Friday, April 24, 2009

Shiller: Against Market Fundamentalism

Far too often, debates devolve into black-and-white affairs, with strawmen on both sides taking a pummeling. Robert Shiller's latest piece in the Wall Street Journal takes on this type of Manichean thinking, as he adopts the Herculean task of convincing economic conservatives that not all financial regulation is bad. From the WSJ:
The principal long-term result of the current financial crisis should be improved financial regulation. After the immediate crisis is over, we need to restructure our fragmented system. This process will take years to complete since, if properly done, it should get at the heart of the regulatory structure.

This is not as radical as it sounds, for while many observers equate U.S.-style capitalism with unconstrained free markets, the story is more complicated. Americans have long understood that for the economy to work well, government must play an important supporting role. They've also long understood the important role that self-regulatory organizations (SROs), such as trade associations and exchanges, play in cooperation with government regulation.

An understanding of animal spirits -- the human psychology and culture at the heart of economic activity -- confirms the need for restoring the role of regulators as guiding hands in a healthy, productive free-enterprise system. History -- including recent history -- shows that without regulation, animal spirits will drive economic activity to extremes....

Such a world of animal spirits justifies the economic intervention of government. Its role is not to harness animal spirits but really to set them free, to allow them to be maximally creative. A brilliant player wants a referee, for only when the game has appropriate rules can he really show his talents. While the sports of baseball and football haven't changed much in the last century, the economy has -- and American financial regulation hasn't had an overhaul in 70 years. The challenge for the Obama administration, along with the U.S. Congress and our SROs, is to invent a new and better American version of the capitalist game.
You might think this is an uncontroversial point. Unfortunately, it is not. What was that about Dark Ages again?

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