Saturday, November 01, 2008

The heterodoxy strikes back

James K. Galbraith, interviewed in the NYTimes magazine.

Do you find it odd that so few economists foresaw the current credit disaster? Some did. The person with the most serious claim for seeing it coming is Dean Baker, the Washington economist. I saw it coming in general terms.

But there are at least 15,000 professional economists in this country, and you’re saying only two or three of them foresaw the mortgage crisis? Ten or 12 would be closer than two or three.

What does that say about the field of economics, which claims to be a science? It’s an enormous blot on the reputation of the profession. There are thousands of economists. Most of them teach. And most of them teach a theoretical framework that has been shown to be fundamentally useless.

You’re referring to the Washington-based conservative philosophy that rejects government regulation in favor of free-market worship? Reagan’s economists worshiped the market, but Bush didn’t worship the market. Bush simply turned over regulatory authority to his friends. It enabled all the shady operators and card sharks in the system to come to dominate how we finance.


Any thoughts on Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who engineered the bailout? He is clearly not a superman. This is the guy who had the financial crisis on his plate for a year, and when it finally became so pervasive that he couldn’t handle it on a case-by-case basis, the best he could do was send Congress a bill that was three pages long.

What’s wrong with that? Maybe he’s pithy. It shows he wasn’t adequately prepared. The bill did not contain protections for the public that Congress had to put in.

Regulation is the new mantra, and even Alan Greenspan in his mea culpa before Congress seemed to regret he hadn’t used more of it. I would say a day late and a dollar short. Greenspan blotted his copybook disastrously with his support of deregulated finance. This is a follower of Ayn Rand, an old Objectivist. His belief was you can’t really regulate and discipline the market and you shouldn’t try. I think Greenspan bears a high, high degree of responsibility for what has happened.

More from Robert Shiller, one of the "10 or 12" that Galbraith mentioned. Shiller's wife is a psychologist.

...I clearly remember a taxi driver in Miami explaining to me years ago that the housing bubble there was getting crazy. With all the construction under way, which he pointed out as we drove along, he said that there would surely be a glut in the market and, eventually, a disaster.

But why weren’t the experts at the Fed saying such things? And why didn’t a consensus of economists at universities and other institutions warn that a crisis was on the way?

The field of social psychology provides a possible answer. In his classic 1972 book, “Groupthink,” Irving L. Janis, the Yale psychologist, explained how panels of experts could make colossal mistakes. People on these panels, he said, are forever worrying about their personal relevance and effectiveness, and feel that if they deviate too far from the consensus, they will not be given a serious role. They self-censor personal doubts about the emerging group consensus if they cannot express these doubts in a formal way that conforms with apparent assumptions held by the group.

...In 2005, in the second edition of my book “Irrational Exuberance,” I stated clearly that a catastrophic collapse of the housing and stock markets could be on its way. I wrote that “significant further rises in these markets could lead, eventually, to even more significant declines,” and that this might “result in a substantial increase in the rate of personal bankruptcies, which could lead to a secondary string of bankruptcies of financial institutions as well,” and said that this could result in “another, possibly worldwide, recession.”

I distinctly remember that, while writing this, I feared criticism for gratuitous alarmism. And indeed, such criticism came.

I gave talks in 2005 at both the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, in which I argued that we were in the middle of a dangerous housing bubble. I urged these mortgage regulators to impose suitability requirements on mortgage lenders, to assure that the loans were appropriate for the people taking them.

The reaction to this suggestion was roughly this: yes, some staff members had expressed such concerns, and yes, officials knew about the possibility that there was a bubble, but they weren’t taking any of us seriously.

I BASED my predictions largely on the recently developed field of behavioral economics, which posits that psychology matters for economic events. Behavioral economists are still regarded as a fringe group by many mainstream economists. Support from fellow behavioral economists was important in my daring to talk about speculative bubbles.

Speculative bubbles are caused by contagious excitement about investment prospects. I find that in casual conversation, many of my mainstream economist friends tell me that they are aware of such excitement, too. But very few will talk about it professionally.

Why do professional economists always seem to find that concerns with bubbles are overblown or unsubstantiated? I have wondered about this for years, and still do not quite have an answer. It must have something to do with the tool kit given to economists (as opposed to psychologists) and perhaps even with the self-selection of those attracted to the technical, mathematical field of economics. Economists aren’t generally trained in psychology, and so want to divert the subject of discussion to things they understand well. They pride themselves on being rational. The notion that people are making huge errors in judgment is not appealing.

In addition, it seems that concerns about professional stature may blind us to the possibility that we are witnessing a market bubble. We all want to associate ourselves with dignified people and dignified ideas. Speculative bubbles, and those who study them, have been deemed undignified.

In short, Mr. Janis’s insights seem right on the mark. People compete for stature, and the ideas often just tag along.

Has anyone ever heard of the post-autistic economics movement? :-)


reunionpi said...

Henry Paulson and Goldman Sachs:

Scattered from California to New York: The judgments from the Department of Labor, tax liens against 401-K plans, state tax liens, mechanics lien, judgments from other companies

kurt9 said...

"post-autistic" economics is really just repackaged socialism. It is old wine in new bottles. The only theory of economics that has ever made any sense to me is the Austrian business cycle theory, which explains the current mess we are in to a "T".

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