With all due respect to Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers, and the rest of President-elect Obama’s economic team, there is one name I would like to have seen included on that list–that of Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman.
Here’s why. From a Krugman op-ed piece in the New York Times recently:
“A few months ago I found myself at a meeting of economists and finance officials, discussing — what else? — the crisis. There was a lot of soul-searching going on. One senior policy maker asked, “Why didn’t we see this coming?”
There was, of course, only one thing to say in reply, so I said it: “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
Seriously, though, the official had a point. Some people say that the current crisis is unprecedented, but the truth is that there were plenty of precedents, some of them of very recent vintage. Yet these precedents were ignored. And the story of how “we” failed to see this coming has a clear policy implication — namely, that financial market reform should be pressed quickly, that it shouldn’t wait until the crisis is resolved.
About those precedents: Why did so many observers dismiss the obvious signs of a housing bubble, even though the 1990s dot-com bubble was fresh in our memories?
Why did so many people insist that our financial system was “resilient,” as Alan Greenspan put it, when in 1998 the collapse of a single hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, temporarily paralyzed credit markets around the world?
Why did almost everyone believe in the omnipotence of the Federal Reserve when its counterpart, the Bank of Japan, spent a decade trying and failing to jump-start a stalled economy?
One answer to these questions is that nobody likes a party pooper. While the housing bubble was still inflating, lenders were making lots of money issuing mortgages to anyone who walked in the door; investment banks were making even more money repackaging those mortgages into shiny new securities; and money managers who booked big paper profits by buying those securities with borrowed funds looked like geniuses, and were paid accordingly. Who wanted to hear from dismal economists warning that the whole thing was, in effect, a giant Ponzi scheme?”
Put more succinctly by Upton Sinclair:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
Mr. Krugman’s conclusion, and one I hope is heeded by the Obama administration, is that now is the time not only to focus on the short-term crisis, but to make the long-term fixes that will prevent the next one from occurring.