Richard Posner: Judge, Academic, Public Intellectual, Author (of both Popular and Scholarly work) and Blogger (of two Blogs now). Is there anyone better suited to explain the economic turbulence to the laypeople that live through them?
"A Failure of Capitalism" won quite a bit of attention (including a review in the NYRB), mostly focusing on his criticism of Capitalism - apparently astonishing critics who know Posner merely as a conservative. But Posner has never been an ideologue; anyone who actually knows Posner's works must realize that he's thoughtful and non-Partisan - as he puts it, he is a classic Liberal in the John Stuart Mill sense (see Overcoming Law). That he would be willing to support government regulation of the economy is hardly surprising.
Posner's book is a good introduction to the economic crisis, and it reminds me of Paul Krugman's The Return of Depression Economics, indeed, it pretty much does to the current depression what Krugman's book did to the economic woes of the 1990s. Posner writes elegantly and clearly, making "Failure of Capitalism" the best written, friendliest exposition of the Depression I've read anywhere. However, I think it is aimed slightly too high. Posner assumes too much knowledge of his readers, and proceeds a little too quickly. A few times, I had to re-read a sentence before understanding it completely (this never happened with Krugman's book - and Krugman actually explained business concepts such as "Hedge Fund" and "short selling").
The most exciting and troubling aspect of Posner's book - and hence the title - is the contention that the crisis is a failure of the Capitalist system. Conservatives argue that the underlying cause of the Depression was government actions - mainly the government subsidizing of mortgages via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and tax incentives, under the policy by both the Clinton and the Bush administration of advancing an "ownership society", and the Fed's nurturing the bubble via its low interest rates.
But Posner argues, convincingly in my view, that they are wrong. The root of the crisis is that rational human beings, acting in their interests, can cause disastrous consequences. The main reason is asymmetry in their results. CEOs who took gambles could make huge amounts of money in bonuses if the gambles succeeded, but at worst would be out of job if they failed, and often would enjoy large severance pay ("golden parachutes"). This is also true, albeit to a lesser extent of the owners, because they havelimited liability.
A critic of Capitalism may reasonably argue that this puts to question the basic assumptions of the Capitalistic order. The underlying assumption in Capitalism is that the pursuit of self interest furthers the ends of society as a whole. In Adam Smith's words (In The Wealth of Nations (Bantam Classics)):
"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."
The current crisis suggests that this is not always the rule. Sometimes, when people pursue their own self interest, even within a framework of laws, havoc ensues. The critics may feel the urge to say "I told you so".
But maybe they should resist it. The failure of foreseeing the crisis was widespread, especially among economics and politicians, both Left and Right. Scores of highly influential people underestimated the problem - and the government's actions actually made the crisis worse. The government's failure topped the market's failure.
Posner focuses more on describing the crisis, and the responses to it, than on offering policy prescriptions. Even his discussion of the solutions offered by the Bush and Obama administrations is lacking in that respect: Posner argues against the right that fiscal stimulus should be in the form of public spending rather than cutting taxes because tax cuts would lead to more saving, which the economy does not currently need. Right wing critics like Greg Mankiw argue that tax cuts have a larger multiplier effect, and Posner doesn't answer them. Nor does he answer the Left wing critics who call for the nationalizing of Banks, which they claim worked in the Norwegian Banking Crisis of the late 1980s.
Most conspicuously absent from Posner's account is the Global perspective. Although Posner acknowledges that this is a Global Depression, he hardly discusses the experience of countries other than the US. Even American readers who are naturally more interested in the US, may be interested in a comparison to other countries, if only to find out who is doing what, and how it is working. Beyond brief references to the Japanese "Lost Decade" of the 1990s, Posner's view is strangely and atypically parochial.
"A Failure of Capitalism" is also very much a typical Posner book, complete with Such Posnerian tropes as appeals to Bayesian reasoning and bitter critiques of academic theorists and excessive praise to active men - In this case, Academic economists are lampooned, but "financial managers[`] IQ exceeds my own" (writes the man whom Justice Alito called "the smartest man in the world" on p. 77), In other cases, it's academic moralists and "Moral Entrepreneurs" (The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory) Law Professors and Judges (How Judges Think) or Academic versus non Academic Intellectuals (Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, With a New Preface and Epilogue).
For all its faults (which probably have more to do with Posner's rushing it to publication than anything else), "A Failure of Capitalism" is an insightful, clear and concise account of the economic crisis. After you finish reading it, you'll know more about the Depression - although not necessarily what to do about it.