Dangerous Ideas

I’ve been reading Big Think for a while now, and it’s always pretty interesting. Perhaps their most thought-provoking articles are in the Dangerous Ideas series, which they describe as:

Brace yourself: these ideas may at first seem shocking or counter-intuitive—but they are worth our attention, even if we end up rejecting them.  Every idea in this blog is supported by contributions from leading experts, from the world’s top theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, to Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker, to linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky.

It’s worth a look. Some are definitely better than others, and none really explore the issues in much depth, but in general they’re good to get you thinking or to start a conversation. A few of my favorites:

Apologies to my economist friends

As seen on Metafilter:

An engineer, a chemist, and an economist are shipwrecked and stranded on a desert island. Luckily, several cases of catering-size cans of food have washed up on shore alongside them. Unluckily, they have no can opener. They decide to think on it for twenty-four hours, then present their solutions to the dilemma.

The engineer goes first and says “I’ve calculated the strength of the cans based on a rudimentary finite-element stress analysis, and I think if we drop a large rock onto them from 6 feet, they’ll burst open”.

The chemist goes next and says “I’ve estimated the rate at which seawater could rust through the tinplate, and I think a couple more days in the brine will do it – the cans will just fall apart”.

The economist goes last, and, looking pleased with himself, begins “Suppose we had a can opener …”

Meet the new boss

To summarize: the members of Obama’s Transition Economic Advisory Board are too old, too uninspiring and too much part of the problem to deliver the change America needs and to keep alive the hope that Obama may have inspired through his election. A wasted opportunity.

(From FT.com | Willem Buiter’s Maverecon.) That sucks, but I can’t say I’m surprised. I’m prepared for more of the same in other political arenas, albeit with a flashier presentation than we’re used to. Buiter does overstep a bit in dismissing all lawyers outright, but in general he’s right that there aren’t enough serious economists on the team – especially given the significance of today’s crisis. And the number of protectionists on the board seems at odds with a need for a Bretton Woods III, as John B. Judis puts it. (I highly recommend this last article; it puts aspects of global economics of the last century into sharp perspective.)

Austin housing market

I’m just curious how the housing market in Austin is faring with this whole recession thing happening. Anyone have their ear to the ground on real estate? I’m especially interested to know how the condos are doing. This blog has some interesting info, and gives a slightly mixed / partially negative outlook on the market, but I’m needing a more distilled version.

Belaboring the bailout

Because I love nothing more than to belabor, I bring you this MeFi thread, in which there are two excellent This American Life episodes discussing the financial crisis. One of the salient points made by Adam Davidson:

“One option is I come and I give you a thousand bucks, and I take all the crap out of your basement, and you get to keep the thousand bucks – that’s the Paulson plan. The other option is I come and I give you a thousand bucks, and I get to move into your house, I become a co-owner of the house, I might get to kick you out of the house and take all of your stuff.”

The latter option he describes is a stock injection plan, a plan that would have a far more beneficial effect on the economy, if only for its punitive value. For the banks (and their influential lobbyists), it’s pretty simple: a stock injection plan was never an option. However, apparently a clause was eventually included in the bill that was passed that allows a stock injection option at the Treasury Secretary’s discretion. This is excellent news, considering that our government’s money is actually our money, and I’d like for it not to evaporate.

If you’d like a really accessible summary of the situation, see The Financial Crisis, As Explained to My Fourteen-Year-Old Sister (also found via MeFi).

Stiglitz on the bail-out

Booyah.

Americans have lost faith not only in the administration, but in its economic philosophy: a new corporate welfarism masquerading behind free-market ideology; another version of trickle-down economics, where the hundreds of billions to Wall Street that caused the problem were supposed to somehow trickle down to help ordinary Americans. Trickle-down hasn’t been working well in America over the past eight years.

The very assumption that the rescue plan has to help is suspect. After all, the IMF and US treasury bail-outs for Wall Street 10 years ago in Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia and Argentina didn’t work for those countries, although it did enable Wall Street to get back most of its money. The taxpayers in these other poor countries picked up the tab for the financial markets’ mistakes. This time, it is American taxpayers who are being asked to pick up the tab. And that’s the difference. For all the rhetoric about democracy and good governance, the citizens in those countries didn’t really get a chance to vote on the bail-outs. Had they, most would have suffered the same fortune as Paulson’s.

Read the rest, he actually is quite optimistic about the future. See more Stiglitz at the Guardian.

Chomsky on economics

I’m going to unwisely quote Chomsky out of context here, in the hopes that it will whet your appetite for the whole article:

The designers of the international economy sternly demand that the poor accept market discipline, but they ensure that they themselves are protected from its ravages, a useful arrangement that goes back to the origins of modern industrial capitalism, and played a large role in dividing the world into rich and poor societies, the first and third worlds.

This wonderful anti-market system designed by self-proclaimed market enthusiasts is now being implemented in the United States, to deal with the very ominous crisis of financial markets. In general, markets have well-known inefficiencies. One is that transactions do not take into account the effect on others who are not party to the transaction. These so-called “externalities” can be huge. That is particularly so in the case of financial institutions. Their task is to take risks, and if well-managed, to ensure that potential losses to themselves will be covered. To themselves. Under capitalist rules, it is not their business to consider the cost to others if their practices lead to financial crisis, as they regularly do. In economists’ terms, risk is underpriced, because systemic risk is not priced into decisions. That leads to repeated crisis, naturally. At that point, we turn to the IMF solution. The costs are transferred to the public, which had nothing to do with the risky choices but is now compelled to pay the costs – in the US, perhaps mounting to about $1 trillion right now.   And of course the public has no voice in determining these outcomes, any more than poor peasants have a voice in being subjected to cruel structural adjustment programs.

A basic principle of modern state capitalism is that cost and risk are socialized, while profit is privatized. That principle extends far beyond financial institutions. Much the same is true for the entire advanced economy, which relies extensively on the dynamic state sector for innovation, for basic research and development, for procurement when purchasers are unavailable, for direct bail-outs, and in numerous other ways. These mechanisms are the domestic counterpart of imperial and neocolonial hegemony, formalized in World Trade Organization rules and the misleadingly named “free trade agreements.”

(Emphasis mine.) Think about that highlighted phrase: essentially our system of credit burdens all of us with the risk, and bestows upon us none of the reward. And as for companies being too big to fail, I think Senator Sanders is right when he says, “If a company is too big to fail, it is too big to exist.”

The Chomsky article as a whole is actually much more broad in its scope than the financial crisis and bail-out; but then, Wall Street’s relationship to government is much broader in scope than just money. It’s very thought-provoking stuff, especially if like me, you rarely take South America’s role into account. History is being written on this mess right now, and it’s bigger than just bad debt causing companies to fold. We need a major philosophical paradigm shift in the corporate financial model if we want something that is sustainable and shields the average person from harm.

Stagflation!

U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben BernankeFor some reason, whenever the economy has come up in the last couple of years, my typical response has been to enthusiastically shout “stagflation!” Like economist Jeffrey Sachs, I’ve been seeing a few similarities:

The similarities with the first half of the 1970s are eerie. Then as now, the world economy was growing rapidly, around 5% per year, in the lead-up to surging commodities prices. Then as now, the United States was engaged in a costly, unpopular, and unsuccessful war (Vietnam), financed by large budget deficits and foreign borrowing. The Middle East, as now, was racked by turmoil and war, notably the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The dollar was in free fall, pushed off its strong-currency pedestal by overly expansionary U.S. monetary policy. And then as now, the surge in commodity prices was dramatic. Oil markets turned extremely tight in the early 1970s, not mainly because of the Arab oil boycott following the 1973 war, but because mounting global demand hit a limited supply. Oil prices quadrupled. Food prices also soared, fueled by strong world demand, surging fertilizer prices, and massive climate shocks, especially a powerful El Niño in 1972.

He also draws another connection:

Then as now, Dick Cheney was close to the helm. Whats more, the erroneous lessons he took away from the 1970s contribute to the problems that haunt us today. Cheney was Gerald Fords chief of staff in 1976, when soaring oil prices helped doom Fords reelection campaign. Cheney became obsessed with the fight to control the flow of Middle Eastern oil. That obsession, which by many accounts contributed to Cheneys urge to launch the Iraq war, has made the United States much more vulnerable in terms of energy, not only by tying the United States down in a disastrous military effort but also by diverting attention from a more coherent energy strategy.

It’s an interesting piece, and he does offer a suggestion or two for how we can avoid the mistakes of our last stagflation recovery. If you’re going to be influencing monetary policy for a large governing body, I highly recommend you read it. If you’re Ben Bernanke, hopefully you’re taking all of this in.