Only Mostly Dead

princessbride11

Reliance on markets and the idea of limited government are not quite dead — only mostly dead.  They (mostly) died on October 3, 2008 when Congress passed the ginormous (giant + enormous) bailout bill, greatly expanding the scope and authority of the federal government to own stakes in businesses and financial assets.  And if you are looking for accomplices in the (mostly) murder of market-reliance and limited government, you should probably investigate the DC based “market-oriented” think tanks.

George Will correctly warns that this expansion of government by the partial nationalization of large sections of our economy is unlikley to be either temporary or benign.  (Now he tells us!)

The way back from (mostly) death for supporters of markets and limited government is to undo the bailout as quickly as possible.  Let businesses that made unwise decisions go into bankruptcy (I’m looking at you, GM).  Let their assets be reorganized by their credit-holders so that they move forward with a more efficient structure and more competent management.  Unless people experience the consequences of their mistakes, they can never learn from those mistakes and do better in the future.

I made this exact argument in defense of allowing companies to fail on September 18Mike Petrilli made the same argument on the same day.  But we’re just a bunch of lowly education analysts.  Where were all of the limited government Republicans?  Where were the market-oriented think tanks?

Let’s take a look at the period between September 15 and September 22 to see what the national, market-oriented think tanks had to say.  Remember that this was the pivotal week that began the (mostly) death-rattles for limited government and market-reliance.  Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bankrupt on September 15, but AIG received its first $85 billion bailout offer on September 16The first proposed $700 billion bailout was circulated around midnight on September 20

This was the time when the folks at think tanks could have been standing athwart big government yelling STOP!  They could have bolstered anti-bailout Republicans in Congress, steered the McCain campaign against the bailout (which would have been risky but probably a better hail Mary pass than picking Palin as VP), and they could have laid the foundations for a future defense of markets and limited government.

For the most part, the “market-oriented” national think tanks failed to yell STOP.  In the culminating act of complicity with big-government conservatism, they rationalized and defended a large government intervention in the economy.

Here is what people affiliated with AEI wrote during that period:

Glenn Hubbard called for a Resolution Trust approach of a bailout on both September 15 and September 19, advocating “putting in place a clean-up agency like the 1930s’ Homeowner’sLoan Corp. or the 1980s’ Resolution Trust Corp. would help…. The fiscal costs of inaction would be significant, both in lost tax receipts and in larger ‘crisis’ bailouts down the road.”  This Resolution Trust idea was the foundation for the $700 billion bailout plan of September 20.

Lawrence Lindsey called for a lifting of any cap on depositor insurance at banks on September 17 and then on September 21 endorsed the idea that the government had to provide credit to distressed financial institutions: “But by far the most inevitable economic development will be an expansion of the balance sheets of the government and its central bank.  When credit bubbles burst an enormous hole is formed in private-sector balance sheets…. Government, and only government, inevitably fits the bill as it can both tax and print the resources it needs.”  More support for the bailout.

Vincent Reinhart urged the administration to have “backbone” and resist more bailouts on September 16, but by September 22 he wrote in the New York Times: “The Congress should authorize the Treasury to purchase asset-backed securities in the secondary market and mortgages through auctions. For assets where it might not have all the information it needs, the Treasury could demand a slice of equity in the selling firm as well.”  More support for the bailout.

Alex Pollock wrote on September 17: “When government financial officers–like Treasury secretaries, finance ministers and central-bank chairmen–stand at the edge of the cliff of market panic and stare down into the abyss of potential financial chaos, they always decide upon government intervention.  This is true of all governments in all countries in all times. Nobody is willing to take the chance of going down in history as the one who stood there and did nothing in the face of a financial collapse and debt deflation. Put in their place, you would make the same decision, and so would I.”  More support for bailout.

Desmond Lachman wrote on September 17: “If Main Street is to be spared the painful economic consequences of a financial market meltdown on Wall Street, policymakers have little alternative but to resort to unorthodox interventionist policies to put a floor under the housing market and to prop up the banks with taxpayers’ money.”  More support for the bailout.

Newt Gingrich, writing on September 21, took a very skeptical position on the bailout.  But David Frum strongly went in the other direction, writing on September 22: “What should a free-market believer think about the plan for a government bailout of the U.S. mortgage market? Try this analogy: You have a white carpet in your upstairs hall. The normal rule is that nobody can wear shoes on the carpet. But the house is on fire–and the baby is upstairs. Will you tell the arriving fire department to wait and kick their boots off before dousing the flames?”  Notice that in this analogy, reliance on markets and belief in limited government are just the aesthetic nicety of clean carpets, not the principles that lay the foundations for the house or materials that resist fire.

It’s true that some of these folks called for “smarter regulation” (don’t make me get all Dr. Evil on them!) and advised about how best to conduct a bailout. But the bottom line is that 6 out of 7 AEI fellows who wrote during the pivotal week of September15-22 came out in support of a government bailout, with the 7th expressing skepticism but not outright opposition.

What about The Heritage Foundation?  They supported the bailout.

They issued four policy briefs during the week Sept 15-22.  The pieces all had the same basic message in support of a bailout: “Congress needs to act carefully but quickly in passing this legislation, knowing that it can correct any flaws when it reconvenes next year. Quick action is needed because financial markets remain deeply stressed, and the stress continues to spread to the rest of the economy.”

And what about the Manhattan Institute? They didn’t support the bailout.

Nicole Gelinas expressed even more doubts about the bailout than Newt Gingrich.  Writing in the NY Post she said, “Thing is, it’s not clear this is a solution. There’s no guarantee that even this much cash can buy us out of a systemic financial crisis. Even if it does, we probably face years of necessary financial and economic readjustment.”  And on September 26, just outside of the time period we are examining, she began to actively oppose the bailout, worrying that it might actually delay recovery.

And how about Cato? They also didn’t support the bailout.

Cato behaved more in-line with expectations than AEI or Heritage.  A September 15 piece by James Dorn was typical:“When the US Treasury is raided to defend the government’s credibility to guarantee GSE debt, it may calm markets for a time. Yet, in the long run, the drifts towards socialism and increased government borrowing requirements discourage foreign investment, decrease private saving, increase interest rates and slow US growth. That is a high price to pay for ‘stability.'”

For those of you keeping score, AEI and Heritage were actively in support of a large government intervention in the economy.  The Manhattan Institute and Cato were not.  But AEI is by far the most active and influential market-oriented think tank on this matter, so their support was crucial in shaping events and contributing to the (mostly) death of limited government and market ideas. The Manhattan Institute had only one expert on economic affairs active during the period I examined.  AEI had seven.  I believe that Heritage has, by far, the largest operating budget of any of these think tanks ($39 million as of 2006).  That is more than three times as large as the Manhattan Institute’s $12 million annual budget.

Donors pay for those seven AEI fellows and provide Heritage with its ginmormous budget.  If those donors really do wish to support huge expansions in government involvement in the economy, then I guess they are giving to the right organizations.

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12 Responses to Only Mostly Dead

  1. [...] Read the rest of this great post here [...]

  2. Brian says:

    Good think tanks should do one of two things (or hopefully both)–they should unflinchingly defend certain principles while standing as a barrier to threats on those principles, and they should generate innovative ideas for the future that embody and promote those principles. The problem is that these groups are no longer think tanks. They might as well be referred to as party tanks, election tanks, and self-promotion tanks. They don’t fight for ideas, they fight for power. They don’t lead, they do what is politically expedient. They have become too consumed with partisan politics and have come to embody all of the non-principled traits that are inherent in political parties, elections, and self-promotion.

  3. Well, not quite all, Brian, but I agree with your general point.

    I suspect that the seduction of power and party politics may be greater the closer you are to the centers of power, like DC.

    Also, there may be a tension between your two goals for think tanks. To promote innovative policies embodying principles you have to develop enough political sophistication and relevance to be influential. But that political influence may start as a means and become the end.

  4. Patrick says:

    I have stopped caring for Heritage since they came up with the Mass. healthcare plan. They’ve been “market oriented in name only” since then.

    My viewing of the Von Misses Institute since September has increased by 1000%. I find them more credible than Heritage now.

    I suspect Heritage has moved to telling Republicans what they want to hear not what they need to hear.

  5. Patrick says:

    I’m also surprised that AEI was the most influential. I read their material far less than any other national think tank. I guess that just shows personal experience doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.

  6. Hey Patrick,

    It’s important for think tanks to be willing to compromise in order to have influence to move policy in the direction of their principles. I worry about purist organizations that have no interest in influence or compromise. To me they are like monks staying inside their monastary and worshipping the true G-D without interest in the outside world. Effective think tanks have to wander out and sully themselves in the real world.

    But their compromises should move us closer to principles, not further away. The problem with backing the bailout (in addition to it being unnecessary and ineffective) is that it moves us further away from the principles of limited government and market reliance.

  7. Bob Weber says:

    The real function of AEI and Heritage has been to push for war & intervention abroad, providing homes for even such neocons as Michael Ledeen (who is so nutty he couldn’t get a job in the Bush 43 administratration!) and promote a pro-business “soft socialism” at home. Nothing limited government about them.

  8. [...] a wonderfully self-serving blog post, Cato’s Andrew J. Coulson posted a link to Jay P. Greene’s analysis of how free-market think tanks have responded during “Bailout Mania 2008.” [...]

  9. [...] scientist Jay Greene has an interesting blog post running down what the various free market and “free market” think tanks had to say in [...]

  10. [...] via Only Mostly Dead « Jay P. Greene’s Blog. [...]

  11. Pete Eyre says:

    Excellent overview! Surprised it only recently came across my radar. I just linked to it from a related thread on Bureaucrash Social:

    http://social.bureaucrash.com/forum/topics/heritage-foundation-has-a-good

  12. Emma says:

    Did Gm deserve the bailout? You Ask me I would say NO.. why? When Honda and Toyota were out inventing new cars, GM was busy boasting about its pride and Showing off its hungry hungry Daughter the Hummer

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