Lessons from the Economic Wreck-covery

Why we must reset the delicate balance between greed and fear.

On Friday, more "unexpected" news came out regarding the economy. Or perhaps a more accurate description would be unexpected for those who have hitched their economic wagons to the Obama administration's Keynesian economic star. For Americans astute enough to see the tremendous wishful thinking behind the claims of "green shoots" of recovery, "Recovery Summer," or the president's April pronouncement that we are "turning a corner," the so-called economic recovery has been little more than a media-abetted myth. Are there lessons to be learned? Two come immediately to mind. One, free-market capitalism can only be distorted for so long. Two, human nature is fundamentally misunderstood by progressive ideologues.

Why is free-market capitalism the most effective economic system in the world? Because it is the best manager of mankind's baser instincts. Those instincts are greed and fear. All the economic statistics used to explain the current malaise are certainly not irrelevant, but they are merely symptoms of the underlying disease. The underlying disease is progressive ideology which, while well-intentioned, has distorted the proper relationship between greed and fear necessary for free markets to function properly.

What caused the economic meltdown of 2008? Again, we can go back to specific causes, of which the bipartisan effort to put unqualified people into mortgages they ultimately couldn't afford goes to the top of the list. But it is worth remembering a phrase coined by Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. The phrase was "irrational exuberance," which he uttered as part of a speech entitled "The Challenge of Central Banking in a Democratic Society," given before the American Enterprise Institute at the Washington Hilton Hotel in 1996. "But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade?" Greenspan asked his audience. "We as central bankers need not be concerned if a collapsing financial asset bubble does not threaten to impair the real economy, its production, jobs and price stability."

Twelve years later, the collapsing financial asset bubble known as real estate has threatened every aspect of the "real economy." It is something for which Greenspan deserves a substantial portion of the blame, chiefly for maintaining the low-interest, easy money policy that fueled the housing boom. Yet what is irrational exuberance as measured by the aforementioned human instincts?

Quite simply, it is the removal of fear from the fear/greed equation.

Despite the beating the concept has taken since Gordon Gekko, the lead character in Oliver Stone's Wall Street who uttered the immortal phrase, "greed is good," Gekko was, in fact, spot on. Greed is good. Men who dream of amassing huge fortunes -- and create millions of jobs in the process -- have been the primary drivers of economies since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The manifestation of greed has given the world an unprecedented standard of living, longer lives, and continuing technological advances.

Yet up until recently, greed had been tempered by fear. Fear of failure, fear of bankruptcy, and fear of prosecution if one's greed exceeded the rule of law. That is not to say greed and fear have always been in constant equilibrium. We all have our good days and bad days, and that disequilibrium is biologically hard-wired into the species. Business cycles can be thought of in economic terms, but they can also be analyzed with respect to human emotion: when people are feeling more greedy than fearful, the economy booms. When they are more fearful than greedy, it swoons.

Most Americans by now are quite familiar with the phrase "too big to fail." Too big to fail was/is a government-sponsored effort to remove fear from the equation of free-market capitalism. The massive amount of irresponsible lending in which most of our financial institutions engaged would have been next to impossible without the tacit understanding that failure would be underwritten by the government.

And that's precisely what happened -- and continues to happen. Success has been privatized, as banks and corporations sitting on trillions of dollars in uninvested cash can attest. Failure has been socialized, as trillions of dollars in government bailouts paid for by taxpayers are equally evident.

Given this reality, one would think that the effort to re-establish a reasonable ratio between greed and fear would be a high priority in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In fact, the Obama administration is distorting the ratio even more. On fear side, it is excoriating "fat cats," even as it burdens business with a lethal cocktail of ObamaCare, an overly burdensome FinReg bill, one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world, and the currency-debasing fiasco known as QE2.

On the greed side, it is "stimulating" preferred constituencies, most notably public sector unions, and other government entities who can do little in the way of lifting us out of our current dilemma. It is picking "winners" and "losers" for special, crony-capitalist considerations, most notably granting waivers from the same healthcare bill it promised was a panacea for all, as well as suing jet-maker Boeing for daring to open shop in a right-to-work state. It is promoting moral hazard in various ways as well, most notably in the form of three years of unemployment insurance and a twelve month reprieve from paying one's mortgage under certain qualifications.

Thus, on the fear side, we have businesses disinclined to hire due to the uncertainty created by massive government distortion of the marketplace. On the greed side, we have substantial numbers of Americans disinclined to work, due to massive government distortion of the social contract, in which one used to expected to have a degree of personal responsibility.

How bad is this distortion? The same fear that is supposed to temper greed has been used to facilitate it. Americans, who have been inundated with a "never let a crisis go to waste" mentality from the beginning of the economic meltdown until now, will never know for certain whether the $700 billion in taxpayer money used to bailout the banking system was absolutely necessary to prevent systemic failure. All we know for certain is that those who had the most to lose as a result of their greed instilled a coordinated and unrelenting sense of fear into the entire nation. Remarkably, most of those people remain in the same or similar power positions that they enjoyed before the crisis. In retrospect, mass resignations of such people should have been demanded as an integral part of the bailout. At the very least, a modicum of fear would have been reintroduced where it is needed the most.

Instead that fear was leveraged. A largely center-right nation handed the reins of power to the most progressive elements of our society in the form of the Obama administration and a throughly radicalized Democrat party. For the better part of five years, greed and fear have been filtered through the progressive lens.

Unfortunately, progressives completely misunderstand human nature. They truly believe that mankind will aspire to its higher instincts, simply because it is the right thing to do. "Enlightened" corporations will ignore their bottom lines and simply hire for the sake of hiring. "Enlightened" individuals will pursue work immediately, casting aside their government-subsidized lifestyle as quickly as possible. Everyone will work for the "greater good" if given the opportunity to do so. In short, progressives believe greed and fear can be mandated -- by those who profess to know more about "what people want" than the people themselves.

This is the essence of hubris, and it is underlined by every "unexpected" development that comes down the pike. It is aided and abetted by the Egotist-in-Chief, who can look at almost three years of economic reality and, as evidenced by his speech on Friday, conclude that more of the same is the answer. Only a man thoroughly beholden to rigid ideology could still be touting "investing in rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our railways and our infrastructure," as in the very same "shovel-ready jobs" he himself admitted last October didn't exist.

Lost in last week's hand-wringing about the number of jobs created was a far more salient fact. Even as the dismal total 18,000 jobs was announced, it was also announced that the job totals for April and May had to be revised downward by 44,000. Thus, it is quite possible that next moth, June's job totals will also be revised downward -- perhaps revealing a net loss of jobs, when a more accurate picture emerges.

Is there a way out of the mess we've created? Starting at the top, Thomas M. Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, offers the obvious solution. He wants to "reduce the scope and size of banks, combined with legislatively mandated debt-to-equity requirements," in order to "restore the integrity of the financial system[.]" He further notes that "[financial institutions] reached their present size through the [government] subsidies they received because they were too big to fail. Therefore, diminishing their size and scope, thereby reducing or removing this subsidy and the competitive advantage it provides, would restore competitive balance to our economic system."

That's a banker's way of saying we need to restore the proper balance between greed and fear. It is the same relationship which must be repaired within the government as well, as $14.4 trillion of national debt indicates. This may be a far more difficult task, since spending trillions of dollars we don't have has been portrayed as "compassion." In reality it is the greed of today's generation of Americans stealing from subsequent generations absent the fear of consequences -- based on the idea that America itself is "too big to fail."

It's not. And either the proper relationship between greed and fear will be re-established by cooler heads addressing the genuine distortions of our entitlement-run-amok culture, or it will be re-established by entities with little or no sympathy for the richest nation in the world. Either way, it will be re-established. Neither the laws of economics -- nor human nature -- can be suspended indefinitely.

Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website JewishWorldReview.com.