One who intends to leave others better off for his having existed.

5/10/11

Lawrence Lessing on Systemic Denial at the Roosevelt Institute’s “Make Markets Be Markets” conference.

Systemic Denial

…things are actually much worse than anyone ever talks about. The pivot points of our financial system -- the infrastructure that lets free markets produce real wealth -- have become profoundly corrupted. Balance sheets are "fictions," as Professor Frank Partnoy put it. Trillions of dollars in liability hide behind these fictions. And… practically every one of the design flaws that led to the collapse of the past few years remains essentially unchanged within our financial system still…

…Expert after expert spoke as if the problems we faced were simple math errors. As if regulators had just miscalculated, like a pilot who accidentally overshoots the run way, or an engineer who mis-estimates the weight of cargo on a plane. And so, because these were mere errors, people spoke as if these errors could be corrected by a bunch of good ideas.

...Again and again, we were led back to a frame of bad policies that smart souls could correct. At least if "the people" could be educated enough to demand that politicians do something sensible.

This is a profound denial. The gambling…was caused by a corruption of the system by which we regulate those markets. No true theorist of free markets -- and certainly none of the heroes of even the libertarian right -- believe that infrastructure markets like financial systems can be left free of any regulation, including the regulation of rules against fraud. Yet that ignorant anarchy was the precise rule that governed a large part of our financial system. And not by accident: An enormous amount of political influence was brought to bear on the regulators of these core institutions of a free market to get them to turn a blind eye to Wall Street's "innovations." People who should have known better yielded to this political pressure. Smart people did stupid things because "the politics" of doing right was impossible.

Why was their no political return from sensible policy?

The answer is so obvious that one feels stupid to even remark it. Politicians are addicts. Their dependency is campaign cash. And in their obsessive search for campaign funds, they let these funders convince them that for the first time in capitalism's history, markets didn't need the basic array of trust-producing regulation. They believed this insanity because it made it easier for them -- in good faith -- to accept the money and steer financial policy over the cliff.

…We need to admit our (democracy's) problem. We need to get beyond this stage of denial. We need to recognize that until we release our leaders from a system that forces them to ignore good sense when there is an opportunity for large campaign cash, we won't have policy that makes sense. Wall Street continues unchanged because the Congress that would change it is already shuttling to Wall Street fundraisers. Both parties are already pandering to this power, so they can find the fix to fund the next cycle of campaigns.

…until we solve that (eminently solvable) problem, we won't make any progress in making America's finances safe again.

Lawrence Lessig
Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, Co-founder of Change Congress

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