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Obama's Magic Bubble Deflator

Mises Daily: Monday, May 18, 2009 by

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[An audio version of this article, read by the author, is available as a free MP3 download.]

In case you've ever wondered what it must have been like to read Pravda, reading the American media's treatment of the financial crisis and our wise leaders' expert management of it all has given everyone a wonderful opportunity. For instance, check out this piece from several days ago on Politico.

If you can't bring yourself to click on the link, I'll give you the headline: "Obama Would Regulate New 'Bubbles.'"

Yes, you read that right. "Bubbles" just occur spontaneously. They have no cause or explanation. We need government to identify and destroy them.

Sometimes I wish our overlords would get their stories straight. First, Alan Greenspan — whom the New York Times once described, in its typical toadying, totalitarian fashion, as "the infallible maestro of our financial system" — told us it was impossible to tell if a bubble existed at any given time. Now we have Barack Obama insisting that not only can we detect bubbles, but we can also deflate them with sufficient dispatch to prevent them from causing any serious economic disturbances.

How are we peons to decide between the competing views of our infallible maestro on the one hand and the man who would be FDR on the other?

I shouldn't be so cynical. It is not for us to question how our overlords intend to distinguish between genuine growth in some industry on the one hand and bubble conditions on the other. Just to be safe they may have to quash all rapid growth wherever it occurs. Perhaps they can cut off credit to an entire sector of the economy, or levy industry-specific taxation. (Anyone who thinks this type of discretion and micromanagement might be exercised with political motivations in mind, or for any purpose other than the common good, is almost surely a good candidate for surveillance in our progressive commonwealth.)

In their quest to free us from economic instability, our betters may find it necessary to institute new rules. It is our job to accept these new rules with docility and thanks. These rules might have to be kind of sweeping, perhaps on the order of nobody may do anything. In liberal times that could perhaps be modified to nobody may do anything without asking permission. True, we could then wind up with a lengthy debate about whether asking permission itself counted as doing something, such that we'd need to ask permission in order to ask permission, in an endless regress. We'd then be back to the original nobody may do anything, which is probably the safest place to be anyway.

Or perhaps our rulers could shut down the electrical grid from time to time. I'd like to see those greedy fat cats inflate a bubble without any electricity!

Now the possibility that the government itself could be the primary culprit in the generation of asset bubbles is of course not merely rejected; the very idea cannot even be entertained. The great progressive institutions of government and central banking the causes rather than the solutions to our problems? Impossible!

Everyone knows Bad Things happen in the economy because of wicked speculators and grasping businessmen. If someone were to ask whether the Federal Reserve's creation of $8 billion out of thin air every week on average for four solid years might have had a tiny bit to do with the housing bubble, well, we'd have to remind such a cynic that the Fed was created in order to give us macroeconomic stability. Our present crisis was caused by excessive "leverage," you see — though we won't bother asking where major economic actors managed to get all this credit in the first place. That might lead people to ask hard questions about the Fed yet again, and as we've seen, the Fed is our Wonderful, Stabilizing Friend.

It is true that Anna Schwartz, the famous monetarist (and not an Austrian economist), recently observed that asset bubbles cannot form without loose monetary policy by the central bank to fund them.

If you investigate individually the manias that the market has so dubbed over the years, in every case, it was expansive monetary policy that generated the boom in an asset. The particular asset varied from one boom to another. But the basic underlying propagator was too-easy monetary policy and too-low interest rates that induced ordinary people to say, well, it's so cheap to acquire whatever is the object of desire in an asset boom, and go ahead and acquire that object. And then of course if monetary policy tightens, the boom collapses.

(Schwartz also rejects former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan's "attempt to exculpate himself" for the housing bubble.)

Schwartz is here echoing what Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises said decades earlier. A sudden drive for a particular kind of investment will raise the prices of complementary factors of production as well as the interest rate itself. In order for a mania-driven boom to persist, there would have to be an increasing supply of credit in order to fund it, since investments in that sector would grow steadily more costly over time. That could not occur in the absence of credit expansion. The dot-com and housing bubbles can both be explained by artificial credit expansion, say such economists.

If we are to believe these economists, the best way to prevent future asset bubbles would be to stop the Fed from creating so much money out of thin air in the first place. Better still, we should abolish the Fed altogether, since in the view of these economists it is entirely superfluous to a market economy.

Again, though, our trust should be in princes. After all, Austin Goolsbee, an economic adviser to the president, assures us that Obama will be on the lookout for both bubbles and busts.

The president, Politico notes, is

prepared to intervene to make sure that kind of red-hot growth doesn't occur. And he's willing to do it with added government regulation if needed to prevent any one sector of the economy from getting out of balance — the way the dot-com boom did in the 1990s and the real-estate market did earlier this decade.

See, those things just happened! No cause. They just happened. And government will protect us from them.

Mark Zandi, a former economic adviser to John McCain, adds that "policymakers always intervene in a downturn. So it is necessary for policy makers to take action against bubbles. You've got to be symmetrical in your policy." What we need, says Zandi, is a "systemic regulator" who will decide whether or not bubbles exist and then take appropriate action. (See how much different a McCain administration would have been on the economy?)

Naysayers may point out that the Fed's own economists denied that a housing bubble existed, and that, as we observed earlier, Greenspan himself believes it's impossible to detect bubbles at all. But surely one more regulator, a big, giant, super-duper regulator, should be able to get things right.

Some people say the market is the best regulator. After all, the free market doesn't pump up the money supply and push interest rates down to levels that promote unsustainable bubbles. The free market punishes reckless risk takers, while it is government that bails them out (and thereby encourages them to take greater risks in the future). It was the Fed, not the free market, from which the "Greenspan put" — the implicit promise to bail out major Wall Street players — emerged. The Financial Times warned that these guarantees were encouraging dangerously risky investments. The free market makes no such guarantees, and thereby cultivates a more cautious class of entrepreneur.

But enough with these naysayers. I for one welcome our new overlords. Every American citizen could stand to learn from that model of filial piety, Britney Spears, who urged, "I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens."

Amen.