Examples of “Kooks” We Should Pay Heed

September 22, 2008


 No sooner did I finish my previous post, suggesting that our next president needs to begin listening to economists who, until now, have been dismissed as “kooks” and “weirdos” by the now-discredited high rollers like Paulson, Greenspan and Bernanke, when along comes this Fortune article with a perfect example – economist John Williams of http://www.shadowstats.com/, who coined the term “Pollyanna Creep” to describe the phenomenom of revising economic data to make things appear rosier than they are. Williams contends that today’s economic melt-down has roots that go back much further than the mortgage crisis, that we’ve been deluding ourselves for many years that the economy is in much better shape than it really is.

No shortage of villains stand accused of igniting the brushfire raging across Wall Street: greedy lenders, gullible home buyers, negligent regulators, numbskull credit ratings agencies, and vicious short-sellers, for starters. Maybe they share the blame. But what if the underlying problem goes deeper? What if the reality is that the US economy has been a lot worse than was thought for a long time, and now the chickens are finally coming home to roost?

That’s the dark thinking beyond what is known as “Pollyanna creep,” a phrase coined by an economist named John Williams and supported by a cadre of other macroeconomic dissidents.

Williams, who lives in California, runs a Web site called Shadowstats.com that trades in the idea that key government statistics have become so optimistically misleading as to become essentially useless. Yes, this sounds a bit like the thinking of the black helicopter crowd, or the plotline of a Matrix movie. But given what’s gone on in the financial sector of late, it doesn’t sound quite so fringe.

The article singles out GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and CPI (the Consumer Price Index) as a couple of macroeconomic statistics that are especially worthy of scorn – overly optimistic to the point that they have been rendered useless, the very point I made in the first chapter of Five Short Blasts. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know that another favorite of mine is unemployment. To suggest that our unemployment rate is only 6.1% (the current “official” rate) is ludicrous when the annualized rate of weekly jobless claims is closer to 16%. In the past, while still chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan claimed that unemployment rates of 5% or less represented “full employment” and worried about the inflationary potential, all while weekly jobless claims still hovered above 300,000 and while thousands of people in manufacturing were losing their jobs ever week.

Another fringe economist cited in the article is Kevin Phillips, former Nixon advisor and author of Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism.

In his recently-published and rather depressing book “Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism,” onetime Nixon White House adviser Kevin Phillips discusses Pollyanna creep as part of an era of “Bullnomics: the pied-piping of America toward a misleading financial ideology (the efficiency and reliability of markets), buttressed by a spectrum of dubious thinkers, doctrines and enablers.”
Phillips contends that some of the biggest changes to CPI calculation took place between 1997 and 1999, “while the public and the politicians were preoccupied by bull market euphoria and the actions in Congress to impeach Bill Clinton.”
In their effort to reduce Social Security outlays – and buttressed by a belief that CPI overstated inflation – government economists with backing by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan implemented controversial modifications to CPI that, among other things, tried to measure increased satisfaction from goods.


This Fortune article may be a good sign that, already, the Paulsons and Bernankes of the world are being pushed aside while we begin to look to the “fringe” economists, the “macroeconomic dissidents,” for real answers.

The Pollyanna creep crowd ….  may have some currency. Amid the talk of hundreds of billions in financial market clean-ups, a debate over the accuracy of economic bellwethers may be a can of worms worth opening.

Architect of Globalization Befuddled by Financial Crisis

September 14, 2008

This morning, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, appeared as George Stephanopoulos’ guest on ABC’s “this week” Sunday morning political talk show. He had more of a “deer in the headlights” look about him than I’ve ever seen. It’s clear that he’s completely befuddled by the breadth and depth of the current financial crisis, and admitted that it’s a much worse situation than he ever faced during his tenure at the Fed. He spoke of the crisis as a “hundred-year event,” a financial crisis the likes of which may only arise every hundred years or so. He suggested that, perhaps, it’s just a natural correction in the process of globalization, a road bump in the golden highway to global nirvana.

Stephanopoulos questioned Greenspan about the imminent collapse of Lehman Bros. and whether or not the Fed should bail them out like they did for Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Greenspan’s response was “no,” explaining that “it’s unsustainable” for the Fed to continue bailing out these huge financial institutions. (At least he understands that much.) When asked when we could look for this financial crisis to end, Greenspan said that it would end when the housing market stabilized, perhaps sometime early next year.

At this point, I would have loved to be seated there next to George. “Mr. Greenspan, will housing prices need to fall to a level more consistent with Americans’ median income in order for this stabilization to take place?” I would have asked. “Yes, I suppose that’s true, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah …,” he would have responded.

“But with Americans’ median income stagnant or declining, as it has been for decades now, thanks to the trade deficit and loss of manufacturing jobs, then how can home prices ever stabilize?” I would have continued. I’m sure I’d have gotten a response that was heavy on optimism about the effects of fiscal stimulus, and equally heavy on denial about the role of the trade deficit.

Greenspan had one final slap in the face for American workers. When Stephanopoulos then questioned Greenspan about the domestic auto industry and whether the Fed should have a role in bailing them out too (since each of the “Big Three” are now pressing Congress for low-interest loans totaling billions), his answer was an emphatic “no!” Stephanopoulos replied, “But isn’t it unfair to bail out the big bankers and leave average folks like auto workers in the lurch?”  Greenspan then rationalized that the big financial institutions are extremely critical to the economy and that “even the auto workers have a stake in seeing those companies survive.” At this point, I wanted to scream at the television, “and just where the hell do you think those auto workers got the money to deposit in those institutions?!?!”

This was so illustrative of the problem with our chief economists, a problem that continues to escalate under the administration of his former apprentice, Ben Bernanke. Banks, lenders, brokerage houses – these are the only cogs in the economic machine that matter to them. They see manufacturing as grunt work, something almost unworthy of an advanced society, a nuisance to be farmed out to the unsophisticated who have nothing better to do.

There are economists out there who are challenging the premises upon which globalization is based, but the globalization cheerleaders are a close-minded bunch. They have the upper hand and the financial backing. Until that day when their failed theories culminate in a complete financial melt-down, they may continue to hold sway. But logic will ultimately prevail and history will judge Greenspan and his ilk harshly.