In his New York Times column today, David Brooks analogizes the government's proper role in the economy to an administration's actual role in a modern U.S. university:
[G]overnment will be a bit like the administration of a university. A university president is nominally the head of the institutions. He or she lives in the big house. But everybody knows a university president is a powerful stagehand.
The professors, the researchers, the tutors, the coaches and the students are the real guts of a university. They handle the substance of what gets done. The administrators play vital but secondary roles. They build the settings. They raise money. They recruit and do marketing. They help students who are stumbling.
The administrators couldn't possibly understand or control the work in the physics or history departments. They just try to gather talent, set guidelines and create an atmosphere where brilliance can happen.
Mulling it over, this is a better analogy than even Brooks indicates. The administration/everyone else dynamic at a university also captures the feelings that often predominate debates about the role of government in society.
To be specific:
1) Most faculty and students do their damndest to simply ignore the fact that a university administration actually exists.
2) Most faculty and students cultivate an active ignorance about things like budgets, revenues, etc.
3) The only time any university administration is popular is when it has resources to dole out;
4) Any time the administration interferes with what faculty, students, etc. want to do it provokes fierce resentment -- unless the faculty/student is in trouble, in which case the hope is that the administration will make it all better.
5) Trying to change any aspect of university governance is, I suspect, even more difficult than trying to get a law passed through Congress.
6) Paying customers rack up massive debts and inevitably feel like they're not getting close to their money's worth, even though the data suggests that the pecuniary rewards from going to college are pretty significant.
7) Even if administrators lack local knowledge about the research going on in their schools, they're nevertheless sure that they completely understand the research.
8) Even though administrators come from the faculty, approximately 99.8 percent of all faculty are completely ill-suited for administrative responsibilities.
Brooks uses this analogy because of his argument for how the global economy will function in this century:
In this century, economic competition between countries is less like the competition between armies or sports teams (with hermetically sealed units bashing or racing against each other). It's more like the competition between elite universities, who vie for prestige in a networked search for knowledge. It's less: "We will crush you with our efficiency and might." It's more: "We have the best talent and the best values, so if you want to make the most of your own capacities, you'll come join us."
The new sort of competition is all about charisma. It's about gathering talent in one spot (in the information economy, geography matters more than ever because people are most creative when they collaborate face to face). This concentration of talent then attracts more talent, which creates more collaboration, which multiplies everybody's skills, which attracts more talent and so on.
Well.... economic competition among countries has been something of a misnomer since the start of the Industrial Revolution. It's mattered only in the sense that geopolitical competition exists. To put this into concrete terms, from a strictly economic perspective China's massive growth is an unalloyed good for Americans, because it means a future growth market for U.S. goods and services. It good becomes slightly less pure only when people start worrying about a) whether China will convert its growing wealth into power; and b) whether Chinese power will advance interests that conflict with the United States.
More importantly, however, there's a way in which Brooks' model is the great power equivalent of the Dubai model of economic growth -- and as I noted earlier this month, a world in which everyone races after the Dubai model is a world of massive overinvestment and inadequate demand. Like the dollar auction game, a few countries might win, but most will lose in pursuing this strategy.
Readers are warmly encouraged to provide more ways in which the administration/university relationship is akin to the government/economy relationship.
Fifteen years ago Samuel Huntington coined the term "Davos Man" to describe the kind of globalized elite that jetted off from global conference to global conference. His point was that Davos man was an exceedingly rare bird, and that nationalism, religion, language and culture were still the most potent forces binding groups together in the world.
It's in this context that I read Chrystia Freeland's new cover story in The Atlantic. It's well worth the read, but like Kevin Drum, I'm not sure that the phenomenon Freeland is identifying is all that new.
Furthermore, I'm not entirely convinced they're as powerful as Freeland or Drum or Felix Salmon suggests. As Freeland pointed out, they fought a lot of the Obama administration's first-half policies tooth and nail -- and they actually lost a fair amount of the time. Indeed, nary a year ago some pundits were declaring the death of Davos man.
That said, there are three trends that are worth further consideration. First, as Freeland observes, the rich are now work much harder than they did a century ago. Second, more and more of the rich are coming from outside the OECD economies.
Third, the rich have attracted a lot of intellectual capital into their web. Indeed, the call for an economist code of ethics is based in no small part on the ways in which successful economists score moneymaking gigs as they move up the career ladder.
Again, I'm not sure if Freeland is right. I am sure that it's an interesting argument however. So, in the interest of further research your humble middle-class blogger is headed off tonight to investigate the beliefs and activities of the super-rich from much closer than normal.
This is a roundabout way of saying that blogging will be intermittent this week because I'm off to Dubai for a few days for a conference involving a lot of Really Rich People.
How rich? Well, let's put it this way -- I've already received an e-mail from my hotel in Dubai explaining that, "a Lifestyle Manager will be at your entire disposal" for my stay.
I'll post my thoughts on the entire surreal experience when I can.
In the meantime, talk amongst yourselves about the "global plutocracy." Is it a big deal? Is it an overblown phenomenon during an economic downturn? Did they all have superior Chinese mothers?
The unholy trinity in open economy macroeconomics is pretty simple. It's impossible for a country to do the following three things at the same time:
1) Maintain a fixed exchange rate
2) Maintain an open capital market
3) Run an independent monetary policy
One of the issues with macroeconomic policy coordination right now is that different countries have chosen different options to sacrifice. China, for example, has never opened its capital account. The United States, in pursuing quantitative easing, has basically chucked fixed exchange rates under the bus, no matter how many times Tim Geithner utters the "strong dollar" mantra
in his sleep to reporters.
These policies are generating a fair amount of blowback from the rest of the world, forcing President Barack Obama to defend the Fed's actions. And it appears that the developing countries are mostly following China's path towards regulating their capital account to prevent exchange rate appreciation and the inward rush of hot money.
How does this end? I think it's gonna end with a lot more capital controls for a few reasons:
1) It's the political path of least resistance;
2) Capital controls are seen as strengthening the state;
3) The high-growth areas of the world don't need a lot of capital inflows to fuel their continued growth.
What intrigues me is how the financial sector responds to a situation in which their freedom of action in emerging markets becomes more and more constrained. It's possible that they could pressure the Fed to change its position in the future. It's also possible, however, that big firms could see these controls as a useful barrier to entry for new firms.
My money is on the former response, however.
Europe's debt crisis is not going away anytime soon, which means that the crisis over European monetary union won't be going away either. As it turns out, the European Commission is on this, proposing things like "excessive deficit procedures" and the like.
Will this work? Well … let's go to the Economist's explanation for why the previous set of rules failed to prevent this from happening:
The “stability and growth pact” was supposed to limit each country’s budget deficit to 3% of gdp and public debt to 60% of GDP. It failed, in part because France and Germany refused to abide by it -- and even rewrote the rules when they breached the deficit limit.
In contrast, the problems that arose because different economies responded differently to the zone’s common monetary policy were underestimated. The sudden drop in real interest rates on joining the euro in Greece, Ireland and Spain fuelled huge spending booms. (Portugal had enjoyed its growth spurt in the late 1990s in anticipation of euro membership.) Rampant domestic demand pushed up unit-wage costs relative to those in the rest of the euro area, notably in Germany, hurting export competitiveness and producing big current-account deficits.
The euro allowed these internal imbalances to grow unchecked and now stands in the way of a speedy adjustment, because euro-area countries whose wages are out of whack with their peers’ cannot devalue.
So, what is to be done? In the past, European integrationists have been quite adroit at using periods of crisis and malaise to jumpstart further integration efforts. It's possible that this could happen again.
In this case, however, integration efforts are going to be very costly. The Economist explains:
[T]here are three ways for a country to restore competitiveness: devaluation (which reduces wages relative to those in other exporting countries), wage cuts or higher productivity. In the euro area, the first option is out. The other two rely on easing job-market rules so that pay matches workers’ efficiency more closely, and workers can move freely from dying industries and firms to growing ones.
I'm thinking unions will
develop breakout nuclear capabilities aren't going to be big fans of that second option. The third option seems like the ultimate political dream, except it involves eliminating regulations that likely benefit a lot of entrenched interest groups.
Another possibility is greater fiscal centralization. The Economist is not keen on this, but that's besides the point -- as Mary Sarotte points out at Foreign Affairs, there's a Very Important Country that's not going to go along with the move:
The challenge now is governance reform, not expulsion of member states. Reverting to national currencies would drive the values of reissued southern currencies into the ground and the deutsche mark into the sky, thereby undermining Germany's export competitiveness and job market, to say nothing of the collateral damage to the European Union and the single market. The eurozone crisis should not signal the end of the euro but rather the start of a long-overdue overhaul. The idea of a European Monetary Fund, endorsed by Wolfgang Schäuble (an elder statesman from the days of German unification and now a subordinate of Merkel), faded after Merkel dismissed it but deserves broader support. Germany also needs to reconsider its calls for painful fiscal discipline on the part of the weakest countries until their economies regain footing. Ideally, but perhaps not realistically, Merkel should return to previous German form and spearhead a revision of the Maastricht Treaty, leading a fresh effort to do for political union what Kohl and Mitterrand did for monetary union.
The unlikelihood of such a move exemplifies a fundamental problem within the whole European Union: there exists a built-in tension between the lofty goals of integration and member states' collective unpreparedness to think through the consequences of their ambitious project. The great achievement of the past has been to reconcile these contradictory impulses by focusing on practical agreements. It is time to do so once again and realize that the necessary consequence of monetary union is greater political union.
In some ways, what happens from here on out will be an excellent test of whether economic interdependence really alters national incentives. As I blogged a few months ago, "When going backwards isn't an option, and muddling through is no longer viable, the only thing left to do is move further along the integration project."
Of course, the European have spent the past few months muddling through some more. Given current trends, however, that option is going to disappear sooner rather than later.
Half-reformed after prison, Gekko is more anti-hero than villain this time. He is still dazzled by lucre, but also determined to give warning of the dangers of excessive leverage. The real baddies are Bretton James and the securities firm he runs, Churchill Schwartz—perhaps the least disguised fictional name ever. Executives at Goldman Sachs are said to be unamused....
As the financial crisis unfolded, the story was reworked to cast Goldman in a more nefarious light. In the original version, the villain was a hedge-fund manager. But script advisers from the financial world persuaded Mr Stone that an investment banker would be more realistic, since it was banks and securities firms, not “alternative” money managers, that had blown up the system.
Among his counsellors were James Chanos, a well-known short-seller, Anthony Scaramucci, another hedge-fund man, and Nouriel Roubini, an economist who predicted the crisis. Each was rewarded for his efforts with a cameo. Dr Roubini appears as the suitably gloomy Dr Hashimi.
Now I respect Roubini a lot, and in this case he was correct to redirect Stone's ire away from hedge funds and towards the investment banks.
Still, this information makes me juuuuust a bit wary of the film. The history of political economy advisors for film and fiction is pretty short and undistinguished. The only other instance I can think of in which this occurred was Daniel Okimoto's cameo in Michael Crichton's Rising Sun. That novel -- the first of Crichton's to feature a bibliography, if memory serves -- was written at the peak of hysteria about Japan, Inc. Okimoto's contributions were spot-on, but the book itself was absurdly over the top in terms of Japanese nefariousness (intriguingly, Philip Kaufman's screen adaptation of Rising Sun holds up better than the novel because it tamped down the Japan-bashing in favor of adding some film noir moodiness).
I don't like generalizing from one case, but I do wonder whether political economy advisors are used to give film/fiction the patina of intellectual respectibility, thereby allowing the writer/director to go over the top. [What about documentaries? -- ed. I'll outsource that to Will Winecoff.]
Political scientists have a ton of explanations for why good policy might be bad politics, and vice versa. There are limits to that perverse correlation, however. A common-sense narrative is that is a policy actually yields concerete and positive results, then it should be perceived in a more favorable light. I mean, that's pretty straightforward, right?
The Troubled Asset Relief Program is widely viewed as the original sin of the Obama administration -- though it was put together under President George W. Bush and succeeded far beyond expectations. It’s widely seen as the tipping point for disgust with elites and insiders of all kinds -- though it could also be seen as those insiders' finest moment, a successful attempt to at least partially fix their own mistakes....
"It's become demonized on the left and the right by screamers -- Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow -- who have no interest in the facts; they’re just interested in hyperbolizing and generating attention," lamented New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, a key player in guiding the measure through the upper chamber and one of the few Republicans willing to talk about TARP in positive terms.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Gregg is retiring from the Senate at the end of the year -- or that hardly anyone from either party is joining him in praising TARP....
The consensus of economists and policymakers at the time of the original TARP was that the U.S. government couldn’t afford to experiment with an economic collapse. That view in mainstream economic circles has, if anything, only hardened with the program’s success in recouping the federal spending.
A study this summer by former Fed Vice Chairman Alan Blinder and Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi was representative of that consensus. They projected that without federal action -- TARP and the stimulus -- America’s gross domestic product would have fallen more than 7 percent in 2009 and almost 4 percent in 2010, compared with the actual combined decline of about 4 percent.
"It would not be surprising if the underemployment rate approached one-fourth of the labor force," they wrote of their scenario. "With outright deflation in prices and wages in 2009-11, this dark scenario constitutes a 1930s-like depression."
Despite this policy success, public attitudes towards TARP are pretty hostile. Of course, part of that is due to some ignorance over the content of TARP itself:
Polls suggest the public has only the haziest view of what TARP was. It's often conflated -- not least by politicians who voted for it and now seek to muddy the waters -- with the stimulus, a piece of policy whose supporters and foes have fallen into a much more familiar debate about the role of government and public spending....
Even Nevada GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle at one point referred to TARP as "the stimulus." And few Americans seem to know that the banks at the center of TARP have paid the money back -- with interest.
Pollster Ann Selzer asked voters this summer, "Do you think the Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as TARP, was necessary to prevent the financial industry from failing and drastically hurting the U.S. economy, or was it an unneeded bailout?"
Fifty-eight percent of Americans said TARP was unneeded. Only 28 percent called it "necessary."
Smith is correct to point out the myriad ways in which TARP has been lumped in with the other bailouts and stimulus programs that got enacted in 2008 and 2009. No doubt the mass public would not necessarily be able to pick, choose and evaluate each individual bailout/stimulus program.
Still, it's very troubling to see a manifest policy success get almost no love whatsoever from its creators. Over the long run, good policy should translate into good politics. The failure of that to occur in this case could lead to some very perverse policy outcomes after the midterms.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.