You’ll recall that Murphy was a guest of Acton a few weeks ago and delivered an address as part of the 2014 Acton Lecture Series. You can check out the video of his talk at that link, and listen to the Radio Free Acton podcast via the audio player below.
[Part 1 is here.]
Some might answer any defense of the free economy by pointing to the housing and financial crisis that came to a head in 2008, holding it up as proof positive the free economy is a wrecking ball swinging through communities and leaving all manner of economic and cultural destruction in its wake. The financial crisis did enormous damage, but the major drivers of the crisis were a series of public policies that manipulated the market in pursuit of certain desired ends.
It all began modestly enough. The federal government built incentives into the tax code in favor of taking out a home mortgage. Many local governments also provide property tax breaks to home owners unavailable to renters. While people who are forced by circumstances to rent might question the fairness of such tax breaks, these measures are seen by most as relatively benign. Eventually, however, other top-down manipulations of the housing market were piled on top of these tax breaks.
The U.S. government offered implicit backing to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac so that the companies understood that if they got into financial trouble, Washington would bail them out. This allowed Fannie and Freddie to offer low interest home loans to high risks borrowers, since the companies knew the government would come to their rescue if too many of these borrowers started defaulting on their loans.
The government also passed regulations that actually pushed mortgage companies, including Fannie and Freddie, to provide home loans to people with bad credit—subprime loans.
Former Acton research fellow Jay Richards has another bestseller, as of last night–Infiltrated: How to Stop the Insiders and Activists Who are Exploiting the Financial Crisis to Control Our Lives and Our Fortunes.
IF you follow free market writers closely, you known that government interventions in the financial markets, rather than too much economic freedom, fueled the housing bubble and paved the way to the subsequent housing collapse and financial crisis. Infiltrated deftly summarizes this, but it’s in two other areas where the author, former Acton research fellow Jay Richards, offers fresh insight.
The first is the way he explains how activists and politicians have used the financial crisis to double down on the same big-government hyper-regulatory strategies that got us into the financial crisis in the first place. As Jay explains, the misleadingly named “Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act,” which neither reforms Wall Street nor protects consumers, is mostly just more of the misguided medicine that contributed to the crisis in the first place.
The second valuable feature of the book is its often novel-like descriptions of the characters and tactics that led from small beginnings to the Leviathan creature that is Dodd-Frank. Understanding the opposition–their strategies and appeal, their cynicisms and idealism–is crucial to mounting a successful counteroffensive.
The book explains all of this with the sort of accessible, engaging prose that characterized Richards’ previous bestseller, Indivisible, and lays out a practical blueprint for a counteroffensive.
“Richards brings a sharp analytical mind and a passion for justice to bear on the financial crisis and its aftermath.” –Arthur C. Brooks, President, American Enterprise Institute
“If you want to know why the popular wisdom about the causes and effects of the financial crisis is mosty wrong, and how such myths will help faciliatae similar crises in the future, Jay Richards’s Infiltrated is an eye=opener.” –Samuel Gregg, author of Becoming Europe and Tea Party Catholic.
Economic historian Brian Domitrovic has an interesting post up at his Forbes blog, Past & Present, on the proximate causes of the 2008 meltdown. According to Domitrovic, uncoordinated, even “weird” fiscal and budgetary policy in the early 2000s kept investors on the sidelines, and then flooded the system with easy money. The chickens came home to roost in 2008 (and they’re still perched in the coop).
In 2000, as the stock market was treading water in the context of the mammoth surplus and the electoral contest over fiscal policy, it was indicating that investors wanted to see what would ensue. What came was poorly-crafted tax policy and movement to gobble up the surplus on the spending side.
[After the crash of 2001-2003 and brief recession] the Federal Reserve stepped in to try to pick up the slack since fiscal policy had gotten weird. It was then, 2001-2003, that the Fed plumbed new lows in the federal funds rate
Finally, in 2003, Bush announced that the marginal rate of the income tax would be taken down immediately and somewhat substantially, to 35%. The Fed pivoted to raise rates, giving us an approximation of the Reagan-Volcker policy mix of the 1980s of real tax cuts and tight-ish money.
But for several years, too much money had been in the system, and it proceeded to migrate to monetary policy hedges, above all oil and land, the latter especially desirable because housing debt was fulsomely guaranteed.
Not only were these policies imprudent from a cold hard economic point of view, they weren’t capable of producing the human benefits they were supposed to. The false compassion of Bush-era conservatism is tied up with both the over-spending of the 2000s and the imprudent loans encouraged by an ultra-low interest rate environment and the “Ownership Society” of the 2004 campaign.
Government compassion does nothing to empower the poor—rather than pulling them out of poverty, it encourages reliance and assails their dignity. No matter how nice everyone’s being, nothing changes. And while some of the instincts behind the Ownership Society were right, the idea that it would be good for people to own houses they couldn’t properly afford was destructive. It severed the natural connection between labor and its results.
Domitrovic goes on:
The primary question we must ask about the 2000s is not what caused the crisis as the decade came to a close, but why was growth so subpar the whole time? Ultimately financial crises reflect the declining potential of the real economy to deliver…
And of course the economy will not grow and wealth will not be created under policies which undermine the dignity of Man’s labor. By reducing economics to fiscal calculus, academics and policy makers throw out half their toolbox: if the fiscal and budgetary warnings weren’t enough from 2000 to 2008, there were also human and moral warnings. Domitrovic (who, to be clear, is not one of those who has thrown out half his toolbox) concludes:
By rights, today we should not be mired in economic malaise; rather, we should be enjoying a fourth decade of prosperity on the heels of the roaring 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
By rights indeed, but our economists have cast off right, and reduced their science to a materialist one.