Simon Johnson tells a simple and compelling story: the U.S. has been afflicted by a version of the crony capitalism that has been the scourge of so many emerging markets, except that Wall Street has bought its influence and power not by bribery but by shaping the ideology of our times:
In a primitive political system, power is transmitted through violence, or the threat of violence: military coups, private militias, and so on. In a less primitive system more typical of emerging markets, power is transmitted via money: bribes, kickbacks, and offshore bank accounts. Although lobbying and campaign contributions certainly play major roles in the American political system, old-fashioned corruption—envelopes stuffed with $100 bills—is probably a sideshow today, Jack Abramoff notwithstanding.
Instead, the American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital—a belief system. Once, perhaps, what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country. The banking-and-securities industry has become one of the top contributors to political campaigns, but at the peak of its influence, it did not have to buy favors the way, for example, the tobacco companies or military contractors might have to. Instead, it benefited from the fact that Washington insiders already believed that large financial institutions and free-flowing capital markets were crucial to America’s position in the world.
The solution, to Simon, is equally clear. Finance needs to be cut down to size. What the U.S. needs is what the IMF would have told any country:
The challenges the United States faces are familiar territory to the people at the IMF. If you hid the name of the country and just showed them the numbers, there is no doubt what old IMF hands would say: nationalize troubled banks and break them up as necessary.
The second problem the U.S. faces—the power of the oligarchy—is just as important as the immediate crisis of lending. And the advice from the IMF on this front would again be simple: break the oligarchy.
As with any story built around clear villains easy solutions, there is something in this account that is quite unsatisfying. For one thing, I think it puts the blame too narrowly on the bankers. Yes, there can be little doubt that banks badly misjudged the risks they were taking on. But they were aided in all this by the broader economics and policymaking community--not because the latter thought the policies in question were good for bankers, but because they thought these would be good for the economy. Simon himself says as much. So why pick on the bankers? Surely the blame must be spread much more widely.
And I find it astonishing that Simon would present the IMF as the voice of wisdom on these matters--the same IMF which until recently advocated capital-account liberalization for some of the poorest countries in the world and which was totally tone deaf when it came to the cost of fiscal stringency in countries going through similar upheavals (as during the Asian financial crisis).
Simon's account is based on a very simple, and I believe misguided, theory of politics and economics. It is an odd marriage of populist and technocratic visions. Countries fail because political elites always end up in bed with economic elites. The solution, apparently, is to let the technocrats (read the IMF) run your affairs.
Among the many lessons from the crisis we should have learned is that economists and policy advisors need greater humility. Too many of us thought we had the right model when it turned out that we didn't. We pushed certain policies with much greater confidence than we should have. Over-confidence bred hubris (and the other way around).
Do we really want to exhibit the same self-confidence and assurance now, as we struggle to devise solutions to the crisis caused by our own hubris?