Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Repairing a complex nonlinear system (our economy)

Anonymous (who posts a lot across the blogosphere if you hadn't noticed) raised some really interesting points/criticisms of my geeky post down the page on why pump-priming is not a good metaphor for working with the economy.

In a nutshell, the criticism is this: Aren't you just throwing in a lot of jargon to support the classical libertarian idea that the government should do nothing? And is this reasonable while so many people are in trouble and the system is whacked?

Good question.

Actually, I am not in favor of government inaction, and I am not a blind follower of the tax cuts will do it all if we just wait theory.

I think it was a particular form of government inaction, of misregulation rather than de-regulation that got us into this mess, or, I should say, these three messes.

Mess one: the massive and growing unemployment and downturn in consumer spending.

Mess two: the structural deficiencies of our financial system

Mess three: the virtual bankruptcy of government in America, both at the State and Federal levels.

It is well worth starting with mess three, because the current mantra of the Keynesians in the administration is that only government possesses the resources to get us out of messes one and two. But, courtesy of our friends at Delawareliberal reprinting a critical narrative, we know now that's not really true.

Here's part of what Congressman Paul Kanjorski admits in a recent interview about the crisis back in September [go there and watch the clip]:

I was there when the secretary and the chairman of the Federal Reserve came those days and talked to members of Congress about what was going on… Here’s the facts. We don’t even talk about these things.

On Thursday, at about 11 o’clock in the morning, the Federal Reserve noticed a tremendous drawdown of money market accounts in the United States to a tune of $550 billion being drawn out in a matter of an hour or two.

The Treasury opened up its window to help. They pumped $105 billion into the system and quickly realized that they could not stem the tide. We were having an electronic run on the banks.

They decided to close the operation, close down the money accounts, and announce a guarantee of $250,000 per account so there wouldn’t be further panic and there. And that’s what actually happened.

If they had not done that their estimation was that by two o’clock that afternoon, $5.5 trillion would have been drawn out of the money market system of the United States, would have collapsed the entire economy of the United States, and within 24 hours the world economy would have collapsed.

Now we talked at that time about what would have happened if that happened. It would have been the end of our economic system and our political system as we know it.

I will start with the assumption that this account is accurate (we have no evidence to suggest it isn't.) If so, what it literally means is that the economy is so large, so globalized, and so intermeshed that even government no longer has the brute force resource (money!) to control its actions by direct intervention. Because the only way to have sufficient money to stop such an electronic run would be to print so much new fiat money as to render it virtually worthless, thereby collapsing the system for a different reason.

The reason why brute force and cosmetic (CEO salaries, restrictions on lobbying, and other accoutrements of the Geithner plan) won't work is that the plan doesn't address the chief problem of the financial system, which is lack of firewalls between different financial functions and sectors as corporations were allowed to expand into virtually all forms of financial operations. When financial corporations become, at once, bankers, brokers, insurance companies, derivative packagers, re-insurers, bond agents, ad infinitum ad nauseam, then you have eliminated firewalls to prevent any crisis from cascading into system failure, while reducing the number of players below a threshold level of competition.

So my answer to mess two would be a restructuring to break up the vertically and horizontally integrated monopolies (and yes this is a libertarian solution and one in keeping with the necessary regulation of fairness and preservation of private property) rather than to attempt to prop up the existing system via wealth transfers and increasing concentration of financial power in fewer and fewer entities. Which is what the government is doing....

Because ultimately, if the government succeeds at its current strategy, it will ironically find itself with less and less control over the behemoth it has created.

So, for messes three and two: stop attacking the the financial system with more money and start building in structural firewalls and eliminating monopolies.

For mess one: a mix of direct income support, targeted payroll tax rate decreases, and direct financial support to State governments. All the reinvestment programs that represent part of the Obama energy or health care or other social agendas should be detached from the stimulus bill and considered as separete issues.

In that sense I agree pretty much with Angus at Kids Prefer Cheese:

It seems to me there are three major components to the bill: Shoveling dough to Congressional Democrat's pals, implementing Obama's rebuild America vision, and the stimulus.

Now all these can be seen as interlinked; as Obama pointed out stimulus = spending, but philosophically I think they are different.

#1 is business as usual and probably would have increased anyway just given the new political power alignment. It's just pretty convenient for the Dems to lump it into a "save the world" bill and be done with it. Plus once it's in the budget, it's the new baseline. #2 should be done carefully and slowly on a cost benefit basis, not on a which is ready to go sooner basis. The rush will cause a lot of money to be wasted. And even shovel ready projects take a fair amount of time to complete. #3 should be done in a serious way. Tax rate cuts, not rebates. No further subsidies for housing, in the short term the best thing is for the Government to buy stuff they can take immediate delivery of (and possibly even somehow use).

Note that I am not advocating a stimulus be done, I am just saying if we were going to do it seriously we'd get input from experts and do it technocratically, Bryan Caplan style.

A bit of a mudgy answer to Anon's question/criticism, but I'm home sick today, so it's the best I could do. Will try to be more lucid tomorrow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Steve, your solution regarding creating walls in order to address the messes two and three problems sounds logical to me, although I don't feel informed enough to say much more than that. I agree that a good part of the problem seems to stem from a blurring of the lines between traditional bankers, investment bankers and other Wall Street manipulators/entities.

I am concerned about how we will help the unemployed; leaving that up to the states, with their federal infusions, might be enough, I'm not sure. Perhaps some of the states will use the infusion to balance their books, therefore not incentivized to do the necessary cost cutting; and then there is the question of what is left over to help the unemployed.

On mess one, I like the idea of reductions in the payroll tax, since that goes directly to some of the folks who are being hurt the most. However, I suspect that this will not be an effective creator of jobs. Direct aid to states makes some sense too, although again, the impact on creating jobs is not clear, as this will depend on what the states do with their money grant. On the other hand, I support the elements of the Obama plan which goes to so-called shovel ready infrastructure building, because of the obvious creation of jobs. The portions contracted out will benefit the private sector. To both get a head start on neglected spending areas and jobs creation, I also support federal funding of the digital streamlining of medical records and school renovation/construction. Expanded Pell Grants to fund higher education is an investment that makes much sense to me. Finally, I support a sizable investment now into green energy technology and build, which also translates into jobs.

This additional spending must be made temporary, rationalized on the basis of making investments now in job creation, future cost reductions, more efficient delivery of services, and less dependence on our adversaries.

Considering that we are now spending at 70% of GDP, the current $800 billion R & R bill will increase spending to about 76%. Given that we survived a debt of about 120% of GDP, and thrived, post WWII, I believe this crisis may be better aided by doubling the Obama package. If we don't infuse enough printed money into the economy to get us back in a growth mode in a year or two, the crisis continuous. If we do infuse more, our debt will be reduced sooner, along with a return to growth sooner.

Both government and individuals are going to have to tighten our belts for a long time; continuing at our level of consumption and spending will not be sustainable. We have received our wake-up call. Let us not go back, rather enjoy the finer things in life that cost little to nothing other than a much needed attitude change.

Perry Hood