An interesting piece in the upcoming NYT magazine this Sunday by Dave Leonhardt on the ways and degrees in which the economy will change once recovery is at hand. Not that we're anywhere close to a turnaround, no matter what Obama and Congress decide to do, but at some point it will happen. The question is, what then? The piece covers a lot of ground, but my favorite passage describes the theories of a little-known economist named Mancur Olson who wrote a book called "The Rise and Decline of Nations."
In Olsonís telling, successful countries give rise to interest groups that accumulate more and more influence over time. Eventually, the groups become powerful enough to win government favors, in the form of new laws or friendly regulators. These favors allow the groups to benefit at the expense of everyone else; not only do they end up with a larger piece of the economyís pie, but they do so in a way that keeps the pie from growing as much as it otherwise would. Trade barriers and tariffs are the classic example. They help the domestic manufacturer of a product at the expense of millions of consumers, who must pay high prices and choose from a limited selection of goods.
The parallels to the modern-day United States, though not exact, are plain enough. This countryís long period of economic pre-eminence has produced a set of interest groups that, in Olsonís words, ďreduce efficiency and aggregate income.Ē Home builders and real estate agents pushed for housing subsidies, which made many of them rich but made the real estate bubble possible. Doctors, drug makers and other medical companies persuaded the federal government to pay for expensive treatments that have scant evidence of being effective. Those treatments are the primary reason this country spends so much more than any other on medicine. In these cases, and in others, interest groups successfully lobbied for actions that benefited them and hurt the larger economy.
Surely no interest group fits Olsonís thesis as well as Wall Street. It used an enormous amount of leverage ó debt ó to grow to unprecedented size. At times Wall Street seemed ubiquitous. Eight Major League ballparks are named for financial-services companies, as are the theater for the Alvin Ailey dance company, a top childrenís hospital in New York and even a planned entrance of the St. Louis Zoo. At Princeton, the financial-engineering program, meant to educate future titans of finance, enrolled more undergraduates than any of the traditional engineering programs. Before the stock market crashed last year, finance companies earned 27 percent of the nationís corporate profits, up from about 15 percent in the 1970s and í80s. These profits bought political influence. Congress taxed the income of hedge-fund managers at a lower rate than most everyone elseís. Regulators didnít ask too many hard questions and then often moved on to a Wall Street job of their own. In good times ó or good-enough times ó the political will to beat back such policies simply doesnít exist. Their costs are too diffuse, and their benefits too concentrated. A crisis changes the dynamic. Itís an opportunity to do things you could not do before.