Losing Faith in What?

In the Los Angeles Times, Peter Gosselin offers a “news analysis” on the theme that “Americans may be losing faith in free markets.”

For a generation, most people accepted the idea that the core of what makes America tick was an economy governed by free markets. And whatever combination of goods, services and jobs the market cooked up was presumed to be fine for the nation and for its citizens — certainly better than government meddling.

No longer.

This kind of crisis of confidence occurs every time the economy temporarily heads south — which it inevitably does from time to time. What does this tell us? It tells us that people do not understand the economy very well. And what do stories like Gosselin’s tell us? That most journalists don’t either.

But economic downturns do offer the motivated reporter an opportunity to speculate on the possible political consequences of unflagging public and media ignorance. The causes for our current economic troubles are evidently too complex to fathom, so instead of writing intelligibly about what is actually happening and why, we are asked to wonder (hope? fear?) whether voters can be made to demand a “New Deal Lite,” before the economy regains steam and we become too satisfied to regulate ourselves into oblivion.

It would be useful if journalists could find a way to report on the actual nature of the American economy. This would be a real public service. The American economy is in fact a byzantine amalgam of market and state institutions enmeshed in a thicket of regulation. Gosselin maintains that “most people” in the U.S. think there is something out there called “the free market” that operates without “government meddling.” I’m not really sure that most people think that, but it seems Gosselin does, because he goes on to structure his “news analysis” as if the story is that dissatisfaction with a kind of laissez faire we do not have may be generating demand for basically the kind of dirigisme we’ve already got. But since economic systems we haven’t got can’t cause our economic problems, the result is confusion.

Consider the fact that the Federal Reserve is a central planning committee. We are lucky, I think, to have intelligent, highly professional planners, but there are in-principle limits to what they can do with limited information, and so there is no way they are not going to get it wrong sometimes, or a lot of times. The housing “bubble,” which has turned out very badly for a lot of people, and the historically high price of gas, which is to a large extent a function of the low value of the American dollar, probably has had a lot to do with the policies chosen by our monetary central planners. Failures of government planning don’t discredit free markets. Rather, they suggest free markets might be worth trying some time.

Did the ratings agencies and investment banks screw up royally in their assessment of the risk of certain classes of mortgage-backed securities? Yes they did. Did assurances of bailouts, implicit and explicit, from the government to the financial industry encourage dangerous risk-seeking? Yes they did. Many market institutions, like our advanced financial markets, are very far from being self-organizing outgrowths of unregulated market exchange. Instead they are, by and large, creatures of the vast body of law and government regulation that defines the rules of market exchange — that determine what may be bought and sold, and how — and are tightly integrated with more or less freestanding government institutions like the Fed. When these markets stumble, it’s just a rookie mistake of political economy to see that as problem with markets, per se, rather than as a problem with the way regulation and government institutions happen to have structured those markets and thereby structured the incentives of the individuals and firms that act within them.

Here’s another example of the mixed economy. Food is expensive these days, which hits poorer Americans especially hard. Part of the price hike is due to normal market forces; supply has yet to catch up with the increased demand from the rising middle class in China and India and elsewhere. But a large part of it comes from our own government’s frankly idiotic policy of subsidizing corn ethanol, which pushes up the price of all sorts of foods, from wheat to milk to meat. So the conclusion we should draw from this is what? Damn you free market!?

Gosselin winds down on what to many must be a hopeful note:

Historians watching the nation’s current economic and financial troubles say that just because Americans don’t throw up their hands about markets and rush to an opposite pole, such as socialism, it doesn’t mean that change isn’t underway.

As UC Davis’ Rauchway pointed out, the devastating panics and depressions of the late 19th century eventually resulted in the progressive reforms of the early 20th century and, later, the New Deal of the 1930s.

Before we get too excited about “progressive reforms” once again saving capitalism from itself, perhaps we should try a little harder to comprehend the way the actually-existing economy works (journalists might think about helping with this!), so that we can pinpoint the most likely institutional causes of the recent gloom and effectively focus our reforming zeal. Were the media willing or able to explain how our mixed economy actually functions, this downturn might just as well inspire a loss of faith in the government meddling we’ve already got. But what would be the point of writing an article like that?