Back to the [Economic] Future

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Jacob Weisberg has an interesting piece on Slate (Also in Newsweek) pointing to the several "causes" of the economic collapse.

There are no strong candidates for what logicians call a sufficient condition—a single factor that would have caused the crisis in the absence of any others. There are, however, a number of plausible necessary conditions—factors without which the crisis would not have occurred. Most analysts find former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan at fault, though for a variety of reasons.

I am not so much interested in the arguments per se, but in Weisberg's conclusions about them. Collecting the arguments of many experts, mostly but not all economists, Weisberg concludes that, "What these 'root causes' explanations have in common is that they don't lend themselves to practical solutions."

The very fact that there are so many different and disparate explanations for what lay at the roots of the collapse suggest strongly that it was the whole system at play. The mess cannot be attributed to any single part that led to the flip from an apparently stable state to another one, creating havoc. Weisberg misses this point just like about everyone else involved in the analysis and attempts to restore the system. He seems to dismiss the various explanations as a whole because they do not immediately indicate a "practical solution," that is, some sort of technical adjustment. In cases of systems failures, such fixes can, at best, reduce the likelihood of specific undesired outcomes. They cannot eliminate them. If those involved are really serious about fixing the system, then they must indeed fix the system, not merely its parts. This would take asking some fundamental questions about capitalism, markets, roles of governments, fairness, and all sorts of topics where leaders of business and government generally fear to tread.

Weisberg ends the piece with:

Historians are still debating what caused the Great Depression, so it's not likely this argument will be settled anytime soon. But if we haven't at least learned that our financial markets need stronger regulatory supervision and better controls to prevent bad bets by big firms from going viral, we'll be back in the same place before you can say 30 times leverage.

If we do put in new controls, we may escape returning to this "same place," but there is little guarantee that we will avoid finding ourselves in a different place we will be just as unhappy about.

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