Tag Archives: history

Mysteries of Money

By James Kwak

Have you heard this story before?

The first assets deemed safe were coins made of precious metals.  As a technology, coins had many problems: they could be clipped or, debased by the sovereign. They had to be assayed and weighed to determine their value in the best of times; whole currencies would collapse in the worst, when the “fraudulent arts” gained the upper hand. Coins were bulky, too, and vulnerable to theft. But they worked: they were always liquid, their edges could be milled to prevent clipping; and, for long periods of time, coins served as fairly reliable stores of value.

As trade expanded, problems with coins gradually led to the creation of paper money – privately-produced circulating debt in all its early forms: moneys of account; bank notes and bills; goldsmith notes; and merchants’ bills of exchange, all of them convertible on short notice into coins.

That’s David Warsh, paraphrasing Gary Gorton, who’s really just recounting conventional wisdom, handed down from economist to economist since time immemorial.

Except it leaves out the most interesting part of the story.

I’ve been reading Christine Desan’s book Making Money, on the history of money in late medieval and early modern Europe. It’s a fascinating story, full of both meticulous historical detail and compelling conceptual arguments about the relationship between forms of currency, political authority, and the creation of the modern state. Continue reading

There’s No Substitute for the Government

By James Kwak

Mike Konczal wrote an excellent article for Democracy about the problems with a voluntary safety net and the superiority of government social insurance. The article draws on serious historical research (by other people) to prove two main points: first, there never was a Golden Age of purely voluntary charity; second, and more important, what charitable support mechanisms existed were not up to the challenges of the Second Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century and completely collapsed with the onset of the Great Depression.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. There are basic economic reasons why public social insurance is superior to voluntary charity. The goal here is to protect people against risk: of unemployment, of health emergency, of outliving one’s savings, and so on. For a risk-mitigation scheme to work, there are a few things that are necessary. One is that people actually be covered. This is something you can never have with a private system (unless it’s regulated to the point of being essentially public), since charities get to pick and choose whom they want to help. As Konczal says of private agencies before the Depression,

“They were also concerned they’d lose their ability to stigmatize—or to protect—various populations; by playing a role in determining who wasn’t deserving of assistance, they could shield those they felt worthy of their support.”

Continue reading

New Research in Financial Regulation

By James Kwak

Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of interesting research being done in the area of financial institutions, systemic risk, and regulatory reform. Last week I had the pleasure of attending a workshop for junior law professors held by the Insurance Law Center of the UConn Law School, where I am a professor. The workshop featured a long list of provocative and weighty papers at various stages of completion. Here I just want to point out a few that are fully drafted and available on SSRN.

Robert Weber presented what should be the canonical paper on stress testing as applied to financial institutions, which has been going on for a while but became front-page news in 2009, during the financial crisis. He traces the history of stress testing back to its engineering roots in Renaissance Italy with, perhaps unsurprisingly, Leonardo da Vinci. Weber is critical of box-checking stress testing, but argues that stress testing  can be useful as a way of encouraging or inducing bank executives and risk managers to more closely investigate their assumptions and beliefs and ultimately create a “morality of quantitative skepticism.”

Gallons of ink have been spilled over the Orderly Resolution Authority established in Title II of the Dodd-Frank Act, generally over whether and how it would be used in a crisis. In 13 Bankers, Simon and I expressed skepticism that it would be used, for practical and political reasons. Joshua Mitts’s paper takes the novel approach of looking at how OLA affects managerial incentives in the pre-crisis period, arguing that it encourages bank executives to design their firms in such a way as to maximize the chance of a taxpayer bailout. This would lead them to increase their exposure to other large financial institutions and to increase the correlation of their asset portfolios with those of other large firms.

Mehrsa Baradaran takes a historical view in her paper, which is about the social contract between banks and society as expressed through banking regulation. She begins with the Hamilton-Jefferson debates over banks (which is also where we began 13 Bankers) and covers the history of banking regulation (or non-regulation) up to the 1930s, which represented the most thorough codification of the social contract: the government needs banks, but banks also need the government. The past few decades, however, have seen an erosion of this social contract, giving banks the benefits of government sponsorship and support without the obligations necessary to ensure that they serve societal ends. Baradaran argues that banking regulation should incorporate a robust public benefit test to ensure that banks are in fact helping households, the economy, and society at large.

There are other interesting papers that are sure to come out of this workshop. One small side benefit of the financial crisis has certainly been the increased attention to the financial sector and the risks it presents to the rest of us.

State of Nature

By James Kwak

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately, some of which I’ve mentioned here: The Submerged State by Suzanne Mettler, Invisible Hands by Kim Phillips-Fein, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (finally) by David Landes, Exorbitant Privilege by Barry Eichengreen, and a pile of books on the national debt and deficit politics. (Despite moonlighting as a blogger, I find books more satisfying than the constant stream of newspapers, magazines, and blogs.) But my favorite book I’ve read in a while is Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, by the historian Richard White.*

For some people, most notably Rick Perry but also much of the conservative base, the late nineteenth century was the golden age: of the gold standard, no income tax, senators elected by state legislatures, and, most importantly, little to no government “regulation” of business. White shows what that world was really like.

Continue reading

Baseline Scenario Goes Glossy

By James Kwak

Simon and I wrote an article for the November issue of Vanity Fair about—well, about a lot of things. It’s about the eighteenth-century rivalry between Great Britain and France, the lessons of the American Revolutionary War, the Hamilton-Jefferson debates (again), and the War of 1812. It’s also about present-day fiscal policy and budgetary politics. The main question we take up is what the Founding Fathers (from the Constitutional Convention through their involvement in the War of 1812) thought about a strong central government, the national debt, and the taxes necessary to pay for them, and what that means for today. All that in less than 3,000 words, so there isn’t a lot of room for all the details.

You can read the article online here.

Edmund Burke and American Conservatism

By James Kwak

It has become a truism that modern American conservatism is revolutionary in the sense that it seeks to overturn the established order rather than to preserve it. “Reagan Revolution,” “Tea Party”—the very names for the movement announce that is about more than defending the status quo. In the conservative worldview, America (or “Washington,” or the “mainstream media,” or some other powerful stratum) is dominated by a liberal-intellectual-academic-bureaucratic-socialist-internationalist (pick two or more) elite that must be overthrown. So in at least a mythical sense, conservatism is about restoration, which is something very different from “conserving” what exists today.

When did this happen? According to one view of the world, to which I have been partial in the past, there was once an ideology called conservatism that really was conservative in the narrow sense: that is, it counseled maintaining existing institutions on the grounds that radical change was dangerous. The Rights of Man and the Citizen may be great, but soon enough you have the Committee of Public Safety and the guillotine. On this reading of history, conservatism became radical sometime after World War Two, when it gave up accommodation with the New Deal in favor of rolling the whole thing back, ideally all the way through the Sixteenth Amendment.

In The Reactionary Mind,* however, Corey Robin has a different take: conservatism, all the way back to Edmund Burke, has always been about counterrevolution, motivated by the success of left-wing radicals and consciously copying their tactics in an attempt to seize power back from them. Conservative thinkers were always conscious of the nature of modern politics, which required mobilization of the masses long before Nixon’s silent majority or contemporary Tea Party populism. The challenge is “to make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses” (p. 43). And the way to do that is to strengthen and defend privilege and hierarchy within all the sub-units of society (master over slave, husband over wife, employer over worker).

Continue reading

Tax Loopholes and the French Revolution

By James Kwak

Today’s Atlantic column is about one of my favorite topics: the French Revolution. Actually, it’s mainly about tax expenditures and how traditional Republicans should want to eliminate them. Unfortunately, there are no traditional Republicans left, and Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge makes clear that you can’t eliminate tax expenditures unless you use all the revenue to lower tax rates below where George W. Bush put them.