“Memento”, the Meltdown and the Mainstream

Gerald Epstein

In “Up to Speed, but Still Lagging Behind” Matias Vernengo presents an important critique of Gary Gorton’s and Andrew Metrick’s (GM) “speed read” survey, “Getting up to Speed on the Financial Crisis” which is to be published in the Journal of Economic Literature, the predominant U.S. general literature survey journal in the economics profession. As Vernengo shows in his Triple Crisis blog piece, the Gorton and Metrick piece demonstrates just how far behind mainstream economics is in its understanding of the causes, dynamics and impacts of the financial crisis, both in an absolute sense, and also – and this was Vernengo’s main point – compared with the rich heterodox literature that both predicted the crisis and has been analyzing it dynamics since it has broken out.

In fact, the Gorton and Metrick piece presents an even more devastating picture of the ability of mainstream economics to “get up to speed” than Vernengo suggests. For it essentially admits that mainstream economics, which, for the last several decades, has cost society millions and millions of dollars on highly paid economists’ salaries at elite universities and prominent public institutions such as the IMF, the Federal Reserve and all the Federal Reserve Banks which have armies of economists– to say nothing of the high priced economists working in financial institutions themselves – completely missed the financial crisis and, according to Gorton and Metrick, are just now getting up to speed.

The first sentence of the piece, which justifies the authors’ quickie guide to the financial crisis, makes this crystal clear:

“Many professional economists now find themselves answering questions from their students, friends, and relatives on topics that did not seem at all central until a few years ago, and we are collectively scrambling to catch up. (p.1, emphasis added).”

Note how damning of mainstream macroeconomics this statement is: the key dynamics of the crisis – massive leverage and credit expansion, fed by the shadow banking system, that contributed to a housing bubble and crash – all elements of a macroeconomic dynamics well known to more than one generation of economists trained in the economics of Keynes and Minsky. They have studied many of these topics for decades, which to the mainstream are topics that “did not seem at all central until a few years ago”, that is after the meltdown and crash! Of course heterodox economists did not get everything right. But one can list, as did Matias Vernengo, many names of non-mainstream economists who discussed key elements of these factors and dynamics: Jane D’Arista and Tom Schlesinger identified the “shadow banking system” and the dangers there-in (they called it the “parallel banking system”) twenty years ago; Robert Pollin, working in a broadly Keynesian and Minskian framework, around the same time identified increasing household debt, partly driven by stagnant wages, as a concern; James Crotty, one of the world’s preeminent scholars of Keynes, and a close reader of Marx and Minsky has long identified credit as a key variable for determining the dynamics of income, employment and crisis; economists from the Levy Institute, (in addition to Wynne Godley mentioned by Vernengo) have long used Minskian concepts to discuss the dangers of financial instability; Charles Kindleberger, MIT economist and premier financial economic historian has identified over several centuries, the key role of credit in economic crises;  Lance Taylor and structuralist macroeconomists working in the Keynesian tradition broadly defined have identified leverage cycles and financial and macroeconomic forces that lead to economic crises; and the issue of fraud, stressed by William K. Black is of central importance, but ignored by the mainstream. And this is just a very short list of the many heterodox economists, in addition to the ones listed by Vernengo, that have seen these problems as central issues for decades.

What is particularly odd about the inability of mainstream economics to address these issues ex ante as opposed to after the fact (and then scramble to make little changes to their models to deal with them) is that after every big financial crisis there is, in fact a flurry of research where economists “re-discover” this issues, seemingly over and over again. After the so-called third world debt crisis, for example, there was a good deal of interesting work, for example by financial economists Guttentag and Herring on cognitive and institutional errors that lead to over-lending and crisis; or the dangers of financial liberalization as pointed out by Carlos Diaz Alejandro respected Columbia University Economist; or the key importance of historical episodes of excessive credit expansion re-discovered by well known mainstream economic historian Barry Eichengreen and his colleagues. There was a similar reexamination and rediscovery after the Asian Financial Crisis.

As Economist Phil Mirowski pointed out to me, the problem is that, like the protagonist in the movie Memento , who has no memory but is trying to solve the mystery of his wife’s murder, and has to remind himself every minute about what happened the minute before by writing notes and even tattooing himself , mainstream macroeconomists’  write themselves articles and books after every crisis and they then promptly forget what they wrote (no tattoos as far as I know).

I believe there is a reason for this: the mainstream never changes its underlying theory which is based on the erroneous ideas that financial markets are, by and large, perfectly self-governing and efficient and that the market economy has strong self-equilibrating forces that always bring the economy back to full employment, as Lance Taylor, James Crotty and others have forcefully explained. Since they won’t change their basic framework, they have no where to put the new information they get after each crisis. So, they forget it just as soon as they can. And they have no interest in reading the work of others whose framework naturally incorporates those matters that to them, did not seem at all central before. The tragedy is that it is these same economists who still control the elite economics departments, the main economics journals and hold the key policy making and research positions in our public institutions such as the Federal Reserve. Their stranglehold must be broken if we are going to break the Memento syndrome that is hindering sensible economics and economic policy.

11 Responses to ““Memento”, the Meltdown and the Mainstream”

  1. Matías Vernengo says:

    Thanks for the needed complement on the long list of names I left out!

  2. […] “Memento”, the Meltdown, and the Mainstream Gerald Epstein, Triple Crisis (hat tip Doug Smith) […]

  3. Jessica Yogini says:

    Obviously mainstream economics is as blind as it can get away with about the cause of these crises and what is necessary to solve them and prevent any more because mainstream economics serves those who benefit from the causes of the crises and from the crises themselves. Mainstream economics itself is a form of control fraud.

  4. rapazinho says:

    Economist, like any other professional (lawyers come to mind) will produce results carefully tailored to the views and demands of those who pay their salary, or in the case of Academia, those who publish their articles. Neither ignorance nor cognitive dissonance caused the black holes in economic analysis leading towards this recession cum depression-lite. When you have a mortgage to pay, children to sent to expensive private schools and colleges, and tenure to gain or protect, it is hard to bite the hand feeding you. In that setting, one should find amazing the economists (e.g. Stigler, Krugman) who, risking ostracism and ridicule, called the shots.

  5. John Merryman says:

    Economics may be stuck in a rut that benefits those who control the financial system in which these economists work, but the delusion is more systemic. We treat currency as a commodity, but it is more of a contract. For the banks, it is a commodity that they manufacture by the creation of demand, ie. debt, but for the rest of society, it is a contract. It is a promise of value guaranteed by the issuing entity and if the banks want to make the taxpayer the ultimate guaranteer, then eventually the taxpayer will be due the rights, as well as the responsibilities. Government used to be a private function as well, but monarchies proved to be too inefficient and were replaced by government as public trust. Private banking is going the same route. Just as democracy works by pushing responsibilities down the levels they are most responsive, a public banking system would have to be bottom up as well. Local community banks funding public projects in their own communities, rather than sending the money to New York, to be borrowed by the various levels of government and then spent on these projects.
    It is the very fact this crisis will be so large, compared to previous ones, which will make it that much more difficult to simply patch the old private banking system back together and do it all the same.

  6. Ransome says:

    This has been an interesting collection of observations, opinions, and viewpoints. I believe the smoking gun was Fig. #2 in the GM paper that came from the 2009 IMF report. The question was why the peak and decline of the securitizations prior to main stream economists becoming alarmed as events were unfolding, and while housing prices continued to rise. It was mid 2005 that Michael Burry began looking for a way to short the market and it was late 2005 that GS had hired QA auditors to find out specifically why securities were failing. In 2005, the private-label market had no idea that there was so much fraud at the point of origination. There were many theories and many astute observations, but no one got their hands dirty. No one explored the source of the observed trends and anomalies. Is there a field of study called forensic economics much like scientific research? It is interesting from Fig. #2 that originations were dropping and the securitizations were increasing, especially the more complex products. I think the FBI had been reporting the increase in fraud in 2004. The implication is that economic bubbles and collapse cannot be prevented, regardless of economic observations and opinions. “How did so many get it so wrong.” As J K Galbraith mentioned, don’t count on Wall Street to blow the whistle, someone may be making money. Increasingly, Wall Street is now our banking system.

  7. Ransome says:

    This is a paper to add to all the others, written in 1930, that suggests our crisis was nothing more than history repeating itself. The disease (economic miracle) of the free lunch of unearned income, or more recently, the three month worldview where the profitable destruction of long term assets, both labor and industry, equals progress.

    The Break in the Credit Chain

    “It is all very well to say that the customers were foolish. But when a system prevails which caters to the folly of too large a proportion of a population, a proportion so large that the destruction of its purchasing power is of concern to every business in the land, then it deserves serious attention.”

    By Edgar Lawrence Smith, The Atlantic, 1930

    I have a question for economists. How are the effects of the destruction of long term assets, for short term profit, measured in our political economy; Bastiat’s broken window conundrum? Is it a component of the deficit? Keynes took this seriously, digging holes and filling them prevented long term asset destruction in a time of stress. Equation encumbered economists are at a disadvantage, primarily because of liquidity preference, profit expectations, risk tolerance, unintended consequences and open systems.

  8. […] take a look at Gerald Epstein’s follow-up, in which he quotes the rather revelatory first sentence of “Getting Up to Speed” […]

  9. Very important observation on why mainstream go from crisis to crisis without learning. Read latest speech by Deputy Governor Tucker in Bank of England. He even admits to having forgotten his own lessons from post-Asian Crisis report together with Mario Draghi on why balance sheets should matter. He is brave enough to admit it and is honestly trying to improve, which is not what can be said about most of mainstream academia, who is continuing building frictions into their DSGE models.

  10. There are also psychological and structural dimensions to the “ignorance” of mainstream economists. Even when they see that the road ahead may be washed out they cannot say so since, as the system now works, negative forecasts from “respected” analysts will assure that the collapse will come sooner and be deeper than otherwise. Statements by politicians are likewise necessarily upbeat for the same reason. As long as capital can flow easily, quickly and massively from one investment sector or safe haven to another, negative forecasts from the “mainstream” will be self fulfilling. If a main-streamer turns whistle-blower he/she will no longer be an “insider” and unlikely to be quoted or handsomely rewarded. While you are likely to suffer if you are correct, being wrong simply means that your next pronouncement needs to explain away your error or, more likely, blame it on someone else. An economic system that requires the suppression of the reasons behind its actual functioning cannot be self-correcting, which goes far to explain its cycles. Ignorance, ideology and self protection do operate on the individual or group level but the “contradictions” are inherent to the current functioning of the system itself.

  11. […] Read his piece here. […]