Thursday, May 7, 2009
One of the leading business schools in America - the Wharton School of Business - has written an essay on the psychological causes and solutions to the economic crisis. Wharton points out that restoring trust is the key to recovery, and that trust cannot be restored until wrongdoers are held accountable:
According to David M. Sachs, a training and supervision analyst at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia, the crisis today is not one of confidence, but one of trust. "Abusive financial practices were unchecked by personal moral controls that prohibit individual criminal behavior, as in the case of [Bernard] Madoff, and by complex financial manipulations, as in the case of AIG." The public, expecting to be protected from such abuse, has suffered a trauma of loss similar to that after 9/11. "Normal expectations of what is safe and dependable were abruptly shattered," Sachs noted. "As is typical of post-traumatic states, planning for the future could not be based on old assumptions about what is safe and what is dangerous. A radical reversal of how to be gratified occurred."
People now feel more gratified saving money than spending it, Sachs suggested. They have trouble trusting promises from the government because they feel the government has let them down.
He framed his argument with a fictional patient named Betty Q. Public, a librarian with two teenage children and a husband, John, who had recently lost his job. "She felt betrayed because she and her husband had invested conservatively and were double-crossed by dishonest, greedy businessmen, and now she distrusted the government that had failed to protect them from corporate dishonesty. Not only that, but she had little trust in things turning around soon enough to enable her and her husband to accomplish their previous goals.
"By no means a sophisticated economist, she knew ... that some people had become fantastically wealthy by misusing other people's money -- hers included," Sachs said. "In short, John and Betty had done everything right and were being punished, while the dishonest people were going unpunished."
Helping an individual recover from a traumatic experience provides a useful analogy for understanding how to help the economy recover from its own traumatic experience, Sachs pointed out. The public will need to "hold the perpetrators of the economic disaster responsible and take what actions they can to prevent them from harming the economy again." In addition, the public will have to see proof that government and business leaders can behave responsibly before they will trust them again, he argued.
Note that Sachs urges "hold[ing] the perpetrators of the economic disaster responsible." In other words, just "looking forward" and promising to do things differently isn't enough.
Are the "perpetrators of the economic disaster" being held accountable?
So far, Obama, Summers, Geithner, Bernanke and crew have tried to paper over the cause and severity of the financial crisis, instead of honestly addressing them. They haven't lifted a finger to hold anyone accountable (other than a Madoff or two), but have actually thrown billions of dollars at the perpetrators, or else appointed them to government posts.
PhD economist Dean Baker recently made a similar point, lambasting the Federal Reserve for blowing the bubble, and pointing out that those who caused the disaster are trying to shift the focus as fast as they can:
The current craze in DC policy circles is to create a "systematic risk regulator" to make sure that the country never experiences another economic crisis like the current one. This push is part of a cover-up of what really went wrong and does absolutely nothing to address the underlying problem that led to this financial and economic collapse.
The key fact that everyone must always remember is that the story of the collapse was not complex. We did not need great minds sifting through endless reams of data and running incredibly complex computer simulations to discover the underlying problem in the economy. We just needed some people who understood the sort of arithmetic that most of us learned in 3rd grade.
If the people at the Fed, the Treasury, and in other key positions had mastered arithmetic, and were prepared to act on their knowledge, they would have taken steps to stem the growth of the housing bubble. They would have prevented the bubble from growing to the point where its inevitable collapse would bring down both the U.S. economy and the world economy...
We didn't need some super-genius to solve the mystery. We just needed an economist who could breath and do arithmetic. But the DC policy crowd tells us that if only we had a systematic risk regulator this disaster could have been prevented.
Okay, let's do a thought experiment. Suppose we had our systematic risk regulator in 2002. Would this person have stood up to Alan Greenspan and said that the country is facing a huge housing bubble the collapse of which will sink the economy?...
Alan Greenspan said that there was no housing bubble; everything was just fine. Would our systematic risk regulator have said that Greenspan was nuts and that the whole economy was a house of cards waiting to collapse?
Anyone who believes that a risk regulator would have challenged the great Greenspan knows nothing about the way Washington works. The government is run by people who first and foremost want to advance their careers.
And, the best way to advance your career in Washington is to go along with what everyone else is saying. If that was not completely obvious before the collapse of the housing bubble, it certainly should be obvious now.
How many people in government have lost their jobs because they failed to see the bubble? How many people even missed a promotion? In fact, the top financial officials in the Obama administration, without exception, completely missed the housing bubble. One might think it was a job requirement.
This lack of accountability among economists and economic analysts is the core problem that must be tackled. Unless these people are held accountable for their failures in the same way as custodians and dishwashers, there will never be any incentive to buck the crowd and point out looming disasters like the housing bubble.
The reality is that we have a systematic risk regulator. It is called the Federal Reserve Board. They blew it completely. We will do far more to prevent the next crisis by holding our current risk regulator accountable for its failure (fire people) than by pretending that we somehow had a gap in our regulatory structure and creating another worthless bureaucracy.
Remember also that the Wharton study pointed out that "the public, expecting to be protected from such abuse, has suffered a trauma of loss similar to that after 9/11."
Indeed, the government's responses to both crises have been similar:
- After 9/11, no one was held accountable for something that - at the very least - should have been prevented
- Instead, a new super-bureaucracy was created (the Department of Homeland Security), just as some super-risk-regulator is now being proposed for the economy
- And as with 9/11, the government is creating a commission which will be sure not to "assign blame"
As the Wharton essay says, the economy will not recover until the perpetrators of our crises are held accountable. But - unfortunately - the government is doing everything possible to avoid holding anyone accountable.
This is what I've been saying for a long time.