Signs of the Economic Apocalypse, 5-26-08
Gold closed at 925.80 dollars an ounce Friday, up 2.9% from $899.90 for the week. The dollar closed at 0.6342 euros Friday, down 1.2% from 0.6419 at the close of the previous Friday. That put the euro at 1.5767 dollars compared to 1.5578 the week before. Gold in euros would be 587.18 euros an ounce, up 1.6% from 577.67 at the close of the previous week. Oil closed at 131.87 dollars a barrel Friday, up 4.1% from $126.62 for the week. Oil in euros would be 83.64 euros a barrel, up 2.9% from 81.28 at the close of the Friday before. The gold/oil ratio closed at 7.02 Friday, down 1.3% from 7.11 for the week. In U.S. stocks, the Dow closed at 12,479.63 Friday, down 4.1% from 12,986.80 at the close of the previous Friday. The NASDAQ closed at 2,444.67 Friday, down 3.4% from 2,528.85 at the close of the week before. In U.S. interest rates, the yield on the ten-year U.S. Treasury note closed at 3.84%, unchanged for the week.
Oil prices resumed their sharp increase last week. Why have oil prices been rising so much over the past few years? Supply and demand? Certainly not based on current supply and demand. Future supply and demand? Maybe. Or maybe it’s supply and demand of currencies, with currencies falling as the flip side of the so-called commodities bubble.
Adrian Ash compares the dizzying proliferations of ways to increase money supply to a hallucinatory frenzy, with all the dissociation and mania that that implies:
With Barack Obama seemingly poised to take over the U.S. presidency, not much attention has been paid yet to what his economic policies might be like. One sign, frightening to anyone who has read Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, is that Obama’s economic ideas were influenced by economists from the University of Chicago, traditionally the intellectual center of world psychopathy. Yet his ideas are not of the pure free-market style of Milton Friedman. No, that would be too clear-cut for Obama, who prefers compromise at the center by blending two contradictory tendencies. According to John Cassidy writing in the New York Review of Books, Obama advocates “libertarian paternalism.”
The Financial Furry Freak Brothers
The fiat-money experiment and the monsters it's spawned have broken out of the lab and onto the street...
22 May 2008
When Albert Hofmann – the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD – passed away at the start of this month, newspaper editors the world over reported it as the death of the man "who experienced the first ever bad trip."
But Hofmann's hallucinations seem little worse than most acid-induced visions. Or so people tell us..."
Beginning dizziness," he wrote in his lab journal for 19 April 1943. Looking to find a stimulant for the circulatory and respiratory systems, he'd just concocted – and taken – a big dose of lysergic acid diethylamide-25.
"Feeling of anxiety," he noted, before adding in due course "Difficulty in concentration. Visual disturbances. Desire to laugh."
Finally, Hofmann scrawled the words "most severe crisis". Then he fled the lab on his bicycle.
It seemed to stay stationary even as it wheeled him back home, where his neighbor – who brought him a nice glass of milk to calm him down – appeared as a witch in a colored mask.
He felt possessed by demons. The furniture in his bedroom began to menace him. All pretty run of the mill stuff if you dabble with psychotropics, in short.
But such "fantastic images" don't always ease into the sensations of "good fortune and gratitude" Hofmann got to enjoy later that day. Hallucinations can still cause the "most severe crisis" – even without some fool laying Witches Hat by the Incredible String Band on the turntable.
"Inflation will return to the 2% target," claimed Mervyn King, head of the Bank of England – and one half of the financial furry freak brothers running Anglo-American monetary policy – last week."
Growth will eventually recover to a sustainable rate."
Just a central banker's wide-eyed hallucination? Maybe not. Like Albert Hofmann's wobbly bike-ride six decades ago, the credit cycle will get us home in good time, ready to turn once again from boom to bubble to bust. But like any powerful psychedelic, the trip gobbled down by Western investors could take much longer to wear off than anyone dares hope right now.
And just what was the Governor smoking when he claimed that "in these [current] circumstances, the household saving rate is likely to rise"...?
And UK households have grown their savings only once when interest rates fell in the last four-and-half decades. That brief period lasted for two years at the start of the 1990s.
Both before and since – and most markedly during the previous post-war recessions (of 1974 and 1981) – people have tweaked their savings almost precisely in line with changes to the rate of interest, as set by the Bank of England itself.
King's starry-eyed vision, however, "is part of a rebalancing of the UK economy, away from spending and importing, towards saving and exporting," he told reporters last week, pointing at the surge in household savings swirling above his head before asking if anyone wanted to split a Juicy Fruit chewing gum.
The sky's turned all purple in Washington too if US policy-makers think the credit crunch will somehow boost household savings there. Consumers aged 45 and above are in fact raiding their retirement accounts, reports the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) – "a horrific scenario," according to Tom Nelson, the CEO."
People are feeling this pinch [of tight credit and surging inflation] in the short term...but the long-term consequences that are facing these individuals – and our economy – for years, if not decades, are frightening."
One in four middle-aged workers surveyed by the AARP says they're delaying retirement because of the crunch. The same proportion is withdrawing funds from pension and other savings accounts. The youngest baby-boomers are also failing to pay utility bills, reports MarketWatch – and "even cutting back on medications."
Well, they're cutting back on reported medications at least. Who can say what's being cooked up at home with the kids' old chemistry sets, dusted down from the attic?
Put another way, "who had heard of collateralized debt obligations just 10 years ago?" as Niall Ferguson, history professor at Harvard, asked in a speech opening New York's new Museum of Finance back in January this year."
Collateralized loan obligations? Credit derivatives? These forms of financial instrument are of very recent origin. So are the hedge funds; so are the private equity partnerships; so are the sovereign wealth funds; and so are those wonderfully named entities, the conduits..."
Ferguson then flashed up a series of charts "to illustrate the speed with which these phenomena have proliferated." First, mortgage-backed securities. Starting in 1980 – "when scarcely any such thing existed" – they total $3.5 trillion-worth today. Then he cited "the whole range" of other newly-born asset-backed instruments – automobile loans, equipment loans, student loans, credit card-backed debt derivatives..."
Over the counter derivatives outstanding?" the professor asked. "Well, if you'd asked someone to name that figure in 1987 it would have been a very small number indeed."
Today we're talking about $450 trillion," said Ferguson. (He wasn't to know back in December that the global outstanding total of over-the-counter derivatives based on debt, currencies, commodities, stocks and interest rates had in fact expanded by 44% in 2007 to $596 trillion...)
Whereas here at BullionVault, we see it more as a chemistry experiment gone horribly wrong. The hare-brained PhDs mixing up the medicine are too spaced out to even guess at what's now sitting in the petri dish. And the financial monsters it has spawned aren't merely in the scientists' minds.
Take hedge funds, for example; Ferguson notes that in 1990, those financial life-forms known as "hedge funds" numbered around 600 (also including funds of funds). Now they've reproduced and multiplied up towards 10,000."
As a form, the hedge fund dates back to the 1940s. But this population explosion is of very recent origin.
"The raw numbers also hide a "regular, annual dying out"; there's chronic survivorship bias in the data. In 2006, for example, 717 hedge funds were culled; the 2007 figure should be even larger. And here, believes Ferguson, we see survival of the fittest in action. If he's wrong, perhaps it's just the contingency of life itself, allowing the standard proportion of idiots to thrive and market their "top decile" performance to a new generation of unwitting investors.
The survivors have been getting larger too, with the top five hedge funds running assets of around $100 billion. All told, in fact, hedge funds accounts for between one-third and one-half of all trading on the US and UK equity markets. Yet they barely showed up in newspaper and TV reports before 1997, when the death of Long-Term Capital caused a blip in their break-neck rate of evolution.
Where Ferguson's analogy breaks down is in his admission of "intelligent design". Whether or not you hold with this evolutionary sop to religion, casting central bankers in the role of "minor gods" gives them more power than they really hold, even if it's less power than they believe they can wield. And Niall Ferguson accepts this."
Without occasional bouts of what Joseph Schumpeter, the Harvard economist, termed creative destruction," he wrote in the Financial Times last December, "the evolutionary process will be thwarted. Japan's experience in the 1990s stands as a warning to legislators and regulators that an entire banking sector can become a kind of economic dead hand if institutions are propped up despite underperformance."
But the bad trip of Japanese deflation – now running for almost two decades in equities and real estate prices – failed to scare off those fabulous furry freaks at the Bank of England and Federal Reserve. Tinkering with near-zero and sub-zero real rates of interest throughout this decade, they helped create two impossible hallucinations.
First, that the resulting credit expansion would fail to show up in consumer inflation. Second, that the credit cycle could keep on running forwards forever, without needing to turn. Just like the wheels on Albert Hofmann's bike."
A lot of reporters ask me these days whether we're in the midst of a commodity bubble," said Dr. Benn Steil, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, at the Hard Assets Conference in New York last week."
In fact, I'm going to Washington to give a Senate testimony. [Because] my perspective is that the more interesting, and indeed more important, question to ask is whether we're at the end of what I would call a 'fiat currency bubble'."
Under Paul Volker at the Federal Reserve, "inflation, and at least equally importantly inflation expectations, were driven out of the system through a pretty ruthless policy of very tight money, high interest rates. Very tight money."
What followed was "the golden age of the fiat Dollar" says Steil, reminding us that credit expansion was unshackled from Gold in 1971, when Richard Nixon stopped redeeming the US currency for bullion altogether. It took tight money – "very tight money" – to bring the resulting inflation of the 1970s under control.
The fiat money experiment then broke out of the lab with the "explosion" of financial life-forms witnessed from 1980 right up to last summer. Indeed, it all ran just fine until around 2002, when the cost of key raw materials – notably wheat and oil, as in Steil's charts above – began to shoot higher in terms of Dollars and other government-backed currencies.
Measured against Gold Prices, however, they've barely budged. "That shouldn't surprise people," says Steil, "because as we go back to the era of the gold standard from about 1880 until the outbreak of the first World War in 1914, prices around the world in countries that were on the gold standard were also remarkable flat.
"The figure looked just like this. So Gold is behaving as it has historically."
Back in the chemistry lab, however, the hot fetid conditions brought on by below-zero real interest rates and surging credit supplies aren't helping ease the central bankers' hallucinations. The financial furry freak brothers, Ben Bernanke and Mervyn King, actually think they can cage the monsters spawned by their fiat money experiment.
And tripped out on delusions of "minor god" status, they really believe they can talk Wall Street and the City back down from their moment of "worst crisis ever".
This helps make sense of Obama’s insistence on a new kind of politics an on overcoming traditional divisions. But the problems facing him if he gets elected seem way too enormous to be handled by gentle “nudges” in the proper direction. Also, contructing “choice architecture” to channel free decisions in paternalistically decided directions only nudges the public. What is really needed is a way for the public, for citizens, to constrain their leaders, or, which amounts to the same thing, for normal people to constrain psychopaths in the most efficient and humane way possible. The debate between Keynesians, Friedmanites, and Behaviorists (funny how they leave out Socialists) is over how best for leaders to constrain and discipline the public. Libertarian Friedmanites think that the market can do it with the most amount of freedom, but they still believe in the discipline of the market. Clearly, Obama does not yet understand what the human race is up against, he appears to have not come to grips with evil. What will nudging people to save more for retirement do to stop the Dick Cheneys of the world?
Economics: Which Way for Obama?
June 12, 2008
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness
by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
Yale University Press, 293 pp., $26.00
The bursting of the housing bubble and the associated credit crunch has so far wiped out about $3 trillion of wealth—nobody knows the exact amount—caused havoc in the financial markets, and prompted hundreds of thousands of homeowners to default on their monthly mortgage payments. Some experts predict that by the end of 2009, the number of homes entering foreclosure could reach two million. Not surprisingly, the question of what to do about the housing crisis has emerged as a divisive policy issue in the 2008 presidential election, with each of the three leading candidates representing a distinct economic ideology.
John McCain, for all his protestations that economics is not his strong point, has put forward a coherent, if somewhat heartless, case for doing nothing, or very little, anyway. Echoing the arguments that Andrew Mellon, Friedrich Hayek, and other enthusiasts of the free market espoused in the early years of the Great Depression, McCain has said it is no business of the government to bail out people who took out loans they couldn't afford. Evidently such socialistic interventions would only reward reckless behavior, and, in any case, they wouldn't work. The laissez-faire argument says it is better to let the market "correct"—i.e., let the foreclosures mount up—until people learn to live within their means and prices become more affordable, at which point sustainable economic growth will resume.
Hillary Clinton, after initially equivocating, has emerged as the would-be heir to FDR and John Maynard Keynes. In addition to imposing a ninety-day moratorium on foreclosures and a five-year freeze on certain adjustable mortgage rates, she would have the federal government buy up an undetermined number of troubled home loans, enabling lenders to convert them to more affordable deals and putting a floor under the housing market.
Clinton would also allow bankruptcy judges to reduce the value of mortgages, a proposal the banking industry vigorously opposes, and she has criticized McCain as the reincarnation of Herbert Hoover—a comparison that is a bit unfair to the thirty-first president, whose intellectual commitment to voluntarism didn't prevent him from expanding public works programs, raising taxes on the wealthy, and creating two institutions that funneled federal money into the housing market: the Federal Home Loan Bank and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.
Barack Obama has also criticized McCain for sitting back and watching while so many American families face eviction. Yet his own proposals are more nuanced than Hillary's. They include setting up a $10 billion fund to help prevent foreclosures, cracking down on mortgage fraud, providing tax credits to low- and middle-income homeowners who don't currently itemize their interest payments, and standardizing the terms of mortgages so that potential borrowers can more easily figure out when they are being hoodwinked. Obama has also expressed support for Democratic Senator Chris Dodd's plan to expand the Federal Housing Administration's ability to refinance troubled loans. So far, though, he has been noticeably less enthusiastic than Clinton about a large-scale injection of public funds into the market for mortgages and mortgage securities.
Should Obama win the nomination, political considerations may well force upon him a more interventionist position, but his first inclination is to seek a path between big government and laissez-faire, a trait that reflects his age—he was born in 1961—and the intellectual milieu he emerged from. Before entering the Illinois state Senate, he spent ten years teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, where respect for the free market is a cherished tradition. His senior economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, is a former colleague of his at Chicago and an expert on the economics of high-tech industries. Goolsbee is not a member of the "Chicago School" of Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, but he is not well known as a critic of American capitalism either. As recently as March 2007, he published an article in The New York Times pointing out the virtues of subprime mortgages. "The three decades from 1970 to 2000 witnessed an incredible flowering of new types of home loans," Goolsbee wrote. "These innovations mainly served to give people power to make their own decisions about housing, and they ended up being quite sensible with their newfound access to capital."
When I spoke to Goolsbee earlier this year, he said that one of the things that distinguished Obama from Clinton was his skepticism about standard Keynesian prescriptions, such as relying on tax policy to stimulate investment and saving. In a recent posting on HuffingtonPost.com, Cass Sunstein, who for ten years was a colleague of Obama's at the University of Chicago Law School—and has said he is "an informal, occasional adviser to him"—made a similar point regarding government oversight of the financial markets: "With respect to the mortgage crisis, credit cards and the broader debate over credit markets," Sunstein wrote, "Obama rejects heavy-handed regulation and insists above all on disclosure, so that consumers will know exactly what they are getting."
If Obama isn't an old-school Keynesian, what is he? One answer is that he is a behavioralist—the term economists use to describe those who subscribe to the tenets of behavioral economics, an increasingly popular discipline that seeks to marry the insights of psychology to the rigor of economics. Although its intellectual roots go back more than thirty years, to the pioneering work of two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, behavioral economics took off only about ten years ago, and many of its leading lights, among them David Laibson and Andrei Shleifer, of Harvard; Matt Rabin, of Berkeley; and Colin Camerer, of Caltech, are still in their thirties or forties. One of the reasons this approach has proved so popular is that it appears to provide a center ground between the Friedmanites and the Keynesians, whose intellectual jousting dominated economics for most of the twentieth century.
The central tenet of the Chicago School is that markets, once established and left alone, will resolve most of society's economic problems, including, presumably, the mortgage crisis. Keynesians—old-school Keynesians, anyway—take the view that markets, financial markets especially, often fail to work as advertised, and that this failure can be self-reinforcing rather than self-correcting. In some ways, the behavioralists stand with the Keynes-ians. Markets sometimes go badly awry, they agree, especially when people have to make complicated choices, such as what type of mortgage to take out. But whereas the Keynesians argue that vigorous regulation and the prohibition of certain activities such as excessive borrowing are often necessary, behavioralists tend to be more hopeful about redeeming free enterprise. With a gentle nudge, they argue, even some very poorly performing markets—and the people who inhabit them—can be made to work pretty well.
In a fortuitous accident of timing, Sunstein and his friend Richard Thaler have just published a book that makes the behavioralist case in nontechnical language: Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. On the face of it, finding two more suitable coauthors would be difficult. Sunstein is a one-man think tank and a prolific writer—by my count, this is his eighth book in as many years. Thaler, who, like Goolsbee, teaches at Chicago's Graduate School of Business, is one of the founders of behavioral economics. During the 1980s, he began publishing a series of columns in the Journal of Economic Perspectives about economic phenomena that defied the accepted wisdom of the subject, which depended heavily on the twin assumptions of individual rationality and market efficiency.
Thaler's columns, some of which he coauthored with Kahneman and Tversky, ran under the rubric "Anomalies." Among the things they highlighted were the failure of participants in economic experiments to pursue their own self-interest; the buyer's remorse suffered by many auction winners when they contemplate what they have bought; and the popularity of lotteries. (If people were fully rational, they would realize they had virtually no chance of winning.) The articles, which in 1992 were published as a book, The Winner's Curse: Paradoxes and Anomalies of Economic Life, inspired many bright young economists to take a closer look at human psychology…
Exploring the limits of human reason is interesting in its own right… but what has it got to do with Obama? Thaler and Sunstein lay out a number of principles that can be used to encourage better choice-making, and they apply them to various topical issues, including retirement saving, health care, and the environment. In a number of cases, the measures that Thaler and Sunstein recommend are mirrored by proposals in Obama's voluminous policy papers, which can be downloaded from his Web site.
In a chapter entitled "Save More Tomorrow," Thaler and Sunstein endorse the idea of automatically enrolling people in corporate savings plans, such as 401(k)s, rather than making them fill out a form if they wish to opt in. In the idealized world of neoclassical economics, this shouldn't make much difference—rational people will decide what works best for them and do it. In reality, because of the status quo bias, or, perhaps, because of sheer laziness, the fallback option matters plenty. Studies show that when employees have to sign up, participation rates are often as low as 50 or 60 percent. When people are enrolled as a matter of course, with an option to opt out, the participation rises to more than 90 percent.
For decades now, economists have been bemoaning the fact that so many Americans save hardly at all. Simply offering tax breaks for saving has been tried many times, and it doesn't have much impact on overall savings rates. Here is a simple, noncontroversial measure that seems to work. An Obama administration would build upon it by requiring firms that don't offer 401(k) plans to open a direct deposit retirement account for their workers, with an opt-out clause rather than an opt-in clause. For the first $1,000 in savings that an employee contributed, the government would provide a $500 tax credit.
Elsewhere, Thaler and Sunstein endorse Justice Louis Brandeis's injunction that "sunlight is...the best of disinfectants." In financial markets, especially, prices are often opaque, which gives unscrupulous businesses ample scope for ripping off customers by imposing on them hefty hidden charges, late fees, and the like. Thaler and Sunstein propose that credit card companies, mortgage issuers, and other financial services firms should be forced to disclose all of their charges clearly, in plain language, so that potential customers can comparison shop. Applying the same argument to cell phone plans, the authors write: "The government would not regulate how much issuers charge for services, but it would regulate their disclosure practices." Adopting similar language, Obama has proposed a Credit Card Bill of Rights, which would require issuers to provide lenders with full and clear information about the terms of their loans, including all charges.
Disclosure not only helps consumers make better choices: it can also shame businesses into curbing their egregious behavior. Thaler and Sunstein cite the Toxic Release Inventory, a piece of legislation from the 1980s that forced companies to disclose to the government what potentially harmful chemicals they had stored or released into the environment. As James Hamilton pointed out in his 2005 book, Regulation Through Revelation, the measure was originally intended simply to provide the Environmental Protection Agency with more information, but once enacted it allowed activists and the press to target the worst offenders. Fearful of attracting bad publicity, many companies changed their policies, and overall emissions fell sharply. In light of this experience, Thaler and Sunstein propose setting up a Greenhouse Gas Inventory, which would require companies and other organizations to publish the total amount of carbon they are releasing into the atmosphere:In all likelihood, interested groups, including members of the media, would draw attention to the largest emitters. Because the climate change problem is salient, a Greenhouse Gas Inventory might well be expected to have the same beneficial effect as the Toxic Release Inventory. To be sure, an inventory of this kind might not produce massive changes on its own. But such a nudge would not be costly, and it would almost certainly help.
All of this makes for interesting reading, and much of it is sensible. Having written many times about the shortcomings of neoclassical economics, and the political ends to which it has been exploited, I am sympathetic to Thaler and Sunstein's effort to construct a more realistic economic philosophy, and one partly based on insights borrowed from other disciplines. However, the more I read of Nudge the less convinced I was that its authors, for all the useful and interesting material they present, have succeeded in their larger aim…
In defense of Thaler and Sunstein, their emphasis is on public policy. Yet the program they outline seems unduly restrictive. Not content to be behavioralists, they are also libertarians, and they endorse something they call "libertarian paternalism." They write:Libertarian paternalism is a relatively weak, soft, and nonintrusive type of paternalism because choices are not blocked, fenced off, or significantly burdened. If people want to smoke cigarettes, to eat a lot of candy, to choose an unsuitable health care plan, or to fail to save for retirement, libertarian paternalists will not force them to do otherwise—or even make things hard for them. Still, the approach we recommend does count as paternalistic, because private and public choice architects are not merely trying to track or to implement people's anticipated choices. Rather, they are self-consciously attempting to move people in directions that will make their lives better. They nudge.
A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.
Many of the policies we recommend can and have been implemented by the private sector (with or without a nudge from the government).... In areas involving health care and retirement plans, we think that employers can give employees some helpful nudges. Private companies that want to make money, and to do good, can even benefit from environmental nudges, helping to reduce air pollution (and the emission of greenhouse gases). But as we shall show, the same points that justify libertarian paternalism on the part of private institutions apply to government as well.
On the penultimate page of the book, they write:The twentieth century was pervaded by a great deal of artificial talk about the possibility of a "Third Way." We are hopeful that libertarian paternalism offers a real Third Way—one that can break through some of the least tractable debates in contemporary democracies.
The addition of the word "real" was presumably meant to distinguish Thaler and Sunstein's ideas from the "Third Way" approach that Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Tony Blair endorsed back in the 1990s. But just as that well-meaning intellectual construction project, in which the London School of Economics sociologist Anthony Giddens had a prominent part, suffered from soggy intellectual foundations, libertarian paternalism has some fundamental problems, beginning with the fact that it sounds suspiciously like an oxymoron.
Once you concentrate on the reality that people often make poor choices, and that their actions can harm others as well as themselves, the obvious thing to do is restrict their set of choices and prohibit destructive behavior. Thaler and Sunstein, showing off their roots in the Chicago School, rule out this option a priori: "We libertarian paternalists do not favor bans," they state blankly. During a discussion of environmental regulations, they criticize the Clean Air Acts that banned some sources of air pollution and helped to make the air more breathable in many cities. "The air is much cleaner than it was in 1970," they concede, "Philosophically, however, such limitations look uncomfortably similar to Soviet-style five-year plans, in which bureaucrats in Washington announce that millions of people have to change their conduct in the next five years."
If you start out with the preconceptions about free choice of John Stuart Mill or Friedrich Hayek, it is difficult to get very far in the direction of endorsing active government. (This is precisely the problem that the New Liberals of the late nineteenth century, men like L.T. Hobhouse and T.H. Green, faced.) Once again, consider the subprime crisis. At this stage, it is hard to find anybody willing to defend some of the mortgage industry's practices, such as offering gullible borrowers artificially low teaser rates that shot up after a couple of years. Hard, but not impossible. "Variable rate mortgages, even with teaser rates, are not inherently bad," Thaler and Sunstein write. "For those who are planning to sell their house or refinance within a few years, these mortgages can be highly attractive."
Strictly speaking, Thaler and Sunstein are correct. But many of the borrowers who took out loans planning to sell, or refinance at lower rates, within a few years were speculators, and unwittingly they helped to generate the biggest property bubble in American history. Others were simply taken for a ride. Dealing with this bursting of that bubble is going to involve spending a lot of taxpayers' money, which surely justifies the placing of some limits on future borrowers and lenders. A refusal to accept that individual freedoms sometimes have to be curtailed for the general good is an extreme position even for a neoclassical economist to take, and it is alien to the traditions of the Democratic Party.
As it happens, there is a coherent and well-developed economic philosophy that was explicitly designed to deal with the law of unintended consequences, and it is regulatory Keynesianism of the sort practiced in the United States and Britain from the end of World War II until the 1980s, a period, not coincidentally, in which working people saw their living standard improve at an unprecedented clip. With respect to the national economy, Keynesians worry that unfettered capitalism is subject to ruinous boom-bust cycles, so they advocate management of demand through interest rates or government programs that create jobs. On the micro-level, they believe that some economic activities have harmful effects that the price mechanism fails to capture, so they support taxation and regulation. Behavioral economics, by demonstrating how people often fall victim to confusion, myopia, and trend following, provides another convincing rationale for Keynesian policies, but you wouldn't realize that from reading Thaler and Sunstein.
Obama, as far as I know, doesn't refer to himself as a libertarian, but on occasion he appears to be unduly influenced by the need to preserve choice. Rather than mandating universal health coverage, for example, he has promised to set up a new, subsidized, government-operated insurance plan for people who aren't covered by their employers and who don't qualify for Medicare. But if a young and healthy person, for whatever reason, didn't want to buy health coverage, an Obama administration wouldn't compel that person to do so, despite the strong financial and moral arguments for expanding the risk pool. Just how to compel healthy young people to buy health insurance remains a large question; but it is one that should be addressed.
On other issues, such as trade policy and regulation of the financial industry, Obama has recently adopted a more dirigiste tone than Thaler and Sunstein would care for. More generally, he has talked about confronting entrenched interests and giving a voice to the excluded. Doubtless, he means what he says, and his ability to attract new voters, especially young ones, suggests he could have more success in overcoming the forces of inertia and reaction than the Clintons did in 1993–1994.
But for what policy purposes are the masses to be mobilized? According to Obama's program, the answers include another middle-class tax cut; more tax credits for education and fuel-efficient cars; a bigger budget for the National Science Foundation; and the establishment of a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, with an annual budget of $6 billion. At best, these proposals would represent a useful start in redressing the inequities and shortcomings produced by twenty-five years of Republican domination. If the next Democratic president wants to leave a truly lasting legacy, he or she will have to do more than nudge the country in a different direction.