Hope and change
What we've been waiting for . . .

"Next time, we'll get the regulations right"

Please take my advice: don't hold your breath.

James Surowiecki starts well.

M.M.S.’s bad behavior was unusually egregious, but it’s hard to think of a recent disaster in the business world that wasn’t abetted by inept regulation. Mining regulators allowed operators like Massey Energy to flout safety rules. Financial regulators let A.I.G. write more than half a trillion dollars of credit-default protection without making a noise. The S.E.C. failed to spot the frauds at Enron and WorldCom, gave Bernie Madoff a clean bill of health, and decided to let Wall Street investment banks take on obscene amounts of leverage, while other regulators ignored myriad signs of fraud and recklessness in the subprime-mortgage market.

As Samuel L. Jackson might shout, "Correct-a-mundo!" So what do we conclude? Surowiecki, alas, just doesn't get it:

These failures weren’t accidents. They were the all too predictable result of the deregulationary fervor that has gripped Washington in recent years, pushing the message that most regulation is unnecessary at best and downright harmful at worst. The result is that agencies have often been led by people skeptical of their own duties. This gave us the worst of both worlds: too little supervision encouraged corporate recklessness, while the existence of these agencies encouraged public complacency. . . . Too many regulators, for instance, are political appointees, instead of civil servants. This erodes the kind of institutional identity that helps create esprit de corps, and often leads to politics trumping policy.

Sorry, Mr. Surowiecki, but the regulators' errors are "predictable" but much more profoundly then you seem to recognize. I was going to compose a reply, but the Wall Street Journal's editorial yesterday does a fine job:

The liberals' fury at the President is almost as astounding as their outrage over the discovery that oil companies and their regulators might have grown too cozy. In economic literature, this behavior is known as "regulatory capture," and the current political irony is that this is a long-time conservative critique of the regulatory state.

The Nobel economist George Stigler of the University of Chicago was one of the concept's main developers, and it is a seminal plank of the "public choice" school of economics for which James Buchanan won the economics Nobel in 1986. Ronald Reagan warned about this in different words in one of his farewell speeches.

In the better economic textbooks, regulatory capture is described as a "government failure," as opposed to a market failure. It refers to the fact that individuals or companies with the highest interest or stake in a policy outcome will be able to focus their energies on politicians and bureaucracies to get the outcome they prefer.

Perhaps if liberals read more conservative economists, they might understand that this is a common consequence of the regulatory state that they have so diligently constructed over the decades. It is also a main reason that many of us are skeptical of the regulatory solutions routinely offered in response to every accident or business failure.

Or, as John Cochrane of the Univ. of Chicago--via Mark Perry--put it:

The case for free markets never was that markets are perfect. The case for free markets is that government control of markets, especially asset markets, has always been much worse.

Remember, the SEC couldn’t even find Bernie Madoff when he was handed to them on a silver platter. Think of the great job Fannie, Freddie, and Congress did in the mortgage market. Is this system going to regulate Citigroup, guide financial markets to the right price, replace the stock market, and tell our society which new products are worth investment? As David Wessel’s excellent "In Fed We Trust" makes perfectly clear, government regulators failed just as abysmally as private investors and economists to see the storm coming.