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Friday, March 26th, 2010

1. Google v. China. I’ve refrained from posting on the Google v. China battle going on until now. So much of the praise for Google’s decision seemed overblown and I wasn’t sure what insight I had to offer, even as I read everything on the matter I could. But now, the wave of criticism of the company is pissing me off. I get the source of the criticism – that Google is so quickly criticizing other companies for staying in China after it left, and that Google’s partial exit may have made business as well as moral sense.  But motives are new pure – we’re human. Those who the critics accuse the company of merely using as a pretext for a business decision see the matter in other terms – according to Emily Parker of the Wall Street Journal, “Chinese twitterverse is alight with words like ‘justice’ and ‘courageous’ and ‘milestone’ “ and condolence flowers and cups being sent to Google’s offices in China.

What the Google/China conflict highlights though is the strategic incompatibility of a tech company like Google and an authoritarian state like China. One of James Fallows’ readers explains why Google and China could never get along:

Internet search and analytics companies today have more access to high quality, real-time information about people, places and events, and more ability to filter, aggregate, and analyze it than any government agency, anywhere ever.  Maybe the NSA can encrypt it better and process it faster but it lacks ability to collect the high value data – the stuff that satellites can’t see.  The things people think but don’t say.  The things people do but don’t say.  All documented in excruciating detail, each event tagged with location, precise time.  Every word you type, every click you make (how many sites do you visit have google ads, or analytics?), Google is watching you – and learning.  It’s their business to.  This fact has yet to sink in on the general public in the US, but it has not gone un-noticed by the Chinese government.

The Chinese government wants unfettered access to all of that information.  Google, defending its long-term brand equity, cannot give its data to the Chinese government.  Baidu, on the other hand, would and does…

The reader goes on to explain how China would slow down and otherwise disrupt Google services in China enough to ensure that Baidu would keep it’s dominant position. This, he explains is:

…just another example of the PRC’s brilliant take on authoritarian government: you don’t need total control, you just need effective control. [my emphasis]

Which is why it is so important that a country like China have constant access to search engine data. In a passage deleted at some point in the editing process from a New York Times story (which an internal Times search reveals to be this one), it was reported that:

One Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that China now speaks of Internet freedom in the context of one of its “core interests” — issues of sovereignty on which Beijing will brook no intervention. The most commonly cited core issues are Taiwan and Tibet. The addition of Internet freedom is an indication that the issue has taken on nationalistic overtones.

2. Liberal American Exceptionalism. Damon Linker of The New Republic responds to critics:

[T]he most distinctive and admirable of all [America’s] qualities is our liberalism. Now let me be clear: unlike Lowry and Ponnuru, who identify American exceptionalism with the laissez-faire capitalism favored by the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, I do not mean to equate the ideology that dominates one of our country’s political parties with the nation’s exemplary essence. On the contrary, the liberalism I have singled out is embraced by nearly every member of both of our political parties—and indeed by nearly every American citizen. Liberalism in this sense is a form of government—one in which political rule is mediated by a series of institutions that seek to limit the powers of the state and maximize individual freedom: constitutional government, an independent judiciary, multiparty elections, universal suffrage, a free press, civilian control of the military and police, a large middle class, a developed consumer economy, and rights to free assembly and worship. To be a liberal in this primary sense is to favor a political order with these institutions and to abide by the political rules they establish.

3. The War on Drugs Is Doomed. Mary Anastacia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal echoes me saying: The War on Drugs is Doomed. (My previous posts on this topic here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

4. Defending the Individual Mandate. Ezra Klein explains why the individual mandate is actually a really good deal for American citizens:

The irony of the mandate is that it’s been presented as a terribly onerous tax on decent, hardworking people who don’t want to purchase insurance. In reality, it’s the best deal in the bill: A cynical consumer would be smart to pay the modest penalty rather than pay thousands of dollars a year for insurance. In the current system, that’s a bad idea because insurers won’t let them buy insurance if they get sick later. In the reformed system, there’s no consequence for that behavior. You could pay the penalty for five years and then buy insurance the day you felt a lump.

Klein also had this near-perfect post on our unhinged debate on health care reform and added his take to the projections of Matt Yglesias, Ross Douthat, Tyler Cowen on how health care law will evolve in the aftermath of this legislation.

5. Counter-Counter-Insurgency. Marc Lynch describes a document he recently unearthed which he calls AQ-Iraq’s Counter Counter-insurgency plan. Lynch describes the document as “pragmatic and analytical rather than bombastic, surprisingly frank about what went wrong, and alarmingly creative about the Iraqi jihad’s way forward.”

6. Idiocrats Won’t Change. Brendan Nyhan counters a point I (along with many other supporters of the health care bill) have been making (here and here for example) – that once the bill passes, the misperceptions about it will be corrected by reality. I fear he may be right, but I believe it will change opinions on the margins soon and more so over time.

7. Theories of the Financial Crisis: Men Did It. Sheelah Kolhatkar looks at one theory of the financial crisis some experts have been pushing: testosterone and men.

Another study Dreber has in the works will look at the effects of the hormones in the birth-control pill on women, because women having their periods have been shown to act more like men in terms of risk-taking behavior. “When I present that in seminars, I say men are like women menstruating,” she says, laughing…

Positioning himself as a sort of endocrine whisperer of the financial system, Coates argues that if women made up 50 percent of the financial world, “I don’t think you’d see the volatile swings that we’re seeing.” Bubbles, he believes, may be “a male phenomenon.”

His colleague, neuroscientist Joe Herbert, agrees. “The banking crisis was caused by doing what no society ever allows, permitting young males to behave in an unregulated way,” he says. “Anyone who studied neurobiology would have predicted disaster.”

A very interesting thesis. And one that strikes me as broadly true. I previously explored other theories of what caused the financial crisis:

[Image by me.]

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Posted in Barack Obama, China, Criticism, Domestic issues, Economics, Financial Crisis, Foreign Policy, Health care, Iran, National Security, Politics, The Bush Legacy, The Media, The Opinionsphere, The War on Terrorism, The Web and Technology, War on Drugs | 1 Comment »

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.]

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Posted in Economics, Financial Crisis, History, The Opinionsphere | 9 Comments »

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