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Innovation ain't what it used to be

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When Wall Street wants to launch the big intellectual artillery in the argument against strong financial reform, they haul out innovation.

Regulation will strangle innovation, and we can't have that, the financial titans contend. Innovation is the strength of America, without it, we will lose our competitiveness.

But over the past several decades financial innovation has focused too much on mathematical models and not enough on a vision of improving the country and people's lives. Selling mortgages with exploding balloon payments doesn't qualify as innovation; it's a cruel trap.
The recent version of financial innovation, complex investments, and gambling vehicles like derivatives and credit default swaps, no doubt made many bankers wildly rich, but these "weapons of mass of financial destruction," as Warren Buffet labeled them back in 2003, also planted hidden, little-understood land mines of risk which helped create the financial crisis when they blew up.

It's no longer just the pitchforks that are questioning the value of these innovations. Paul Volcker, the former Fed chief born again as the lone voice for meaningful financial reform in the Obama administration recently said the only modern innovation that brought real benefit to people was the ATM card. And the financing of innovation in the rest of the economy isn't faring any better.

A couple of top economists, including a Nobel Prize winner, weighed in recently with a scathing view of the financial system in the Harvard Business Review. Edmund S. Phelps (the 2006 economics Nobel winner) and Leo M. Tilman, both of Columbia University, wrote in the January issue [no link]: "The current financial system is choking off funds for innovation...Outdated accounting conventions and inadequate disclosures make it impossible to evaluate the business models and risks of financial firms. Excessive resources are allocated to proprietary trading, to lending to overleveraged consumers, to regulatory arbitrage and to low-value-added financial engineering. Financing the development of innovation takes a back seat."

To finance opportunities in clean and nanotechnology that the current financial system is ill equipped to serve, the authors propose a government-sponsored bank of innovation.
The bank bailouts have no doubt soured people on the notion of the government in the banking business and rightly so.

But this hasn't always been the case.

It's worth remembering that the greatest financial innovation of the past 70 years was a government-sponsored program called the G.I. bill. I heard about the G.I. bill growing up, because it financed my dad's education after he returned from World War II. Many others got help with home loans. Ed Humes, an author and former Pulitzer Prize winning investigative newspaper reporter, has written a splendid account of the G.I. bill, "Over Here." It captures how individual lives as well as the entire nation was shaped by the ambitious program.

The idea of a massive program to help veterans, first articulated by FDR, intended to prevent a reoccurrence of the bitter 1932 Bonus March, when angry World War I veterans and their families descended on Washington, D.C. to demand promised benefits. The government response was a fiasco - soldiers were ordered to fire on the persistent veterans. Nearly 10,000 were driven from the veterans' encampment; two babies died. The resulting stink helped Roosevelt defeat the sitting president, Herbert Hoover.

I spoke with Humes about the history behind the G.I. bill.
The proposal faced stiff opposition from the financial industry and the education community.
"They argued that the average Joe returning from World War II was capable of being neither a college student nor a homeowner. The bill was basically rammed through over their objections, because of a combination of altruism and fear."

It didn't hurt that the bill was created by the American Legion, a conservative veterans' group.
The G.I. bill was an overwhelming success, not only for the veterans but the college system, the building industry (it helped create the suburbs), the economy at large, and the banking industry (it created the modern mortgage industry). "For every dollar spent," Humes said, "seven was returned to the economy."

Humes draws a direct connection from the G.I. bill to today's bailouts. "They had a dead housing market, it had never recovered from the Depression. But did they throw money at the banks? No. They encouraged people to buy homes."

The G.I. bill shows what's possible when those who are governing possess large vision, heart, will, persistence - and fear. No mathematical model can come close.