Monday, July 27, 2009

Comments on "Critical Thinking about Economics"

My friend K.S. and my Mom left thoughtful comments on my prior blog on "Critical Thinking about Economics." I started replying in as comments, but found my replies were getting rather long, so here's a new blog instead.

First, K.S. suggests that shocking events like 9-11 and the economic meltdown are required to enable Americans to accept changes that they wouldn't have otherwise, even though critical thinking might have unveiled the desirability of such changes. While I agree that shock makes such changes more popularly acceptable, there are other ways to change opinion. Most importantly: Leadership. Whether such leadership is charismatic or visionary, the kind of leadership that can change public opinion goes beyond what Bergen Evans observed in 1954: "For the most part, our leaders are merely following out front: They do but marshal us the way that we are going."

On this 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's moon landing, we're reminded of a young American president who led us to do things we wouldn't have otherwise. One might observe that Pres. Kennedy's vision was built on the shock of the Russians beating America into space. Maybe so. Or maybe Kennedy led us in a chosen new direction; he could just as easily have led us into ignoring Russian scientific advances and have Americans continue to focus inwardly, cutting taxes instead of investing in creating an entire generation of scientists, thinkers, and innovators.

Mom noted the challenge of having the masses understand vision and future greatness. She further noted that to counter greed, families and schools must develop ethical behavior and character in their kids. I totally agree. As I noted, developing critical thinking abilities and dispositions in more Americans is one way to increase openness to new visions and the possibilities of the future. And focusing on the development of virtuous character traits is so sorely needed in this country and world.

In his recent book Five Minds for the Future, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner wrote of the vital importance today of educating our kids not only in the academic disciplines, but also so they can synthesize (connect) information, create new ideas, respect the ideas of others, and behave ethically - beyond self-interest - to improve the quality of life for all.

We all see the impact of the lack of such ethical understanding and behavior in the excesses of greed in our society today. Our families, communities, and schools share the responsibility for this failure. I believe we can and must change this situation and each of us has the opportunity to improve the character of kids, ourselves, and our neighbors within our own communities. Like Ronald Reagan's "thousand points of light," by working on character development one community at a time, we can create a brighter America. The City of Pleasanton, California is a wonderful example of a community that is accomplishing this objective.

Finally, K.S. cited a Guardian article in which experts explained the current financial crisis to Queen Elizabeth. He asked for my comments on that article.

I agree with the points reported in the article. I think the underlying problem goes deeper, however, than the lack of jurisdiction, failure to understand collective risks of the system, the "psychology of denial," and personal incentives that differ from society's interests.

The basic question they didn't address is: What is the purpose of financial markets, from society's perspective? In business school, I was taught that the financial markets provide capital for investment, and ultimately, the purpose of investment is to create wealth.

Even while taking the course on stock markets, however, it seemed to me that the stock market is an inefficient means of providing investment capital. While IPOs provide initial capital for company formation, the continued trading of the stock doesn't provide any additional capital to that company for investment. Trading of already issued stock is merely gambling that the company will pay off more in dividends or the share price will appreciate. But that appreciation is based on gambling that someone will pay more for those shares, expecting more in dividends or capital appreciation. I also learned a term describing a principle in this secondary trading: "The greater fool theory." It's a theory that's hundreds of years old, going at least as far back as the Dutch tulip bubble of 1624, in which speculators bid up prices of single tulip bulbs to today's equivalent of $100,000 before the bubble burst.

Of course, continued trading of a stock can provide additional capital to a company that issues more stock or trade in their own already issued shares. But fundamentally, how much of the money that is traded in stock ultimately ends up as capital usable by companies to create wealth versus money that is just bet on future share prices? With all the concern about legalizing casino gambling, we seem to be oblivious to the fact that the stock market has made gambling legal and socially acceptable - even admired - for centuries!

We have accepted significant changes in the financial markets during the past few decades - notably the creation of increasingly exotic derivatives and increasing deregulation of the markets - during a period of unprecedentedly long market expansion. These changes have helped a relative few make fortunes in personal income for awhile. But these changes haven't created much inherent wealth or wealth-creating investment. Rather, they've created a huge casino enabling a few to make fortunes on other peoples' money and risk.

These changes have worked to lull the world into complacency and also to ignore fundamental truths and lessons of the past. For example, a basic economics lesson is that a company that is too big to fail - a monopoly - needs to be highly regulated in order to protect society's interests.

My answer to Queen Elizabeth's question "How come nobody could foresee it?" is that many people could and did foresee the economic crisis. However, most of us just didn't like the pronouncements of the critical-thinking, ethical Cassandras. Instead, we hoped the easy money would continue to come along with the easy answers. Well, most of us are paying for that misplaced hope.

The current economic meltdown is providing "a teachable moment." Will we learn or will we continue to keep our heads in the sand? I guess the answer will depend on our families, teachers, and the leaders we elect.


  1. "Failure of Collective Imagination" was the answer given to the Queen. I am unable to find the term Collective Imagination from Wikipedia. What is it?

  2. In this context, "Failure of Collective Imagination" means "herd thinking." Exactly my point - it's an indication of the absence of critical thinking and instead, going along thoughtlessly with the crowd.

  3. "Everyone seemed to be doing their own job properly......, but collectively this added up to a series of interconnected imbalances over which no single authority had jurisdiction." Should Federal Reserve be such authority, and should we blame Federal Reserve for not doing their job because of Greenspan's old belief?

  4. K.S. - Given the almost religious fervor with which government has been dismantled over the past decades, I don't know what should be done to give us the protective structures we need. After all, just 2 years ago, could anyone have imagined any politician saying that some American companies had become "too large to be permitted to fail" in the face of their deregulation-chanting colleagues? It's not the Federal Reserve I blame, but the lack of critical thought in blindly following jingle chanting ideologues and demagogues.

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  6. I happen to believe that Fed should be responsible for the financial crisis. Supervising the financial market was supposed to be their job. How could Greenspan be so naive to believe that Wall Street was self -disciplined?

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