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Five Things That Are Not True


1. "This was a Black Swan."

This crisis was not a rare, unpredictable or random event. However, the people pushing this idea are not named Taleb. Taleb argues the reverse in his book: that rather than this being an improbable and unforseeable event, such as the discovery of anti-biotics, it was the result of systematic decisions, as this quote from the above link:

Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks – when one fails, they all fall. The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crises less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur ….I shiver at the thought.

2. Free Trade created this problem.

On the contrary, the large driver of the credit crunch was housing, and a bloated war in Iraq, plus the policies of a Federal Reserve that accommodated these problems. The US does not trade in houses, real estate is a "non-tradeable." What caused the problem was the destruction of manufacturing in the United States caused by competition from abroad, and from within. The abroad part is "free trade," in quotes here, but the more important component is government demand for war material, and personal demand for houses. Both of which are not traded. It is protectionism for some industries combined with race to the bottom absolute advantage for others that caused this crisis. As one can easily see from this graph, the inflation adjusted housing bubble is where the money went into.

3. "The Worst is Behind Us."

This quote from Larry Summers is a "Bushism." An unintentional bit of truth. If by "us" you mean, "the large money center banks," it is probably true. The US has demonstrated that it can force taxpayers to bail out banks indefinitely without political cost. No one will stop the bail outs, no one will unelect the bailers out. Hence a strong message to those who where hoping the banks would fall and be bought up cheap, that it is time to get back into the water. However, for the rest of us, there is what is called an "L-Shaped Recovery" coming.

4. We are in for an "L" shaped-recovery.

The economic powers that be are arguing over a "V"- shaped recovery, the kind the US has known between 1945 and 1982, and an "L" shaped recovery. Of which there has been one, the early 1990’s recovery really was L shaped. However, the 2000’s recovery wasn’t. Things continued to get worse for the labor market well after the economy had hit bottom. It wasn’t "L" shaped, it was "J" shaped – plunge, slow grind down, and then a pick up.

As fearful as people may be of an L shaped recovery, the J is worse, because many people will not make it to the other side.

As Krugman pointed out, the way Japan got out of its bright depression was an export boom. Finance had little to do with it. If Geithner et al can tell us which planet the US is going to be exporting the aircraft carriers we build to, I’d be fascinated to hear it, because only this will drive a "V" shaped recovery by putting slack capacity online.

5. Populism is dead.

If there is a single belief that radiates from Washington DC, it is that populism is not a political force to be reckoned with. The banks were bailed out, the public owes the money, both in the form of debt, and in the form of stagnation caused by a long term austerity program, and nothing is going to be done about it. This may seem true in the present frozen down circumstances. However, the leading indicators do not favor it. The public wants something done, and is backing the only people who can do something about it: namely President Obama and the Democratic Party. The failure of the Tea Party to be more than the far right wing on parade, unlike in 2006, when protest against Iraq multiplied out to people who were otherwise not of the left, shows that right wing populism, while it seethes does not move.

However, this would be to fail to look at the internals of several polls, which show that while approval numbers of the Congress and the President are high, the approval numbers of their specific policies is low. The pattern with Bush was that over time, approval of the President becomes approval of his policies. Bush hid behind approval of his handling of terrorism, with a country fearful of the results. The same is true here, it is impossible to regulate another collapse out of existence, because it is not caused by the specific fraud of the banks, but, as Taleb and others show, from a systematic fragility, and as the left has long argued, over the stagnation of wages for labor. Over time, profits must be paid by labor, and if labor stagnates, then profits can only be generated by risk. Risk which must, eventually, happen.

So arm yourself with the reality that while the prodigal bankers have walked away from crashing the Porsche, nothing has happened to prevent it from happening again. And the public is not willing to wait forever.

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