Economist Steven Landsburg, writing for the Atlantic, presents what seems to me a simple, but powerful argument against the bailout. I don't know enough about finance economics to be sure whether it's right. But I thought that it's at least worth passing along to our readers. Even if it doesn't succeed in proving that no bailout at all was necessary, it at least casts doubt on the need for a plan as massive as the $700 billion monstrosity that the administration is trying to ram through Congress:
What's clear is that a bunch of financial institutions have made mistakes and lost money. What's unclear is why anyone (other than the owners and managers) should care. People make mistakes and lose money all the time. Restaurants fail, grocery stores fail, gas stations fail. People pick the wrong stocks, they buy the wrong cars, and they marry the wrong spouses without turning to the Treasury for bailouts.
So what's special about banks? According to what I keep reading, it's that without banks, nobody can borrow, and the economy grinds to a halt.
Well, let's think about that. Banks don't lend their own money; they lend other people's (their depositors' and their stockholders'). Just because the banks disappear doesn't mean the lenders will. Borrowers will still want to borrow and lenders will still want to lend. The only question is whether they'll be able to find each other.
That's one reason I feel squeamish about the official pronouncements we've been getting. They tell us bank failures will make it hard to borrow but never that bank failures will make it hard to lend. But every borrower is paired with a lender, so it's odd to state the problem so asymmetrically. This makes me suspect that the official pronouncers have not entirely thought this thing through.
In the 1930s, a wave of bank failures did make it hard for borrowers and lenders to find each other, and the consequences were drastic. But times have changed in at least two relevant ways. First, the disaster of the 1930s was caused not just by bank failures, but by a 30% contraction of the money supply, which is something today's Fed can easily prevent. Second, as any user of match.com can tell you, the technology for finding partners has improved since then. When a firm wants to raise capital, why can't it just sell bonds over the web? Or issue new stock? Or approach one of the hedge funds that seem to be swimming in cash? Or borrow abroad?
Ultimately the key question is this: why shouldn't these banks be treated like any other business whose management has displayed bad judgment and lost a great deal of money as a result? Capitalism works because we insist that businesses bear the cost of their own losses, a process that gives them strong incentives to make good decisions and transfers their wealth to others with better judgment if they persist in screwing up anyway (as the big banks have done in this case). Perhaps really big banks are somehow special and deserve bailouts that we would deny to other businesses. But there is a heavy burden of proof on those who claim that this alleged specialness really exists and that it justifies hundreds of billions of dollars in public expenditures, unchecked executive power, and unprecedented control of the economy by the federal government. Like Landsburg, I am skeptical that the burden has been met.
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