David Brooks, the conservative columnist writing for the New York Times, forecasts a gloomy future based on the Obama Administration's model for economic recovery. I don't subscribe to all his precepts but his Thursday (Feb. 12) column is poignant in one crucial aspect.
That is the economic models for recovery do not take into consideration the public psyche. Brooks contends the culture of borrowing as a result of easy credit is over. Burned badly, the public has retrenched and turned to spending only for critical needs and rediscovered the lost habit of saving.
Between 1990 and 2007, the total mortgage debt held by Americans rose from $2.5 trillion to $10.5 trillion. This rise was part of a societal credit bubble that burst in 2008. To cushion the pain of that collapse, federal authorities decided to replace private debt with public debt.
In 2008, the Bush administration increased spending by about $1.7 trillion, and guaranteed loans, investments and deposits worth about $8 trillion. In 2009, the Obama administration spent $800 billion on a stimulus package, $1 trillion on a second round of bank bailouts and committed another trillion on health care reform and other bailout plans.
Americans generally welcomed the burst of public activism. In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about what happens to a people beset by anxiety: “The taste for public tranquility then becomes a blind passion, and the citizens are liable to conceive a most inordinate devotion to order.”
In normal times, Americans would have been skeptical of proposals to double or triple the size of federal programs, but amid the economic fear, that skepticism fell away. Wall Street traders hungered for a huge federal bailout replete with strings. Economists produced models that assumed that government could efficiently spend huge amounts of money, and these models were accepted.
The Obama administration was staffed with moderates who found that there was no reward for moderation. Liberals attacked them for being tepid. Republicans attacked them because it was enjoyable to see Democrats attacked. Over time, the administration drifted left and created what you might call Split Level Technocratic Liberalism.
President Obama defended spending initiatives in broad terms. He had enormous faith in the power of highly trained experts and based his arguments on models and projections. The actual legislation was cobbled together by Democratic committee chairmen, often acting beyond the administration’s control.
During 2010, the economic decline abated, but the recovery did not arrive. There were a few false dawns, and stagnation. The problem was this: The policy makers knew how to pull economic levers, but they did not know how to use those levers to affect social psychology.
The crisis was labeled an economic crisis, but it was really a psychological crisis. It was caused by a mood of fear and uncertainty, which led consumers to not spend, bankers to not lend and entrepreneurs to not risk. No amount of federal spending could change this psychology because uncertainty about the future remained acute.
Essentially, Americans had migrated from one society to another — from a society of high trust to a society of low trust, from a society of optimism to a society of foreboding, from a society in which certain financial habits applied to a society in which they did not. In the new world, investors had no basis from which to calculate risk. Families slowly deleveraged. Bankers had no way to measure the future value of assets.
Cognitive scientists distinguish between normal risk-assessment decisions, which activate the reward-prediction regions of the brain, and decisions made amid extreme uncertainty, which generate activity in the amygdala. These are different mental processes using different strategies and producing different results. Americans were suddenly forced to cope with this second category, extreme uncertainty.
Economists and policy makers had no way to peer into this darkness. Their methods were largely based on the assumption that people are rational, predictable and pretty much the same. Their models work best in times of equilibrium. But in this moment of disequilibrium, behavior was nonlinear, unpredictable, emergent and stubbornly resistant to Keynesian rationalism.
The failure to generate a recovery led to a collapse of public confidence. President Obama’s promises of 3.5 million jobs now seemed a sham and his former certainty a delusion. The political climate grew more polarized. That meant it was impossible to tackle entitlement debt. That and the economic climate meant it was impossible to raise taxes or cut spending or do anything to reduce the yawning deficits. Federal deficits were 15 percent of G.D.P. and growing.
Far from easing uncertainty, the exploding deficits led to more fear. The U.S. could not afford to respond to new emergencies, like hurricanes or foreign crises. Other nations sensed American overextension. Foreign debt-holders grew nervous. Interest rates rose. Congress indulged its worst instincts, erecting trade barriers, propping up doomed companies. Scholars began to talk about the American Disease, akin to the British Disease of the 1970s.
The nation had essentially bet its future on economic models with primitive views of human behavior. The government had tried to change social psychology using the equivalent of leeches and bleeding. Rather than blame themselves, Americans directed their anger toward policy makers and experts who based estimates of human psychology on mathematical equations.
What do you think?