As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Financial Reform FAIL And A New Metric For Recessions

Simon Johnson had the same problem as I did with the President's speech on financial reform:

As a diagnosis of the problems that let us into financial crisis, it was his clearest and best effort so far. He didn’t say it was a rare accident for which no one is to blame; rather he placed the blame squarely on the structure, incentives, and actions of Wall Street.

But then he said: our regulatory reforms will fix that. This is hard to believe. And even the President seems to have his doubts, because he added a plea that – in the meantime – the financial sector should behave better [...]

Louis Brandeis, of course, would have seen things differently. The author of “Other People’s Money: And How The Bankers Use It,” was under no illusions concerning the underlying financial power structures and how they operated. He would have regarded an appeal to the better nature of bankers as somewhere between humorous and sad.

The only thing that will make a different is regulation. This is the lesson of the 1930s in the US – the regulations imposed at that time created a financial sector that did not impede growth after World War II; basic intermediation (connecting savers and borrowers) worked fine and destabilizing frenzies were avoided. During this period, the financial sector came up with venture capital, ATMs, and credit cards – arguably the three most important financial innovations of the past 100 years, and much more helpful of real innovation than anything you’ve seen since 1980.

As Johnson has repeatedly argued, we need to break up the biggest banks, end the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington and ensure that the executives taking the risks put their own fortunes at stake instead of gambling with our money. Sadly, none of these elements exist in the more modest reform proposals from the President, and even those are faltering in the face of institutional pressure.

As a result, we muddle through, resetting the clock to the pre-bailout days without having fundamentally fixed the system or prevented the possibility of a relapse. It's great that Ben Bernanke thinks the recession is over. But the 9.4 million people who have lost their jobs would disagree with him. Their personal depressions continue, and I would argue that this is a direct result of allowing the titans of Wall Street trillions in Treasury wealth while ordinary Americans suffer with a too-small stimulus and not much prospect for recovery.

Fifteen million Americans are locked in the nightmare of unemployment, nearly 10 percent of the work force. A third have been jobless for more than six months. Thirteen percent of Latinos and 15 percent of blacks are out of work. (Those are some of the official statistics. The reality is much worse.)

Consider this: Some 9.4 million new jobs would have to be created to get us back to the level of employment at the time that the recession began in December 2007. But last month, we lost 216,000 jobs. If the recession technically ends soon and we get to a point where some modest number of jobs are created — say, 100,000 or 150,000 a month — the politicians and the business commentators will celebrate like it’s New Year’s [...]

At some point the unemployment crisis in America will have to be confronted head-on. Poverty rates are increasing. Tax revenues are plunging. State and local governments are in a terrible fiscal bind. Unemployment benefits for many are running out. Families are doubling up, and the number of homeless children is rising.

It’s eerie to me how little attention this crisis is receiving. The poor seem to be completely out of the picture.

Joseph Stiglitz has a similar view in today's Guardian, arguing that the Administration through saving the financial system has perversely created banks that are not only too big to fail but too big to resolve, the way you would other entities which cannot meet their obligations. In a separate piece, he argues that the metric for evaluating recession - gross domestic product - now has almost no bearing on everyday lives, and ought to be scrapped in favor of something that truly reflects the outlook for ordinary people.

The big question concerns whether GDP provides a good measure of living standards. In many cases, GDP statistics seem to suggest that the economy is doing far better than most citizens' own perceptions. Moreover, the focus on GDP creates conflicts: political leaders are told to maximise it, but citizens also demand that attention be paid to enhancing security, reducing air, water, and noise pollution, and so forth – all of which might lower GDP growth.

The fact that GDP may be a poor measure of well-being, or even of market activity, has, of course, long been recognised. But changes in society and the economy may have heightened the problems, at the same time that advances in economics and statistical techniques may have provided opportunities to improve our metrics.

I remember Andy Stern coming up with the same idea in his book a few years ago. If we continue to use a metric based on the desires of elites, then they will please themselves with growth results even though the mass of people continue to suffer. Believe it or not, common statistics can actually change policy for the better. The problem lies in getting everybody to use it.

...Kevin Drum offers up real median income growth as a better metric. If that's the case, we've actually been in a depression for a decade.

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