Saturday, January 26, 2008

Who Needs Common Sense When You Have the Ecology Narrative?

I'm not an economist, but it just makes sense to me that if you're trying to stimulate a sluggish economy, you would want to put money in the hands of those most likely to spend it. But as Paul Krugman points out, once again ideology trumps common sense:

Aside from business tax breaks — which are an unhappy story for another column — the plan gives each worker making less than $75,000 a $300 check, plus additional amounts to people who make enough to pay substantial sums in income tax. This ensures that the bulk of the money would go to people who are doing O.K. financially — which misses the whole point.

The goal of a stimulus plan should be to support overall spending, so as to avert or limit the depth of a recession. If the money the government lays out doesn’t get spent — if it just gets added to people’s bank accounts or used to pay off debts — the plan will have failed.

And sending checks to people in good financial shape does little or nothing to increase overall spending. People who have good incomes, good credit and secure employment make spending decisions based on their long-term earning power rather than the size of their latest paycheck. Give such people a few hundred extra dollars, and they’ll just put it in the bank.

In fact, that appears to be what mainly happened to the tax rebates affluent Americans received during the last recession in 2001.

On the other hand, money delivered to people who aren’t in good financial shape — who are short on cash and living check to check — does double duty: it alleviates hardship and also pumps up consumer spending.
Why would the administration want to do this? It has nothing to do with economic efficacy: no economic theory or evidence I know of says that upper-middle-class families are more likely to spend rebate checks than the poor and unemployed. Instead, what seems to be happening is that the Bush administration refuses to sign on to anything that it can’t call a “tax cut.”

Behind that refusal, in turn, lies the administration’s commitment to slashing tax rates on the affluent while blocking aid for families in trouble — a commitment that requires maintaining the pretense that government spending is always bad. And the result is a plan that not only fails to deliver help where it’s most needed, but is likely to fail as an economic measure.

The words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt come to mind: “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.”

If you are a compassionate conservative, like David Brooks, however, the subprime mortgage crisis and looming recession are part of the "ecology narrative":
There is roughly a 100 percent chance that we’re going to spend much of this year talking about the subprime mortgage crisis, the financial markets and the worsening economy. The only question is which narrative is going to prevail, the Greed Narrative or the Ecology Narrative.

The Greed Narrative goes something like this: The financial markets are dominated by absurdly overpaid zillionaires. They invent complex financial instruments, like globally securitized subprime mortgages that few really understand. They dump these things onto the unsuspecting, sending destabilizing waves of money sloshing around the globe. Economies melt down. Regular people lose jobs and savings. Meanwhile, the financial insiders still get their obscene bonuses, rain or shine.

The morality of the Greed Narrative is straightforward. A small number of predators destabilize the economy and reap big bonuses. The financial system is fundamentally broken. Government should step in and control the malefactors of great wealth.

The Ecology Narrative is different. It starts with the premise that investors and borrowers cooperate and compete in a complex ecosystem. Everyone seeks wealth while minimizing risk. As Jim Manzi, a software entrepreneur who specializes in applied artificial intelligence, has noted, the chief tension in this ecosystem is between innovation and uncertainty. We could live in a safer world, but we’d have to forswear creativity.

The United States has generally opted for financial innovation. This has worked out pretty well. The U.S. has enjoyed 25 years of strong economic growth, in part because capital has been efficiently allocated to companies that can use it well.

Financial instruments like adjustable-rate and subprime mortgages have allowed millions of people to get homes they could not otherwise purchase, and research shows that most of these tools have been used intelligently.

Hedge funds have proliferated to help investors manage risk. These things exist precisely because investors want to smooth out volatility. In the old days, a blow to, say, the Texas economy could have dried up lending in Texas, but now funds flow globally, and money from one part of the world can shore up weakness in another.

Translation: Lenders will be protected from the adverse consequences of the risks they took in handing out mortgages to unqualified buyers who are losing their homes because they took a risk and now have to take personal responsibility for the adverse consequences.

Don't fret, dear heart. This is the way it has to be, because we cannot do anything that might put a crimp in "financial innovation":
When a new instrument enters the market, it takes a while before people understand and institutionalize it. Whether the product is high-yield bonds or mortgage-backed securities, there’s a tendency to get carried away.

In the first stage of this adolescence, investors look around and see everybody else making money off some new instrument. As Nicholas Bloom of Stanford notes: “They assume they are fine because they see everyone else buying it.” Individual bankers have a special incentive to get in on the ride because their yearly bonus is determined by how they do in the short term.

Then there’s a moment when people realize how stupid they have been. They’ve bought a pile of subprime mortgages without really knowing what they’ve purchased. The ratings agencies suddenly don’t look so reliable. The cycle of overconfidence becomes a cycle of underconfidence because nobody knows who is holding worthless paper.

Then, finally, maturity sets in. Those who have lost great gobs of money get fired. People still find the new product useful, but within parameters and with greater safeguards.

The lesson of the Ecology Narrative is that, in most cases, the market corrects itself. Maybe this year banks will change their pay structure so there’s not so much emphasis on short-term results. Maybe companies will change their boards to improve scrutiny over complex new instruments. In short, markets adapt.

In "most" cases. Eventually. Or not. But regardless, we mortals can do nothing to interfere with the process, because it operates on its own, without human intervention or action. It's simply part of the divinely ordained order of the universe.

Mister Leonard Pierce provides a beautiful illustration of "the American economy in its natural state."

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