BRETTON WOODS, N.H.—It had been a long and dreary Saturday, overstuffed with PowerPoint slides and panel discussions. The economists, to a Nobelist, were exhausted. They had hoped to channel the ghosts of the famed Bretton Woods conference—where, 67 years earlier, American and other elites forged a new global economic system—in a quest to reinvent their field, which failed spectacularly to predict and prevent the 2008 financial crisis. Instead, the first full day in the grand old Mount Washington Hotel had yielded little of the “new thinking” that the economists had all trekked north to discover. But then came the dinner, when a distinguished Brit in a sleekly tailored suit arrived at the podium and cheerfully proceeded to decimate their profession.
The lecturer was Lord Adair Turner, an aristocrat in charge of England’s supreme financial regulator, who challenged nearly every fundamental assumption that has driven Western economists and policymakers for the past half-century. Leaders in Washington and other capitals, he charged, have become hypnotized by a “self-reinforcing belief system” that prescribes liberalizing markets as the best and only answer for economic problems. Freeing markets from government control, Turner argued, does not necessarily maximize economic growth. And growth itself, he added even more heretically, is not the ultimate aim of a good society; rich countries would be better off trading some growth for more stability and equality.
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Turner ended with a plea: Mainstream economics needs to embrace the radical notion that people are not rational actors after all. “Good economics leaves us”—policymakers, regulators, and consumers—“with far wider degrees of freedom to make political and social choices than has frequently been asserted,” he told the gathering. “The role of good economics is to inform those choices, not to deny their possibility.”
Good economics is in short supply in the wake of the financial crisis, particularly in Washington—and dangerously so. The period of steady growth that economists once hubristically called the Great Moderation has become the “Great Mortification,” in the words of economic historian Philip Mirowski of the University of Notre Dame. The American public has lost faith in the profession, which largely failed to predict how asset bubbles and a wave of complex new financial products could bring the world economy to its knees; for their part, economists are groping to understand where they went wrong.
The distrust and disarray among economists have left an intellectual vacuum in Washington’s fiscal and financial debate at a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher. That vacuum has created huge opportunities for discredited and dubious theories. The Right, for example, champions the idea that cutting spending now will immediately boost the economy (rather than slow it, as most models show) and bring it back to health, while the Left argues that simply adding more spending and stimulus, almost regardless of total debt levels, will do the same. Then there’s the notion that the nation’s debt ceiling need not be raised—that immediate spending cuts can take care of both the deficit and growth.
In April, Standard & Poor’s lowered its outlook on U.S. debt to “negative,” reflecting worries that Democrats and Republicans can’t even agree on the basic principles for taming the national debt. As lawmakers grapple with that question, along with how best to handle growth, job creation, and rising health care costs, they are looking to simplistic, black-and-white branches of economics for guidance—caricatures of theories that crumbled in the market failures of the Great Recession. Conservatives continue to argue, in true neoclassical spirit, that freer and less regulated markets always perform better, and government only gums up the works. Keynesians stress increased government spending, above all else, to climb out of recession. In this regard, all of Washington is falling victim to what John Maynard Keynes described 75 years ago. “Madmen in authority,” he said, see themselves as “practical men” when they are “usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”
President Obama, as he fences with Republicans, has lamented the “deep philosophical divide” between the two political parties’ economic plans. That’s accurate, but it overlooks a bigger problem: More than two years after what many authorities called the worst financial crisis in history, neither Obama nor GOP leaders in Congress have embraced a new form of economic reasoning that explains either what has happened or where we are going. The economy is simply too complex, and the global financial system too interdependent, to be viewed through the prism of old theories that hold that free markets—or well-timed government spending—can solve almost anything. No one in Washington is challenging those doctrines with any strength. There is no analogue to Lord Turner in America, no one who can shake up government thought from the inside or challenge it from without.
“The profession has reached a cul-de-sac,” says one prominent economist, Andrew Lo of MIT. “Macroeconomists are scrambling to figure out what to do. So politicians are simply pushing whatever kind of economics they can.”
The New School
Efforts are afoot to update—even to overhaul—the ways that economists think about markets, regulation, and government fiscal policy. Washington just pays little attention to them. The National Science Foundation asked economists and social scientists last year to draw up “grand challenge questions that are both foundational and transformative.” The early-April conference in the melting snows of Bretton Woods drew hundreds of economists to debate those questions. (It was largely underwritten by billionaire—and major Democratic donor—George Soros. Many of the speakers tilted politically liberal, but a full spectrum of economic ideologists were included, such as prominent free-market champions Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard and Carmen Reinhart of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.)
Even at the University of Chicago, the fabled home to free-market theory—including the still-dominant “rational expectations” hypothesis—restless thinkers such as Raghuram Rajan, Douglas Diamond, and Anil Kashyap are winning plaudits for exploring new concepts about smart regulation. Rajan, in particular, saw before many other economists the flaws in the old, under-regulated financial system, warning as far back as 2005 that the markets were likely headed for a titanic crash.
The early consensus among self-styled new thinkers, to the extent there is one, is that the world is right to love markets and their power to effectively allocate people, prices, and resources. But the truly free market we thought we loved never existed. Our conception of it was too simple. Now we need someone to explain it to us, in all its glorious, dangerous complexity—at a time when we can ill afford another mistake, another crash, another unforeseen event.
New and emerging models try to explain economies with all their humanity involved. Some incorporate psychology; others, social norms; others still, the power of storytelling to move markets. One branch presumes that markets never have all of the information they need to function properly. Another uses supercomputing to aggregate enough information to begin to predict the sort of catastrophic market failures that other theories dismissed as impossible, that other models call “unpredictable”—the future bubbles that we would neglect until it’s too late, in the same way we neglected the Internet stock bubble in the late ’90s and the housing bubble of the 2000s.
None of those theories appears to have appreciably shaped the economic-policy proposals coming from the White House or Congress, where lawmakers draw much of their economic inspiration from think tanks built on dogma. “Washington is a place where people spend money on ideas in order to do policy,” says Thomas Ferguson, a political-science professor at the University of Massachusetts who writes extensively on economic policy. “It’s not a place where people spend money to find out anything.”
Neither party seems keen to search for orthodoxy-challenging economic answers. Before Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., released the GOP’s budget blueprint in April, for example, he asked neoclassical economists at the conservative Heritage Foundation to predict how its mix of lower tax rates and hefty entitlement cuts would supercharge future growth. Heritage’s data-analysis chief, William Beach, initially said that Ryan’s budget would produce an overnight housing boom, massive growth in gross domestic product, and, by 2021, a 2.8 percent unemployment rate. “I think these are fairly conservative estimates,” Beach said the day that the numbers came out. Later, after scathing rebukes from economists and journalists, Heritage revised its unemployment projections upward.
The economy is simply too complex, and the global financial system too interdependent, to be viewed through the prism of old theories.
House Speaker John Boehner’s vaunted speech on Wall Street this month brimmed with simplistic—and oft-refuted—ideas of how the economy works. Among them: Government debt is “crowding out” private investment (when short- and long-term interest rates remain at historic lows); government-sponsored mortgage entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “triggered” the financial crisis; new regulations in response to the crisis made the banking system “less competitive”; and it would be economically preferable to allow the United States to default on its debt rather than raise the debt ceiling without trillions of dollars in spending cuts.
White House economic policy features its own inchoate concepts on achieving what Obama called a “balanced” policy between government investment in the nation’s future and immediate budget cuts. The president and his team believe that the economy has escaped the danger of a double-dip recession, and their goal is to manage a politically inevitable period of budget austerity without undercutting pillars of long-term growth. It’s a pragmatic approach but hardly grounded in anything close to a comprehensive theory of how America fell into the Great Recession and how it might avoid future crises.
Instead, Obama seems content to define his economic policy largely by contrasting it to Republicans’ neoclassical thinking. Asked how the crisis had changed his and Obama’s economic thinking, Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, replied: “The financial crisis of 2008, the flirtation with a Great Depression, [and] the economic pain it inflicted on every other industry and consumer in the economy discredited the notion that every regulation and rule of the road is bad for business. Removing the rules of the road almost destroyed us.”
On the night before Lord Turner’s speech, the headline address at the Bretton Woods conference came from Lawrence Summers, the former director of Obama’s National Economic Council, who still speaks frequently with the president. Summers is an accomplished academic economist whose ideas continue to heavily influence Obama’s thinking, even though he left the White House late last year. Before he spoke at Bretton Woods, Summers took media questions, and a reporter asked how his economic thinking had evolved since his time as an adviser to President Clinton in the late ’90s. “I’m sure there’s some bias toward charitable recollection in what I’m about to say,” Summers began. He went on to express some regret for underestimating the importance of inequality and to say he had “even less confidence in the self-regulating capacity of markets.” But the overall message was clear: What in his thinking had changed? Not much.
Afterward, a New York University professor, Roman Frydman, rushed up to the reporter who asked the question. “What Larry is saying is nonsense,” Frydman said. “He has been in government too long.”
The need to improve on long-held economic thinking flows from the most liberalized system of global commerce in human history—and the mounting complexities and disparities it has wrought. Large swaths of economists, regardless of ideology, have sounded alarms over the dual specters of widening income inequality (disparities afflicting rich and poor countries alike) and mounting public debt in the world’s most mature economies. The global economy has not yet kicked its hangover from the Great Recession, nor has it faced up to the lingering, underpriced risks that could cripple entire nations, such as a highly leveraged banking system and the rising threat of catastrophic climate change.
The previous huge financial crisis, the Great Depression, produced a period of conceptual ferment that overturned economics. To a striking degree, most of the policy options we now discuss without even thinking about them—deficit spending, monetary policy, the role of the Federal Reserve Board, government intervention in general—come from what economists learned by examining that period. It was thanks to the Depression that Keynes created macroeconomics. It was in response to the Depression that Milton Friedman developed his theory of monetarism, rebutting Keynes. The question now is, would Keynes or Friedman, if they lived today, have the same influence? And even if economists had something new and important to tell us, would Washington listen?
How We Got Stuck
There are plenty of policy areas where experts roundly agree but lawmakers divide along immovable partisan lines. Climate change is a good example: Democrats and Republicans disagree over whether to restrict or price carbon emissions, even though the vast majority of climate scientists believe that burning fossil fuels is warming the planet. Economics is different. As Lo of MIT notes, there is suddenly no overwhelming consensus among economists on how the global market functions.
In the past, there has generally been agreement. Up until the Great Depression, most economists believed in the so-called neoclassical model inspired by Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics. Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, that the rational self-interest of the millions of individuals who engaged in markets turned chaos into social order. The process by which these individuals bargained and haggled over prices ended up placing a rational and fair value on goods and services for all. Thus, society as a whole was led to greater prosperity and peacefulness as if “by an invisible hand” (although Smith had more caveats about the dire effects of monopolies and other free-market ills than he’s often given credit for). Later, such economists as Leon Walrus theorized that economies reach “equilibrium,” in which supply and demand come into balance, on their own, and society’s needs are thus addressed in an optimal way.
But markets kept misbehaving and breaking down, leading to repeated crises; perhaps the worst of all was the Great Depression. As a result, 150 years after Smith, another Briton, Keynes, led a counterrevolution in economics that produced an alternative model. Writing in a time of self-doubt about capitalism, Keynes argued that the irrational elements of human behavior—what he called “animal spirits,” as seen in the mania and panic of financial markets—would continue to upset markets and cause them to behave badly. That meant there was a need for constant government intervention.
This paradigm dominated economic thinking until the 1970s, when Vietnam-era inflation, compounded by exorbitant spending on the war and Great Society programs, left the economy mired in “stagflation,” with inflation rates that reached 15 percent and high unemployment. The double plague of inflation and unemployment, along with excessive government spending, drove an anti-Keynesian rebellion led by Friedman and his University of Chicago school of free-market thinkers, who shaped the Reagan revolution against Big Government.
That era, in turn, produced the next great model, the so-called rational-expectations hypothesis. “It says that people are rational, can see through government policy, and will basically predict what it is that government is trying to do and get around it by other means,” Lo says. It was this framework that underpinned much of the deregulating, free-market approach of recent years. But the concept of a rational, self-equilibrating market has been called into question by the failure of the financial industry to regulate itself. “In fact, that’s a very, very idealized and unrealistic description of the macroeconomy,” Lo contends. “We haven’t spent the time on modeling new theories.”
Still, there’s a lot of disagreement over how much new modeling is necessary. The University of Chicago’s Kashyap counters that it’s wrong to dismiss rational expectations entirely. Instead, he says, the problem is that economists didn’t pay enough attention to the inner workings of the financial system and how it interacts with the real economy. As a theory, Kashyap says, rational expectations isn’t wrong—it’s just incomplete. “The dominant model didn’t have a financial system in it,” he notes. “Lots of people didn’t come to appreciate how much stuff they had swept under the rug.… The big rethink now is that people are not going to say financial arrangements are a second-order detail anymore.”
But Turner and many other economists counter that a deeper remodeling is needed that will acknowledge, at long last, that irrational or quirky behavior drives much of the economy. Rachel Crosen, an economist who works with the National Science Foundation, says that some of the more trailblazing research efforts try “to incorporate sociology that is harking back to days of economics before it was so mathematized.” Among the most exciting new thinkers, she says, is Esther Duflo of MIT, who is using field experiments in economic development to figure out what makes economies grow. Even some mathematical economists are engaged in new inquiries: Lars Hansen of the University of Chicago is doing profound work on evaluating economic models and the uncertainty inherent in them; and Chris Sims of Princeton is rethinking how economics uses data.
New models try to explain the human side of economics. Some incorporate psychology; others, social norms; others still, the power of storytelling.
Other prominent economists, including Nobel laureate George Akerlof of the University of California (Berkeley) and Robert Shiller of Yale, are developing horizons in “behavioral economics” that attempt to map human behavior more realistically, rather than assuming that people are always “rational” economic actors. On the sidelines at Bretton Woods, Akerlof—relaxed in a wool blazer, heavy pants, and hiking boots—outlined his latest theories in “identity economics,” the idea that social norms influence how markets work and should factor in policy, too.
People develop fixed ideas of what they should be doing—at work, at home, over their lifetimes—Akerlof said, and those ideas drive the economic choices they make. Those decisions can confound basic market theory and lead, for example, to the persistently high unemployment we’re seeing in the United States today. Akerlof says that the job market “is like a game of musical chairs” where the players refuse to sit in anything but the seats they’ve come to identify as their own. If Jane sees herself as an engineer meriting a $100,000-a-year salary, because she’s done that for a decade and it makes her happy, then if Jane loses that job to outsourcing, she’ll be reluctant to take a similar one for $60,000 a year—even if the markets suggest that should be the going wage for an engineer. The rational-expectations theory says that Jane should take that job; the identity theory says she won’t. She’ll hold out for a $100,000 job: She won’t sit down until someone puts her rightful chair back in the room. That’s not a problem you can solve just by revving up GDP growth.
New thinkers say they’ve long struggled to break into the policy conversation. Since the late 1980s, researchers at the Santa Fe Institute have worked to bring the idea of complexity back into economics by making use of advanced computing power to map human economic behavior in the same way weather or climate change is tracked. It may sound like science fiction, but it’s the kind of work that might have helped recognize the full magnitude of risk-taking under way during catastrophic housing bubble. Down the road, it could help the Fed recognize “systemic risks” building up in far-flung corners of the financial system.
Until the financial crisis, says W. Brian Arthur, an external professor at the institute, the supercomputing advancements “kind of lay dormant, like an underground river.” Now, academics are slowly starting to rediscover the institute’s work. Policymakers have barely sniffed at it, even though its possibilities are immense. Arthur envisages an open-sourced economic modeling effort to “stress test” major policy proposals—like Obama’s health care law—and run them through simulations to see how the economy might react and what might go wrong.
But in Washington, new thinkers are easily drowned out by the high priests of rational expectations, who have resurfaced, postcrisis, to espouse their doctrine. Most prominently, former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan recently declared in a Financial Times op-ed that “with notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global ‘invisible hand’ has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.” Greenspan and other defenders of the status quo have found a receptive audience in a public that is sour on Washington and searching for economic hope amid the sluggish recovery.
High-profile attempts to shift the conversation, or to suggest that anything but unfettered free markets should be the goal of policymakers, are often meet with howls. The conservative Media Research Center warned that last month’s Bretton Woods conference was an attempt to “remake the financial order” and, in the process, “take the United States down a peg or three”—which is to say, to undermine the free market and America’s supreme role at the center of it.
Washington’s meager efforts to advance economic understanding have gotten bogged down in politics. The congressionally appointed Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission issued split verdicts on the causes of the meltdown, with Democrats endorsing a market-failure explanation and Republicans blaming government regulation. Congress created an Office of Financial Research, but its top spot remains unfilled.
“A lot of economists are completely frustrated by the fact that what [lawmakers] are saying in Washington completely bypasses what the economists are saying,” says Christian Zimmermann, a University of Connecticut economist who has developed a widely used system ranking economists worldwide by how often other economists cite their papers. Today’s debate still turns on the axis of economic thinking that evolved in the Reagan era, much of which persisted through the trade-opening presidency of Bill Clinton. Yet even back then a legitimate and vigorous discussion about competing paradigms took place, and more were willing to listen to the other side. “Think-tank [creation] was really only finding its feet,” Notre Dame’s Mirowski says. “Now, it’s absolutely ingrained.”
Many think tanks, and candidates from both parties, reap major financial support from large corporations that have often turned the increased complexities of the global economy to their competitive advantage. Those companies have a financial interest in staying free of interference from Washington, gaining as much dominance in their markets as possible, and leaving the risks for everyone else to absorb. As Summers noted in his Bretton Woods speech, some of the riskiest activities in the economy—including financial trading, nuclear-power generation, and deep-sea drilling—have grown so complex that the people who really understand the activities work in companies participating in them. In those areas, Summers said, “there’s hardly anyone that’s both knowledgeable and un-co-opted” by industry.
Making It Real
Even in the best of times, economics has hardly ever been a “pure” science unadulterated by politics. On the contrary, much of the last century saw a fierce conflict between free-market economists aligned with the GOP and Keynesian Democrats who tended to doubt the rationality of markets. The former were dubbed “freshwater” economists because they tended to work at inland universities near the Great Lakes, starting with the University of Chicago; the latter were known as “saltwater” because they usually flourished at such coastal universities as MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, and Stanford.
The economic debates in Washington today largely break along those old lines. Obama embraced a nearly $1 trillion Keynesian-style stimulus bill, and in the ensuing two years, Republicans sought to paint him as an out-of-control government spender and a burdensome overregulator. The president and his fellow Democrats, meanwhile, charge that Ryan’s plan and the rest of the GOP economic agenda are driven by discredited supply-side thinking, a critique that causes some Republicans to bristle. “The surprising thing about the Ryan budget is how little it does on taxes,” says Keith Hennessey, who served as chief economic adviser to President George W. Bush. “It is focused almost entirely on making big and risky choices on the spending side.” Yet Ryan’s plan would drive the country back toward deregulation by also repealing much of the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation bill that passed last year.
What both parties are searching for, of course, isn’t necessarily the optimal economic policy or philosophy: They want the policy, consistent with their political-belief system, that plays best with voters. That’s a double challenge for economists to solve. It’s not enough to build a new and better understanding of the economy and its trapdoors. We need a simple narrative to explain it, too. The one that took root under Reagan and Clinton—that deregulating markets and expanding global trade would benefit everyone—worked for 30 years. Now, opinion polls suggest, that narrative doesn’t play. Americans don’t trust the government or the markets.
In an optimal world—a paradigm that economists are familiar with—both economists and lawmakers would acknowledge public frustration with government and markets and step up to the titanic challenge ahead. It’s impossible to say right now what policies would result from such a rethink. They could be small and surgical tweaks, such as increasing capital requirements for banks, rethinking government backstops for the mortgage market, or overhauling labor laws to slot more people into more-satisfying work. Frydman, the NYU economist who was so critical of Summers at Bretton Woods, suggests limiting government intervention in certain markets—say, housing—until such time as asset prices swing outside of traditional boundaries, and then ramping up regulation to dampen those prices.
It could be that in regulating extraordinarily complex operations with huge sums of money attached—such as deep-sea drilling and derivatives trading—governments will need to keep industry on what might appear to be a short leash, and regulators will need to work far more closely across international lines than they’re used to, knowing that a breakdown in the system anywhere is a worldwide threat. (Witness the global slowdown in nuclear-plant construction, not to mention the public-health panic, from the Fukushima Daiichi reactor disaster in Japan.)
Or, lawmakers might end up making radical changes in how they judge economic progress—perhaps adopting Turner’s suggested shift away from favoring GDP growth toward a more explicit effort to achieve full employment. Those changes, as Turner proposes them, would require lawmakers to invert some of the basic cost-benefit calculations they rely on to guide economic policy. If stability is more important to the U.S. economy than growth, Turner says, then lawmakers should stop worrying about the costs, in lost growth, of stabilizing the global banking system or counteracting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Banks should hold whatever level of capital is necessary to forestall runs on the system and a potential repeat financial crisis—even if that means slowing down lending and curbing the economic activity that grows from it. Countries should pay whatever it takes to dramatically improve energy efficiency and transition from fossil fuels to low-carbon ones, even if the increased price of energy stunts growth by far more than the 1 percent of global GDP that a British blue-ribbon panel estimates is the price of climate stability.
This is a quest that the U.S. can and should lead. Other nations are increasingly skeptical that Washington can balance its budget, reduce its debt, or bridge partisan divides. But in the realm of global economic thinking, the U.S. still stands alone. “The power of American economics is preeminent at this stage,” says Andrew Sheng, the chief adviser to the China Banking Regulatory Commission. At the Bretton Woods gathering, participants agreed that no strand of economics—not European, not Chinese—comes close to challenging that dominance.
But the question remains: Who will fill the vacuum? Who will follow the path of Friedman and Keynes and shake up economic policy-making for a generation? The joke in economics, as in many other scientific disciplines, is that the field advances one dead researcher at a time. Old ideas die; new ones grow. American economists and politicians would be wise to start thinking of the financial crisis as a collective funeral for old thinking—and as an opportunity to rise from the ashes.
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This article appears in the May 21, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.