Can We Please Raise the Level of the Debate?

In all of our self-importance, economists and political pundits have seen the current recession as a time to argue about whether markets clear. Inevitably, the discussion on financial news networks always devolves into a debate about whether markets are efficient, etc.* (Incidentally, can I call cross-talk and yelling a discussion? I am talking to you CNBC.) A prime example of this type of discourse is found in a recent article by John Tamny and a subsequent post by Ezra Klein.

Tamny’s article essentially extols the virtues of free markets. He points out that recessions often lead to falling asset prices, which allow others to purchase these assets and use them more wisely. Tamny is correct that an important part of any recession is the reallocation of assets and capital. However, when making a larger point about the macroeconomy and the policy, it often doesn’t serve ones case to provide anecdotal examples of how markets clear.

Ezra Klein rightfully scoffs at using such examples to sell markets as well as articulating the left-of-center response that although markets might clear, the process can be painful. Unfortunately, Klein continues:

What would a “humble federal government” do, exactly? Shut down the stimulus projects so a couple million more people end up unemployed and a couple million other people can buy their possessions at fire sale prices? Shut down the system of financial supports which are currently sustaining a weakened lending market? Should they have held back from Detroit’s collapse so that the assets of the various companies were simply liquidated, along with what was left of the Rust Belt’s economy? Should they cut off economic aid to the states so infrastructure literally crumbles?

A course these are all loaded questions. For example, even if the stimulus were to save “a couple million” jobs, this would come at the expense of either current or future consumption due to the increase in future tax liabilities that was created thereby causing job losses where this money is no longer spent. (We have been through the literature on this before.) It is similarly questionable why the automakers would have to liquidate upon entering bankruptcy without government assistance.

More:

At the end of the day, it will be a resuscitation of household spending and business expansion that restarts our economic growth. But for now, both have fallen through the floor, with terrible consequences for both individuals and businesses. What little demand exists is being substantially kept afloat by the massive intervention of the federal government.

Define “little”. I would describe several trillion as substantial. Furthermore, there must be a very large multiplier, especially considering much of the fiscal stimulus hasn’t even been spent.

More:

…the idea that the economy will heal itself if the government only steps out of the way is exactly the thinking that led to the deep recession of 1937. What a pity those lessons haven’t been better learned.

I am struggling to understand how the year that FDR decided to raise taxes and the Federal Reserve decided to increase reserve requirements thereby leading to another monetary contraction strikes one as government getting out of the way. It is indeed a pity that those lessons haven’t been learned.

I don’t mean to pick on Klein or Tamny, but rather highlight the fact that this debate is rather silly. We did not live in a world of laissez faire prior to the financial crisis — nor prior to the Great Depression — and thus it seems more than a bit self-important to sit around and debate whether markets clear as though we are living through the quintessential moment in which this argument will be won. It is also important to realize that the fact that markets fail does not imply that government can perform any better.


* I find this entire debate to be quite a bit tiresome as well considering that banks are one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country (by this I mean the actual regulation that is supposed to be enforced, not what actually is enforced) as well as the fact that the Federal Reserve, whose power is derived from the government, plays such a central role in this entire fiasco.

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