Friday, February 20, 2009

Populist indignation and the collective good

Today David Brooks lays out some arguments on either side of the debate about what we might call "microeconomic stabilization," namely writing down or reorganizing debt for some of the population but not for the rest. The asymmetry is not very palatable to anyone who believes in basic fairness and responsibility, and that probably includes most Americans.

The fact is that macroeconomic stabilization policies also have asymmetric effects. When interest rates are lowered in hopes of stimulating investment, savers lose while borrowers win (and there are also substitution effects that can change behavior). I don't think this aspect of macroeconomics is frequently taught to college undergraduates, let alone whether it is broadly understood.

Brooks (and many others) have good points about how micro stabilization can reward bad decisions, creating moral hazard that will put future decisions off kilter, and how that just flat-out doesn't seem fair. But Brooks also puts the basic argument for stabilization quite well in his last paragraph: "The nation’s economy is not just the sum of its individuals. It is an interwoven context that we all share. To stabilize that communal landscape, sometimes you have to shower money upon those who have been foolish or self-indulgent. The greedy idiots may be greedy idiots, but they are our countrymen. And at some level, we’re all in this together. If their lives don’t stabilize, then our lives don’t stabilize."