Wednesday, February 10, 2010

#8: Freefall

"As the United States entered the first Gulf War in 1990, General Colin Powell articulated what came to be called the Powell Doctrine, one element of which included attacking with decisive force. There should be something analogous in economics, perhaps the Krugman-Stiglitz doctrine."

Yes, Joseph Stiglitz, the author of Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy, has a fan. This ardent devotee is not, as one might suspect, a fellow academic scrawling her mark of approval onto the book's cover, nor a book reviewer writing for a newspaper or magazine. It's not even Paul Krugman, although presumably he too has fallen victim to the spell of his fellow Nobel laureate.

No, the fan is Joseph Stiglitz himself, the author of both the book Freefall and the above quote, found in its second chapter. And as self-aggrandizing as he can tend to be -- he joins the litany of economists, politicians, and pundits who vociferously trumpet their early predictions of the current financial crisis -- his words are bolstered by an undeniably credible resumé. As the former chairman of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, the senior vice president and chief economist at the World Bank, and the 2001 Nobel Prize winner in economics, Stiglitz has combined his enviable pedigree as a top-notch economist with the political savvy gained through spending many years in the halls of power.

In the course of reading Freefall, it soon becomes abundantly clear that Stiglitz is not especially fond of deregulation. However, in a departure from the current American zeitgeist, he does not embrace populist rhetoric or condemn bankers unduly for their greed. (In writing this last sentence, I vacillated between enclosing greed in quotes or not; either choice seems equally prejudiced, so I arbitrarily chose not to.) "Bankers acted greedily because they had incentives and opportunities to do so, and that is what has to be changed," Stiglitz writes. "Besides, the basis of capitalism is the pursuit of profit: should we blame the bankers for doing (perhaps a little better) what everyone in the market economy is supposed to be doing?"

This is an interesting question, and one that is not normally asked in today's politically charged environment. And yet Stiglitz is just about the furthest thing from an apologist for the banking industry. Responding to central bankers' claims that allowing inflation hurts those with low incomes, Stiglitz deadpans, "One should be suspicious when one hears bankers take up the cause of the poor." Elsewhere, he states that "there is an obvious solution to the too-big-to-fail banks: break them up. If they are too big to fail, they are too big to exist."

Obviously, large-scale problems in the financial sector led to the collapse of the markets and the economy at large, but Freefall is not content to stop at causes. The responses by both the Bush and Obama administrations come under heavy fire too: the former for not recognizing the severity of the crisis or forming a coherent rescue, and the latter for choosing the politically safest responses (tellingly, the author dubs this the "muddling through" approach). A key problem, if Stiglitz is to be believed, is the misalignment of private and social benefits. When banking executives' compensation is based upon short-term stock price gains instead of long-term profitability, when regulators and top government officials at the Federal Reserve and the Treasury turn a blind eye to the mounting risks in the housing bubble to avoid slowing perceived economic growth, when financial innovations that produce high fees and low efficiency are encouraged instead of fined or prohibited, eventually there will be hell to pay, and we as taxpayers will be the ones paying it.

Indeed, this is exactly what we're doing right now. Regardless of one's feelings on Stiglitz's policy prescriptions -- some of which, not unlike those of his earlier book, Making Globalization Work, appear more grounded in political idealism than in reality -- the fact remains that it has fallen to the taxpaying public to bear the risk created by the masterminds of Big Finance's increasingly complex securities and other derivatives. To Stiglitz, this is ample reason to hit the reset button on the American financial industry -- or perhaps more accurately, the reformat button. His vision is of a world of free markets, yes, but not completely unfettered and left to their own whimsies.

Instead, President Stiglitz would beef up the regulatory framework: ensuring that banks' leverage ratios do not stray too high, that conflicts of interest (such as banks running their own real estate appraisal subdivisions) cannot occur, that predatory lending is prohibited (or at least heavily restricted), etc. Furthermore, Keynesian economics would experience a renaissance. (Stiglitz has little patience with the Chicago school, which he finds too theoretical and based on fallacious assumptions anyway. In one of the author's weakest moments, he shamelessly deconstructs a straw man only vaguely resembling actual conservative ideology.) A global reserve currency would be created, similar (but not identical) to the International Monetary Fund's Special Drawing Rights (SDR), to prevent the contagion of a worldwide crisis started by one currency's downward spiral.

By the time one has finished this book, it seems that there is not much to look forward to in Joseph Stiglitz's version of world events. He sees a financial market in disarray, being slowly rebuilt by the same hands that led to its destruction and leading inevitably to another instance of the same shortsightedness followed by more devastation. This is a hard pill to swallow, but it sheds light on why Joseph Stiglitz chose to write this book so soon after the financial earthquake. An undesirable future can be prevented, and we're in the ideal scenario to start again from the rubble. By the time the economy begins showing serious signs of recovery, all resolve to change course will have evaporated. And so the gods of irony may be leaving us a silver lining after all in this prolonged economic massacre: the longer we suffer from the effects of past miscalculations and neglect, the more time we have to formulate a new, healthy, and safe framework to avoid a recurrence.

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