Chad Perrin: SOB

18 January 2009

Bailouts, Change, and Hope

Filed under: Geek,Liberty — apotheon @ 04:17

Just in case anyone missed my way-too-long SOB entries . . .

In Unfairly Rewarding Greedy Bankers, and Why It Works, business columnist Steven Pearlstein makes it clear he believes the $700 billion bailout bill was a necessary step toward saving "the whole global economy":

I don't see how it's possible to rescue the banking system without rescuing banks. That's not because anyone thought banks or bankers were particularly deserving of public charity or even sympathy — clearly they weren't. But by last summer, with investors, lenders and depositors running for the exits, there was a genuine fear that the banking system could collapse and bring the whole global economy down with it. To prevent that outcome, the Treasury asked for $700 billion that it could use not only to mount rescues of individual institutions, but also to try to get ahead of the crisis by taking proactive steps to shore up the financial system.

Perhaps someone could actually try explaining how exactly this miraculous salvation of "the whole global economy" came to pass. In the midst of all his hand-waving and dutiful repetition of the party line on how important all this was, he never once actually draws a clear line of cause and effect between the bailout on one end and the continuing health of the world economy on the other. More to the point, the continuing health of the world economy in light of recent collapses has not even been settled yet. Wait, it's worse than that: banks are still collapsing, including banks that have already been "bailed out". For instance, Bank of America used bailout money to start a merger with Merrill Lynch, and because of that has demanded more money to remain solvent.

According to a Wall Street Journal article — and as someone who has read the book more than once, I have to agree — the events of the last year (and the events shaping up to happen in the upcoming year) look surprisingly like the economic circumstances described in Ayn Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged:

The current economic strategy is right out of "Atlas Shrugged": The more incompetent you are in business, the more handouts the politicians will bestow on you. That's the justification for the $2 trillion of subsidies doled out already to keep afloat distressed insurance companies, banks, Wall Street investment houses, and auto companies — while standing next in line for their share of the booty are real-estate developers, the steel industry, chemical companies, airlines, ethanol producers, construction firms and even catfish farmers.

If you've read Atlas Shrugged but don't see the parallels, it's time to hand in your Reading Comprehension badges; you clearly didn't get it.

Anatomy of a Bubble

What this is accomplishing is not the salvation of "the whole world economy". It is, instead, the desperate pouring of good money after bad into a bottomless pit of failure. This whole situation came about within what is called a "bubble" market, where the health of a market is artificially inflated by unnatural influences on the market that skew incentives, prompting economic decision-makers to behave differently than they otherwise would be short-term financial success demands it under the new circumstances. Some of these people don't have a far-enough reaching view to realize that the market has been thrown off-balance by these influences, and only see the short-term balance sheets. Some believe they can gamble wisely and pull out before there's a market correction, and that things will fix themselves at the expense of a few unlucky people while rewarding a few lucky (and clever) others, following which things will go back to "normal".

If continued interference in market forces inflates the bubble further, even people who should know better start forgetting that this was never the natural state of things. People get complacent. Those who got out of the bubble market while the getting was good might start getting back into it again. The constant churning of money keeps inflating the bubble, hiding the fact that there's nothing inside it but air. More and more of the market gets sucked into the thing, providing more soap to add to the growing radius of our bubble, and making the major players in more and more industries ever-more dependent upon the continued health of the bubble. Eventually, surface tension has to fail, and the bubble will pop.

You may ask what started all this. The answer is simple: it was government intervention. In particular, it was government programs creating a whole new submarket in high-risk loans. Giving loans to people who are clearly, patently unable to make good on their obligations to repay the loans was the essential core of these government programs. The bubble grew gradually for a long time, then the Clinton administration ensured it would grow a bit faster. Along came the Bush administration and, while Bush and friends made token efforts to rein in some of the damaging governmental influence (opposed by Barney Frank, friends of Obama, and a crapload of other idiot Democrats), they also spent ungodly amounts of money in a stunningly short period of time (think "War on Terror"), which both drained and redistributed the strength of our bubble's surface matter. The life of the bubble was significantly shortened.

Greenspan, who had employed a relatively light hand in his role of Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board for most of his time there, saw doom approaching. His answer was to drastically reduce interest rates and fuel the real estate market as a buffer against economic collapse, thus shoring up the bubble through governmental interventionist trickery and inflating it just that much faster. He figured that of all the market segments he could influence the real estate market was the most resilient, and would thus recover most quickly and with the least damage incurred. In short, he set this particular disaster up because he figured it would be less disastrous than the alternative. He may have been right, even if he didn't realize how much damage the real estate market (and connected markets) would suffer — but if so, that should give you pause. If this is the less disastrous option, the alternatives must beggar the imagination. It would also suggest that Greenspan basically threw himself on the sword of public opinion in the hopes his sacrifice might actually help things in the long run. He probably didn't figure on what others would do to further exacerbate the problem when the house of cards started tumbling down around our ears, though.

Stopping the Explosion After it has Happened

We went from blithely feeding a bubble that could kill us all when it popped to trying to institute emergency measures designed to inflict a relatively small amount of pain so that we could avoid a greater quantity, and from there to taking short-term measures to delay the inevitable. The delaying tactics are, in some respects, the most damaging of all: we're trying to save ourselves from the descent into economic hell by stimulating more of the same masochistic market behavior that got us in this situation in the first place. People — and by "people", I mean mostly congresscritters and their intellectual ilk — look at the situation and see no further than the fact that confidence in financial markets is faltering. Considering we live in a fiat currency economy, I guess it shouldn't be surprising that the people in the position to make decisions about what to do to mitigate the damage think all we need is more faith in the very markets that are failing due to having had too much blind faith invested in them in the first place.

There's a big gaping hole in the side of our bubble now, and government has decided to try to force more air into it as quickly as possible in the hopes that it will somehow magically mend itself, and we can go on living in ignorance of the dangers of living on the surface of a bubble. The current mechanism toward this end is, of course, to invent money out of thin air (that's what happens when the Federal Reserve drops interest rates) — ignoring the fact that doing so devalues all the money already in circulation, thus (in a delayed reaction) damaging the solvency of every single salary- and wage-earning individual in the country — and give it to failing institutions in exchange for equity in bad investments.

We, the Stupid

Of course, there are people who argue that we're going to come through this, as long as we continue to place all our faith in the pervasive conspiracy in our government to do everything in its power to make our lives better. According to these conspiracy theorists, those of us who bemoan the loss of yet more wealth are just a bunch of spiteful sore losers. I'm sure some people who object to the bailouts are spiteful sore losers, who object only because the bailouts are helping to procure golden parachutes for already rich businessmen — but many of us aren't. That doesn't stop Steve Pearlstein and friends from using an argumentum ad hominem fallacy as the bedrock of his argument:

You may not like the fact that, as a result of these actions, overpaid bankers were allowed to hang on to their jobs or preserve the value of their stock holdings. And you may be unhappy that the financial system remains in such fragile shape that it is still hard for some people and businesses to get loans they think they deserve. But let me assure you that things would have been a whole lot worse if these actions had not been taken.

I love that. He wants me to let him assure me that things would be worse if such drastic measures as rewarding failure were not taken.

The problem with rewarding failure is not that "overpaid bankers were allowed to hang on to their jobs". The problem is that, when you subsidize something, you get more of it — even if what you subsidize is failure. That, my friend, is how this all got started: subsidizing failure. Please refer back to Atlas Shrugged if the real world economy is too complex for you to grasp how things move.

We Don't Need Another Hero

Dudley Do-Right can't ride in and save the day, over and over again, indefinitely — not in the real world, at least. When a major corporation isn't judged "to big to fail" and handed a crapload of inflation-funded government support to reward its incompetence, it has to "restructure". Consider for a moment that the failing segments of our economy are, in essence, much the same as such a corporation, in macrocosm. It doesn't need reinflation; it needs restructuring.

Restructurings hurt. People get laid off. Whole divisions get shut down or spun off into their own little independent companies. Big organizations get broken up into smaller organizations — the eggs are no longer all kept in one basket.

Of course, these eggs in our economy might as well be made of magnetized iron, with the way government intervention has constantly created new and bigger incentives for growth and consolidation. The only way to really fix this stuff once and for all is to start breaking down those incentives, to get government's fingers out of business — to demagnetize the eggs so they aren't constantly drawn to one another. (Damn, that's a terrible metaphor.) Just as the economic bubble is like a major corporation that has outgrown itself in macrocosm, so a major corporation is an economic bubble in microcosm, and we need to rein in the tendency to provide institutional aid for inflating those corporate bubbles. It is the consolidation of economic power represented by large corporate organizations that creates such fertile ground for the growth of economic bubbles in the first place.

We don't need to rescue what's failing because it's "too big to fail", and in the process make it even bigger by cajoling the bigger failures into assimilating the smaller failures. We need to break them down so that they're small enough, and divided up enough, that parts of the former whole can fail without dragging all the rest down with them. Bailout money just tries to rescue the bubble that is the corporation. Leave the organization to its own economic devices, and start eliminating the artificial incentives toward maintaining current consolidation of power instead. Reducing that competing set of incentives will cause them to rush more quickly to "restrcture", to divide things up into smaller, more durable entities that aren't so dependent upon each other for survival.

Doing so won't save the corporation, but it'll save the financial mechanisms that made up the corporation — and that's what really matters for saving the economy.

Of course, that would involve the egos and incomes of a small number of inordinately powerful men, both in the business world and in government, taking a significant hit. That's why it'll never happen.

Why We Need Bailouts

I guess that's why we need bailouts — because the people who decide what "we" need are not the same "we" that comes to my mind when I say "we".

Maybe, in the long run, more bailouts really are for the best. Socially speaking, it seems highly unlikely that we'll see the economy truly rescued, because the people in positions of power would basically have to decide to give up a lot of that power (most of it ill-gotten) to do so. People who have risen to power by scamming others, making use of government mandated incentives that provide increased benefits to a lucky few to build economic empires, are highly unlikely to suddenly decide to give it all up.

More bailouts will feed into the power consolidation bubble, though. All bubbles eventually pop. Maybe, if the entire mixed-model economy bubble is inflated sufficiently quickly and constantly, it'll pop with a thunderous bang, and leave those who wielded all that consolidated power newly powerless. Maybe, at that point, we'll be able to start building something worthwhile on the wreckage.

Of course, the "we" I'm talking about are the people who survive that disaster. Most of us probably wouldn't be among them.

A New Hope

The only real chance we have for a somewhat gentler succession to a less economically doomed world, as far as I can see from where I'm sitting, is a quick rise of a parallel, alternate, different, and probably illegal economic model — in effect, an economic singularity. It may very well happen — as I'm pretty sure it would be difficult to reach the technological Singularity without an economic singularity being part of the package, and the technological Singularity does seem to be rushing to meet us in thirty years or so.

I'm trying to prepare myself for it, at least. Maybe I'll see you on the other side.

. . . or maybe economic collapse will happen first, and our generation is completely screwed.

5 Comments

  1. You may ask what started all this. The answer is simple: it was government intervention. In particular, it was government programs creating a whole new submarket in high-risk loans.

    It goes back even further then that with, back to the Nixon taking us fully off the gold standard and back further to the New Deal era were we just propped up the economy just enough to scrape by.

    Comment by Joseph A. Nagy, Jr. — 18 January 2009 @ 05:34

  2. Oh, the troubles in our economy go back much further even than that — but I was talking about the particular bubble that precipitated the current market collapse when it burst with the statement you quoted.

    Comment by apotheon — 18 January 2009 @ 05:47

  3. There is an interesting note to take on this. The US are really just one market, although a bit one.

    By pushing more liquidities on the economy, they cheat. They give money to selected companies to save "their" jobs.

    In response, Europe has to do the same. It's like playing poker.

    On the long term, this will divide more people. This will create more wars. Some more non-sense.

    Comment by Antoine — 18 January 2009 @ 02:28

  4. Good point, Antoine. Most "major" wars are, to some degree, about economics.

    Comment by apotheon — 18 January 2009 @ 04:15

  5. Well perhaps, but I think the current bubble isn't all that new, just really started being sped up by removing us from the gold standard. I do think a forced return to the gold standard would stabalize our economy greatly without expanding the bubble, it may even help to shrink it.

    Comment by Joseph A. Nagy, Jr. — 18 January 2009 @ 08:27

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