Friday, June 5, 2009

Flavors of Players

To understand the state of play, you need to know the players. Right now, as the economic crisis unfolds in the United States (and, for that matter, globally), there are three flavors of players (Stateside). They are:

1. The Financial Elite.
2. The Political Class.
3. The Technocrats.

The financial elite, formerly known as the Masters of the Universe, are the varied and assorted hedge fund managers, traders, merchant bankers, etc., etc.--the whole of the seven-figure income and eight-figure net worth (formerly) herd bulls/alpha males of the financial services sector, their direct reports, and those who report to those direct reports. They are convinced they've done nothing wrong, that they've been overwhelmed by unforeseeable circumstances that have similarly impacted everyone else within the ambit of their world view, and they are collectively responsible, directly, proximately for the global economic crisis. They are clueless, and the incomprehensible ineptness of their responses to their current situation is slowly sinking in.

2. The Political Class, happy in the good times to take money from the financial elite and rein in the technocrats in exchange for the lucre, which much rather be prattling on about gay marriage, narco terrorism, green energy and any other available hot button that doing the heavy lifting of making decisions about the government's role in the economy. Unfortunately for them, the screw ups of the financial elite compel official notice. The earliest inclination of this group was to punt the problem to the technocrats, but we may well have reached the limits of that strategy. Past that point, these guys will engage, and the results of their engagement will be stunning. Time will tell whether that means good stunning or bad stunning.

3. The Technocrats are suddenly in the uncomfortable situation of getting what they've been wishing for--an opportunity to perform front and center, on stage, with power (or influence, depending on their niche). There are limits to this opportunity, and it's rather opaque at this point, since they pretend to serve their masters in the political class and the public sensibilities (not to mention to the innate conservative stupidity of the political class) require adherence to the convention that the private sector (read, financial elite) is capable of managing its own affairs. That is a convention which the political class is finding daily more laughable. Unfortunately, at the very moment these have been given to shine, they're finding that most of the tools in their kit are, er, inoperative. Though whiny, they are collectively quite bright, and if appropriately engaged with the political class they have the potential to make a positive contribution to the situation.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Odd Resonances

A current question in economic circles is why the massive expansion of the money supply as aresult of the Federal Reserve’s strenuous efforts to deal with the financial crisis and ensuing general recession has led to utterly no discernible inflationary pressures, at least in the short term. After all, it’s a generally accepted fundamental precept of modern macroeconomic theory that, ceterus paribus (ah, such as old fashion phrase, a whiff of napalm in the morning), an expansion of the monetary supply will generate inflationary pressures, and we have witnessed over the last year a veritable explosion in the money supply.

The succinct and apparently indisputable answer is that the expansion of the money supply has occurred in tandem with a slowing in its velocity, dressed up with the occasional pontification about appreciating the difference between statistics that are expressions of first derivatives and those which express second order derivatives. Without honoring the mathematical window dressing, let’s accept that observation as simple, gospel truth.

What is stunning to me is that the idea resonates with the long-discarded ideas of an English engineer-civil servant-social theorist named Clifford Douglas who in the early 20s developed an idea of Social Capital. I am currently reading a magisterial exegesis of the poetry of Ezra Pound, and, before falling in with Mussolini’s fascism, Pound was temporarily captivated by the ideas of Douglas.

Douglas was not talking about the money supply. Douglas was not a Marxist (he felt the attribution of all value ultimately to labor and toil of the contemporary working classes and peasantry was fallacious). He was not an economist (not even by the more flexible standards of his day). He may have been a crackpot. But his diatribes on cost accounting and contempt for the reliance on markets to both price and value goods and services are seductive.

In a nutshell, he argued, with respect to capital, not the money supply, that the velocity of capital, not the quantity of it, explained the vicious grip of banks and the financial interest on the general economy. His argument echoed that of the American populists and progressives of a generation earlier that Wall Street held the country in its talons, crucifying Man on a Cross of Gold as surely as our Savior suffered on a Roman cross of timber. In a wonderful analogy, he made the argument that to ignore velocity would lead one, in the context of demographics, to claim that, because everyone who is born eventually dies, the birth rates and the death rates must be identical, and so the population must be stable, which it patently is not. These statistics are matters of rates, not absolute quantities (and it hardly required the invocation of Calculus to understand it).

I’m not sure if Douglas is worth exploring, or not. He was a whacko, and, like Pound, more than a whiff of anti-semeticism pervades his writing. But clearly, all of the post World War II macro orthodoxies are being found wanting. Hence, you have Paul Krugman reading Hyman Minsky. Thus, the endless invocations of the same few phrases of John Mayard Keynes (efforts to restore ‘animal spirits’ by fiat seem to me about as likely to succeed as efforts to repulse the Mongols by sending the patriarch and his bishops beyond the city walls to parade the icons before the approaching horsemen).

It’s enough to make me wonder if these issues are, at bottom, really issues of the economy, at all.