I like reading James Surowiecki, because he's smart, and because I tend to read exactly the same facts he reads and draw precisely the opposite conclusions.
In two recent Surowiecki posts (here and here), Surowiecki points out that during the banking crises of the early eighties and early nineties, banks were arguably as insolvent as our banks are today, but hey, with a little time and without any radical changes, everything turned out great.
The means by which banks recover their rude health, if you give them time, deserves a critical review. I mean to pen some nasty polemic about that, but for the impatient, Yves Smith tells much of the story (with all too little nastiness). See also here, and think about how much poorer people who run credit card balances have paid over the years on loans tied to the "prime rate".
The fundamental difference between my perspective and Surowiecki's is that I don't think those previous recoveries were real. My view is that the crisis that we're in now is precisely the same crisis we've been in since at least the S&L crisis. We've had a cancer, with some superficial remissions, but fundamentally, for the entire period from the 1980s to 2008, our financial system in general and our banks in particular have been broken. They have profited from allocating capital poorly, from funneling both domestic loans and an international deficit into poor investments (current consumption, luxury housing) rather than any objective that might justify arduous promises to repay. We all got a reprieve during the 1990s, because internet enthusiasm persuaded many investors to fund our consumption via equity investment, which we could wash away relatively painlessly in a stock market crash. Debt investors don't go so quietly. Thanks to the cleverness of our banking system, we have a very great many lenders, both domestic and foreign, who've invested in trash but who demand to be made whole at threat of social and political upheaval. That is the failure of our banks. That they are insolvent provides us with an occasion to hold them accountable, and to reshape them, without corroding the rule of law or respect for private property.
(Incidentally, I don't think that the problem is overconsumption or that austerity is the solution. I think we can afford to throw a perfectly good party, but it has been easier to put everything on the credit card than to come up with smart ways to pay for the economy we want in real time.)
Surowiecki seems to believe that if we could resolve the current crisis in pretty much the way we resolved the previous crises, that'd be okay. For me that's the second-worst-case scenario, after a major social collapse. Because I know that a superficially reformed financial system, both in terms of banking and international architecture, will continue to do great harm, permitting imbalances and injustices that will bring a serious collapse or a dangerous war if they are not addressed. We are fortunate, very fortunate, that things have pretty much held together so far, and for that people whom I usually criticize, Messrs Bernanke, Paulson, and Geithner, deserve some credit. But if they manage to "save the world" like that famous committee did during the LTCM crisis, with a lot of empty talk but no real changes once the crisis had passed, we will be here again, and we won't get lucky forever. This is a very serious business.
There are profound economic problems in the United States and elsewhere that our financial system has proved adept at papering over rather than solving. Those of us who've played Cassandra over the years have been regularly ridiculed as just not getting it, as economic illiterates and trade atavists. Unfortunately, as Dean Baker frequently points out, the people who could never see the problems are the only ones invited to the table when the world cries out for solutions. The solutions on that table are those Surowiecki tentatively endorses, weather the storm, take some time to repair, the temple is structurally sound. But the temple is not sound. We either build a decent financial system, or suffer real consequences, in unnecessary toil and lost treasure, in war and conflict over false promises set down in golden ink.
The banking mess and the high unemployment rate are not the crisis, they are symptoms. This is not "dynamo trouble", it is a progressive disease, and what is failing is the morphine. Those of us who believe that financial capitalism is a good idea, that it could be the solution, not the problem, do their cause no favors by resisting radical changes to a corrupt and dysfunctional facsimile of the thing. We need to approach financial capitalism as engineers, and to largely rearchitect a crumbling design. If we don't, we may be so unfortunate as to suffer yet another superficial remission. But error accumulates, and error on the scale now perpetrated by national and international financial institutions is unlikely to be without consequence.
- 14-Mar-2009, 5:30 a.m. EDT: Changed an ungrammatical "are" to "is". Subjects and verbs must agree.
- 14-Mar-2009, 5:55 a.m. EDT: Changed "banking crisis" to "banking mess" to avoid using "crisis" twice in a sentence.
|Steve Randy Waldman — Saturday March 14, 2009 at 12:47am||permalink|