Income Inequality, The Higher-Ed Bubble, And The Crash

In The New Republic, Raghuram G. Rajan argues that income inequality is the real reason for the financial crash. Income inequality is one of the favorite themes of the left, but Rajan’s argument has some merit to it. He observes:

Economists argue over the reasons for the growing inequality—changes in taxation, increasing trade, weaker unions, stagnant minimum wages, and growing immigration have all been flagged. Perhaps the most important, according to Harvard professors Claudia Golden and Larry Katz, is that although technological progress requires the labor force to have ever greater skills, our educational system has not kept pace by providing the labor force with greater education and skills. While a high school diploma may have been sufficient for our parents, an office worker in many knowledge-based industries today can’t get hired without an undergraduate degree. Yet, according to Golden and Katz, rates of graduation from high school in the United States have barely budged since the 1970s, and neither have male graduation rates from college. For the middle class, that has meant a stagnant paycheck and growing job insecurity, as the old well-paying, low-skilled jobs with good benefits disappear.

There’s something to this: to get a decent job these days, one is practically required to have a four-year college degree. Employers won’t hire you without it. But the simple fact of the matter is that most people don’t need a four-year college degree. How much of that education is wasted? Is it really necessary for someone to spend four years partying, barely passing mediocre classes, delaying their ability to earn income for themselves, and taking on massive amounts of debt to do it? This process ends up leaving entire generations starting out in debt and without valuable skills. A college degree is simply a poor proxy for real-world skills. How many college graduates can’t balance their own checkbook. How does a humanities degree prepare one to be a manager? How many people actually use their degree unless they go into a specific profession?

All of that does create income inequality. We push people into getting an expensive degree when they don’t need it, and substantial portions of their income go into paying off that debt.

Ultimately, we have to take a new look at education in America. But that’s not easy. We have to reform K-12 education in this country—but good luck doing that if the teacher’s unions don’t get their demands met. We have to reform higher education, but right now student lenders, public and private universities, and educational companies all want to keep the gravy train running as long as they can. And the public has taken the idea that “education is fundamental” to the extreme—assuming that a college degree from a four-year institution is necessary to do jobs that don’t remotely require it.

And of course, most (but not all) of that pushback comes from the left, especially the politically powerful teacher’s unions.

Rajan is at least partially right: income inequality can be a problem, although it’s a stretch to say that it’s the cause of the crash. He’s also right that many of the steps that politicians have taken to address it have failed. If we want to have a country in which people have less debt, we can’t just look at housing or credit: we have to look at educational debt as well. And with the housing market, we are in the midst of a higher-education bubble, and that bubble is threatening to pop.

If we really care about income inequality, we need to stop pushing everyone into a one-size-fits-all system that leaves them with tens of thousands of dollars in debt before they ever have a chance to start working. Whether that means emphasizing technical and vocational education, whether that means more emphasis on non-traditional students, or whether that means tying student loans to academic performance, every option needs to be on the table.

Soaking The Rich… Again

Carlos Watson argues that the solution to our fiscal problems is to tax the living daylights out of the “rich” in the hopes of making up for a $5 trillion hole in our national finances.

That solution will not work.

For one, there aren’t enough “rich” people to make up for the current deficit. We could raise taxes to 99% and not came close—and then the rich people would either cease to be rich, or get their assets out of the country faster than you can say “Nancy Pelosi.” What you would have would be capital flight on a truly nightmarish scale.

In order to make up that kind of shortfall, you would not have to tax only the Bill Gateses or Warren Buffetts of the U.S.—you’d have to start taxing everyone who makes a decent living. Our professional classes are already taking a huge hit in this economy—engineers and lawyers are applying for $10/hour jobs because of the economic downturn. If we start taxing them, they will buy less, they will use less services, and the ripple effect will continue right on down the line. It will make the economy worse rather than better.

Taxing the “rich” isn’t going to solve this mess, nor is more government intervention. The sad state of our economy is due to too much government intervention and far too much debt, both public and private. In order to fix this mess we all need to start spending in line with our realistic priorities and not spending money we don’t have.

Taking more money from people with their heads barely above water and giving it to an irresponsible government is not a solution for this economy; it is economic suicide.

The Myth Of The Laissez-Faire Meltdown

In The Spectator, Fraser Nelson has a searching piece on the myth that laissez-faire conservatives led to the current economic troubles:

So while it’s a statement of the obvious, the obvious can’t be stated enough at a time when we’re fighting (or should be) for the future of capitalism and the open society. The last ten years were not laissez-faire, as even Gordon Brown suggests. The crash was the result of bad regulation, not insufficient regulation. Brown told the Guardian last month that “laissez-faire had its day” and it did – in the 1880s. The problem this time was a blind, almost fundamentalist, faith in rules-based economics – the idea that, if inflation was low, everything else would be fine. And this stems from a blind faith in the power of governments.

He’s right. The crash was caused not be “Wild West capitalism” or anything similar. It was caused by a regulatory climate that encouraged systemic risk. The mortgage meltdown was not the product of evil capitalists meeting in smoky rooms to screw over everyone, it was the product of government meddling in the economy.

Our system of financial regulations has been based on a rules-based approach. Far from being unregulated, the financial markets are covered by a number of regulatory agencies—the Securities and Exchange Commission regulated the trade of stocks and other securities, along with FINRA (formerly the NASD) acting as a quasi-private regulatory body. Banks were governed by a massive amount of regulations by bodies like the Federal Deposit Insurance Company (FDIC) and the U.S. Treasury. Corporate books were governed by the Sarbanes-Oxley bill that was passed in the wake of the Enron and Worldcom scandals. The housing markets were heavily regulated by the Housing and Urban Development department, the Community Reinvestment Act, and the presence of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (who everyone know were “too big to fail” and would be bailed out by the government if things got too bad).

With all that going on, the argument that somehow the financial markets were totally unregulated is hardly justified by the facts. Quite the opposite, the government was doing plenty to tilt the market for various social policy reasons. Since President Carter signed the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977, it’s been government policy to expand home ownership to minorities and low-income people. President Bush’s “ownership society” was hardly a new direction from government policy, but rather a continuation of what came before.

Tilting the Playing Field: Why the Rules-Based Approach Failed

There are two rather huge problem with the rule-based approach: first, it gives incentives for industry to try to tilt the rules to their benefit, and secondly such an approach can’t work fast enough to effectively regulate a modern economy.

On the first point, it’s obvious to all that there was a cozy relationship between the regulators of the financial markets and those people they were supposed to be regulated. Take the example of Sen. Chris Dodd, who while having been supposed to be in charge of regulating the financial industry was getting sweetheart loan deals from Countrywide and raking in tons of cash from AIG. This is, sadly, not a case of one bad apple in a bunch—Rep. Barney Frank was one of the biggest impediments to reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and fixing the problems with the mortgage market.

This cozy relationship meant that efforts at substantive reform like the Federal Housing Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act of 2005 could never get off the ground. The regulators were in the pockets of the regulated agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and no way would they allow the world to inspect their books and see just how deeply in trouble they were.

Even if federal regulators were uniformly brilliant and far-sighted (and some of them are), they’re no more insulated from political pressure than the corrupt politicians. Regulatory capture remains a major and persistent problem. There is enormous political pressure, not only from the financial companies, but from special interest pressure groups like ACORN and the unions to push rules through that try to expand home ownership to those who would be enable to afford it. In the end, it wasn’t just about turning a profit, it was about “helping the poor” by lowering lending standards so that more people could buy homes they couldn’t otherwise afford.

A rules-based approach will always produce these results. Ban the giving of money and the transactions go under the table. There’s no way to prevent this kind of influence-peddling so long as there is influence to be peddled. As long as people like Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, and the rest of our corrupt legislative class can tilt the playing field, entities like AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and others will have every incentive to see that the rules get tilted in their favor. That is human nature, what James Madison called “faction” all the way back in Federalist #10 in 1787.

The other problem with a rules-based approach is that it’s slow. The process of passing a new federal regulatory rule takes at least a year on average. Yet the financial markets move much faster. New financial equations and methods like David X. Li’s Gaussian copula function (which Wiredcalls “the formula that killed Wall Street”) is something that is difficult for anyone, especially federal regulators to understand and predict. Trying to craft a rules-based approach to deal with a modern financial system in the Internet age is ultimately futile: by the time there’s been a rule that’s survived the rule-making process, the system has already changed.

It’s not possible to have a regulatory system that works fast enough to meet the demands of today’s economy. Even if it were, we don’t want to have a system that produces rules without time for interested parties to have some say. Even worse than our deliberative rule-making process is one that pushes through rules without considering the potential ramifications.

Preventing the Next Crisis: Make Regulations Simpler, Fairer, and Automatic

The rules-based approach is not going to work in the 21st Century, at least not in the form that we have it now. There’s too many opportunities for regulatory capture and the system cannot keep pace with the needs of a rapidly-evolving market. We need a better approach to the financial system.

That approach should come in the form of a smarter system of regulations. Gary Becker wisely suggests that regulations be automatic rather than subject to the discretion of regulators—such as capital requirements that keep financial institutions from getting “too big to fail”. This approach would reduce regulatory capture, but it may be difficult for regulators to set the right ratio of assets to capital. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

In addition to that, what we need is a set of financial rules that are dramatically simpler. The more complexity there is in a rule-based system, the easier it is for companies to find loopholes. The large and sophisticated players can find their way around the rules, the smaller and less sophisticated players are easily caught up in a system they can scarcely understand. That tilts the playing field away from smaller competitors and towards the bigger ones. That is not a smart way to run any kind of economic system.

We need to clear away the layers of over-complicated, overlapping, and over-burdensome regulations and replace them with a comprehensive system based on simpler rules that anyone can follow. That will naturally be met with huge cries from both the government agencies and the companies that have captured them, but it’s a necessary step to fixing this mess.

We also have an urgent need to reduce moral hazard. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac knew they could get away with anything because they were “too big to fail” and their close ties with government would mean they would be the recipients of a federal bailout. That means that they could take far more risks than was safe, and once they did it, others started to follow suit. In a functioning free market system, there has to be a system in which smart risks get rewarded and dumb risks get punished—otherwise everyone will start making dumb and risky moves.

Finally, we have to recognize that more government is not the right solution. More bad regulations will only make the system worse. They will continue to create even more problem with regulatory capture and corruption, and it’s quite likely that they will have a host of negative side effects that won’t be foreseeable for quite some time. Too much bad regulation got us into this mess, and trusting the same government actors that created the mess in the first place to get us out is a fool’s errand.

This crisis was not the result of laissez-faire capitalism, it was the result of bad regulation and corrupt government. In order to repair the damage and move ahead we must stop the culture of bailouts and expanding the power of the corrupt technocrats and move to a system that is fairer, less needlessly complicated, and less prone to regulatory capture. That will not make people like Chris Dodd and Barney Frank happy, nor will it be very welcome within the industries that have grown accustomed to buying favor with the government. But for the future of the American economy, it is the right thing to do.

You Can’t Squeeze Blood From A Turnip

E.J. Dionne does what Democrats love to do, except when running for public office: call for a massive increase in American taxes. Again, he demonstrates the fundamental flaws in the Democratic understanding of basic economics:

He’s right that a large share of any increase should hit those who enjoyed the biggest income gains over the last decade. But in the end, no politician (with the possible exception of libertarian Ron Paul) is willing to cut the budget enough to contain the deficit without a general tax increase down the road.

Every budget analyst knows this, and every politician knows that it’s far easier to bemoan deficits in the abstract than to risk spending cuts or tax increases that hurt sizeable groups of voters. “There are no more low-hanging fruit,” says Tom Kahn, the staff director for the House Budget Committee. “The low-hanging fruit have already been picked. Any tax increase or spending cut is going to trigger opposition from somewhere.”

In an ideal world, Obama would come right out and say we’ll need broad-based tax increases. But that would be suicidal right now. Witness the reaction to his effort to put a 28 percent ceiling on deductions. His proposal would affect only 1.2 percent of taxpayers, yet even that idea is about to die in Congress.

Dionne is correct in one aspect: just raising taxes on the “top 5 percent” isn’t going to do anything. President Obama could raise the top marginal tax rate to 99% and still never get nearly enough money to pay for his additional proposed spending, no less the entire federal deficit. The idea that raising the top marginal tax rate from 36% to 39% will be anything more than a tiny drop in the bucket compared to Obama’s radical spending plans is ridiculous. Even combining that with removing payroll tax caps, limiting deductions, etc., won’t nearly be enough.

So, is a broad tax increase the answer? Dionne suggests yes. But that answer is self-evidently incorrect. Exactly what is going to be accomplished by adding to the tax burden of the American people in the middle of a recession that is precipitously close to becoming a depression? Where is the average American member of the middle class going to get the extra money to pay off Uncle Sam’s never-ending appetites? People are already cutting back on their spending—raising taxes would cause them to cut back even more. When the economy is already having problems with paradox of thrift, why would policymakers try for a plan that would reduce consumer activity even more?

The root of this whole problem was bad policy. We let everyone get over-leveraged, homeowners, banks, and even the government. Now, instead of tightening their belts, our “leaders” in Washington D.C. are trying to find every inventive new way they can to spend even more money. Dionne is also right in that just nibbling away at the margin will not do it—we have to re-evaluate the massive and virtually uncontrolled growth of government.

Raising taxes and having government “invest” that money will not work. Government is subject to the political process, which virtually guarantees waste. If anyone thinks that Congress will rationally allocate money based on the national interest, then they have a fundamentally irrational faith in government unjustified by facts or common sense.

Raising taxes is simply not the answer. In a time when the American people are cutting back, losing their jobs, and losing their homes, it is grotesquely irresponsible for government to demand even more of their hard-earned money—they don’t have the money to give. The argument that somehow the government will spend its way out of this recession is completely unjustified. Those who think that we should follow the example of FDR had better hope the Europeans start slaughtering each other so we can bomb them to rubble and then help them rebuild—it was World War II and not the New Deal that finally ended the Great Depression. We do not have the ability to spend our way out of this—and all Dionne would have us do is feed the beast more.

What needs to be done? For one, we need to re-evaluate our view of what government does. Nearly all of our current problems can be traced to government intervention. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could cook their books because they (and everyone else) knew that they were “too big to fail” and if anything went wrong, Uncle Sam would bail them out. For all the talk about how it was deregulation that caused this mess, the reality is that the less heavily regulated industries are doing better than the most heavily regulated ones. The idea that banks were living in some kind of libertarian paradise and government wasn’t watching everything they did is completely wrong. The banking industry was, and is, heavily regulated. The problem was that the big players (Countrywide, for example) could “buy” Congress and get them to pass laws and rules favorable to them.

The answer is to make sure that this kind of capture can’t happen again. The best way to do that is to make sure that Congress can’t rewrite the rules to line their own pockets. That means not only tougher ethics reform in Congress, but also preventing Congress from being able to screw around with the nation’s economy. Everyone treats this as a demand problem—but it’s really a supply problem. If Congress could only do so much to regulate the industry, there would be no incentive for companies to spend billions on influence peddling. There would be no point to doing so—even if they wanted to, Congress couldn’t stack the deck in their favor.

That means restricting the power of government, except in making sure that companies act transparently. The government does have some need to interfere with the market, but what we are seeing now is when government substitutes the “wisdom” of someone like Tim Geithner for the judgment of the market—quite literally making Geithner the one who gets to make all the rules. Even if Geithner were an unqualified genius, this sort of concentration of power is dangerous.

What we need is less government, not more. What we need is the development of the private sector, not more reliance on government employment. What we need is less of a tax burden, not more. We need a government that does a few things and does them well, not a government that tries to do everything and ends up failing more often than not.

Dionne is wrong at the core of his argument—the level of government spending is unsustainable, and we can never raise taxes enough to cover the difference—and if we tried it would further depress the economy. We cannot keep hoping that the same top-down solutions will work. We cannot just assume that substantive entitlement reform is off the table.

This nation is at a crossroads. We can either continue to spend our way into bankruptcy or we can start looking at alternatives. Raising taxes only makes things worse. We cannot blindly put our faith in government, but must look back to the basics of what makes our economy strong: hard work, a government that promotes opportunity, and a government that is small but effective. The more we stray from those basics, the harder things will be in the future.

Obama Digs A Hole For The Economy

President-Elect Obama has chosen to embrace some of the worst economic thinking in his recently announced economic recovery plan. The buzzword he’s following is “infrastructure”—and it’s a strategy that is doomed to fail.

Reason‘s Nick Gillespie sarcastically looks at the plan:

When the history of this awful moment of bailout hysteria is written, there’ll be a chapter or 20 on the complete bogosity of what might call “the infrastructure flim-flam”—the idea that government can boostrap the economy out its funk by hiring two guys to dig a hole and a couple more to fill it in.

Don’t you see? It’s the perfect plan!, as Batman’s Riddler might exclaim. In fact, one only wonders why they don’t hire three guys to fill the holes, thereby cutting unemployment to negative-something.

There are so many flaws with Obama’s plan that one hardly knows where to begin. For one, there’s no way to “create” 2.5 million jobs through infrastructure improvements alone. Unless Obama wants to pave over Iowa, there isn’t going to be enough work to make a significant dent.

Then there’s the issue of the utility of taking a bunch of unemployed stockbrokers and autoworkers and having them pour concrete or lay cable—they’re not trained for either, and it doesn’t help them build the skills they need for the future. It’s busy-work, and it’s economically counter-productive. Something like job retraining would be valuable, not more government-run “public works” projects.

There’s also the fact that if you believe that government is more efficient at allocating goods and services than the private sector, you probably missed the whole “collapse of the Soviet Union” thing. Who will decide what “infrastructure” gets built where? A bunch of Washington nomenklatura? That creates a system where superhighways get built in places where politically powerful Congresscritters live while real needs go unmet. Government is simply not designed to do what Obama wants it to do, and as much hyperbole is there is about Obama being a “socialist” in this case his policies are the sort of thing we’d see from the leader of some banana republic. Economic troubles? Just round up some plebs and have them start digging ditches.

The Obama plan is not a viable solution. We do need better infrastructure, but not through wasteful, inefficient, and crude make-work programs. There is no future in the American economy if we start making our workers dig ditches or pour concrete rather than innovate in nanotechnology, alternative energy, or space. We need an economy for the 21st Century, and Obama keeps playing from the dusty playbook of the 1930s.

What should Obama do? What we need in this country is a high-tech economy. We need more civil engineers to design all those bridges. We need more innovation, more risk-taking, and more entrepreneurialism. What can government do? It can incentivize innovation and risk-taking. If you’re a college student and you want to be a civil engineer? Graduate in engineering and go into government service for 5 years, and you get your college loans forgiven. Obama should direct NASA to give a $1 billion prize to the first company that can demonstrate a workable prototype for a replacement for the Space Shuttle. (Limited versions of such a prize system are already in place, and helping generate high-tech jobs.) Instead of another government make-work project to lay fiber-optic cable, Obama should incentivize companies to develop wireless technologies that can help remove the need for physical connections. These are just a few examples of what would be a, dare I say it, progressive approach to this economic crisis.

But Obama, listening to the radicals of his party, is not really a “progressive” in this sense. He has picked up the failed FDR playbook and seems hell-bent on making the economy worse by embracing the same failed plans as before. We cannot bootstrap a modern economy through government spending. If that were true, the Third World wouldn’t be the Third World. Government spending always comes with prohibitively high administrative costs that creates a severe dead-weight loss on the economy. It is always less efficient than a market-based approach.

Government has a role, but it is a limited one. It can incentivize innovation, but it shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers. It can support the development of a healthy economy, but it cannot create one by fiat. It can help regulate the marketplace, but it can also stifle the entrepreneurial spirit. It is a tool, like a hammer, but you shouldn’t use a hammer to fix a watch.

Obama’s economic plan is based on a fundamentally flawed view of government and the economy. No matter how well thought-out it may be, it will never achieve its objectives because of that basic flaw. Now, more than ever, we need to embrace what actually has worked, not reach back to the failures of the past. The process of economic transformation can be painful, in what the great economist Joseph Schumpeter called the process of “creative destruction”—but without that creative destruction we cannot move forward. Obama wants to move us back to the socialized economy that devastated Britain in the 1970s. If he wants to give us the “change we need” then he must realize that change cannot come from a government program, but from allowing ordinary men and women the opportunity to take risks, innovate, and succeed.