James Joyner wonders:
To my non-economist mind, that sounds eerily remniscient of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), the $700 billion plan passed last October to prop up the frozen financial system by buying, well, troubled assets. Granting, arguendo, that the Bush administration, which ran the first part of TARP, was evil and incompetent and the Obama administration is all sweetness, light, and omniscience, why would this work any better the second time around?
Paul Krugman, as we noted last week, is not impressed by this plan at all:
This is more than disappointing. In fact, it fills me with a sense of despair.
After all, we’ve just been through the firestorm over the A.I.G. bonuses, during which administration officials claimed that they knew nothing, couldn’t do anything, and anyway it was someone else’s fault. Meanwhile, the administration has failed to quell the public’s doubts about what banks are doing with taxpayer money.
And now Mr. Obama has apparently settled on a financial plan that, in essence, assumes that banks are fundamentally sound and that bankers know what they’re doing.
It’s as if the president were determined to confirm the growing perception that he and his economic team are out of touch, that their economic vision is clouded by excessively close ties to Wall Street. And by the time Mr. Obama realizes that he needs to change course, his political capital may be gone.
Krugman goes on to discuss the economics of the situation and a relatively easy way to solve the banking problem. Probably one of the more striking lines in his discussion is:
But the Obama administration, like the Bush administration, apparently wants an easier way out.
This speaks to a theory we’ve all discussed about certain aspects of the job of president in which Barack Obama displays very little interest. From his chuckling though his “punch drunk” interview with Steve Frost yesterday on “60 Minutes” (an invitation to view him as unserious about the crisis) to his seeking an easy and fast solution to the banking crisis, it seems that this is one of those areas which holds little interest for him. He wants it dealt with as quickly as possible (or at least seemingly dealt with so it is at least off of the front pages) so he can move on to his real interest – his costly social agenda.
Anyway, read all of the Krugman critique.
Brad DeLong thinks Krugman may be wrong and lists 3 reasons why:
1. The half empty-half full factor: I see the Geithner Plan as a positive step from where we are. Paul seed it as an embarrassingly inadequate bandaid.
2. Politics: I think Obama has to demonstrate that he has exhausted all other options before he has a prayer of getting Voinovich to vote to close debate on a bank nationalization bill. Paul thinks that the longer Obama delays proposing bank nationalization the lower it’s chances become.
3. I think the private-sector players in financial markets right now are highly risk averse–hence assets are undervalued from the perspective of a society or a government that is less risk averse. Paul judges that assets have low values beceuse they are unlikely to pay out much cash.
While it is nice to be optimistic, it is also important to be realistic. Frankly I think DeLong’s optimism isn’t realistic in the face of this particular crisis and I’m inclined to believe the Krugman critique to be more “spot on”. I have no confidence that this plan will solve the problem.
One of the problems the administration faces which is above and beyond the “workability” of the plan itself is related to the AIG bonus blowup in Congress. Private investors are gunshy about participating – for good reason:
The backlash on Capitol Hill means private firms may think twice about taking part in Geithner’s public-private partnership, even though government financing will limit their risk and increase the potential of earning profits, said David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer of Cumberland Advisors Inc., in Vineland, New Jersey.
“We expect that the participation in the program to be announced this coming week will be tepid at best” because of “fear that any action which puts them into the federal assistance plan will subject them to the chance of retroactive punishment and taxation,” Kotok said.
A real “chilling effect” given Congressional and adminstration overreaction to the bonus situation. Reports are Obama is cooling to the idea of retroactive taxation, but, right or wrong, there is still going to be a demand for some sort of action. We’ll see what sort of leadership Obama tries to exert concerning those bonuses if any.
At least when it comes to spending money. Business takes a hard look at the potential and when there doesn’t seem to be any, it pulls back. Government, on the other hand, decides it believes something has a future and spends money to try to make their belief a reality.
Oil Major Royal Dutch Shell Plc doesn’t plan to make any more large investments in wind and solar energy in the future and does not expect hydrogen to play an important role in energy supply for some time.
“We do not expect material amounts of investment in those areas going forward,” Linda Cook, head of Shell’s gas and power unit told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday.
“They continue to struggle to compete with the other investment opportunities we have in our portfolio,” Cook said of solar and wind.
Shell’s future involvement in renewables will be principally limited to biofuels, which the world’s second-largest non- government-controlled oil company by market value believes is a better fit with its core oil and gas operations.
Now let’s be clear. “Oil companies” such as Royal Dutch Shell understand that in reality they’re “energy companies”. They realize that somewhere in the far distant future, we’ll wean ourselves from fossil fuels and they need to be in a position to supply what we decide is the viable alternative fuel(s) for that time. And my guess is, they’ll do so.
However, on a purely business assessment of “potential” (that would be potential profit) for some of the favorite alternatives of this era, Shell just doesn’t see a real future, at this time, in solar, wind or hydrogen.
With one exception:
In the past year, the company said it was refocusing its wind business on the U.S. as it pulled out of European projects.
Can anyone guess why that may be? Well, whether or not wind works or has a real application anytime soon, there’s money being promised for R&D. Why not get a little of it even while pulling back in Europe where it sees no real future for wind at this time? They’d like to keep researching it, but why spend their own money when it would appear they can use yours?
Meanwhile, I’m sure we’ll hear all about the government no longer subsidizing Big Oil with tax breaks (while you pay the difference at the pump).
I’m no arguing for tax subsidies or anything else. I’m just pointing out a few things. Shell obviously believes there’s no real business potential in the alternatives it’s backing out on right now. But it will certainly accept subsidy money for wind research if our government is handing it out, all the while our government is telling us it is no longer subsidizing Big Oil. It’s an irony thing.
In the meantime, given Shell’s decision, I don’t expect much from the billions of your money the government plans on throwing at alternatives any times soon. But I could be wrong. After all, isn’t there a new emerging “conventional wisdom” about markets among the anti-capitalists among us?
Markets – they’re always wrong, aren’t they?
This parallel world that exists only within the DC beltway and where the laws of economics don’t apply has got to be merged again with the real world we all live in as soon as possible:
Despite new estimates that say President Barack Obama’s budget would generate unsustainable large deficits averaging almost $1 trillion a year, the White House insisted Friday that the flood of red ink won’t swamp its costly agenda.
The Congressional Budget Office figures released Friday predict Obama’s budget will produce $9.3 trillion worth of red ink over 2010-2019. That’s $2.3 trillion worse than the administration predicted in its budget just last month.
Worst of all, CBO says the deficit under Obama’s policies would never go below 4 percent of the size of the economy, figures that economists agree are unsustainable. By the end of the decade, the deficit would exceed 5 percent of gross domestic product, a dangerously high level.
Just feast your eyes on those statements. First – 10 years of trillion dollar deficits “won’t swamp” the “costly agenda” of the Obama administration? Really? Or is it just that the administration refuses to acknowledge the reality of the coming deficits and intends to imperil the economy to push its social agenda forward? Which is more likely true?
And how does the administration address the CBO projections?
White House budget chief Peter Orszag said that CBO’s economic projections are more pessimistic than those of the White House, private economists and the Federal Reserve and that he remained confident that Obama’s budget, if enacted, would produce smaller deficits.
Orszag, the former director of the CBO, now finds the CBO just isn’t an entity in which we should put much stock when it comes to budget analysis – especially when it finds such budget numbers “unsustainable”. Nope. Instead we should heed the Fed – which has proven to be such an economic font of solutions in this current crisis – and unnamed “private economists” whose only claim to fame is they agree with the administration’s projections. The organization Orszag previously led suddenly has a credibility problem.
However Orszag did have to admit that if the CBO is right, well, that’s a horse of a different color:
Even so, Orszag acknowledged that if the CBO projections prove accurate, Obama’s budget would produce deficits that could not be sustained. “Deficits in the, let’s say, 5 percent of GDP range would lead to rising debt-to-GDP ratios that would ultimately not be sustainable,” Orszag told reporters.
Of course there have been many economic analysts prior to the CBO projections who have found the administration’s projections to be very optimistic in outlying years, in fact the term “rose colored glasses” seems most apropos.
So which makes more sense to you in this particular time of financial crisis- listen to those who say your projections are too rosy and trim them back (and the deficits they produce) to ensure that should it happen as the more pessimistic projections hold, you don’t chance pushing the nation into a period of unsustainable debt, or waive them off and take the chance that you’re right and they’re not?
“Caution” seems like a very important watch-word at this point, or it should be.
Instead we’re seeing a “damn the icebergs, full speed ahead” attitude from the crew of the economic Titanic.
So, the Fed, for the first time since the 1960s, is buying back long-term bonds as part of it’s new policy, announced today, of buying back $1.2 trillion in securities to pump out cash into the economy.
With the country sinking deeper into recession, the Federal Reserve launched a bold $1.2 trillion effort Wednesday to lower rates on mortgages and other consumer debt, spur spending and revive the economy. To do so, the Fed will spend up to $300 billion to buy long-term government bonds and an additional $750 billion in mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
On top of this, short-term interest rates are already at 0%. The fed has one monetary policy tool left–massive increases in the money supply–and they’re using it with a vengeance. This purchase of $300B in treasury bonds will be a signifigant increase in demand, pushing treasury prices up, and yields down. The 10-year note’s yield dropped to 2.5% in the aftermath of this announcement.
Our fundamental problem is still that the banking sector has their balance sheets all out of whack, and the Obama Adminsitration still has no apparent plan for clearing up bank balance sheets via recapitalization, or…well…anything else. Now, theoretically, that much new money being created would lower mortgage rates signifigantly. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 20-year fixed rates at 5% or less.
This action, however, opens the door for massive inflation. The inflationary implications of this move are so huge, that there’s simply no way the loans could be anything but a money-loser for the banks, because a 5% mortage rate may well be far below the rate of inflation. That will kill banks already weakened by their bad loan portfolios.
This is an extraordinary gamble of the Fed’s part. If this new money doesn’t stimulate a signifigant increase in demand for money, then we are going to have a huge pool of money chasing a very small pool of goods. The market knows it, too, and understands the inflationary implications. The dollar cratered in the FOREX market today, and analysts aren’t excited about the long-term implications:
Bernanke’s view that currency devaluation may be beneficial to economic growth speaks for itself,” writes Mr. Merk. “But even if there are no active efforts to debase the currency, we are cautious about the U.S. dollar. That’s because we simply do not see a viable exit strategy to all the money that is being thrown at the system.”
“[W]e simply do not see a viable exit strategy to all the money that is being thrown at the system” because there is no viable exit strategy. We are either going to have serious inflation, or the Fed will have to tighten up so severely at some point in the near future that it will kill economic growth anyway.
In “Texas Hold ‘Em” terms, this is the equivalent of the Fed going “all in”. We’ve essentially reached the limits of our monetary policy tools with this action.
Glad they finally noticed:
The Obama administration is increasingly concerned about a populist backlash against banks and Wall Street, worried that anger at financial institutions could also end up being directed at Congress and the White House and could complicate President Obama’s agenda.
Of course the greatest stoker of this populist backlash has been the Obama administration. I’ll be the first to agree that some of the financial institutions, such as AIG recently, have played into the populist condemnation by the administration, but instead of being specific about the AIGs of the world, they have instead gone after an entire industry to the point that “banks and Wall Street” are synonymous with crooks, swindlers and liars. Having established that narrative, seemingly purposely, there’s now a huge backlash building which may, in fact, cripple the administration’s efforts pertaining to both.
“We’ve got enormous problems that need to be addressed,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, said in an interview. “And it’s hard to address because there’s a lot of anger about the irresponsibility that led us to this point.”
“This has been welling up for a long time,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s aides said any surge of such a sentiment could complicate efforts to win Congressional approval for the additional bailout packages that Mr. Obama has signaled will be necessary to stabilize the banking system.
As it is, there have already been moves in Congress to limit compensation to executives at banks and Wall Street firms that are receiving government help to survive.
Beyond that, a shifting political mood challenges Mr. Obama’s political skills, as he seeks to acknowledge the anger without becoming a target of it. A central question for Mr. Obama is whether his cool style — “in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger,” he said in his address to Congress last month — will prove effective when the country may be feeling more emotional.
And the country is feeling emotional because the administration has been making emotional arguments targeting the industry it wants to help. Not very smart politics. And they’ve now finally realized that.
“Never underestimate the capacity of angry populism in times of economic stress,” said Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. “A big challenge for President Obama will be to maintain a rational and tactical public discussion in the midst of this severe downturn. The desire for culprits at times like this is strong.”
The “culprit” has been identified. In their desire to escape blame, government officials in Congress and elsewhere have almost unanimously used their access to the media to vilify banks and Wall Street while pretending they had no hand whatsoever in this debacle. Unfortunately they’ve been quite successful in the scapegoating. However, having established the narrative, they now have to attempt to reverse it because the public rage they’ve helped stoke may prevent them from doing what they think they need to do to turn the financial industry around.
The entire problem that the administration is now recognizing is one of their own making and another indication of their inexperience and lack of foresight. It’s one thing to demonize such industries when campaigning, it is, as they’re learning, an entirely different thing when you do it as the President of the United States. The administration now has to figure out how to reverse a narrative they helped build and establish. That should be interesting to watch.
Last night’s episode of 20/20 was one of the best I’ve ever seen. John Stossel took on several topics, such as taxpayer-funded bailouts, transportation, medicinal marijuana, universal pre-kindergarten and immigration. Many of the segments are based on and include footage from The Drew Carey Project from Reason TV. Stossel also interviews Drew Carey in some of the segments.
The they are six videos (five below the cut). The first one deals with bailouts. Stossel talks to 18 economists about why the “stimulus” was a bad idea. He asks House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer if debt got us into this recession, then why is creating more debt going to get us out? One economist says that one dollar taken out of the economy is one less dollar to be spent in the private sector.
The second video deals with transportation, and actually starts off in Atlanta (my hometown), and is based on this video from Reason TV. It highlights private toll roads built in Orange County, California, Paris, Chicago and Indiana.
This segment is on medicinal marijuana and Charlie Lynch and is based on this Reason TV video. Lynch owned a medicinal marijuana dispensary in California, which is legal under state law. He was arrested by DEA agents for helping sick people and is now awaiting sentencing, up to a hundred years in jail.
This is the segment on universal pre-kindergarten, a promise made by Barack Obama during his campaign. It’s based in part on this Reason TV video.
Here’s the segment on immigration, which is based on a Reason TV video. Stossel shows how the gate is useless because illegal immigrants still manage to get around it, either by climbing over it or cutting holes in it. Stossel talks to both Duncan Hunter and his son, Duncan Hunter, Jr., about why it is necessary. The younger Hunter asks Stossel, “What is it worth to the American people to not have another 9/11?” Stossel says the fence wouldn’t have stopped 9/11 (the 9/11 hijackers came in the country legally). Hunter says, “It may stop the next 9/11.” Gotta love the fear mongering.
Here’s the final segment of the episode. It talks about how easy it is to make it in American if you live within your means and is based on this Reason TV video.
China expresses some … um … “concern” about whether or not it will ever see its money back:
The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, expressed unusually blunt concern on Friday about the safety of China’s $1 trillion investment in American government debt, the world’s largest such holding, and urged the Obama administration to provide assurances that the securities would maintain their value in the face of a global financial crisis.
Speaking ahead of a meeting of finance ministers and bankers this weekend in London to lay the groundwork for next month’s G20 summit, Mr. Wen said he was “worried” about China’s holdings of United States Treasury bonds and other debt, and that China was watching economic developments in the United States closely.
“President Obama and his new government have adopted a series of measures to deal with the financial crisis. We have expectations as to the effects of these measures,” Mr. Wen said. “We have lent a huge amount of money to the U.S. Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I am definitely a little worried.”
Just a little? There’s an old saying to the effect of “if you owe the bank $1 Million, then the bank owns you; if you owe the bank $1 Trillion, then you own the bank.” China’s feeling pretty nervous because it knows it can’t sell its holdings except at a tremendous loss — both from the normal discount expected, and from the fact that it is by far the largest mover in the market (e.g. what do you think would happen to Microsoft stock if Bill Gates started selling off?) — and it doesn’t see a whole lot coming out of Washington to instill confidence.
But there’s no need to fret PM Jiabao! Unnamed economists are here to save the day:
While economists dismissed the possibility of the United States defaulting on its obligations, they said China could face steep losses in the event of a sharp rise in United States interest rates or a plunge in the value of the dollar.
Whew! That was close. Nothing but a little market risk to worry about there, Jiabao. Default? Pffft … never gonna happen.
Back in the land called “reality” however, default is plays a bigger part since, aside from reneging on the debt, there are only three other ways for the government to pay for its spending binge: higher taxes, printing more money, or borrowing. Higher taxes impedes growth and leads to less revenue. Printing money leads to hyper-inflation. So, even though those two choices will be used to a certain extent, further borrowing is the only viable alternative to default. But who’s going to lend to us?
The bulk of China’s investment in the United States consists of bonds issued by the Treasury and government-sponsored enterprises and purchased by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, which is part of the People’s Bank of China … much of the Treasury debt China purchased in recent years carries a low interest rate, and would plunge in value if interest rates were to rise sharply in the United States. Some financial experts have warned that measures taken to combat the financial crisis — running large budget deficits and expanding the money supply — may eventually create price inflation, which would lead to higher interest rates.
This puts the Chinese government in a difficult position. The smaller the United States stimulus, the less its borrowing, which could help prevent interest rates from rising. But less government spending in the United States could also mean a slower recovery for the American economy and reduced American demand for Chinese goods.
It may just be the case that China’s best option is to support its investment by propping up its best customer with yet more loans. Unfortunately, that means that Washington will have little incentive to slow down spending (since it owns the bank). The nasty little cycle of borrowing > spending > inflation > rising interest rates > falling dollar, will continue necessitating even more borrowing. China, in turn, will have serious questions about the value of its investment, and the US will start having serious discussions about declaring a default.
In short, China’s not just “worried” about the current fiscal mess. It’s crapping its collectivist shorts.
Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, said this the other day about the possible effects of all of the spending the Obama administration was doing and planning:
“What you’re doing is buying into the notion that if we just print some more money that we don’t have, send it to different states — we’ll create jobs,” Sanford said. “If that’s the case, why isn’t Zimbabwe a rich place?… Why isn’t Zimbabwe just an incredibly prosperous place. ‘Cause they’re printing money they don’t have and sending it around to their different — I don’t know the towns in Zimbabwe but that same logic is being applied there with little effect.”
A little oversimplistic, but this is “sound bite nation” so you have to condense. In effect his point is true to the extent it goes, and the example is a good and valid one, since Zimbabwe is printing money as fast as it can add zeroes to its demonimations. By now, the hyper-inflation it is undergoing from doing so should be well known to people versed in current affairs.
Unless, of course, you want to make a racial thing out of it. Rep. James Clyburn, Democratic Majority Whip, reacts to Sanford’s lesson and example of Zimbabwe:
“For him to compare the president of this country to Mugabe. … It’s just beyond the pale,” said Clyburn, who has sparred with Sanford over the Republican’s refusal to accept all the state’s stimulus funding.
“I’m sure he would not say that, but how did he get to Zimbabwe? What took the man to Zimbabwe? Someone should ask him if that’s really the best comparison. … How can he compare this country’s situation to Zimbabwe?”
Of course the “how” is fairly simple – if what is being touted as a solution here and was touted as a solution there, then Zimbabwe should be in great economic shape right now. But Clyburn would rather make a racial thing out of it. Obviously Sanford could have used Wiemar Germany of the ’30s, but it isn’t as relevant today as the case of Zimbabwe. And, he could have also used Venezuela. But Venezuela isn’t quite the basket case Zimbabwe is. Nope, in terms of a current example of what might happen, in terms of hyper-inflation from artificially pumping up he money supply, Zimbabwe is as good as it gets.
“Rep. Clyburn always plays the race card,” shot back Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer, who said his boss has also compared the stimulus to failed government policies in Germany and Argentina. “This policy will result in hyper-infaltion. … [Clyburn] is ripping off the people he purports to represent.”
Round 2 to follow.
Alan Greenspan has a piece in the Wall Street Journal today which essentially casts him as the Pontius Pilate of the financial crisis. Or, to sum it up rather sucinctly, “it wasn’t my fault”. You’re welcome to read through it and agree or disagree. However, the imporant point I think that should be taken from the Greenspan piece are the last two paragraphs:
Any new regulations should improve the ability of financial institutions to effectively direct a nation’s savings into the most productive capital investments. Much regulation fails that test, and is often costly and counterproductive. Adequate capital and collateral requirements can address the weaknesses that the crisis has unearthed. Such requirements will not be overly intrusive, and thus will not interfere unduly in private-sector business decisions.
If we are to retain a dynamic world economy capable of producing prosperity and future sustainable growth, we cannot rely on governments to intermediate saving and investment flows. Our challenge in the months ahead will be to install a regulatory regime that will ensure responsible risk management on the part of financial institutions, while encouraging them to continue taking the risks necessary and inherent in any successful market economy.
Those words reminded me of the quote I saw in business columnist Tom Oliver’s piece today in the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” — F.A. Hayek
Any columnist who starts with a Hayek quote is guaranteed to get my attention. And I’ve come to enjoy Oliver’s columns. However, reviewing Greenspan’s advice and admonitions in those two paragraphs, juxtaposed against the simple and elegant truth of Hayek’s statement you find yourself back in the outback watching that big red kangaroo headed for a collision with the car. It is inevitable, there’s nothing you can do about it, they can’t or won’t hear your warnings and all you can do is watch – and cringe.
Frankly, as we watch the machinations of government and listen to their declarations, we have begun to understand that for the most part, those in charge of all of this haven’t a clue. As Oliver states:
Far from demonstrating the demise of free enterprise, this long-running, deepening recession is revealing the limitations of government.
Government, in its various yet powerful incarnations, has been offering one fix after another since August 2007.
The more the Fed and Treasury have tried, the less sure they seem and the more nervous the money makers have become.
It’s understandable that folks would look to the new administration for new ideas. So it’s harder than usual to acknowledge that the ideas are in fact pretty old and, having been tried, found wanting.
Whatever one may think about the so-called stimulus, it’s too easily deconstructed as pork and policy initiatives.
And if it’s still debatable whether to nationalize the financial industry, the move to nationalize health care, education and energy can hardly be disguised as economic recovery programs.
It is understandable that those who derive their power from government would use this recession as an excuse to further government’s reach. But they act as if government has been absent — as if they’ve been absent — from the role of regulator and legislator.
He’s precisely right – it wasn’t a problem with lack of regulation or lack of legislation. It was a lack of proper regulatory oversight and a willful decision by legislators to ignore the building crisis coupled with government distorting the market and actually incentivizing risk taking far beyond that which is prudent that led us here. And now that they have us in this position, all of them, Greenspan included, are engaged in a flurry of finger-pointing and name calling at every one but the right ones. This wasn’t a crisis which happened in just the last 6 months or 8 years. This one has been building for a while.
“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” — F.A. Hayek
We had Democrats in charge and then we had Republicans. Again and again.
Both endorsed and encouraged the subprime sleight-of-hand. Both appointed heads of the regulatory agencies that could’ve stopped the poison seeping through our banks’ balance sheets. Both allowed gamblers to hedge and swap derivatives on top of derivatives that no one can explain and that are proving far more debilitating than the debacle they were insuring against.
Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae became toxic assets of the government while doing the bidding of congressmen who now act like the piano players in a brothel.
The Federal Reserve proved to be anything but reserved, instead stoking a fire that burned us all.
These were not the result of idle hands of government, but rather deliberate deeds that created false markets with inflated credit while turning a blind eye to those who finance election results.
Oliver’s characterizations are dead on – and he’s nailed both the fed and the Congress. The most irritating thing to me about this whole mess, other than the obvious huge loss of wealth, is the success those who were responsible for writing the rules, laying out the playing field and calling the game are escaping both blame and punishment for what they’ve brought about. That toad Barney Frank having the chutzpa to talk about prosecuting those who were guilty of getting us in this mess still astounds me. If anyone should be undergoing such prosecution right now, it is he and numerous other congressmen and women, both past and present.
Oliver concludes as follows and I can’t help but say a hearty “amen” to what he has to say:
We periodically recoil in horror at government’s failure to protect foster children or care for veterans or the mentally ill. But then we turn around and assume government will perform better in areas more complicated.
Why does the failure of government so often lead so many to believe we need more government?
Like the hair of the dog for the alcoholic, it may calm the trembling hands for a moment but it inevitably leads to another spree and another hangover.
We’re headed into a “or worse” moment. No one in government is going to listen to Alan Greenspan’s admonitions or believe Tom Oliver’s brief accounting of the history of this crisis. Instead we’re going to see precisely the opposite happen – more regulation, more strings, more intrusion, more control. And, as Hayek said, we’ll again see “how little [men] really know about what they imagine they can design.”
David Brooks had started down the road to Damascus when he was called back into the fold by Dear Leader. His Op-Ed in today’s NYT is the result.
Most of Brooks’ offering is a rather transparent attempt to shame congressional Republicans into supporting Pres. Obama’s agenda:
The Democratic response to the economic crisis has its problems, but let’s face it, the current Republican response is totally misguided. The House minority leader, John Boehner, has called for a federal spending freeze for the rest of the year. In other words, after a decade of profligacy, the Republicans have decided to demand a rigid fiscal straitjacket at the one moment in the past 70 years when it is completely inappropriate.
The G.O.P. leaders have adopted a posture that allows the Democrats to make all the proposals while all the Republicans can say is “no.” They’ve apparently decided that it’s easier to repeat the familiar talking points than actually think through a response to the extraordinary crisis at hand.
There are myriad problems with Brooks’ line of reasoning, including many in just to two foregoing paragraphs (e.g. How much input did Republicans have into the recent legislation? By “adopted a posture” is he referring to “not having control of either the House or the Senate”?), but I wanted to focus in on a couple of points in particular.
After some platitudinous admonitions, Brooks launches into his prescription for Republicans to save capitalism:
Third, Republicans could offer the public a realistic appraisal of the health of capitalism. Global capitalism is an innovative force, they could argue, but we have been reminded of its shortcomings. When exogenous forces like the rise of China and a flood of easy money hit the global marketplace, they can throw the entire system of out of whack, leading to a cascade of imbalances: higher debt, a grossly enlarged financial sector and unsustainable bubbles.
I really don’t know what point Brooks thought he was making, but he failed miserably on any score. First of all, “exogenous forces” cannot be “weaknesses” and/or “shortcomings” with capitalism since, by definition, they come from outside that system. At best, examining such forces can be used to understand better ways of protecting capitalism from them. In the context of the entire Op-Ed piece, however, it appears that Brooks is pitching the tired line that capitalism must be reigned in so that people don’t get hurt. That’s like diagnosing the problem with house, finding termites, and then thinking of ways to protect the termites from the house.
Furthermore, Brooks cites a “flood of easy money” (which, of course, is caused by government) as an example of an exogenous force, and then lists the following “shortcomings” of capitalism: “higher debt, a grossly enlarged financial sector and unsustainable bubbles.” What do any of those things have to do with capitalism? If anything, these are once again a failure of government skewing incentives.
In fact, when the government does its darnedest to make the cost of borrowing money historically low, people would be really stupid not to take advantage of that. We all know that rates fluctuate, and that the cost of money will be more expensive when they go back up. Logically therefore, it only makes sense to borrow when the Fed turns the money spigot on and then to find some sort of an asset to grow that money in. That, of course, is what leads to bubbles as everyone has barrels of money but not as many clear ideas of what makes a good investment. Instead of taking the time to really investigate what opportunities are available, and which ones fit a particular person’s portfolio, the herd mentality takes over and we all tend to keep up with the Jones and Smiths whether that means buying tulip bulbs or a run-down house we intend to flip.
The bottom line, however, is that these sorts of scenarios start with government intervention into the market place. In addition to turning on the money spigot, the federal government was also encouraging lenders to make high-risk loans, and for the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to buy them up, securitize them and sell them into the derivatives market. Again, that’s all fine and dandy (until it it all goes to hell), but it has nothing to do with “weaknesses” and “shortcomings” of capitalism, and everything to do with government sticking its big fat honker where it doesn’t belong.
If the free market party doesn’t offer the public an honest appraisal of capitalism’s weaknesses, the public will never trust it to address them.
The “free market party”? Who does he think he’s kidding here? The Republicans haven’t acted like a free market party since … well … it’s been so long I can’t remember.
Moreover, I simply can’t fathom how Brooks thinks a “free market party” would ever be able to reconcile itself to joining hands with Obama on his completely anti-capitalist agenda.
Power will inevitably slide over to those who believe this crisis is a repudiation of global capitalism as a whole.
Earth to Brooks: that’s already happened. Look who the president is for crying out loud, or take the time to read your own newspaper. Each and every day we hear about how the excesses of capitalism caused this crisis, and how the “libertarian” policies of Bush (HA!) have landed us in this awful spot. Capitalism didn’t get a trial, Mr. Brooks, it was rounded up, convicted and summarily shot as soon as the latest grand experiment in government do-goodism failed (again).