Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Failure of the Economy -- and of the Economists

So Wall Street’s Goldman Sachs reports the highest profits in the firm’s 140-year history -- $3,440,000,000 for the second quarter of this year – and earmarks an average of about $770,000 in bonuses for each of its 29,400 employees. Meanwhile, 14,700,000 men and women in the United States are jobless, triggering an unemployment rate of 9.5 percent, the highest level in more than a quarter century.

That’s an example of an imbalance in our economic system – an imbalance that favors workers who manipulate money over those who actually produce something. In a May 29 New York Review of Books article, a leading economist, Benjamin M. Friedman, fills in some of the details of this imbalance.

Friedman does so by using a favorite tool of economists: efficiency. His article, “The Failure of the Economy & the Economists,” tracks performance in several ways, starting with profit-making:

“In recent years the financial industry has accounted for an unusually large share of all profits earned in the US economy. The share of the ‘finance’ sector in total corporate profits rose from 10 percent on average from the 1950s through the 1980s, to 22 percent in the 1990s, and an astonishing 34 percent in the first half of this decade.”
Moreover: “The finance industry’s share of U.S. wages and salaries has likewise been rising from 3 percent in the early 1950s to 7 percent in the current decade. An important question … is what fraction of the economy’s total returns to productively invested capital is absorbed up front by the financial industry as the costs of allocating that capital.”

Friedman, author of “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth," insists that the question is important, since the total cost of the industry goes up “if this system also exposes the economy at large to episodic losses in production and incomes and to the need for taxpayer subsidies.” And that’s what’s happening now. “Today those losses are mounting, and so are the subsidies.”

Why, Friedman asks, is there so little discussion of this fundamental reality?

One reason, he says, is intellectual: the systematic failure of thinking on the part of economists. He explains that failure at some length, and presents one solution offered by economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller: “fire the weather forecaster.”

Just to be clear: I don’t support firing economists guilty of intellectual failures. That would be inefficient. We should first give them the opportunity to participate in intensive retraining programs.

Are you laughing? I am not.

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1 comment:

Marian said...

Hi Robert,

thought you might find this interesting:

Looks like someone is out to make a packet on our intellectual property.