The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: Paul Krugman

How bailing out the rich created the Depression

The other day, Krugman wrote that we’re in the beginning of a new Long Depression.

Forgive me, but he’s wrong: this isn’t the beginning, it’s been going on for about two years now.

During a Depression there are periods where GDP grows.  There are periods where jobs grow.  It’s just that the periods of job growth don’t last.

There were opportunities to end the Depression before it really dug in its heels.  The last one was at the beginning of Obama’s term.  Kicking out of the Depression required two things.

The first was an adequate stimulus. This didn’t just mean a large enough stimulus, though the one offered was not large enough, it meant one properly constructed.  Tax cuts for ordinary Americans are not stimulative, because folks like banks who have pricing power (you must have a credit card, loans, etc…) will simply take that money away by raising rates and fees.  And it doesn’t mean short term shovel-projects, it means making commitments which will last for years so that businesses, when making plans know that hiring is worth it because those employees will be needed for more than a year or so.

Likewise the US has some serious problems with the structure of the American economy.  The cornerstone of the stimulus had to be reducing US dependence on oil because as long as the US economy is so dependent on oil, full fledged growth is simply not possible.  The days of $20/barrel oil aren’t coming back, and every time the price of oil gets too high, it puts great pressure on the US economy (and every other modern nation.)

The second thing which had to be done is to force the banks to actually eat their losses.  Wipe out the shareholders and let the bondholders take their losses.  All the money plunged into the banks (and it was much more than the TARP money, which was the smallest part of it) was wasted.  Banks are not lending, and restoring lending is what the bailouts were sold as doing.  Moreover they have raised borrowing rates and fees on those who need credit most, soaking up money which otherwise would be helping the economy rather than simply being sopped up to plug holes in bank balance sheets.

The trillions of dollars spent attempting to bail out the banks weren’t just wasted, by keeping zombie banks alive they made the situation worse.  Further by not wiping out the wealth of banks and those rich folks who made foolish investments which wrecked the world economy, they created a political problem: to whit, as Durbin said—the banks still own Congress.  (Along with the military industrial complex, pharma and various other monied interests).  Because monied interests still own Congress, they have made it impossible to fix America’s structural problems.

Six percent of GDP could have been saved by doing health care reform properly, but that didn’t happen.  The current “financial reform” bill under consideration is so week that I don’t know of one credible outside analyst who thinks it is sufficient to make sure there isn’t another financial crash, and on and on.

Historically speaking periods of high concentration of wealth only end when the rich lose it in a huge crash.  They are never ended by, say, high marginal taxation—high marginal taxation only occurs after the losses have occurred as those who saw the run-up do their best to make sure it can’t happen again.

That lasts until the generations who saw the mania and crash start dying off and losing power.  So you start seeing really serious decreases in marginal tax rates and slashing of financial regulations when the generations who lived through not just the Great Depression but the Roaring twenties were no longer around.

The cliche that a crisis is an opportunity is, sadly, true.  But it is only an opportunity if you take it.  What politicians, and this includes Obama and Geithner, as well as Bush, Paulson and Bernanke, did, was they protected the rich from their own folly, and made  ordinary people pay for it.  The wealth of the rich has mostly recovered, corporate profits have recovered, but for ordinary people the economy still sucks and there is no reason to believe it isn’t about to start sucking even more.

The financial elites think that what they can do is create an economy with a permanently high unemployment rate and that Americans (and Europeans, for that matter) will put up with it, because what choice do they have?

We are going to have another kick at this can, because the legislation being put in place is not sufficient to prevent another financial crisis.  This is a Depression, and it is not going to go away.

Next time I hope we will consider doing the right thing.  Make those who crash the system take their losses and break the power of the rich over government.

Be very clear, it’s you, or it’s them.  You break their power, or they will continue to push your wages towards parity with China.

And they are very determined it’s not going to be them.

Are you determined it’s not going to be you?

The Tao of Experts: Credentialism and Paul Krugman

Here’s a simple fact about credentials, economics, and economists.  The majority of economists, the vast majority, did not see the crash of 07 and 08 until it was occurring.

Economics is not a science.  It is not even close to a science.  Economists often act as if it is, because it uses math, but the fact is that it is more like sociology than physics, except that most sociologists know that they aren’t practicing anything like physics, and most economists, while they might say they aren’t, act as if they know what they’re talking about when they clearly don’t.

Now some are better than others.  Krugman, who I criticized in a past post, is a genius and a good economist.  But he isn’t a good economist because he’s got a Ph.D or a Nobel prize, and the idea that those things make him good are incredibly naive.  It’s also possible to be a good economist, and worthless at giving practical policy advice.   Here’s another Nobel prize winner for you: Milton Friedman.  Also a genius, by the way.  Lousy policy prescriptions, but a genius.

Economics is not a craft.  Put in ingredients X and Y, get Z.  If you think it is, you will go wrong every time.

Krugman is very bad when it comes to dealing with people who are part of his club.  He was great when Bush was in power until Bernanke took over the Fed, then because of his ties to Bernanke (Bernanke hired him for his current position) he started getting things wrong and cutting Bernanke way too much slack.

He is also very doctrinaire.  James Galbraith, in 2002, characterized Krugman as follows:

Krugman is concerned, first and foremost, with his own standing among the club’s leaders. And he has come to function as a kind of guard dog for their dogma, savagely attacking dim-witted outsiders while remaining generally quiet, if not always completely silent, about acts of illogic committed inside the profession.

Krugman has started a new career as a regular on the op-ed page of The New York Times, and his priorities were on display in his opening column. Consider how it opens:

Beginnings are always difficult: even the most tough-minded writer finds it hard to avoid portentousness. And since this is a quadruple beginning (new year, new century, new millennium, and, for me, new column), I won’t even try. What follows are some broad opening-night thoughts about the world economy.

I deliberately say world economy, not American economy. Whatever else they may have been, the 90’s [sic] were the decade of globalization… .

And so it goes, one banality after another, grimly through to the end, where Krugman writes that “the facts may be on the side of the free traders … [but] the opponents are winning the propaganda war.” It is a typical Krugman flourish, broad and misleading, in which the economists are pitted against a ruffian fringe. There is not a word to suggest Krugman himself is aware (though he certainly is, having himself come down on the right side) that the key issue among economists is not trade but capital flows.

In a column just a few days later, he is even more explicit: “New challenges to orthodoxy, like the growing backlash against globalization, are already brewing. Such challenges may be ill-informed, but no matter.” Always the defense of orthodoxy comes first. Nowhere does Krugman acknowledge the plain fact that the system of free global finance has been in deep crisis for over two years.

Granted, Krugman has become rather better since then, but the point remains.

When you’re dealing with experts you need to understand what they’re good for, and good at, and what they aren’t.  Krugman is a good economist and morally brave when dealing with people he doesn’t like or who egregiously violate the norms of the economics profession as Krugman understands them.  Step outside orthodox economics too far and Krugman will swat you.

But, unfortunately, orthodox economics is, well, wrong about a lot of things.  And when economics is wrong, or when Krugman’s friends are involved in affairs, Krugman tends to be wrong, or to cut his friends too much slack.  He also lacks technical knowledge in some fields, and sometimes doesn’t bother to get it (as, for example, in 2008, when he simply did not understand the mechanics of how oil prices are influenced by futures.)

I’ll always admire Krugman for his performance during the Bush regime.  I’ve read his books and learned a great deal from them, and he deserved his Nobel prize.  But he’s not been right about everything, and understanding when he gets things right and when he gets things wrong is important for anyone who respects him, and reads him, to understand.

More to the point, understanding when experts are right and wrong, and why, is a general skill everyone needs to have.  You can’t understand everything, you can’t personally be an expert on everything, so you need to learn who to trust, and when not to trust them.

This applies as much to me (don’t take my American electoral predictions seriously, I suck at them) as it does to anyone else.

No one’s right all the time.  Learn when the odds are that your favorite experts are right, and when odds are they’re wrong.

(Oh, go read Galbraith’s entire article.  It will reward your time. For example:

But self-absorption and consistent policy error are just two of the endemic problems of the leading American economists, and not even the most serious among them. The deeper problem is the nearly complete collapse of the prevailing economic theory–of the structure of thought that supports their policy ideas. It is a collapse so complete, so pervasive, that the profession can only deny it by refusing to discuss theoretical questions in the first place.

The prevailing theory is the idea that price and quantity are set in free competitive markets through the interaction of supply and demand. It is this idea, and no other, that lies at the core of the economist’s way of thinking. And it is also the source of the profession’s problem in getting almost anything important right.

The notion of supply and demand as the organizing principle for everything is a few decades more than a century old. (It was not so for Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, Marx, or Mill.) The key player in the Anglo-Saxon tradition is Alfred Marshall; in the continental tradition, no doubt, Leon Walras. In the twentieth century, great economists including Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter, and John Kenneth Galbraith have tried to break the grip of this notion on the professional imagination. But they have not succeeded.

Supply and demand in the labor market underlies the notion that full employment cannot be reconciled with stable prices, that technological change drives pay inequality, and that raising minimum wages must drive up unemployment. In all these cases, the fundamental theoretical error is essentially the same: It consists in reifying a supply curve, for which no firm empirical foundation exists. Put another way, it consists in allowing a metaphor, one that originates in markets for fish, to govern a profoundly different human institution.

Of course, the collapse of supply and demand perhaps is best illustrated by the global capital markets, which were supposed to bring stable prosperity to the developing countries but instead brought them financial ruin. And nowhere is this more evident, or more catastrophic, than in the case of Russia, where the failure to build new institutions to replace the failing structures of the Soviet system, and the reliance instead on the “market” to provide, has given us a production, employment, and public health disaster, leading toward the reestablishment of a state directed by the secret police and the army. None of this was openly admitted, one can be sure, by the AEA’s leaders.)

Krugman is trivially right and essentially wrong

When he says:

In fact, we know what a system in which banks are allowed to fail looks like: that’s how the US banking system worked before the creation of the Fed. And you know what? It wasn’t a smoothly functioning system, with sound banking enforced by market discipline; it was a system periodically wracked by “panics” that destroyed peoples’ savings and plunged the economy into recession.

Finally, because that’s what really happens when banks are allowed to fail freely, promises not to bail out banks in the future aren’t credible. Fail to reform finance now, and there will be two, three, many TARPs in our future.

Again, small banks have been allowed to fail.  Today.  In large numbers.  So it is credible that small banks will be allowed to fail in the future.  It’s not the only thing which has to be done, but it is a necessary step.

The idea is that if every bank is small, no bank knows it specifically is “too big to fail”, and no bank thinks that it might not be one of the banks allowed to fail.

Finance is not going to be reformed enough, in any case. You know it, I know it, Krugman knows it.

TARP is a distraction.  It wasn’t necessary.  What happened, that mattered, was done mostly by the Fed with Treasury’s collusion, but that 700 billion was never needed, since the Fed can pull money out of its bum (and did.)

This is misleading:

Now, in 2008-2009 the shareholders were not cleaned out, and the bondholders left untouched; in part this was a policy decision, but it was also influenced by the lack of “resolution authority”: there was no clean, well-established route for seizing complex financial institutions. We can fix that, and deal with future Citigroups (one of which, given history, is likely to be … Citigroup) the way the FDIC deals with smaller banks: protect the depositors, clean out the shareholders.

This was entirely a policy decision.  While, no, the FDIC hadn’t closed down anything as big as Citigroup before (because before Glass-Steagall was repealed it was illegal to be as large as Citigroup), it had all the authority it needed and could have taken over Citigroup any time it wanted to.

This is a Bush response.  “I fucked up and didn’t do the right thing, so I need more authority, even though I had all the necessary authority.”

Granted, better regulation is needed, but the parts of regulation which failed were prior to the financial collapse.  The necessary authority to wipe out shareholders was in place.  That was a policy decisions—a political decision.  Neither Bush nor Obama was willing to greenlight the FDIC to do its damn job.

This is perhaps the stupidest disagreement I’ve seen in some time: no one who thinks breaking up banks is necessary thinks it is sufficient.  Why is Krugman acting as if they do?  Why does he want to protect large banks from breakup?  Why are we even talking about this?

Geithner Plan Already Being Abused by Citibank and Bank of America

throwing_away_moneyThe Economist’s View explains how the banks are going to drive a bunch of Brink’s trucks through the holes in Geithner’s plan to stick the middle class with bankers’ losses:

It certainly looks as if Citigroup and Bank of America are using TARP funds, not to lend, which was one of the primary goals of the program, but to scoop up secondary market dreck assets to game the public private investment partnership.

So not only are they seeking to extract far more than was intended even with the already generous subsidies embodied in this program, but this activity is also speculating with taxpayer money.

This sort of thing was predicted here and elsewhere. Welcome to yet more looting.

Well, well, what a surprise.  They are using Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) money to buy up toxic assets, and selling them for a profit because they know that funds which split half the profits, but only take 15% to 20% of the losses, are going to overpay.

Perhaps you wondered why the markets rallied? It was because Geithner said very clearly that the government was going to give away a ton of money and not nationalize.

I agree with Dave Johnson at Seeing the Forest that Geithner’s plan will work—as long as we all define work to mean it will “bail out the banks, hedge funds, and rich people.”

The plan will eventually lead to a technical GDP recovery, and to employment not recovering before the next recession.  That’s the Japanification phase.  After that, well, we get a real depression, because the US (and the rest of the world) will have used up too many resources to be able to handle the next catastrophe. Since nobody will have put in place the necessary structural changes to avoid a catastrophe or gotten rid of the fools who caused this one, a catastrophe will occur.

Is anyone else noticing anything significantly different between Geithner’s actions and those Paulson would have taken?  Because frankly, I’m not.

(Hat tip to Dave Johnson)

Krugman Song

This song about Paul Krugman raises an important point: why isn’t Krugman or someone like him calling the shots, rather than people like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House National Economic Council Director Larry Summers who helped cause the crisis?

Plus it should make you laugh.

(Hat tip to Thers at FDL.)

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