Bernanke Bankrolls a Rich-Kid's Card Game
By John DeFeo - 03/30/12 - 6:00 AM EDTNEW YORK (TheStreet) -- For better or worse, economic ideas are often likened to parables and personal experiences. Famously, Paul Krugman -- a Nobel laureate in economics -- once simplified his view of monetary policy when recounting the recessionary problems of the "Capitol Hill Baby-Sitting Co-Op." Here, a group of young D.C. professionals traded scrip (measured in hours of babysitting) for babysitting services. However, as couples began to save their scrip for special occasions, the overall level of babysitting activity began to decline. To counteract this decline in economic activity, the co-op issued more scrip to new members, which increased babysitting activity for a while, until the co-op issued too much scrip, resulting in another recession. While I don't agree with Krugman's assessment of this story (that monetary policy should be used to manage an economy), I do agree with his statement that "whimsical parables are not a waste of time but the key to enlightenment." To that end, I'd like to offer my own parable -- actually, an observation from my college years.
My fraternity played poker on the weekends. Games were held in a tournament style, where every player bought in for a fixed amount of money. The buy-in wasn't large, so the games attracted a good amount of players. And because each player started on equal footing, the games lasted for a while, most hands were played out and, usually, the most skilled players won.Perhaps this story isn't apropos of economics (a card game must have losers, but economic cooperation may benefit all participants, even though some must fail). But, for me, this story serves as an allegory for central banking and its unintended consequences. In the card game, the parents of the well-off players were like central banks, pumping endless liquidity into few hands. The players of lesser means and, perhaps, greater skill, were forced to play more conservatively (because one false move could wipe them out) until they abandoned the game altogether. A large and vibrant meritocracy was now reduced to a pissing contest with fewer participants and a structural underclass. It should come as no surprise that in the face of extraordinary monetary intervention since the 2008 financial crisis, U.S. employment participation is scraping 30-year lows, too-big-to-fail institutions (with a lifeline to the Federal Reserve) are even bigger than before and the income gap continues to widen. A fundamentally bad idea remains a bad idea, regardless of its scale.
One day, one of our well-to-do brothers (whose father, amusing to me, was an investment banker) convinced us to abandon tournament play in favor of no-limit betting (heck, it would be stimulating). We went along with it, but the game was never the same. Here's what happened: For the purposes of our games (which had historically seen $10 pots), some players now had "unlimited" funds. This allowed these players to "buy the pot." They didn't win because they had more skill, but because the other players no longer had the resources to compete. Some of the bolder, if not richer, players bet headstrong with funds they didn't have (to some degree of success). But the smaller players folded more and more hands -- and, ultimately, left the game altogether.
So, What's the Solution?To be fair, there is no perfect economic system just as there is no perfect mechanical system (the latter loses efficiency to dissipation, the former to inequity and corruption). But that shouldn't prevent us from trying to create a near-perpetual motion machine. History tells us that inflating a currency is an unpredictable and dangerous policy -- the justification is always the same: "this time it's different." And while I won't reject an inflationary system outright (though every bone in my body tells me I should), I still prefer to view the aptitude of central bankers in the same way that I view mutual fund managers: Generally, the more activity that fund managers undertake, the worse their performance is (even though "making moves" seems smart and exciting). Occasionally, a genius does come along and actively manages his or her way to success -- but the skill of one fund manager (or central banker) doesn't carry forward to the next. But, regardless of a central banker's skill (or good intentions), monetary authorities cannot dictate the terms of a "fair" economic system. There is nothing democratic about a well-connected few having access to a printing press. In this situation, the concept of meritocracy (and, subsequently, capitalism) is dead -- and the concepts of liberty and the pursuit of happiness are being put to the test. Peter Lynch famously said: "Go for a business that any idiot can run -- because sooner or later any idiot probably is going to be running it." The same might be true for monetary policy. -- Written by John DeFeo in New York City. Follow @johndefeo.
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