Saturday, January 03, 2009

Edward S. Herman: Neoliberalism and Bottom-Line Morality

Neoliberalism and Bottom-Line Morality: Notes on Greenspan, Rubin, and the Party of Davos
By Edward S. Herman
Z Magazine


Greenspan's "Superlatively Moral System"

Greenspan contributed three chapters to Rand's 1966 book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, all of them reflecting her—and Greenspan's—ultra laissez-faire ideology. In one, Greenspan castigates antitrust law and practice as not merely harmful, but with the "hidden intent" of injuring the "productive and efficient members of our society." In another, he claims that all government regulation represented "force and fraud" as the means of consumer protection, whereas it is "profit-seeking which is the unexcelled protector of the consumer." He argues that the market system itself is a "superlatively moral system that the welfare statists propose to improve upon by means of preventive law, snooping bureaucrats, and the chronic goad of fear."

Greenspan contributed to the workings of this "superlatively moral system" at the micro-level back in 1985, writing to the savings and loan authorities on behalf of Charles Keating, head of Lincoln Savings and Loan. In that letter the authorities were urged to exempt Keating from restrictions on risky loans, given his exceptional character and the soundness of his operation, with "no foreseeable risk to the Federal Savings and Loan Corporation." Greenspan was a paid consultant to Lincoln, which failed in 1989 at enormous expense to the FSLIC and taxpayer. Keating ended up in prison. This is the same Charles Keating with whom John McCain had a close relationship and on whose behalf McCain also did some lobbying. Neither Greenspan nor McCain suffered significant damage from this relationship and, despite his extremist ideology, Greenspan became a powerful figure in the U.S. political economy, leading the Fed for many years (1987-2006) and through two major bubbles that he did nothing to constrain.

One important manifestation of Greenspan's world view can be seen in his congressional testimony of July 22, 1997, where he explained that inflation was not increasing despite the lowering unemployment rate because of "a heightened sense of job insecurity," which he described elsewhere as reflecting the "traumatized worker," helpful in keeping wages down. He didn't suggest that job insecurity and the traumatization of workers involved any immoral "goad of fear" or had any negative implications for welfare.

Actually, in this regard Greenspan's view wasn't much different from that of a great many mainstream economists, who were slow to recognize greater job insecurity as a key factor altering the unemployment/inflation relationship, and who were not troubled when they did recognize it. Liberal economist Janet Yellen, co-author with Alan Blinder of a book on the 1990s entitled The Fabulous Decade, told the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee in 1996 that "while the labor market is tight, job insecurity is alive and well. Real wage aspirations seem modest, and the bargaining power of workers is surprisingly low" (quoted in Robert Pollin's Contours of Descent). Robert Pollin points out that Yellen and Blinder didn't let this interfere with their conclusion that the 1990s were "fabulous." Apparently these economists, like Clinton, don't really "feel pain" as long as only workers suffer.

In fact, they are all a throwback to 17th and 18th century mercantilists who, according to historian Edgar S. Furniss, argued that "high wages would prove destructive of national well-being because they would reduce England's competing power by raising production costs. The prevalent doctrine held that wages should be kept at the level of the cost of physical subsistence. Hence the apparent anomaly of the laborer's position: whereas his theoretical social importance was large, his actual economic reward was miserably small.... [Under mercantilism] the dominant class will attempt to bind the burdens upon the shoulders of those groups whose political power is too slight to defend them from exploitation and will find justification for its policies in the plea of national necessity" (Furniss, Position of the Laborer in a System of Nationalism, 1920). Does this ancient view on how burdens should be distributed have some possible application to the bailouts now being put in place to deal with the current financial crisis?

Getting back to Greenspan morality, it is clear from both his Ayn Rand contributions and his writings and public pronouncements of the past 20 years that he views untrammeled capitalism as a "superlatively moral system" not because of businesspeople's benevolence but because market operations in business's self-interest will protect consumers—business will not take on undue risk because that would eventually harm their own welfare. Regulation is thus unnecessary and positively damaging by its arbitrariness and bureaucratic bungling. Greenspan fought long and strenuously for across-the-board deregulation, and against the regulation of derivatives as they grew rapidly in the 1990s, even arguing in 2004 that the innovations like derivatives had contributed to a new stability in the financial system: "Not only have individual financial actors become less vulnerable to shocks from underlying risk factors, but also the financial system as a whole has become more resilient." Such a misunderstanding of reality by a man with great experience and access to the research resources of the Fed can only be understood as a result of the intellectual-ideological bubble within which he worked.

Now that the financial system has collapsed and its leaders have demanded and gotten a huge bailout, what does Greenspan say? Apart from an admitted bafflement, he has stated that business has been too greedy and behaved dishonorably. He is "distressed at how far we [sic] have let concerns for reputation slip in recent years." But this is hogwash. It was rational profit-making that was supposed to control risk, not honorable behavior. Also, if the actual behavior was systemic, and greed can overcome honorable behavior, the Greenspan model has failed on its own terms. But beyond that it was idiotic, as it has long been known that the force of competition, the pressure (and fiduciary obligation) for profits, and regular business myopia in buoyant markets, have repeatedly produced unsustainable excesses. Greenspan's moral model reflects straightforward ideology and bottom line morality. It is also part of a class war perspective where, as noted, labor (and the majority) are viewed in the mercantilist tradition—as a cost to be contained, not as a very large group whose welfare we are trying to maximize. It also helped cause him to misperceive economic reality and make a major and disastrous economic forecasting error.

To Read the Entire Essay

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