Posts Tagged ‘Paul Krugman’

How the Problem of Health Care Undermines the Legitimacy of the Market-State

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Philip Bobbitt and other use the term “market-state” to describe the next (and to some extent current) role of the state – in contrast to its previous historical roles. While throughout most of the 20th century, the state’s role was to provide basic services and goods to its people, by the turn of the century – starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the state’s role had evolved to providing opportunities to its citizens. The United States has been on the leading edge of this evolution – from Jimmy Carter’s first steps towards deregulation to the Ronald Reagan’s riding of this zeitgeist to power – as he ushered in an era of increasing deregulation and privatisation, and a reduction of all government interventions in the economy. In proposing that “Government is not the solution to our problem – government is the problem!” Reagan placed the Republican Party at the head of this evolution in the government’s role – making Democrats who opposed this seem out-of-touch.

But if a market-state’s success is judged by the extent to which it maximizes opportunities for its citizens – the problems of global warming and health care now threaten to undermine the legitimacy of America’s market-state. The problem in each case began long before the transition to the market-state – but in both, this transition escalated the scale of the problem and made it harder to manage. However, for this post, I’m only focusing on health care.

Coinciding with the deregulation of various industries and other market-state reforms that began in the early 1980s, health care costs began to grow substantially faster than other products and services in America (though without providing better results.) This growth in the costs of health care has created three problems that undermine America’s market-state:

  1. Given the government and state insurance plans for the poor and elderly, this growth undermined the fiscal solvency of the government overall.
  2. The rapid rise in costs has undermined the faith of many citizens in the market.
  3. The business model private health insurance companies have adopted creates extreme insecurity for citizens – thus dampening economic growth and the entrepreneurial spirit needed for a market-state to thrive. Paul Waldman describes the perversity of this model in The American Prospect:
  4. [T]he central pathology of our deeply pathological health-care system is that most of us have no choice but to get health coverage from an entity whose sole reason for being is to take our money and then try to avoid paying for our care when we get sick.

With prices increasing so rapidly and with people feeling less secure in their coverage and the government deficit exploding in the next fifty years, the sense of an impending crisis is palpable. The crisis in health care thus undermines the entire market-state model.

To date, most Repbulicans and right-wingers do not seem to have realized the scope of this problem – the extent to which it undermines the very legitimacy of the type of state they have been promoting. The best proposals that have been made from the right have focused on the ideology of anti-governmentism rather than a focus on the market-state expansion of citizen opportunity that was the true core of Reagan’s success. For example, John McCain, in a bold move, sought to overthrow the system of health care insurance as we know it – and to place the responsibility for paying for health care squarely on the shoulders of individual citizens – instead of the collective pools that spread out such risk, whether organized by employers or the government. This would hold down health care costs – because individuals would be constrained from making health decisions by the amount of money they had to spend. The theory behind this was that the increasing costs of health care stemmed directly from the fact that consumers were going to the doctor or hospital or otherwise using health care more because they did not bear the direct consequences of their decisions. Of course, being out of power and with their ideas generally unpopular with the public, Republicans have instead merely sought to minimize or deny the clear problems with health care and simply be obstructionist.

Alternately, liberals, progressives, Democrats describe health care as a place in which the market has simply failed. As Paul Krugman has recently pointed out, health care economists have long maintained that:

[T]he standard competitive market model just doesn’t work for health care: adverse selection and moral hazard are so central to the enterprise that nobody, nobody expects free-market principles to be enough.

Their are various solutions being worked out by the Democrats – to create regulations that prevent health insurance firms from maintaining their exploitative business model; to create a competitor to these firms that will operate on a different model to keep them honest; to link payment of health care to outcomes instead of time and services.

The great irony is that if the Democrats are successful in reforming health care, they will have legitimized the market-state which many on the left are suspicious of – but they will have done so by firmly rejecting the Republican dogma that the government is always the problem. As Bill Kristol wrote in his famous 1993 memo on Bill Clinton’s attempt at health care reform:

[T]he long-term political effects of a successful Clinton health care bill will be … worse … It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle-class by restraining the growth of government.

Today,  it is only the Democrats who will be able to preserve the legitimacy of the market-state in the midst of this crisis.

[Image by FoxTongue licensed under Creative Commons.]

How Obama Uses Civility and Respect as Political Weapons

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Jonathan Chait describes “The Obama Method” in a not-yet posted piece on The New Republic. He tries to explain the eerie similarity between how Obama has reached out to moderate Republicans and independents at home while marginalizing right-wingers and how Obama reached out to the majority of Muslims while isolating the extremists in his foreign policy (and specifically the Cairo speech.) Chait also tries to tie this in to different critiques of Obama:

Democratic partisans think the enemy is vicious and must be met with uncompromising force. That’s exactly how conservative foreign policy hawks feel about the world. Unsurprisingly, the right-wing foreign policy critique of Obama today sounds eerily like the partisan Democratic critique of Obama during the primary.

Let’s call this method in foreign policy – which assumes every foreign rival is a reincarnation of Nazi Germany – the Bush doctrine; and in domestic policy, in domestic politics – assuming that all Republicans lie about their goals and probably hate the poor and downtrodden and merely want to aid the rich in getting richer – we can call this the Krugman doctrine. (On the Republican side of this, it would be the Rove doctrine, but that’s not relevant here.) The Bush/Krugman doctrine – in assuming that all opponents are acting in bad faith – is rather simple.

  • Identify your opponents.
  • Tell everyone what you believe and call your opponents names (your skill at name-calling is the only way to demonstrate your moral clarity).
  • Everyone will see how right you are.

This isn’t that bad of an approach for a newspaper column – it can be downright entertaining and sometimes even enlightening. As a basis for foreign policy or domestic political agenda though, it is poisonous – and though it may work for a time, the results diminish rapidly. Obama’s method operates differently:

  • Demonstrate one’s respect for one’s opponent.
  • Start with the assumption they are acting in good faith.
  • Invite them to a conversation about what needs to be done to solve the problem(s) on which they are opponents.
  • If they are acting in good faith, they can be worked with.
  • If they are not, “by demonstrating [one's] own goodwill and interest in accord, [one] can win over a portion of [one's] adversaries’ constituents as well as third parties.”

I disagree with Chait that Obama’s method “entails  small acts of intellectual dishonesty in the pursuit of common ground,” though. Chait, for example,  cites the line I criticized in Obama’s Cairo speech in which he called the Middle East the region where Islam “was first revealed.” In this case, I think Chait is right – that this line is intellectually dishonest. But his appreciation for Reagan which Chait also cites seems perhaps a bit exaggerated, but consistent with the rest of Obama’s beliefs – which tend to find a balance between Reaganesque individual responsibility and Kennedyesque calls for national responsibility.

Chait traces this method back to a Obama’s training as a community organizer. He cites a Mark Schmitt piece in The American Prospect which describes the community organizer method of dealing with opponents acting in bad faith:

One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that’s not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists – it’s a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It’s how you deal with people with intractable demands – put ‘em on a committee. Then define the committee’s mission your way.

Chait explains why Obama’s approach is so successful:

The rhetoric removes the locus of debate from the realm of tribal conflict – red state versus blue state, Islam versus America – and puts it onto specific questions – Is the American health care system fair? Is terrorism justified? – where Obama believes he can win support from soft adherent of the opposing camp.

Obama’s method seems designed to short-circuit the dynamics of moral outrage that lead to polarization, extremism, and even violence. He illustrated this in his campaign – as he tried to calm his supporters down, defending pro-life demonstraters and on the eve of the election, as his crowd booed McCain, chiding them: “You don’t need to boo. You just need to vote.” And now, in reaching out to the Muslim world he is demonstrating this same grasp of how to defuse the escalating cycle of moral outrage – by treating his opponents with respect and as “people of goodwill.”

A little bit of civility will not remake the world – but it can go a long way in calming tensions.

[Image from the White House at Flickr.]

The Reagan Revolution (cont.)

Monday, June 8th, 2009

There’s been quite a strong response to Paul Krugman’s column last week blaming the financial crisis on Ronald Reagan. William Greider from the left and Richard Posner from the right both made the case that it was actually Jimmy Carter who’s to blame. But I think Andrew Leonard in Salon has the best take on the whole meta-debate over the debate:

The continuing influence of the banking industry on Congress, on which point we witness new revelations nearly every day, should be enough to underline how both parties succumb all too willingly to the financial blandishments lavished by Wall Street. I’m sure Krugman would acknowledge that. Despite Posner’s dismissal of Krugman as a Democratic partisan, it is well worth noting that Krugman has been far harder on the Obama administration’s economic policy moves than your typical Republican partisan was on George Bush until late in his second term.

But there’s a different, perhaps more profound sense in which Reagan really did do it. Momentum for deregulation may have gotten started during the Carter administration, but the ideological case for it didn’t crystallize until the election of Reagan in 1980. From that point on, the predisposition to loosen the reins on the financial industry became explicit. Both parties helped get us where we are today, but one party in particular identified itself with the all-knowing wisdom of the markets. And that party is paying the price.

I still like the formulation I used – that does not lay the blame directly on Reagan or his advisors – but indirectly:

To some degree, these changes had positive effects – as the market was freer, as the economy grew, as corporations thrived, as the overall wealth of America grew.

But they spelled trouble down the road. The stimulus spending and tax cutting, the informal Bretton Woods II agreement, and concentration of wealth created an unstable system. Internally, the society was imbalanced as extremes of wealth and power were accumulated by a small minority. This eventually undermined the very free market and democratic discourse that is essential to the American tradition. A course correction later might have saved the Reagan vision – and for a time it seemed as if Bill Clinton’s moderate presidency had, as middle class wages finally began to grow again – but Bush doubled down on Reaganism when he should have pared back, and we are left with this mess.

Is this collapse Reagan’s fault? I wouldn’t say so. But he set the initial course towards this iceberg, even if the iceberg was out of sight at the time he set the course. He – and the 1980s revolutions in finance, economics, and government that his administration supported and enabled – are the true authors of this economic collapse, even if they cannot be blamed for not forseeing it.

The Reagan Revolution (cont.)

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

I’m a bit annoyed at the fact that Krugman’s book – which I have not read – makes almost precisely the same point I’ve been making – but which I thought was mine independently, though inspired a bit by a phrase Stephen Metcalf tossed off in an essay on Tom Cruise:

The ’80s did for money what the ’60s did for sex.

Instead, from that phrase – likely inspired by Metcalf’s reading of Krugman – I reconstructed the view of history Krugman was advancing. I wrote:

This stability of the 1950s and 1960s came at the expense of tamping down certain social and economic forces. The social stability was torn apart by the Civil Rights movement, feminism, free love, and the later radicalisms of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This culture war has been dominating politics since then.

The economic stability of this period was destroyed by the forces of extreme capitalism, greed, deregulation, and other economic radicalisms of the 1970s and early 1980s – as labor unions were undermined, executive compensation grew exponentially, social mobility was impeded, and economic power concentrated in a handful of large corporations.

Lindsey quotes Krugman’s book in his essay:

For a generation after World War II, fear of outrage kept executive salaries in check. Now the outrage is gone. That is, the explosion in executive pay represents a social change…like the sexual revolution of the 1960’s—a relaxation of old strictures, a new permissiveness, but in this case the permissiveness is financial rather than sexual.

Brink Lindsey v. Paul Krugman

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

Last night taking the train home, I started reading Brink Lindsey’s essay in Reason countering Paul Krugman’s analysis of inequality in American history – and specifically what has caused inequality to worsen.

Now – my head was a bit fuzzy as I have a pretty bad head cold at the moment – but I found Lindsey’s argument was rather persuasive. Surprisingly so – as I’ve cited Krugman’s arguments on this issue many times on this blog (including here and here). I also recognize Lindsey’s phrase describing Krugman’s view holds an essential truth about this progressive understanding. I myself tried to express this – in a way to diffuse the charges of socialism during the campaign – “Leave It To Beaver Socialism.”  Here’s my description of the goal of Obamanomics:

Obama’s economic plan is not about socialism or revolution or any such radicalism. He’s not that type of politician. The goal of his Obamanomics (if you will) is not a socialist paradise or a European-style market socialism but a restoration of the economic justice that made 1950s and 1960s America so stable. Unless you think Leave It To Beaver took place in a socialist nation, then Obama’s economic plans shouldn’t strike you as far left.

At the time, I both recognized the power of postulating an ideal past which we should hearken back to – and understood that this is the root of reactionary politics. There is a proper way to understand history – and to try to achieve a balance that once existed. But very easily, with a slight misstep, you find you are trying to recreate a now defunct world – which is the founding myth that every reactionary subscribes to.

Lindsey concludes his essay:

[R]easonable people disagree hotly about what ought to be done to ensure that our prosperity is widely shared. But the caricature of postwar history put forward by Krugman and other purveyors of nostalgianomics won’t lead us anywhere. Reactionary fantasies never do.

Powerful stuff, true or not. And it is certainly making me reevaluate my understanding of the historical causes of inequality in 20th century America. I’ll have to read the essay again with a more clear mind. I tried looking for a progressive debunking of the essay – but all I found were attacks on Lindsey or Reason or libertarianism.

To be clear though – I haven’t abandoned my Krugman-inspired view of the economic history of 20th century America yet – and Lindsey’s argument was better at poking holes in the story offered by Krugman than giving a convincing portrait of its own. I suspect the truth may be found by accepting that liberal and conservative policies together led to the growing inequality we are experiencing today.

The Reagan Revolution (continued as Paul Krugman echoes me)

Monday, June 1st, 2009

Well – not quite.

I actually cited a Krugman post in my initial post on how the Reagan Revolution caused the financial crisis (followed up with this and this.) So, it’s more like I was influenced by Krugman who then went on to echo a point I made (which I presume he arrived at independently.) As regular readers of this blog know, I tend to agree with Krugman on the broader trends at work in society (citing him here, here, and here for example) – and find him to be a generally insightful and thoughtful analyst of them – but often angrily disagree with his short-term takes on issues (see here, here, here, and here).

But here Krugman is in his most recent column:

For the more one looks into the origins of the current disaster, the clearer it becomes that the key wrong turn — the turn that made crisis inevitable — took place in the early 1980s, during the Reagan years.

As I wrote back in March, somewhat more eloquently:

Take away the regulations; encourage short-term profits; reduce taxes; trim the social safety net; “starve the beast” by spending without taxing; and then supercharge the economy with constant stimulus spending (which is what “starve the beast” is) and easy debt from China and Japan. What you get from this is not only a revolution that undermines the American way of life in the mid-term – as wealth is concentrated and middle class and manufacturing jobs dry up – but an unsustainable economy that is going to collapse, and collapse hard.

In other words, you get what we have now.

Today, we are reaping the effects of the generational bargain at the heart of the Reagan presidency.

I also think my analysis captures a subtlty Krugman’s piece lacks – and that Krugman himself often lacks. His conclusion is tougher in scapegoating specific individuals than mine:

There’s plenty of blame to go around these days. But the prime villains behind the mess we’re in were Reagan and his circle of advisers — men who forgot the lessons of America’s last great financial crisis, and condemned the rest of us to repeat it.

I’m not sure that that’s correct. It’s hard to call men villains if they are not aware of the wrong they do – and if the effects of their actions are essentially not predictable. Instead, what I believe is that Ronald Reagan created a generational bargain by accident – a bargain in which the successes of his presidency – of financial deregulation and rapid growth and huge deficits – would be paid for by my generation. I don’t think this was intentional – or predictable. But what should have been clear was that the financial dynamics the Reagan administration shaped were unsustainable.

Theories of the Financial Crisis: Animal Spirits

Monday, May 11th, 2009

David Brooks is a reliable barometer of the opinions and beliefs of the Washington establishment (and I don’t mean that as an insult.) The figure he cuts is a rather odd combination of an amateur (but insightful) anthropologist and a insider protecting the system. All of this makes it significant to note that David Brooks has on several occasions stated that the root of this financial crisis is a “loss of confidence.” He has stated this in several of his columns, including his one immediately following the September 15 freefall:

At its base, the turmoil wracking the world financial markets is a crisis of confidence.

Many of Geithner’s critics have said that he is treating the financial crisis primarily as a liquidity crisis – which is defined as “a ‘general feeling of mistrust in the banking system’ conducting to a temporary disappearance of credit.” This is a common form that a crisis of confidence in the financial system takes.  

The Congressional Oversight Panel in their report [pdf] written to evaluate the TARP bailouts, for example, described what they saw as one of Geithner’s asusmptions :

One key assumption that underlies Treasury’s approach is its belief that the system-wide deleveraging resulting from the decline in asset values, leading to an accompanying drop in net wealth across the country, is in large part the product of temporary liquidity constraints resulting from nonfunctioning markets for troubled assets. The debate turns on whether current prices, particularly for mortgage-related assets, reflect fundamental values or whether prices are artificially depressed by a liquidity discount due to frozen markets – or some combination of the two.

Paul Krugman has also often made this point – stating that Geithner seems to be acting as if we were in a liquidity crisis – in which the loss of confidence is the cause of the problem – instead of a solvency crisis – in which the loss of confidence is a symptom of the problem. 

Geithner, for his part, rejects this assertion that he is treating the problem as a liquidity crisis. When asked, he said it was, as all financial crises are, a combination of the two.

If this is primarily a crisis of confidence, there have been a number of historic examples of how these were contained. For example, this is a description of the resolution of the Panic of 1907 – in which J. P. Morgan’s timely intervention demonstrated how this could be done:

Shipments of gold were on the way from London to New York, and confidence had returned to the French Bourse, “owing,” reported one paper, “to the belief that the strong men in American finance would succeed in their efforts to check the spirit of the panic.” During a panic, confidence is almost as good as gold.

As politicans saw how these crises could be contained – and as they realized Morgan who had successfully beaten back several of these panics was getting near his end – they created the Federal Reserve to officially take on the role Morgan had been unofficially occupying, the lender of last resort and de facto regulator. 

As panics are short, they generally do not affect the fundamentals of the economy – but in a liquidity crisis such as this, restoring confidence is a more delicate task. It involves restoring what John Maynard Keynes referred to as “animal spirits” – those positive energies that cause people to be trusting and optimistic that are essential to a thriving economy. As Keynes wrote in his seminal work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money:

Even apart from the instability due to speculation, there is the instability due to the characteristic of human nature that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectations, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as the result of animal spirits – a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities. [my emphasis]

This idea of animal spirits has created an opening for what appears to be Obama’s favorite branch of economics – behavioral economics. While economics generally treats human beings as homo economics, rational, self-interested (indeed, selfish), individuals who act entirely to serve their best interest (and who know what their best interest is) – behavioral economics takes a more scientific view of human beings. They try to understand human behavior through testing and real-life examples rather than through theoretical models. Some of Obama’s top advsiors from Cass Sunstein to Austan Goolsbee are known to be proponents of behavioral economics. And a recent article by Chrystia Freeland in the Financial Times, suggests that Obama’s administration may be using behavioral economics to solve this crisis, describing how “emotions might yet save the economy“:

Judging by the upbeat economic message we have been hearing from the White House, the Treasury and even the Federal Reserve over the past six weeks, that is a shrewd guess. The authors argue that “we will never really understand important economic events unless we confront the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature”. Our “ideas and feelings” about the economy are not purely a rational reaction to data and experience; they themselves are an important driver of economic growth – and decline.

I don’t have the expertise to judge if this crisis is one of solvency or confidence or whatever else it may be. But at this point there is a feeling – almost of a wind at the back of the economy. (I certainly hope this is the case.) It does seem to me that the lack of confidence is a major cause (rather than merely a symptom) of this crisis; and Obama’s gradualist approach, with every move telegraphed and thus predictable – seems to be generating confidence.

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.]

Is This Downturn a Crisis of Confidence or a Fundamental Error?

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Prefacing my thoughts on economics, as always, with the warning that I am not an economist, but only an amateur…

My non-professional observation is that when a disproportionate amount of money is controlled by the financial sector, a crash soon follows. This observation isn’t original. As Paul Krugman observed a few days ago in the New York Times:

After 1980, of course, a very different financial system emerged. In the deregulation-minded Reagan era, old-fashioned banking was increasingly replaced by wheeling and dealing on a grand scale. The new system was much bigger than the old regime: On the eve of the current crisis, finance and insurance accounted for 8 percent of G.D.P., more than twice their share in the 1960s. By early last year, the Dow contained five financial companies — giants like A.I.G., Citigroup and Bank of America.

Krugman concludes that this structural issue is at the root of the problem – rather than a liquidity issue with the banks:

I don’t think this is just a financial panic; I believe that it represents the failure of a whole model of banking, of an overgrown financial sector that did more harm than good. I don’t think the Obama administration can bring securitization back to life, and I don’t believe it should try.

Simon Johnson, an economist formerly with the IMF, agrees with Krugman in a long piece in The Atlantic Monthly, and he echoes another point I’ve been making:

Oversize institutions disproportionately influence public policy; the major banks we have today draw much of their power from being too big to fail.

Reading both of these men, I find myself hoping they are wrong while sensing that they are at least partially right. Evan Thomas of Newsweek captured this balance nicely in his cover piece from the current issue:

If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am), reading Krugman makes you uneasy. You hope he’s wrong, and you sense he’s being a little harsh (especially about Geithner), but you have a creeping feeling that he knows something that others cannot, or will not, see. By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring. But sometimes, beneath the pleasant murmur and tinkle of cocktails, the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking.

At the same time as Establishment defenders such as Robert Samuelson are uneasy about the scope of what Obama is proposing, other members of the Establishment are uneasy that he may not be doing enough. We don’t know who is right.

To some extent we can discount Krugman’s opposition due to his personal fantasy of how his life might work out:

Krugman says he found himself in the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, especially the “Foundation” series—”It was nerds saving civilization, quants who had a theory of society, people writing equations on a blackboard, saying, ‘See, unless you follow this formula, the empire will fail and be followed by a thousand years of barbarism’.”

His critique of Obama’s plans seems to follow this model – as his warnings take on more prophetic tones.

But there is real intellectual weight to this theory of the financial crisis as something more than a liquidity or confidence crisis. Krugman outright rejects this explanation:

[T]he banks [are] really, truly messed up: they bet heavily on unrealistic beliefs about housing and consumer debt, and lost those bets. Confidence is low because people have become realistic. [my emphasis]

In other venues, Krugman describes the problems as extending far further than this – as above when he discusses the trend towards increasing the influence of American finance and increasing income disparity. This stands on contrast to the approach of both Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner who believe that the crisis is primarily one of confidence. They are treating the crisis as a more technical and esoteric version of a bank panic solved by a show of strength, as for example, the Panic of 1907:

Shipments of gold were on the way from London to New York, and confidence had returned to the French Bourse, “owing,” reported one paper, “to the belief that the strong men in American finance would succeed in their efforts to check the spirit of the panic.” During a panic, confidence is almost as good as gold.

Today, the government has taken the role of “the strong men in American finance” who are seeking a show of strength to boost confidence.

On the one side, you have economists – from Simon Johnson to Paul Krugman to Nouriel Roubini – who have been predicting doom for some time claiming that there are fundamental problems with our finance industry – and as a result of the size and influence of our finance industry – our entire economy. On the other you have men and women with power – in both finance and government – who are acting as if the problem is mainly one of a lack of confidence and a broken mechanism. 

My bet – based in no small part on my innate optimism as well as a respect for people on both sides of this debate – is that in the short term, the Geithner plans will work to restart the “old” economy. In this moment before that happens though, pressure from Europe and internal critics as well as a desire to avoid a repeat of this fiasco will enable enough forward-looking, gradualist regulation and legislation to correct the long-term problems with high finance.  Already, there are some signs that this is what is happening.

The Reagan Revolution (cont.)

Monday, March 16th, 2009

I’ve gotten a bit of feedback/blowback about having simplified what went on the in 1980s that led to the indisputable higher levels of income disparity, the concentration of wealth, the decimation of manufacturing, and the rise of finance. This wasn’t about Ronald Reagan and his neoliberal policies – it is claimed – but about basic economic forces. I tried to take that into account by pointing out that Reagan was only accelerating the trends that started in the 1970s – but let me go further now.

Another major factor that aided these trends was not entirely within Reagan’s control. As John Judis explained in The New Republic, in the 1980s:

…Japan was threatened by a cheaper dollar. To keep exports high, Japan intentionally held down the yen’s value by carefully controlling the disposition of the dollars it reaped from its trade surplus with the United States. Instead of using these to purchase goods or to invest in the Japanese economy or to exchange for yen, it began to recycle them back to the United States by purchasing companies, real estate, and, above all, Treasury debt…

With Japan’s purchases, the United States would not have to keep interest rates high in order to attract buyers to Treasury securities, and it wouldn’t have to raise taxes in order to reduce the deficit…[That] informal bargain…became the cornerstone of a new international economic arrangement…

Judis goes on to explain how this arrangement evolved through the 1990s:

Asian countries, led by China, adopted a version of Japan’s strategy for export-led growth… They maintained trade surpluses with the United States; and, instead of exchanging their dollars for their own currencies or investing them internally, they, like the Japanese, recycled them into T-bills and other dollar-denominated assets. This kept the value of their currencies low in relation to the dollar and perpetuated the trade surplus by which they acquired the dollars in the first place…

Until recently, there have been clear upsides to this bargain for the United States: the avoidance of tax increases, growing wealth at the top of the income ladder, and preservation of the dollar as the international currency…

[The current financial system] is sustained by specific national policies. The United States has acquiesced in large trade deficits – and their effect on the U.S. workforce – in exchange for foreign funding of our budget deficits. And Asia has accepted a lower standard of living in exchange for export-led growth and a lower risk of currency crises.

This financial arrangment was not created by Ronald Reagan – but he did acquiese to it – and spent America into a level of indebtedness it had not been in since World War II. This arrangment would not be consistent with a ideological neoliberalism that was discussed before – but this arrangment, most importantly, did benefit many of those who were vocal proponents of neoliberalism. 

The revolutions of the 1980s then, was not merely the result of a political movement within America – not anymore than the revolutions of the 1960s were. There were international factors that helped along both domestic movements. The combination of this special relationship with Japan – and later China and other Asian countries – with the neoliberal revolution of Ronald Reagan – led to a concentration of wealth and power within a small class of people rarely seen in a developed country. As Paul Krugman observed:

It’s important to know that no other advanced economy has seen a comparable surge in inequality – even the rising inequality of Thatcherite Britain was a faint echo of trends here.

Combined with the neoliberal principle, as described by Stanley Fish, that “Short-term transactions-for-profit [are better than] long-term planning designed to produce a more just and equitable society,” it becomes more clear how we ended up in this enormous financial mess. 

Take away the regulations; encourage short-term profits; reduce taxes; trim the social safety net; “starve the beast” by spending without taxing; and then supercharge the economy with constant stimulus spending (which is what “starve the beast” is) and easy debt from China and Japan. What you get from this is not only a revolution that undermines the American way of life in the mid-term – as wealth is concentrated and middle class and manufacturing jobs dry up – but an unsustainable economy that is going to collapse, and collapse hard. 

In other words, you get what we have now.

Today, we are reaping the effects of the generational bargain at the heart of the Reagan presidency.