Saturday, February 20, 2010

Freefall: America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy, by Joseph Stiglitz

New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010, pp. 361.

As the title of the book makes clear, Joseph Stiglitz tells the story of the housing bubble's emergence and bursting.

Stiglitz points out now-familiar problems, and in particular runaway securitization in a lack of transparency, an excess of complexity, poor corporate governance, the "too big to fail" syndrome and the rest. He also notes the lax regulation that permitted such things as "questionable" accounting, massive information asymmetries, predatory lending and of course, the conflicts of interest in the inclusion of commercial banking and investment banking in the same firm-in cases a matter of regulation failing to keep up with innovation in the development of financial devices, though in others a matter of the financial community's effective resistance to and reversal of regulations, such as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 which repealed Glass-Steagall), and the irresponsibility of the Federal Reserve as overseen by Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke. (Stiglitz also provides effective and accessible critiques of the intellectual background to the situation, in the orthodox teaching of economics.)

He then moves on to analyze the Federal government's response to the mess. Just as the Clinton administration continued along the economic course set under Reagan-Bush I (as Stiglitz noted in his earlier book, The Roaring Nineties), he finds continuity rather than rupture in the transition from the Bush administration to Obama's tenure-which symbolically saw the return of right-winger Larry Summers to the Treasury, but not more liberal figures like Robert Reich, or this book's author.

In the chapter titled "The Great American Robbery" he details the story of how the bail-outs essentially pumped money into the system with virtually no strings attached, and in the absence of the kinds of meaningful reform that would resulted in a sounder financial system over the long term, while the Federal Reserve massively expanded the money supply. (Showing how different things could have been, Stiglitz discusses alternative approaches to the problem, such as a "trickle-up" bail-out approach which would have helped the banks by helping homeowners meet their obligations. He also offers a wide array of ideas for reorganizing the financial system on a more sustainable basis, not least the restoration of Glass-Steagall "in some form," as well as the establishment of an Electronic Funds Transfer System that would enable everyday financial transactions to occur outside the banks, and a Financial Products Safety Commission to facilitate tighter regulation of activities like mortgage lending and the packaging and selling of derivatives.) Stiglitz also examines the stimulus program and finds it to be too slow in arriving, too small, too short-term and too poorly directed-especially in the parts going into tax cuts, and the others that are (incompletely) filling in the holes in state budgets rather than launching new initiatives-or doing anything meaningful about the mortgage problem.1

Stiglitz is a Keynesian, and the influence of Keynesian theory on his thought is not merely acknowledged but quite apparent. However, a prior knowledge of it is not essential for understanding the book, Stiglitz's concern being practical rather than theoretical, and Stiglitz quite ably explains the relevant concepts in what is overall a lucid and useful account of the story as it recently stood-as well as some real ideas about what might plausibly be done to avoid a repeat.

Still, at the end it struck me that Stiglitz provides rather modest grounds for optimism about corrective action to address the situation-certainly in contrast with Keynes's earlier confidence about the chances that ideas had against the power of vested interests (even as Keynes famously owned up to the influence those vested interests had on the "marketplace of ideas"). Stiglitz assumes the inevitability of change, given the alternatives, in fact comparing the collapse of Lehman Brothers to the fall of the Berlin Wall, what the latter spelled for Communism marking the same for neoliberalism. Nonetheless, it still seems to me that the latter still has rather a long life ahead of it.

1. It may seem odd to describe an $800 billion stimulus as "too small." However, divided over two years, it pumped a mere $400 billion into a $14 trillion annual economy-equal to about 3 percent of GDP. The New Deal, even while falling far short of the initial vision, saw a much greater (and more sustained) rise in government spending, the size of the Federal government relative to GDP quadrupling between 1929 and 1940.

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