By Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist who lives in New York City and writes at mathbabe.org
A bit more than a week ago I went to a panel discussion at the Met about the global financial crisis. The panel consisted of Paul Krugman, Edmund Phelps, Jeffrey Sachs, and George Soros. They were each given 15 minutes to talk about what they thought about the Eurocrisis, especially Greece, the U.S., and whatever else they felt like.
It was well worth the $25 admission fee, but maybe not for the reason I would have thought when I went. I ended up deciding something I’ve suspected before. Namely, economists don’t understand the financial system, and moreover they don’t get that they don’t get it. Let me explain my reasoning.
The panelists all were pretty left-leaning guys, and each of them talked about how the U.S. government should stimulate the economy in one way or another. Krugman kept saying that hey, this isn’t too hard, we’ve seen financial crises before, and this is no different: we should immediately pass a massive stimulus package, that’s the one and only thing that we should be discussing. Sachs was very consistently saying we should do something else: namely, start planning long-term for the future. He focused on the percent of tax dollars going into infrastructure and basic education and research. Phelps also wanted stimulus, but he consistently referred to his own economic models in how exactly it should work. I didn’t completely follow his train of thought.
Soros was the most interesting of the four, in my opinion. He started by saying that we should all acknowledge that, as nice as it would be to think we can model the economy and feel control over the situation, this is a pipe dream and we should get used to not really knowing what will happen when we do one thing versus another. He suggested that we should instead work together to develop a theory, or perhaps even an philosophy, that assumes uncertainty itself. He ended by saying that, even with the three colleagues on the panel with him, who are essentially all united in thinking we need to be proactive, his ideas are essentially being ignored.
The rest of the evening essentially consisted of everyone ignoring Soros and arguing about how Keynesian they all were and how exactly different kinds of stimulus would work and which way they should use 2% of GDP to jumpstart the world’s economy. So basically exactly what Soros said would happen.
It got me more and more riled up. Here are these expert economists, two of whom have Nobel Prizes and the third who runs the Earth Institute at Columbia and is considered a huge swinging dick in his own right, and they don’t seem to acknowledge how much power they actually have over the situation (specifically, not much). For that matter, they clearly don’t know the nitty gritty of the financial system. To listen to them, all you need to do is spread a thick paste of money on the system and it would revive whole cloth. Soros is the exception, probably for the reason that he actually traded and made money inside the system.
At the end I asked a question, since they allowed a few questions, and as you know I’m not shy. I asked how we are going to make the system simple enough to actually make it possible to regulate it. Krugman basically said that Dodd-Frank is going to do it. My conclusion from that is that Krugman must really have only an outline in his head of how this stuff works- the devil, as we know, is really in the detail, and I’m too acquainted with the Volcker Rule’s list of exemptions to have a lot of hope on this score. To be fair, Phelps mentioned Amar Bhide’s book A Call for Judgment, which I’m reading and seems pretty good and at least addresses this exact issue head-on.
Overall, the evening brought me back to the credit crisis, and working at D.E. Shaw, when Larry Summers was consistently quoted at the firm as saying that the “magical liquidity fairy” needed to come and “spread some magical liquidity dust” in the markets to make everything better. No, I’m not kidding.
What I felt then and what I still feel is that these super influential economists are so high on their clean, simple economic models of the world (about the only variables of which are GDP, stimulus, and tax rates) that they focus on the model to the exclusion of the secondary issues. Sometimes you get important results this way: simplifying models can be really useful. But sometimes it’s really truly misleading to do so, and I believe this is one of those cases.
I’m left thinking that they (the economists) are so entranced with their simplified world view that still don’t understand what actually fucked up the world in 2007 and 2008, namely the CDO market’s implosion. Message to Krugman: this is not exactly like other financial crises, because it’s partly caused by complexity, and nobody seems to have the balls to fix it. The problem is that the financial system has been allowed to get so complicated and so rigged in favor of the people with information, that normal people, including homeowners, credit card users, politicians, and regulators have been left in the dark, and many of the little guys are still stuck in ludicrous contracts left over from the outrageous securitizations that took place in the CDO market.
What is especially enraging is how these same economists are still the experts that people turn to to help figure out how to get out of this mess, when they don’t actually understand the mess itself. Why else would a large audience be willing to pay $25 a piece to hear them talk about this? Why else would Obama be considering Larry Summers to lead the World Bank?
As an aside: please, Mr. President, do not let Summers lead the World Bank. He does not understand the system well enough to lead it. And he is too arrogant to admit what he doesn’t know. I can introduce you to a bunch of people that may be less imposing but are more informed, more ethical, and wiser. Give me a call any time and we can chat and form a short list of candidates.
By the way, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a major stimulus, or that we shouldn’t do longer term planning and invest more in infrastructure. I think we should do both. But I also think those efforts will be futile unless we enforce a basic system that is simple enough to be regulated. Otherwise we will be reliving this entire ordeal in another 15 years.