Sunday, January 22, 2012

All Together Now

Why, yes, I am a rich merchant.  Why do you ask?
“Do you mean, sir, that these birds are cannibals?”

“That’s an odd question, young Master,” the banker said. “I merely said the birds drink blood. It doen’t have to be the blood of their own kind, does it?”

“It was not an odd question,” Paul said, and Jessica noted the brittle riposte quality of her training exposed in his voice. “Most educated people know that the worst potential competition for any young organism can come from its own kind.” He deliberately forked a bite of food from his companion’s plate, ate it. “They are eating from the same bowl. They have the same basic requirements.”

— Frank Herbert, Dune

Steve Randy Waldman got me thinking today.1

In an extensive follow-up piece to a previous post on complexity in finance, Steve answers objections to and elaborates on his argument that not only is opacity integral to the financial system of a complex society, it is essential. You may recall the core of his original idea:

Finance has always been complex. More precisely it has always been opaque, and complexity is a means of rationalizing opacity in societies that pretend to transparency. Opacity is absolutely essential to modern finance. It is a feature not a bug until we radically change the way we mobilize economic risk-bearing. The core purpose of status quo finance is to coax people into accepting risks that they would not, if fully informed, consent to bear.

Financial systems help us overcome a collective action problem. In a world of investment projects whose costs and risks are perfectly transparent, most individuals would be frightened. Real enterprise is very risky. Further, the probability of success of any one project depends upon the degree to which other projects are simultaneously underway. A budding industrialist in an agrarian society who tries to build a car factory will fail. Her peers will be unable to supply the inputs required to make the thing work. If by some miracle she gets the factory up and running, her customer-base of low capital, low productivity farm workers will be unable to afford the end product. Successful real investment does not occur via isolated projects, but in waves, forward thrusts by cohorts of optimists, most of whom crash and burn, some of whom do great things for the world and make their investors wealthy. But the winners depend upon the existence of the losers: In a world where there was no Qwest overbuilding fiber, there would have been no Amazon losing a nickel on every sale and making it up on volume. Even in the context of an astonishing tech boom, Amazon was a pretty iffy investment in 1997. It would have been an absurd investment without the growth and momentum generated by thousands of peers, some of whom fared well but most of whom did not.

I think Steve’s analysis and critique are essentially correct. However, I am much less sanguine than he seems to be when it comes to eliminating much of the opacity and associated “kleptocracy” he finds in our current financial system. My pessimism is based on two rather sizeable barriers: human history, and human nature.

* * *

Human beings, we are told, evolved as social animals. From the very first dawn on the ancient savannah, our ancestors must have struggled with the solution to problems of collective action: how to provide security, shelter, food, and comfort to the members of the group or tribe. Given the natural variability among members of any population—whether along simple biological dimensions of age, infirmity, and strength, or more abstract qualities like ambition, skill, and desire—humans must have come to adopt and practice the division of labor early and often. Some would stay behind to protect the encampment, make and mend clothing, and build and maintain shelter while others foraged or hunted for food. Each member of the tribe would cede some of his or her personal agency to other individuals or groups in exchange for reciprocal aid. In this way, the group became stronger than any one of its members. In this way, through trial-and-error invention of division of labor according to comparative advantage, human groupings created social surplus, and complex societies were born.

Over the course of human history, we have developed numerous systems and institutions to address recurring problems of collective action. We developed standing governments to organize and direct our individual efforts toward persistent common goals, like safety, security, and other large challenges. We developed politics as a means for people to make collective decisions about authority and power in government and elsewhere. We built economies as a means to organize collective and individual economic action toward sustained or increasing prosperity. We developed judicial systems to adjudicate inevitable disputes and promote the cause of justice. Each and every one of these systems requires the individual citizen to surrender a portion of his will and agency to the collective. And each and every one of these entities creates, thrives on, and indeed cannot function without opacity.

Think about it: Do you know how and why decisions are made and actions are taken inside government bureaucracies? Do you know what takes place in smoke filled rooms among politicians and lobbyists, whose horses are traded and for what? Do you trust politicians to have your best interests or even the interests of the people who elect them at heart? Do you trust big business of any sort—insurance companies, oil companies, auto manufacturers, pick an industry—not to cut corners when it increases shareholder returns or executive pay? For that matter, do you trust your local auto repair shop to install the brand new muffler it charges you for, and not a refurbished one? Do you really believe our judicial system promotes justice? Do you trust lawyers?

Each of these social institutions creates opacity through the simple mechanism of dividing people into insiders and outsiders. The insiders have the advantage of knowing how things really work, how to “work the system,” and how to profit—economically, socially, and/or politically—from it. Information asymmetry (the source of opacity) is built into the very fabric of the division of labor in complex societies. Furthermore, creating specialized entities to handle collective tasks each of us individually neither can nor wants to address creates institutions whose primary aims become self-preservation and continued aggregation of power. Just like in finance, insiders’ privileged position and knowledge enable them to extract rents. It’s just that rents accruing to insiders in areas other than finance can take the form of social prestige, political power, and legal authority, in addition to undeserved money.

* * *

None of this should be particularly surprising to anyone who takes the time to reflect on it. Why do we tolerate opacity in our collective social institutions and rent-seeking (if not outright corruption) in the people who work there? Because, I must believe, after thousands of years of experimenting, we have not come up with any better way. No-one except a criminal really likes a rent-seeker, and no-one but a politician’s spouse likes a corrupt politician, but collectively we have come to accept the occasional example as the price we must pay in order to outsource the prosecution of certain of our interests to other people. It is a convenience tax. And just like any tax, we whine and complain about it, but we pay. “You can’t trust bankers/lawyers/politicians/bureaucrats/pick-an-actor.” Only when the basic services they provide collapse, or the excess rents they extract become too egregious, do we take up our pitchfork and torch to revisit the social contract.

The problem of opacity and rent-seeking by the insiders of the social institutions we empower to promote our collective good is less bad than it might be—and, therefore, more durable as a feature of complex society—for a number of reasons. For one thing, most people in such privileged positions of power really are not crooked cheats simply out for themselves. Most government bureaucrats, politicians, businesspeople, lawyers, and bankers really do believe they are providing a useful and perhaps even noble service. They view their privileges and socioeconomic rents not as perks unjustifiably pilfered, but as concrete confirmation of the worth and value which society—the people, the voters, the market, etc.—places upon their efforts. They think they deserve them.2 Given that society allows or even encourages such actors to enjoy such special privileges, it is hard to argue that they are wrong.

For another, the tax which insiders extract for these services is, in the main, relatively small compared to the good their actions provide to the collective. Steve Waldman himself admits that:

Over the broad scope of history, societies with financial systems that mobilize capital opaquely and at very large scale have completely dominated those that have relied only upon consenting risk assumption by well-informed individuals. Industrialization occurs in societies with corrupt and fragile big banks, or else in societies where the state coerces and obscures risk-bearing and reward-shifting on a large-scale, or (more usually) both. China is a great present day example. That does not mean it would be impossible to develop a set of institutions that would be both effective and transparent. But it does mean developing such a system is an ambitious and ahistorical project, not a mere matter of “fixing what’s broken”. Under present arrangements, transparency and what we perceive as effectiveness stand in opposition to one another. It is incoherent to demand transparency and expect “more” macroeconomically stimulative intermediation from our current financial system.

Starkly put, what is a few billion dollars of excess compensation, here and there, if it enables the growth and prosperity of trillions of dollars of global economic activity?3

* * *

Finance is a critical function in today’s complex global economy. It is clear it stumbled badly in performing its basic function, and it seems beyond argument that it has far outgrown its proper place in the socioeconomic sphere and its share, deserved and undeserved, of the economic pie. But I find it hard to imagine any meaningful function performed by the financial system which can be purified into a transparent, corruption-free zone. Among government, politics, economy, and law, modern finance is a relative newcomer in the panoply of social institutions designed to promote the collective good. Given that no-one has demonstrated the ability to make any one of those older systems meaningfully transparent and corruption-free, I remain highly skeptical that we can do so with finance.

Yes, Steve, I admit the baby in the bathwater is fat, obnoxious, and ugly.4 But it is our baby. Do you still want to throw it out?

1 Yes, believe it or not, it does happen on occasion. Steve is particularly good at triggering it, because he normally has such interesting things to say.
2 Hence, e.g., the outraged sensibilities of financiers when you ask them to justify their relatively stratospheric pay: “But that’s what the market bears!” In other words, “I’m worth it!”
3 Especially if, as recent data seem to suggest, intragenerational wealth accumulation is more volatile and intergenerational wealth accumulation is less certain than it used to be. Personally, I am far less bothered by the rise and fall in one or two generations of self-made (finance) billionaires than I would be by the reestablishment of multigenerational dynastic wealth and all the sclerotic, corrupt sociopolitical accompaniments that would bring.
4 Steve also objects that our current financial system is incompetent when it comes to allocating systematic risk. He uses the examples of misallocating capital to faddish investments and the sticking of the unemployed and the indebted taxpayer with the biggest portion of the bill due from the collapse of the housing sector. But this misinterprets the proper role of the finance sector. The proper role is as servant to investors and users of capital. Investment bankers don’t sit in a back room, picking winners and losers like Chinese government ministers; we respond to capital supply and demand. Sure, such a system is widely acknowledged to be wasteful and subject to bubbles and fads, but it also has a long-term record of success I would stack up against any centrally planned economy’s any day. Given a choice between the (fallible) wisdom of crowds and the whim of a rent-collecting government technocrat insulated from market forces, I’ll take the crowds any day. Also, given that finance serves the broader society, why should we be surprised when it responds to the dictates of power by sticking failures to the little guy? That’s just politics.

© 2012 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.