Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Irland Unter Allen

Nearly a year ago I posed the rhetorical question, are bankers just inherently evil? Now more evidence is in.

Earlier this week my (and a lot of other people’s) question was echoed in The Irish Independent, which asked in a headline, “Are banks simply hardwired to behave amorally?”

The article takes the question quite seriously. It quotes a professor of neuroeconomics (a field I didn’t even know existed until now) at Atlanta’s Emory University as having concluded “that financial services types became addicted to the pleasure of making money while increasingly losing touch with the risks they take.” Professor Gregory Berns goes on to say, “You are addicted to returns, you are addicted to risk, you are addicted to cocaine—it’s all the same as far the brain goes.”

A Cambridge neuroscientist who reached the same conclusion suggests that the solution may lie in hiring more women and older men into the industry. A lengthy report from a UK parliamentary commission similarly recommends a new regime of “senior persons” at the banks.

This is very interesting, and everything these people say may be exactly right. But are governments really going to impose a new form of “affirmative action” that discriminates against young men in the financial sector? Hard to imagine.

Anger against bankers is freshly all the rage again in Ireland this week, after the Independent somehow got hold of and released recordings of phone calls between executives at the spectacularly failed Anglo Irish Bank during the financial crisis of 2008. I still have trouble believing that they are not really outtakes from one of the country’s wicked political satire shows, like Irish Pictorial Weekly.

The executives are heard laughing deviously (or nervously, it’s hard to tell) as they plan to ask for a small government bailout initially, calculating that the government will be less likely to turn them down for future bailouts so as not to lose its initial stake. In another recording a banker is heard to mockingly sing “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,” as they delight in the money flowing to them from Germany.

The Fine Gael government, which surged into power after the financial debacle, has since suffered in popularity due to budget cutbacks and fee rises demanded by those same Germans the banker was singing about. So it has lost no time talking up a “Fianna Fáil-Anglo Irish Bank axis,” trying to stem the opposition party’s recent comeback in opinion polls.

Journalists and ordinary people talk about how no one responsible has paid for the behavior that brought down the Irish economy. Prosecutors are preparing files, and there may indeed be charges brought in the wake of the release of the recordings. But it is hard to see exactly what laws were broken. My cynical side expects the main outcome to be a new iteration of a uniquely Irish institution, the tribunal. That would amount to (probably) years of hearings and testimony, big fees paid to attorneys on all sides, constantly dribbling revelations to keep the journalists going and, in the end, nothing produced but a dossier, to be handed to prosecutors who may or may not act on it.

In the end, the best realistic silver lining out of the debacle is for principles for better governance to become more firmly established in the political culture. This starts with a clear-eyed recognition of what has been learned by this painful experience.

One clear lesson is that bailing out banks and their bondholders is a really bad idea. The very notion that a bailout is a last resort causes bankers to act, well, like the evil bankers described above. It only encourages risky behavior. Deposit holders are a different matter, and the government was right to guarantee their assets—although there probably should have been a cap on the insured amount. The unlimited guarantee spurred Irish bankers to use it as a selling point to pull in more money from abroad—in defiance of the terms of the guarantee.

Another lesson is that all the regulations in the world do no good if they are not vigorously enforced. The joke of a head of the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority at the time of crisis is now comfortably ensconced in a comfortable retirement in a posh area of Dublin. He was given a €630,000 euro golden parachute when he left and gets in excess of €100,000 a year, courtesy of the taxpayers, and his main worry is turning away the occasional curious reporter who comes knocking on his door. If he had done his job, the crisis might have been less catastrophic.

Other lessons: investment banking and retail banking should be kept separate, and banks should not be allowed to grow to a point where they are Too Big To Fail. Of course, the latter is theoretically easier to accomplish in a large country like the U.S. than in a small one like Ireland.

As much fun as it is to examine all the ways in which bankers are bad people, those looking to avert such crises in the future would do well to spend less effort on examining what is wrong with bankers and more on ensuring that bankers are the ones mainly affected by their own risky behavior.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

No Place to Hide

Throughout history farmers and scientists have crossbred crops to improve them—to make them more durable, healthier, more abundant. Few people would think this is a bad thing.

When scientists began doing the same thing by manipulating the genetics of plants at the level of DNA, however, a lot of people did think it was a bad thing. Europe in particular has been very aggressive in regulating or, in some cases, outright banning genetically modified (GM) foods. That’s just one of the topics involving trade being argued among G10 leaders, as I type this, a mere two and a half hours up the road from me.

The controversy over GM foods is derived from a question: at what point do we become so efficient at doing something natural that it becomes unnatural—and in fact deleterious?

While I think it’s always good to be cautious with new technology, at the same time I don’t think we should react like superstitious Luddites to new technology either.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately, but not because of GM foods. I’ve been thinking of data mining. And, no, not for the reason you might expect.

Data mining is the process of gathering large amounts of information on computers and then analyzing it to find patterns and connections that otherwise are not immediately obvious. It is a term that is getting bandied about these days because of all the recent news stories about the National Security Agency’s ongoing collection of telephone and internet data inside and outside the United States.

The fact that the government is collecting all this data scares a lot of people. Personally, it doesn’t worry me a whole lot. As my father used to say, if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you don’t need to worry about what people might find out about you.

But there are more compelling reasons that the NSA’s intelligence collection doesn’t worry me too much. One is that I tend not to worry about things I cannot do anything about. Another is that, mathematically, my data is figuratively a needle in a haystack and the government seems determined to build the biggest haystack possible. As long as I don’t plan to start a Tea Party group, I don’t have much confidence the government can even find me. (In fact, one wonders whether, if the government had not been so determined to build such a big haystack, it might have had better luck picking up on the Boston bombers.)

No, what got me to fretting about data mining is an article in the January/February issue of the MIT Technology Review Magazine.

For years political consultants have used marketing tools to win political campaigns through market research, advertising and targeted campaigns. But what the Technology Review article describes is as far removed from traditional marketing as GM food is from winter wheat.

As described in the article, President Obama’s masterful and hugely successful reelection campaign took micro-targeting of voters to a whole new level. If you’re worried about the NSA knowing too much about you, it’s nothing next to what the Obama campaign knows about you. The campaign had such good and extensive data that it was nearly able to individualize campaign volunteers’ talking points for each phone call they made, each email they sent and each house they visited. They managed to get out a lot of people who otherwise would not have voted and to get people to vote differently than they otherwise would have. And where this really paid off was with women.

Think about it. In an election where everyone agreed that the overwhelmingly most important issue was the economy and in which neither political party was proposing any major change to abortion laws—and certainly nothing that would affect access to birth control—the Obama campaign managed to convince large numbers of women who would have normally voted Republican not to vote or to vote for Obama. The only concrete “women’s” issue raised during the campaign was whether church-run businesses had to pay for birth control under Obamacare, and that was settled well in advance of the election (by a fudge in which insurance companies, and not the employers, “paid” for birth control). Yet multitudes of women were somehow convinced that their rights were at stake in the election, and at the hands of a former governor of Massachusetts.

Looking at it objectively, one could fear that any candidate with a good enough data mining consortium (Obama used the Washington-based Analyst Institute) could not be stopped from manipulating his way to election. But this distortion of the electoral process will be self-correcting. In 2012 Mitt Romney’s data science unit was one-tenth the size of Obama’s. You can be sure that will not be true of 2016’s Republican nominee.

Unfortunately, while these new techniques have now been shown to work with incredible efficacy, there is no sign at all that they contribute in any way to making the successful candidate, once in office, a better leader or president.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Pro and Neo-con

My current conspiracy theory is that it was actually the Obama administration itself that leaked the information about the government’s massive collection of U.S. citizens’ communication data to The Guardian.

Why would it do that? Well for one thing, it has had the effect of drowning out a lot of the outrage over things going on with the IRS, the AP/Fox News kerfuffles and, what was the other one, oh yeah, Benghazi.

I’m being only partly facetious. Of all the brouhahas that have erupted over the past few weeks, what administration wouldn’t be happiest defending the surveillance “scandal”? After all, the main charge here is that government has been overzealous—if not overreaching—in trying to defend the country. That has to be kind of welcome after years of being criticized by security hawks for being weak on national defense.

Sure civil libertarians and, well, plain old libertarians are outraged. But most of the informed reaction has been that this is only what we would expect the government to be doing and it is overseen by Congress and court orders are still required for actually listening to conversations. Even a lot of people who were outraged that George W. Bush was doing this (although the full extent was not known back then) seem okay with it when it’s Barack Obama doing it.

The leaking of all the detail of this operation is kind of embarrassing and awkward for at least four reasons: 1) while the administration was busy naming a Fox reporter as a co-conspirator over a leak about North Korea, they got blindsided by a really serious leak; 2) while campaigning for president, Obama vehemently criticized exactly the kind of thing he has since been presiding over; 3) only a week or so before, the president gave a speech saying the war on terror was winding down; and 4) the IRS targeting of conservative groups only reminds people that even government activities that begin with the best of motives can eventually be bent to be used as leverage against political opponents.

The before-and-after snapshot that the whole surveillance episode gives us of the president highlights a contradiction (some might call it hypocrisy) in Obama’s rhetoric. When he gives a speech in public, he comes off as very idealistic and aspiring to higher values. But there is also the tough Obama who is very strict on security leaks and on deportations and who had no apparent problem embracing and deploying drone technology to target and assassinate individuals—even a couple who held U.S. citizenship.

This duality in Obama’s leadership style was on exhibit in the two appointments he made last week. In the U.S. media there was more focus on Susan Rice (the new National Security Adviser), but in Ireland Rice was a mere second banana to Dublin-born Samantha Power, nominated as United Nations Ambassador. Her Irish connection was naturally highlighted, although you could feel the newsreader wince internally over the sound clip where Power told how, as a child, she practiced in front of a mirror to get rid of her Irish brogue.

What is interesting about these appointments is that these women have long been advocates for moral foreign interventionism, especially Power. She won a Pulitzer Prize for criticizing the United States’ weakness in preventing genocide in places like Rwanda and the Balkans. Such has been her commitment to the issue that her appointment actually won praise from some who would normally be criticizing the administration—neo-conservatives like Max Boot, John McCain and Joe Lieberman.

Power and Rice are said to have argued internally for more intervention in Syria but were rebuffed. So the question is, are these appointments mere window dressing or does the president intend to become more interventionist in the world? To date, he has taken every chance he could to pull back from entanglements abroad.

No one has a good strategy for Syria, especially at this point in the conflict where Bashar al-Assad is roaring back, thanks in small part to (shades of the Cold War) support from Russia. My best guess is that Obama will follow the expert example of Bill Clinton. Not his example on the Balkans. To his credit, Clinton did intervene in the Balkans—and he didn’t even have the U.N.’s blessing—although not where it might have prevented or stopped the horrific ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

No, the president will probably follow Clinton’s example on Rwanda, i.e. standing by and doing nothing and then showing how much he cares by giving speeches, after he is out of office, saying that his biggest regret was not doing anything about Rwanda when he had the chance. For Clinton it was politically a win-win. Not so much, though, for the Rwandans. Let’s hope, against hope, it goes better for the Syrians.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Up and Down

The best way to judge an economy is to look at who is up and who is down.

So, who is up and who is down in the current American economy? If you are significantly invested in the stock market, you are way up. But if you are looking for a job, then the prospects are that you could be looking for a long time. Isn’t that kind of the opposite of what President Obama has been saying since the 2008 campaign his priorities were for the economy? He has repeatedly said he wants everyone to get “a fair shot” and that the economy shouldn’t be rigged in favor of those who are already well off.

To be fair, a lot of people with money in the stock market are not super-rich. A lot of them are ordinary people who have invested their savings or who have money invested through retirement plans. And not everyone who is unemployed is suffering. But the fact remains that things have not gone in the direction in which the president said he would take the country. The administration is happy enough to trumpet new record highs in the stock indexes because it will naturally point to anything that shows the economy improving. But the fact is that the rise in stock prices hasn’t translated into a lot of job growth.

Yes, the unemployment rate has come down since it hit a peak of 10.1 percent in 2009. But it is still way above normal historical levels. And the official rate (called U-3) actually understates the problem since it doesn’t include people who are underemployed or who have given up looking for work—an increasingly large segment of the population. The U-6 rate, which includes the underemployed and discouraged jobseekers, was at 13.9 percent in April.

If you asked an administration spokesperson about this, he or she might well say that this only underscores how bad things had gotten under previous administrations and that still more time is needed to put things right. But given who is up and who is down, is the trend really going in the right direction? And would anyone have taken, say, George W. Bush seriously if he had laid the blame for any economic problems in 2005 at the feet of Bill Clinton? Only Barack Obama seems to get away with this trick.

Still, things could be worse. The official unemployment rate in the European Union recently hit a record 12 percent. Europe has always had higher unemployment than the U.S., which leads us to wonder why some economists and politicians say that the U.S. should have an economy that is more like Europe’s. When it is pointed out to those people that Europe invariably has higher unemployment and a somewhat lower living standard than the U.S., they reply that it doesn’t matter because European countries have a much better social safety net.

Think about that for a moment. Taking that kind of thinking to its logical extreme, why should anybody have to have a job at all? Just let the government print money and then hand it out to everyone. The obvious problem, of course, is that money would become useless because, with no one working, there would be no goods or services to purchase.

Okay then, says my imaginary interlocutor (let’s call him Paul Krugman), just employ people in jobs that are really necessary—like doctors, teachers, police, fire fighters, high-end restaurant staff and, of course, people to run mint’s printing presses—and pay them with the government’s printed money. What’s wrong with that? Heck, we’ll even pretend that there will be no problem finding people to fill those jobs even though their standard of living would be no higher than people who do no work at all.

The problem is that—even in spite of the fact that most people like to feel useful and want to be doing something—you will never be able to find enough people to fill all the jobs needed. Since everyone in the country has all the money they want, demand will be guaranteed to outstrip supply. And no matter how much money the government has printed for you, it will never be enough because the price of everything you want will keep going up because of chronic shortages. To get around this, there will be no choice but to start rationing goods and services and, if that doesn’t do the trick, then to use the power of the government to compel people to work in jobs that are deemed necessary and desirable—at gunpoint if necessary. Sure, it doesn’t exactly sound like a picnic but, hey, at least you’re not under the heel of the capitalist oppressors.

But that’s all a fantasy, though, right? After all, the government isn’t really going to print loads of money just to try keeping people’s living standards up, is it? So how would we know if they were doing that? Well, interest rates would drop to near zero. And there would be a boom in the stock market.

Wasn’t that another one of the president’s aims? To end the cycle of boom and bust?