Friday, November 28, 2008

Going John Galt

While we're on the subject of Objectivism and the economic crisis, it seems many Objectivists are reacting to that (and the election of the dreaded Obama) by threatening to "go John Galt" - withdrawing their skills from society and letting the damn thing fall to the ground. The comments are a must-read, and we note among them our very own John Donohue, Pasadena!

Only thing is, I'm not sure that many of these would-be Galts have recently invented a perpetual motion machine...

Atlas Updated

Jeremiah Tucker revisits "Atlas Shrugged" for financial apocalypse.

(hat tip to Jason at Catallaxy)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hoisted from Comments: Atlas Begs

It turns out there are no true Randian individualists  in foxholes. Sharp-eyed commenter Michael Prescott notes West Virginia's BB&T bank has recently put its hand out for $3.1 billion in Federal rescue money. What makes this ironic is that its CEO, John A. Allison IV, is a big time contributor to the ARI, and makes reading "Atlas Shrugged" compulsory for all his executives. This capitulation, accompanied by statements about how doing so is  "consistent with our values and philosophy" and supporting the Treasury's interventions to stabilise the economy,  has led to a minor flurry of hand-wringing ( here, here) at the ARI's Center For The Advancement of Capitalism, with conspiracy theories being mooted that Allison was "coerced" into making such statements.

Despite this apparently dire moral and philosophical lapse, I'm sure the ARI won't be turning down Allison's cheques any time soon.

Objectivism & Economics, Part 9

Role of deregulation in current crisis. David Horowitz, in his blog over at provides additional evidence of the role that deregulation has played in the current crisis. Horowitz writes:
The cause of this crisis is a change in the structure of financial markets which allowed hedge fund operators and other sharks to leverage bad loans geometrically. Republicans as well as Democrats supported this system and gave it legislative backing. You could look on the economic collapse as a convergence of socialist and free market (anti-regulatory) ideological manias. Phil Gramm's deregulatory prejudices are at least as responsible for this economic ruin as Barney Frank's ignorant redistributionist fantasies. No one's hands are clean.

Horowitz then quotes excerpts from an interview with Bill Janeway that provides evidence not merely for the role that dereguation played in the fiasco, but also mathematical economics:
It took two generations of the best and the brightest who were mathematically quick and decided to address themselves to the issues of capital markets. They made it possible to create the greatest mountain of leverage that the world has ever seen….It was a kind of religious movement, a willed suspension of disbelief. If we say that the assumptions necessary to produce the mathematical models hold in the real world, namely that markets are efficient and complete, that agents are rational, that agents have access to all of the available data, and that they all share the same model for transforming that data into actionable information, and finally that this entire model is true, then at the end of the day, leverage should be infinite.

Here was the theory. But banking and financial regulations made it impossible to put it into practice. So what was done about it? Academic economists appealed to Washington to have the regulations removed:

Milton Friedman was prevailed upon to write a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Nicholas Brady, Reagan’s Secretary of the Treasury, as a result of which the Chicago Board was cleared to trade stock index futures, all cash settlement. There is another story in which Alan Blinder on the Democratic side played a similar role, by providing the academic legitimacy for the markets and for the integration into the fabric of finance of the derivatives that instrumented modern financial theory. That enabling role … created a tool through which you could price things that did not heretofore trade. Puts and calls did not trade.

In brief, what happened is that these new financial tools, brought into being through the obtuse cleverness of econometrics, enabled the free market to generate a nearly infinite supply of credit. The so-called “funny money” that free market ideologues wish to blame the Fed for was largely created by the free market! Government regulation had nothing to do with it. On the contrary, it was the absence of government regulation that allowed these non-banking financial institutions to go create a massive credit bubble in the nineties, thereby driving up the Stock Market to five times its value in twelves years.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 8

Greenspan’s primary error. Despite the howls of condemnation hurled against Greenspan by the Objectivist rabble, which hsa been fervently trying to convince us that the former Fed chairman is some kind of Atila-like, arch-collectivist who long ago abandoned the free market, the most famous ex-Objectivist in the world is no such anti-market ogre. His attempts to “advance free-market capitalism as an insider” did not fail because of his straying from the Objectivist straight and narrow. Indeed, the Objectivist influence on Greenspan, if anything, remained a stumbling block, because it prevented him from fully appreciating the organic view of markets advanced by thinkers like Burke and Hayek (more on this in later posts). But even the Objectivist influence is secondary in importance to another, more serious problem. I have in mind Greenspan’s strong attachment to mathematics and statistics. “My primary obsession was math,” Greenspan admits in his biography. In 1951, Greenspan signed up for a course in mathematical statistics, and was immediately hooked: 

Today this discipline is called econometrics, but then the field was just an assemblage of general concepts, too new to have a textbook or even a name…. I immediately saw the power of these new tools: if the economy could be accurately modeled using empirical facts and math, then large-scale forecasts could be derived methodically, without the quasi-scientific intuition employed by so many economic forecasters. I imagined how the could be put to work. Most important, at age twenty-five I’d found a growing field in which I could excel.

Although Greenspan would later discover the limitations of forecasts based on econometric models, he would use his mastery of economic statistics to develop a successful private business (i.e., providing useful economic statistics to businesses), and later to establish himself as the most important economist in the Republican Party (which is why Reagan appointed him as Fed Chairman in 1987). So mathematics and statistics were the making of Greenspan. In places where such tools are useful and necessary, Greenspan was a consummate master. The problem is, mathematical statistics is a mere tool for acquiring economic facts: it does not, in and of itself, provide any understanding of those facts. Indeed, it predisposes one against understanding them by placing too much emphasis on calculation and technique rather than on understanding and “quasi-scientific” intuition. It causes economists to unwittingly regard the economy as a mechanism instead of a complex outgrowth of cooperating and clashing human motivations. Regarding the economy in this manner predisposes free-market orientated economists to accepting the errors of monetarism, particularly two beliefs that have governed the Fed’s monetary policy during Greenspan’s reign: (1) that the role of the Fed is to maintain price stability in consumer goods; and (2) that any crisis in liquidity (i.e. deflation) can be solved by merely increasing the monetary supply.

Greenspan and his colleagues at the Fed, by holding fast to these principles, failed to understand what was happening in the nineties. Specifically, they failed to appreciate how the deregulation of the eighties, by encouraging dangerous experiments in high finance, particularly in derivatives and debt leverage, had resulted in a massive credit bubble that had swollen asset markets to a very dangerous extent. Greenspan appears to have had an inkling that something was wrong in 1997 when he made his famous “irrational exuberance” remark. But he was either unwilling or unable to do anything about it. He would later claim that bubbles were impossible to identify until they burst—an obvious testimony to the poverty of Greenspan’s economic understanding.

What could Greenspan have done differently? What was his major policy error? His major error was not to have recognized the credit bubble in the nineties, when it could have been safely deflated. To be sure, he may not have been able to do anything about it: after all, the Fed chairman is not a dictator, but merely one vote among seven colleagues. Moreover, due to the increasing ability of non-banks to expand credit, the Fed was losing control of the money supply in any case.

Curiously, Objectivists like Richard Salsman have criticized Greenspan for raising interest rates and tightening monetary policy in 2000. “ Last week, for example, Greenspan told Congress that he'll keep raising interest rates,” Salsman wrote in March of 2000. “In response, the stock market plunged nearly 3%—meaning that about $400 billion of wealth was destroyed. We have only Greenspan to blame for the drop, because there's nothing wrong with the American economy.”

This is, of course, palpable nonsense, and demonstrates that Salsman’s understanding of economic reality is, if anything, even worse than Greenspan’s. As I wrote at the same time (in March of 2000):
The stock market is vastly over-inflated. It has risen by a factor of the more the six in the last twelve and a half years. Now what economic fact could possibly justify so immense an increase? No amount of rise in productivity, Gross Domestic Product(GDP), research and development, corporate profits, or stock dividends can possibly justify a six-fold increase in the stocks. To believe that the current stock market reflects the genuine economic realities of the present economic situation is to demonstrate a blindness equalled only by investors during the other great speculative euphorias in history.

Now how did I know, in March of 2000, that the Stock Market was grossly over-inflated? It’s really quite simple: I merely applied intelligence and the lessons of history to the economic facts. When the Stock Market goes up by a factor of six, there’s something seriously wrong. You don’t have to be a great mathematical economist to figure that out. So why did Greenspan and Salsman get it wrong? With Greenspan, I think (as I have explained) it had a lot to do with his mathematical training, which predisposed him to accepting mistaken monetarist notions. With Salsman, it is his commitment to ideology, which makes him sacrifice truth to advocacy. Hence the absurdity of his criticism of Greenspan. He is not interested in understanding Greenspan: he merely wishes to find a rationale for abusing the former Fed chairman because the institution of the Fed violates Salsman’s tender ideological scruples.

Friday, November 21, 2008

It's All A Socialist Plot!

An anonymous commenter points us to this piece posted at Objectivism Online, which claims that any proposed bailout of the auto industry is "an enormous power grab" by the forthcoming neo Fascist Democratic State. This argument might perhaps have merit had the American auto industry been itself a global power instead of a global cripple. But unfortunately this is not the case, so it is simply a laughable confusion of cause and effect.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 7

Greenspan’s breaking away from Objectivism. In his autobiography, The Age of Turbulence, Greenspan explains why he stopped being an orthodox acolyte of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy:

Like any new convert, I tended to frame the concepts [of Rand’s philosophy] in their starkest, simplest terms. Most everyone sees the simple outline of an idea before complexity and qualification set in…. It was only as contradictions inherent in my new notions began to emerge that the fervor receded.

One such contradiction I found particularly enlightening. According to the objectivist precepts, taxation was immoral because it allowed for government appropriation of private property by force. Yet if taxation was wrong, how could you reliably finance the essential functions of government, including the protection of individuals’ rights through police power? The Randian answer, that those who rationally saw the need for government would contribute voluntarily, was inadequate. People have free will; suppose they refused?…

I still found the broader philosophy of unfettered market competition compelling, as I do to this day, but I reluctantly began to realize that if there were qualifications to my intellectual edifice, I couldn’t argue that others should readily accept it. By the time I joined Richard Nixon’s campaign for the presidency in 1968, I had long since decided to engage in efforts to advance free-market capitalism as an insider, rather than as a critical pamphleteer.

Greenspan here admits what has been suspected for some time: that he came to believe that Objectivism was flawed and so ceased being an orthodox advocate of Rand’s philosophy. More interesting is his decision to advance free-market capitalism “as an insider, rather than as a critical pamphleteer.” This is really where Greenspan most differentiates himself from his former Objectivist comrades. Objectivists want to change the system without being part of it. Hence their conviction that social change can be brought about through philosophical patter.

But what is the real reason why Objectivists shrink from attempting to make change through action rather than merely talking about it? I can think of two main reasons:

1. Most Objectivists don’t have the ability to make change as an insider. While this lack of ability may be rationalized as an unwillingness to compromise (which all insiders must do), let’s not be naive: if every advocate of the free market adopted the attitude of “I will never compromise, therefore I won’t ever become an insider,” all this would accomplish is to surrender the political realm to advocates of various anti-market nostrums. Greenspan became an insider because he had the political chops to do so. Few people who came under Rand’s orbit have comparable chops.

2. Trying to change things as an insider as risky: one is inevitably competing against people who want to change things in a different direction, and it’s quite possible they will win out. Just look what’s happened with Greenspan: from our current vantage point, his attempts to advocate free market capitalism as an insider do not appear altogether successful. But is that any reason for not trying at all? Either one is willing to fight for one’s ideals on the political stage, or one isn’t. Those who are capable of fighting on political stage but choose not to are cowards—plain and simple.

Objectivists are now frantically trying to rid themselves of the taint of Greenspan’s former association with Rand. Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein have accused Greenspan of being “the voice of government central-planning”—another instance of Objectivists discrediting themselves by over-stating their case. They do nothing but talk and scribble—while attacking the one of the few individuals influenced by Rand who actually had the courage and the capability of trying to affect change within the political realm. Where are such people going to come from if they know ahead of time how they are to be treated if they fail? The hysterical denunciations of Greenspan demonstrate once again why Objectivism will never succeed as an agent of political change.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election 08: Who would Rand vote for?

Since Rand is no longer with us, we can only guess what she might have done. Here I offer merely two possible conjectures: (1) Either she would not have voted for either candidate; or (2) She would have voted for McCain. Let's examine both possibilities.

(1) The evidence supporting the conjecture that she would have refused to vote for either candidate comes largely from her refusal to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the fact that her intellectual heir, Leonard Peikoff, has stated quite clearly he believes that the Republican Party should either be wiped out or "severly punished." Peikoff's reason are stated in a recent podcast:

Peikoff's views are clearly influenced by Rand's disgust at Reagan's alliance with the religious right. The fact that the Reagan needed this alliance in order to have a chance at winning is of no concern either to Rand or Peikoff. In Peikoff's case, this militant animus against religion is taken to the length of insane paranoia. Peikoff mocks Palin for some of her odd religious beliefs, yet he fails to cite any instance in which her personal religious convictions have affected her political decisions as governor of Alaska. Yet Peikoff's paranoid horror of religion has its source in Rand, so it is quite possible that Rand would agreed with Peikoff and would therefore sit out the '08 election.

2. The evidence suggesting the possibility that Rand might have voted for McCain largely comes from her fear of George McGovern in 1972. Obama is the most left-wing candidate since McGovern: indeed, he might even be further to the left. Like McGovern, Obama is an anti-war leftist who supports a very strong redistributionist agenda, including giving so-called "tax credits" to people who don't pay any federal income tax. Would Obama scare Rand enough to make her vote for McCain? After all, even Peikoff admits that Obama is the first major Presidential candidate to have anti-American views. If McGovern was scary enough to cause Rand to vote for a President who extended the Great Society and implemented price controls, why wouldn't Obama be scary enough to convince her to vote for McCain?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Objectivism & Economics, Part 6

Rand’s influence on Greenspan. In his autobiography, The Age of Turbulence, Greenspan acknowledges an intellectual debt to Ayn Rand:
Ayn Rand became a stabilizing force in my life. It hadn’t taken long for us to have a meeting of the minds—mostly my mind meeting hers—and in the fifties and early sixties I became a regular at the weekly gatherings at her apartment. She was a wholly originally thinker, sharply analytical, strong-willed, highly principled, and very insistent on rationality as the highest value. In that regard, our values were congruent—we agreed on the importance of mathematics and intellectual rigor…

I was intellectually limited until I met [Rand]. All of my work had been empirical and numbers-based, never values-orientated. I was a talented technician, but that was all. My logical positivism had discounted history and literature—if you’d asked me whether Chaucer was worth reading, I’d have said, “Don’t bother.” Rand persuaded me to look at human beings, their values, how they work, what they do and why they do it, and how they think and why they think. This broadened by horizons far beyond the models of economics I’d learned… [Rand] introduced me to a vast realm from which I’d shut myself off.

Greenspan admits to being merely a “talented technician” until he met Rand. Rand, by introducing him to values, persuaded him to look at the motives and values of human beings. The question is: did Greenspan really learn anything about human beings from Rand? Or did he merely learn the wrong things?

We’ve already quoted Greenspan’s acknowledgement of mystification over what’s happened in the financial markets in recent weeks. Greenspan admits to being in “a state of shocked disbelief” that the “self-interest of lending instutitions” failed to protect shareholder’s equity. Some of us are shocked that Greenspan should be shocked. Those who understand human nature through and through know that the very notion of “rational self-interest,” so important to Rand and her Objectivist philosohy, is highly problematic: for how can self-interest be “rational” when even the intelligent human being in history, as Santayana once put it, holds “a lunatic in leash.” Nor should we underestimate the pernicious effects of crowd psychology on the so-called “rational animal.” As Schiller once put it: “Anyone taken as an individual, is tolerably sensible and reasonable—as a member of a crowd, he at once becomes a blockhead.”

In other words, if Greenspan wanted to figure out how and why human beings think, or what they do and why they do it, Rand was nearly the last person he should have consulted. Rand’s influence, therefore, did him little good. Despite all the broadening of horizons that he achieved as a consequence of Rand’s influence, he remained, at his core, merely a talented technician. When confronted with the credit bubble mania of the last twenty years, he failed to see the irrational elements that went into its creation. In particular, he never fully appreciated the irrationality of using derivatives as insurance instruments and, until very recently, has stubbornly maintained that regulating derivatives is impossible because such financial instruments are too damn complex:
Collecting data on hedge fund balance sheets, for example, would be futile, since the data would probably be obsolete before the ink dried. Should we set up a global reporting system of the positions hedge and private equity funds to see if there are any dangerous implosions?...I would not be able to judge from such reports whether concentrations of positions reflected markets in the process of doing what they are supposed to do...or whether some dangerous trading was emerging. I would truly be surprised if anyone could.

Here Greenspan is talking like a talented technician, rather than a wise man who has the benefit of good judgment. Reports of hedge fund transactions are not need in order to determine whether systematic irrationality is taking place in the derivatives market. Some of us have known for years the dangers of derivatives. Doug Noland from warned of such irrationality as long ago as 1999, and I warned about it back in 2003. Even Warren Buffet a few years ago described derivatives as "toxic" and "financial weapons of mass destruction." So it turns out that knowledge of the systematic irrationality of derivatives is possible after all! Nor are reports on hedge funds required to attain such knowledge! Merely knowledge of the the frailties of human nature and the mephitic influence of crowd psychology—knowledge, in other words, that Greenspan could never have attained from Rand.