Jerry Z. Muller: Our Epistemological Depression

[Jerry Z. Muller is a history professor at The Catholic University of America and the author of “The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought” (2002). His course “Thinking about Capitalism” has just been released by The Teaching Company.]

The history of socialism is the history of failure—and so is the history of capitalism, but in a different sense. For the history of socialism is one of fundamental failure, a failure to provide incentives and an inability to coordinate information about supply and effective demand. The history of capitalism, by contrast, is the history of dialectical failure: it is a history of the creation of new institutions and practices that may be successful, even transformative for a while, but which eventually prove dysfunctional, either because their intrinsic weaknesses become more evident over time or because of a change in external circumstances. Historically, these institutional failures have led to two reactions. They lead to governmental attempts to reform corporate and financial institutions, through changes in law and regulation (such as limited liability laws, creation of the FDIC, the SEC, etc.). They also lead market institutions to reform themselves, as investors and managers learn what forms of organization and which practices are dysfunctional. The history of capitalism, then, is the history of success through dialectical failure.

History rarely repeats itself. There are some standard patterns in economic recessions, but major recessions are characterized by something novel. If only this were not the case: economists have devoted a great deal of attention to learning the lessons of the Great Depression that began in 1929, not least Ben Bernanke. As a result, we are unlikely to make the errors of monetary policy made by the Fed in that era (of tightening money when it should have been loosened); or the errors of fiscal policy made by the Treasury (such as raising taxes when they should have been lowered); or the errors of ideological tone made during the 1930s, when anticapitalist rhetoric frightened many potential investors from making new investments. In all of these respects, we have learned from the past.

Unfortunately, initial conditions are too different from case to case to simply apply some historical template that would permit us to fully understand what is currently happening, let alone how to deal with it. Instead of explaining why this recession (or depression) is just like the others, we should attend to what is new and especially problematic about the current downturn and why it may not respond to policies modeled on avoiding the errors of the past.

What is old and what is new in the current economic downturn? Major recessions typically begin with a rapid change of prices in the market for some asset or commodity; that price decline then affects financial institutions (banks), leading to a decline in the availability of credit, and then to a decline in commercial activity. Usually, then, localized crises in capitalist societies are reflected in the financial sector. When the crisis reaches the financial sector, it becomes a more general crisis.

This time, too, there is an underlying commodity bubble, namely in housing. But it has had much wider ramifications, because financial institutions have become interconnected in two unprecedented ways. First, once distinct financial services became interconnected: banking, credit, insurance, and the trading of derivatives have become interlinked because they are conducted by the same companies. Second, financial institutions are more connected across national borders, so that there are entities across the globe that invested in toxic American-made instruments and are suffering as a result (including municipalities in Norway that invested tax revenues in American collateralized debt obligations, now worth 15 percent of their face value).

What we have is not so much the crisis of some underlying commodity that gets reflected in the financial system, as a crisis caused within the financial system itself. The most important bubble of the last decade or so was not of the housing sector, but of the financial sector, a bubble reflected by the 20 percent of S & P 500 profits that were made in the financial sector....

What seems most novel [about the current downturn] is the role of opacity and pseudo-objectivity. This may be our first epistemologically-driven depression. (Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and limits of knowledge, with how we know what we think we know.) That is, a large role was played by the failure of the private and corporate actors to understand what they were doing. Most heads of ailing or deceased financial institutions did not comprehend the degree of risk and exposure entailed by the dealings of their underlings—and many investors, including municipalities and pension funds, bought financial instruments without understanding the risks involved. We should keep this in mind when we chastise government agencies such as the SEC for failing to monitor what was going on. If the leading executives of financial firms failed to understand what was taking place, how could we expect government regulators to do so? The financial system created a fog so thick that even its captains could not navigate it....

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