Even when Paul Krugman gets it right, he still gets it wrong. Now, I am not someone who is a knee-jerk critic of the guy, although I generally expect Krugman to blame the wrong people and recommend the wrong "solutions."
Thus, when I saw the title of his most recent column, "Bankers Without a Clue," I thought that this might be the day that I can read a Krugman column without cringing. Perhaps, I imagined, he might even use the "bankster" term that I have seen from so many libertarians and Austrian economists. Ah, hope!
Unfortunately, Krugman gave us his tired analysis, and in doing so, he also demonstrated that he was clueless himself about the stagflation of the 1970s. (After all, Krugman being a True Believing Keynesian believes that we should not have both inflation and rising unemployment, since he already has written elsewhere that almost any economic problem can be solved by…printing more money.)
Consider what has happened so far: The U.S. economy is still grappling with the consequences of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression; trillions of dollars of potential income have been lost; the lives of millions have been damaged, in some cases irreparably, by mass unemployment; millions more have seen their savings wiped out; hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, will lose essential health care because of the combination of job losses and draconian cutbacks by cash-strapped state governments.
And this disaster was entirely self-inflicted. This isn’t like the stagflation of the 1970s, which had a lot to do with soaring oil prices, which were, in turn, the result of political instability in the Middle East. This time we’re in trouble entirely thanks to the dysfunctional nature of our own financial system. Everyone understands this — everyone, it seems, except the financiers themselves.
The first paragraph is correct, although that is because he is stating the obvious. The second paragraph, however, reveals his ignorance of economic history. However, given that Krugman is ignorant on, well, about everything dealing with a real economy, his "Jake Blues-style" series of excuses for missing his bride at the altar ("There was an earthquake, IT WASN’T MY FAULT!!") seems about par for the guy.
For the record, the stagflation of the 1970s occurred because of a lot of reasons, none of them rising oil prices, which were largely a result of U.S. inflation that occurred after President Richard Nixon in 1971 ended all ties of the U.S. dollar to gold and gave us a pure fiat currency. (Keynesians want us to believe that rising oil prices caused inflation, when, in reality, the causality chain ran the other way.) Furthermore, he goes back to his tired and wrongheaded narrative about the U.S. financial system:
…there was nothing accidental about the crisis. From the late 1970s on, the American financial system, freed by deregulation and a political climate in which greed was presumed to be good, spun ever further out of control. There were ever-greater rewards — bonuses beyond the dreams of avarice — for bankers who could generate big short-term profits. And the way to raise those profits was to pile up ever more debt, both by pushing loans on the public and by taking on ever-higher leverage within the financial industry.
Yes, yes, it was all about the lack of regulation and the greed of those capitalists who were just following the Ideology of Free Markets. (I am sure that each of those bankers had copies of Atlas Shrugged in their back pockets.) Had the system been regulated by those Wise and Generous Regulators That Populated Washington after the New Deal, all of this could have been averted. What Krugman does not say, of course, is that we had both deregulation and the growth of moral hazard. (In fact, I never have seen Krugman refer to moral hazard, even though the perverse incentives that the various government backstops created made for a "heads I win, tails you lose" atmosphere in which the banks could fall into the "we’re too big to fail" nonsense.)
During the 1970s, Congress vastly expanded both the regulatory apparatus and government spending, and for the first half of the decade, the U.S. Armed Forces were bogged down in Vietnam. The top tax rate stood at 70 percent, the financial system was relatively small and highly-stratified and, as Michael Milken demonstrated, funding for the new high-technology initiatives that drove the economy through the 1980s and beyond came in large part from outside the regulated banking sector, something Krugman ignores (since it does not fit his own ideological narrative).
Furthermore, as the government taxed and regulated the economy into oblivion, thus destroying economic opportunities, it made up for the lack of economic growth (and the extra tax revenues growth would bring) by turning to the Federal Reserve System, which was all-too-happy to accommodate the growth of government by cranking up the printing presses.
Not surprisingly, the rate of inflation exploded during the 1970s and it was not, as previously noted, due to those greedy Arabs jacking up the price of oil on a whim. No, as the government expanded its jihad against private enterprise, the Fed responded by applying the "Krugman Solution" of printing more money in hopes that the activity generated by the new cash would cover the obvious economic bare spots.
As a result of this government "mismanagement" (to use a nice term), the economy experienced bouts of stagflation throughout the decade. Since Krugman cannot bring himself to believe that government taxation, regulation, and a rapidly-expanding fiat currency could have caused this debacle, it must have been OPEC and those greedy oil executives.
Likewise, he wants us to believe that American bankers in the last decade suddenly were seized by Ayn Rand Fever and decided to be greedy, ideology-directed financiers who recklessly leveraged their institutions and then hypocritically begged for money afterwards. Sorry, but these guys were on the dole all along, and given that Krugman never mentions moral hazard, one can see just how clueless (or maybe dishonest) the guy has been all along.
As I see it, the bankers are not clueless at all. They understand the game, they understand that the government is going to clean up the mess that they and their friends in Congress and the Bush and Obama administrations have created, and they understand that their antics are going to give them what they always have wanted: a nice, cozy, financial cartel which will provide sweet political contributions for the political classes, bonuses and high pay for themselves, and very little for everyone else.
And if Krugman cannot see it, then the guy truly is clueless. However, my take on the matter is much more cynical, and I don’t think I need to go any further on that subject.
William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit his blog.