As I read the last tranche of disastrous news stories from this catastrophic year, I found myself thinking back to the old days when it all seemed to work, when everyone agreed what made an economy go and the stock market raced and the commentators and economists and politicians of the world stood as one under the boldly soaring banner of laissez-faire.
In particular, I remembered that quintessential work of market triumphalism, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. It was published in the glorious year 1999, and in those days, it seemed, every cliché was made of gold: the brokerage advertisements were pithy, the small investors were mighty, and the deregulated way was irresistibly becoming the global way.
In one anecdote, Mr. Friedman described a visit to India by a team from Moody's Investor Service, a company that carried the awesome task of determining "who is pursuing sound economics and who is not." This was shortly after India had tested its nuclear weapons, and the idea was that such a traditional bid for power counted for little in this globalized age; what mattered was making political choices of which the market approved, with organizations like Moody's sifting out the hearts of nations before its judgment seat. In the end, Moody's "downgraded India's economy," according to Mr. Friedman, because it disapproved of India's politics.
And who makes sure that Moody's and its competitors downgrade what deserves to be downgraded? In 1999 the obvious answer would have been: the market, with its fantastic self-regulating powers.
But something went wrong on the road to privatopia. If everything is for sale, why shouldn't the guardians put themselves on the block as well? Now we find that the profit motive, unleashed to work its magic within the credit-rating agencies, apparently exposed them to pressure from debt issuers and led them to give high ratings to the mortgage-backed securities that eventually blew the economy to pieces.
And so it has gone with many other shibboleths of the free-market consensus in this tragic year.
For example, it was only a short while ago that simply everyone knew deregulation to be the path to prosperity as well as the distilled essence of human freedom. Today, though, it seems this folly permitted a 100-year flood of fraud. Consider the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), the subject of a withering examination in the Washington Post last month. As part of what the Post called the "aggressively deregulatory stance" the OTS adopted toward the savings and loan industry in the years of George W. Bush, it slashed staff, rolled back enforcement, and came to regard the industry it was supposed to oversee as its "customers." Maybe it's only a coincidence that some of the biggest banks -- Washington Mutual and IndyMac -- ever to fail were regulated by that agency, but I doubt it.
Or consider the theory, once possible to proffer with a straight face, that lavishing princely bonuses and stock options on top management was a good idea since they drew executives' interests into happy alignment with those of the shareholders. Instead, CEOs were only too happy to gorge themselves and turn shareholders into bag holders. In the subprime mortgage industry, bankers handed out iffy loans like candy at a parade because such loans meant revenue and, hence, bonuses for executives in the here-and-now. The consequences would be borne down the line by the suckers who bought mortgage-backed securities. And, of course, by the shareholders.
At Washington Mutual, the bank that became most famous for open-handed lending, incentives lined the road to hell. According to the New York Times, realtors received fees from the bank for bringing in clients, mortgage brokers got "handsome commissions for selling the riskiest loans," and the CEO raked in $88 million from 2001 to 2007, before the outrageous risks of the scheme cratered the entire enterprise.
Today we stand at the end of a long historical stretch in which laissez-faire was glorified as gospel and the business community got almost its entire wish list granted by the state. To show its gratitude, the finance industry then stampeded us all over a cliff.
To be sure, some of the preachers of the old-time religion now admit the error of their ways. Especially remarkable is Alan Greenspan's confession of "shocked disbelief" on discovering how reality differed from holy writ.
But by and large the free-market medicine men seem determined to learn nothing from this awful year. Instead they repeat their incantations and retreat deeper into their dogma, generating endless schemes in which government is to blame, all sin originates with the Community Reinvestment Act, and the bailouts for which their own flock is desperately bleating can do nothing but harm.
And they wait for things to return to normal, without realizing that things already have.
Thomas Frank's column, The Tilting Yard, appears every Wednesday at OpinionJournal.com
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