Book Review: “Why Capitalism” by Meltzer
In a complex world, discovering causality is very difficult. Many things happen simultaneously, and post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning is a common fallacy that is hard to detect and critique. Here is how I understand Meltzer’s arguments. Meltzer defines Capitalism as private ownership of means of production, and free enterprise with minimal government regulations. In practice, ALL economies have government regulation of free enterprise, and a mix of private and public ownership. This gives Meltzer a free hand in proving that Capitalism works. Wherever he sees growth, he attributes it to the “capitalist” portion of the mixed economy. Wherever he sees failure, he attributes it to the “communist” portion – government regulations and control of production.
For example in a 90% capitalistic economy in the USA, a small injection of regulations (say 5%) leads to disaster and catastrophe. However in China, an economy which remains largely communist (government owns more than half of means of production), growth is attributed to the small injection of capitalist methods. Whereas the gradual liberalization of Chinese is praised, the Russian experience is not mentioned at all. At insistence of free market ideologues like Meltzer, Russia was forced to adopt a radical free market strategy (Shock Therapy of Jeffrey Sachs) which led to disaster.
In addition to wrong attribution of causality, I disagree with Meltzer on some factual claims. He considers the Reagan-Thatcher era of de-regulation to be a general success on economic fronts. Here is my capsule summary of banking regulation history, which is drastically different from Meltzer’s portrayal of the same history. Wild speculation by banks led to collapse of banks in 1929, wiping out life savings of millions, and creating massive misery which lasted for decades in the USA. In wake of this failure, a regulatory structure which included the Glass Steagall act, was put into place which PREVENTED competition and speculation by banks. This worked very well for fifty years, with only minor and inconsequential bank failures until the 1980’s. Then, with much fanfare, Reagan deregulated the S&L industry via the Garn-St. Germain Act, announcing a new era. Inside Job: The Looting of America’s Savings and Loans by Pizzo, Fricker & Muolo documents how the deregulation led to systematic looting and the S&L crisis. As a result of the crisis, Taleb estimates (see page 43 of The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: “On Robustness and Fragility” ) “large American banks lost close to all their past earnings (cumulatively),about everything they ever made in the history of American banking – everything.” Similarly, repeal of the Glass-Steagall act in 1999, which prevented banks from speculating, eventually led to the global financial crisis of 2008, in which free enterprise by banks led to the loss of trillions of dollars. An antidote for the belief that the private sector is more efficient and less corrupt than the government is a series of articles by Matt Taibbi, for instance “The Bank of America: Too Crooked to Fail”
To summarize, unregulated free markets led to the Great Depression. Regulations and Keynesian economics (which allows Governments to help the unemployed) led to stability and prosperity until the 1970’s. De-regulation and liberalization in the Reagan-Thatcher era led to a massive increase in concentration of wealth at the top, and repeated financial crises, including the S&L crisis of the 80’s and the global financial crisis of 2008. HOWEVER, free market ideologues like Meltzer have an ENTIRELY different interpretation of this same history. According to them, the Great Depression was caused by mis-management of the monetary policy by the US Government. The same mistake caused the S&L crisis in 1980’s, and again, government (mis-)regulations are to blame for the global financial crisis.
One point on which Meltzer and I agree is that the Dodd Frank act is not worth the paper it is written. However, to Meltzer, this is evidence that regulations don’t work. Many others, including myself, see it as evidence of regulatory capture. The 37 page Glass-Steagall act clearly and strictly prevented banks from speculative investments, and worked very well for half a century. The strength of the financial sector prevented the passing of the necessary regulations, and created the 900+ page monstrosity of Dodd-Frank, full of loopholes one could drive a truck through. Effective and necessary regulation could not be passed because the strong private sector prevented it from happening.
How can we decide who is right? From the birds eye perspective taken by Meltzer, I believe that it is impossible to be sure. However, when one gets down to the nitty gritty details of history – who did what to whom, a pretty clear picture of the causal chains emerges. In this respect, Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is fantastic. I can honestly say that I learnt more about real world 20th century economic history and theory from this one book than I did from my Ph.D. in Economics at Stanford. The reader is invited to read both books and decide on the answer to Whether Capitalism works? for herself or himself.