangover theory can do real harm. Liquidationist views played an important role in the spread of the Great Depression—with Austrian theorists such as Friedrich von Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter strenuously arguing, in the very depths of that depression, against any attempt to restore “sham” prosperity by expanding credit and the money supply.

But Amity Shlaes authored a recent history of the Great Depression to dispute this traditional understanding which had made her a hero of Republicans everywhere who have begun to cite her book more often than the Bible – almost. Shlaes passes herself off as an intellectual, but seems to be as partisan as Paul Krugman on his worst days. And her understanding of economics is quite shallow compared to the Nobel prize winner’s. Jonathan Chait in The New Republic took on Shlaes book – pointing out the holes in Shlaes revisions – how she attempted to blame liberalism for causing the crisis despite the fact that liberals had been out of power for the eight years before the depression started – and for the first three years after. She manages to pull this off by claiming that Herbert Hoover was a secret liberal interventionist – and blames Hoover’s meager attempts to stop starvation for undermining the recovery that her ideology maintains was imminent. Shlaes also fails to account for how we finally got out. As Chait explains:

[T]he classic right-wing critique fails to explain how the economy recovered at all. In one of his columns touting Shlaes, George Will observed that “the war, not the New Deal, defeated the Depression.” Why, though, did the war defeat the Depression? Because it entailed a massive expansion of government spending. The Republicans who have been endlessly making the anti-stimulus case seem not to realize that, if you believe that the war ended the Depression, then you are a Keynesian.

James Glassman’s influential arguments (in some circles) against any stimulus plan seem to have been inspired mainly by Shlaes’s flawed history.

Today’s crisis appeared at first glance (to most economists and us less enlightened citizens) to have been caused not by government interference but by private bankers controlling vast sums of money taking dumb risks with little government oversight. In time, other factors have come to the forefront, but this basic explanation seems right. Yet right-wingers and the Republican party continue to insist that government intervention was the cause – often out of what they see as a political necessity.

But on the other hand, there are some who seem to have less of a partisan interest in blaming the government for this crisis – and have embraced the Austrian School of Economics out of conviction rather than temporary partisan gain. Ron Paul, for example, blames both Democrats and Republicans for causing this mess. He seems to accept this “thin skull” logic and he has become an influential proponent of the Austrian school of economic thought. This school had its heyday in the 1920s as a result of Hayek, Mises, and others grappling with the issues of that time and perhaps most importantly discovering the business cycle. But this theory was largely abandoned as many saw it as responsible for worsening the Great Depression – as during the first years of the crisis, portions of the Austrian School’s prescriptions were tried. The theory was largely developed before the invention of central banks and while currency was still on the gold standard – but it had important insights in its time. Contemporary proponents such as Ron Paul tend to blame the changes to the financial system created to manage the boom-and-bust business cycle for causing the boom-and-bust business cycle. Yet this cycle has been part of capitalism since it’s inception – and has been managed since Great Depression by central banks and others using Keynesian theory and its successors relatively successfully. 

The appeal of this Austrian School of though though – aside from the partisan appeal for Republicans who are allowed to blame everything on liberals – is a moral one. It functions as a kind of religion-like palliative, telling a comforting story of sin and redemption. The Austrian business cycle tells of a recurring morality tale in which virtue is corrupted, until the sin of easy credit leads to the fall of the system. Then, the Market cleanses the world and virtue is restored to it’s proper place. The proper role of the economist in this is to act as a kind of priest – urging the people to stay true to this belief system in the face of adversity – to keep their faith that eventually the god of the Market will make everything better.

This fits well with the religious right of the Republican party – and perhaps this is why despite the theory’s rejection by most mainstream economists as outdated, it is gaining adherents among the Republican party, including the “rising star” Michelle Bachman.

[Image licensed under Creative Commons courtesy of elandru.]

Nuclear versus Wind

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

Alex Tabarrokat Marginal Revolution points out the downside to wind power at those times when “the market value of the power is zero or negative.” He points out a story of how wind farmers in Texas were actually paying the council in Texas that regulates the electric grid to take their electricity so that they would be eligible for tax credits. 

Certainly this is ridiculous – but I don’t think the only conclusion to take from this is that we need nuclear power plants. Tabarrok acknowledges that the reason the market value of power is so long in certain locations is the poor state of our energy infrastructure – which loses a large amount of energy that is transported over long distances. He writes that nuclear plants would be as clean as and less expensive than “costly and inefficient transport networks.”

But he doesn’t deal with the issue of nuclear waste – which makes nuclear power far from clean. He doesn’t discuss – and you can see why as this is just a short blog post – the positives of having a more flexible energy infrastructure.

Whether nuclear is the only feasible option comes down to two questions Tabarrok doesn’t address:

  • What is the cost of upgrading our energy infrastructure?
    This New York Times piece by Matthew L. Wald doesn’t make it seem as if the problem requires new technology as much as an upgrade of a very old system: “The basic problem is that many transmission lines, and the connections between them, are simply too small for the amount of power companies would like to squeeze through them. The difficulty is most acute for long-distance transmission, but shows up at times even over distances of a few hundred miles.”
  • Do you have a long-term strategy for dealing with the radioactive pollution generated by nuclear reactors?
    To date, I don’t think there are any good solutions to this.

A third question might concern the safety of nuclear power plants. But I think this threat – whether of a meltdown due to terrorism or error – is largely overstated.