Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In Praise of Blunt Instruments

From today's David Brooks column:
The [FinReg] law also calls upon government experts to make some heroic judgments. For example, it calls upon regulators to break up banks that might be about to pose a risk to the country’s economy. That is to say, investors may believe a bank is stable. The executives of the bank may believe it is stable. But the regulators are called upon to exercise their superior vision and determine which banks are stable and which are not.

When historians look back on this period, they will see it as another progressive era. It is not a liberal era — when government intervenes to seize wealth and power and distribute it to the have-nots. It’s not a conservative era, when the governing class concedes that the world is too complicated to be managed from the center. It’s a progressive era, based on the faith in government experts and their ability to use social science analysis to manage complex systems. 

I'm reminded of this old Yglesias post -- responding to yet another Brooks column -- that I think is worth quoting at length:
in just the areas where we’d most like effective regulation, we’re sort of unlikely to get it. If traders are likely to overestimate the effectiveness of their risk models, then regulators are prone to those exact same errors. Where does this leave us?

Brooks, I think, thinks it leaves us just as skeptical of regulation as we were before we took the behavioral turn. I think it arguably leaves us somewhere else. It leaves us with an appreciation of crude measures rather than hubristic efforts to get the regulations precisely right. Until the 1980s, banks couldn’t operate across state lines at all. This didn’t make any real sense. Some states (California, New York, Texas) are much bigger than others either in terms of land area or population or both. And of course New York City is much more integrated with parts of New Jersey (and even some parts of Connecticut) than it is with, say, Buffalo. So whatever the “right” rule was here, this clearly wasn’t it. At the same time, this rule, for all its arbitrariness, has the virtues of being clear and largely self-implementing. It doesn’t depend on anyone’s discretion being used wisely or honestly, and it doesn’t depend on anyone’s calculations being right. And it had the effect of limiting the size of banks so that you never had a really enormous bank failure.

Now that’s not to say we should go back to the ban on interstate banking (I honestly have no idea), but I think it shows the general shape of what we should be looking at. The best you can hope from a regulatory regime is that it will be a satisficing solution wherein some fairly crude rule will improve on the outcomes generated by the unfettered market. When that’s not the case, we may as well let the market go unfettered even though that, too, will be somewhat sub-optimal. But at the same time when we’re looking at a regulatory regime that seems to be working okay, and the regulated parties start saying we need tweaks x and y and z and oh there’s no danger there we should be very suspicious. We shouldn’t count on being to fine-tune our results to perfection, we should either lean in with a heavy hand or else stay away.

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