Unhand that economy, villein!

Ta-Nehisi wonders:

I've been thinking about this for awhile. How much of this current crisis is just a manifestation of the American--indeed human--will? We're always talking about politicians deluding us and Wall-Street manipulating us, and predatory lenders conning us, into doing things that aren't in our own interest. But maybe we don't want what's in our interest.  Maybe we like our gas-guzzling, credit-card charging, second house buying when you can't afford it, commercial culture.

The thing I always liked about Bill Withers's "Use Me" was that it was a man's critique of a dysfunctional relationship. Unlike a lot of rappers, Withers doesn't blame the girl, he blames himself, going so far as to say, "It ain't too bad the way you using me, because I sure am using you to do that thing we do." In fact he laughs at the people trying to help him, much as one might picture people laughing at some lefty for telling them "they aren't voting their interest." In that respect, I think Bacevich's critique is a man's critique of another, very similar, dysfunctional relationship. It easy to think we've been conned into this current crisis. But what if this is the world as we want it? I think it's imperative to never forget that humans are animals. What if, in the words of Bob, we're just fulfilling the book? What if it isn't even dysfunctional? What if this is just who we are?

I too, have been thinking some of these thoughts for a while, though it probably goes down easier from Ta-Nehisi, who is not assumed to be a virulent shill for the credit card companies.  Apologies if this post wanders.  I have rather a lot on my mind.

In general, I think that we're approaching this crisis the wrong way when we look for a villain.  One of the things that has really surprised me--so far, anyway--is just how little criminal activity we've uncovered during this crisis.  There's an old accounting saying, "recessions uncover what auditors can't".  Enron, Global Crossing, and MCI were not the only companies that played funny games with their books in the late 1990s.  A number of technology companies played games with their books, but were able to grow enough to unwind their chicanery with little more than a slap on the wrist from the SEC.  Enron, et al. were simply the ones who got caught short when the music stopped.  I don't mean to say that all or most companies were guilty of this, because the overwhelming majority weren't.  But the problem wasn't unique to Enron, and had they been able to carry on with it longer, there's every chance that they might have been able to get out of their bad positions and stay solvent.

By contrast, so far the worst misbehavior I've seen has been the two Bear Stearns executives who told people their fund was okay the month before it went belly up.  This was a bad thing, and the people who did it no doubt richly deserve the jail terms they are going to get, and then some.  But on the scale of dishonesty generally uncovered during recessions, this wouldn't normally rank high enough to trigger more than a "You boys!!!" and a finger-wag.

This probably has something to do with just how tightly regulated financial companies already are; when the SEC wants to know about every transaction you do, it's hard to get too funny with the books.  Still, it's pretty impressive.

But no one wants to hear that.  Everyone wants a villain:  lefties want to hear that it was greedy bankers, or cold-hearted deregulators (or better yet, both!) who are entirely and 100% to blame; conservatives want to hear that it was poor people taking out loans they knew they couldn't pay off, and a pandering government that leaned on companies and the taxpayer to hand those irresponsible wretches free money.

Nature is not a novelist.  Reality does not come packaged in narrative form, and rarely gifts us with either true heroes, or true villains.

It is safe to say that almost everyone involved in this mess, from the borrowers to the bankers, thought that they were getting away with something--at the very least, that they had found a way to get rich without working.  It is an old saw that no one can be conned unless they are willing to believe in something for nothing, and the best cons generally get the victim to believe that he is putting one over on the con man.

It is trivial to observe that humans are imperfect; that is why institutions exist.  One of the most interesting things about the emerging fields of experiemental and behavioral economics is how they contradict, and complement each other.  Behavioral economics looks for all the ways that human beings do not act like the textbook rational value maximizers--and then experimental economics goes ahead and shows that when you stick them in a market, they go ahead and rationally value maximize.

These two things seem to contradict each other until you understand that a well designed institution creates things that are greater than the sums of their parts.  Of course, when a badly designed institution fails, it can create a bigger mess than the sum of the individual failures.  I think it was Daniel Davies, perhaps channeling George Orwell, who pointed out that unless you think that someone thrown out of work in a recession somehow deserves to be unemployed now, but did not deserve to be unemployed four months ago, you have to be at least somewhat skeptical of the rugged individualist school of economic advancement.

I'm actually not sure that what we had was bad institutional design; I'm not sure it's possible to design an institution that doesn't fail occasionally.  What we certainly have, however, is institutions that have performed badly in the current environment.

So while yes, part of this story has been simple greed, a willingness to believe that we could and should massively increase consumption no matter what, I tend to take this desire as a given.  The question is how you design an institution that channels those given desires into productive ends.  Markets, for example, channel self-interest into exchanges that result in gains to both sides; government lobbying channels that same self-interest into rent-seeking that makes society as a whole, and at least one major party to the exhange, worse off.

What I do not think is a major part of the story is that any simple change, or any handful of people or groups, somehow brought this on the rest of us.  Societies, and economies, cannot be brought down by a few people or a few bad decisions--elsewise we'd all still be living in hunter-gatherer tribes eating roast locusts for breakfast.  A failure this massive can only occur if massive numbers of people had their hands in it somehow.  If you want to find a villain, there's probably one handy at the nearest reflective surface.