Tag Archive for 'The Economist'

The origins of ideology

With the US Federal Government looking like it might go into a shutdown over budget negotiations (as I type, Intrade puts the chance at 40%), you can expect to see more articles around like this one from the Economist’s Democracy in America.  Here’s the gist of what they’re saying:

As Steve Benen points out, it definitely isn’t (or isn’t just) a function of Democratic legislators’ lack of determination. It’s partly a function of the fact that, as recentNBC/Wall Street JournalPew, and Gallup polls show, Democratic voters want their leaders to compromise, while Republican voters don’t. Jonathan Chait argues that what we have here is a structural issue that forces Democratic politicians to be wimpy:

Most people have the default assumption that the two parties are essentially mirror images of each other. But there are a lot of asymmetries between the Democratic and Republican parties that result in non-parallel behavior. The Republicans have a fairly unified economic base consisting of business and high-income individuals, whereas Democrats balance between business, labor, and environmental groups. The Republican Party reflects the ideology of movement conservatism, while the Democratic Party is a balance between progressives and moderates.

The upshot is that the Democratic Party is far more dependent upon the votes of moderates, who think of themselves in non-ideological terms and want their leaders to compromise and act pragmatically. The reason you see greater levels of partisan discipline and simple will to power in the GOP is that it has a coherent voting base willing to supportaggressive, partisan behavior and Democrats don’t. This isn’t to say Democrats are always wimps, but wimpiness is much more of a default setting for Democrats.

The article then goes on to discuss the psychological origins of ideological allegiance.  The upshot is that certain people have certain preferences and the political parties are representations of those groups of people.  There’s an implied assumption that all of this is exogenous to the system at large; that there’s nothing you can do about it, you just need to take it as given in your deliberations.

For anybody interested in this stuff, I strongly encourage you read Steve Waldman’s opposing view:  “Endogenize Ideology“. Here is his basic point, from quotes arranged in a different order to that in which he provides them:

Many [people] treat ideology or “political constraints” as given, and perform the exercise that economists perform reflexively, starting with their first grad school exam: constrained optimization. Constrained optimization is a mechanical procedure. The outcome is fully determined by the objective function and the constraints.

However …

That’s the wrong approach, I think. Rather than treating ideology as fixed and given, we should treat it as dynamic, as a consequence rather than a constraint of policy choices.

Ultimately, he argues, in a world of hard-nosed ideologues versus constraint-respecting policy wonks …

Rather than two optimizers, one of which has strictly less information than the other, in the real world we’ve seen two satisficers, one of which has adopted the strategy of optimizing subject to fixed constraints and the other of which has neglected pursuit of optimal present policy in favor of action intended to reshape the constraint set. A priori, we would not be able state with certainty which of the satisficers would outperform the other. If the constraint set were, in fact, strongly resistant to change Team Obama’s strategy would dominate. But if the constraint set is malleable (and constraints frequently bind), then Team Bush outperforms.

Just to really kick it home, he pulls out this quote from Karl Rove:

[Probably Karl Rove, talking to Ron Suskind] said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The Economist rap

This is fantastic.

PsikoticThe Economist

On the indispensability of (investment) banks

As might be expected, there’s a fair amount of questioning about the finance system as a whole going on.

The claim is that the market is best able to distribute this cash to the most worthy of projects, but at what point is their judgement questioned? How are these bastards allowed to be indispensable?

It’s true that the purpose of the finance industry is to, as efficiently as possible, allocate capital (i.e. savings), risk and returns; or, as the Economist puts it, to write, to “write, manage and trade claims on future cashflows for the rest of the economy.” In that regard, the industry as a whole plays a vital role in the economy. But that on its own doesn’t necessitate the indispensability of individual banks. That comes from a variety of inter-related factors:

  • There are banks and there are banks. Ceteris paribus, nobody cares if a Small-Town Bank (STB) goes bust because it is provincial: nobody other than its direct debtors and creditors are affected. Investment banks are (effectively, sort of) where the STB goes to borrow money, though. If they go down, so do all the little commercial banks that depend on them. To use a cheap analogy from The Wheel of Time series of fantasy novels, one might think of the central bank as the True Source, the investment banks as Rand al’Thor using one of those artefacts and all the little banks as power-wielders that are vastly powerful compared to civilians but insects next to Rand. Rand channels the hundreds of little power-wielders and adds his own enormous ability to suck down the juice in order to draw massively on the true source. If somebody were to kick Rand in his privates while he’s doing his thing, half the planet gets ripped asunder. Therefore, the protection of Rand while he’s doing his thing is paramount. He is genuinely indispensable. This analogy neatly explains why you don’t actually want a single investment bank, btw. Having a single, semi-god-like character that’s able to channel the über-load of the True Source is great in a novel, but bloody stupid in real life. Redundancy is key. You want several investment banks that are competing with each other so that if one goes belly-up, the others can take over.
  • Real innovation is rare, so when somebody has an idea, all the banks leap on it at once. That’s nominally fine in itself, but it unfortunately means that the actions of the (investment) banks are highly correlated, which makes for fantastic profits when it all works and a world of pain when it doesn’t. In essence, even though they’re are several investment banks competing with each other, since they all offer the same services at the same prices using the same strategies, they’re acting as though they’re a single investment bank.
  • The latest round of innovations has served to tie a lot of financial institutions together from the perspective of policy makers. This point really comes in two parts:
    • Securitisation and the splitting of those securities into tranches of risk exposure, in principle, allow financial institutions to spread and share individual risk between themselves so that if a Bad Event happens, they all lose a little rather than just one of them losing a lot.
    • There has been a general move away from transparency, with most of these securities being held off balance sheets and being traded in private sales instead of on open markets.

    The securitisation and tranching may have gone too far over the last few years, but that on its own isn’t the problem. The problem is that it was combined with a lack of transparency, meaning that it has become enormously difficult to pick apart the pieces when somebody falls.  To quote the Economist again, “Bear Stearns may not have been too big to fail, but it was too entangled.”  While they could have let Bear Stearns fall rather than be swallowed by JP Morgan, doing so would have required the careful unpicking of all of Bear Stearn’s positions, which would have taken months.  That would then have fed into the final point …

  • People are nervous lemmings. Even if the investment banks were properly competitive and transparent and each employed different strategies so that if one fell, there wasn’t so much risk of the others falling, a major bank collapse is still a problem because we’re all idiots. We panic. Then we see each other panicking, which helps us justify our own panicking and makes us wonder if maybe we’re not panicking enough.  The panic can then develop a momentum of its own, causing other banks to collapse when they otherwise didn’t need to.

So … that’s why they’re indispensable. But that doesn’t mean that we should be paying them the way we do.  Judgement of bankers’ performance is really only measurable after we pay them, which is stupid.  I’ve written briefly on bankers’ pay before here.  It is worth noting, though, that calls for bankers’ pay to be made in the form of stock have to face up to the fact that many employees of Bear Stearns had a huge share of their savings invested in Bear Stearns stock.