James Galbraith remarks


Texas Observer carries commentary that is revealing.

Editor’s note: These remarks were delivered to a meeting of the Texas Lyceum in Austin on April 3, at a debate between University of Texas professor James Galbraith, an Observer contributing writer, and former Majority Leader Richard Armey, chief instigator of the recent Astroturf “tea party” protests. Armey had begun his remarks by noting that his rule in life was “never trust anyone from Austin or Boston,” and proceeded to declare his allegiance to the “Austrian School” of economics, a libertarian view that regards public intervention in private markets as socialism.

It is of course a pleasure to be with you today. I was born in Boston, and I am proud of it. And I have lived 24 years in Austin—and I’m proud of that.

Leader Armey spoke to you of his admiration for Austrian economics. I can’t resist telling you that when the Vienna Economics Institute celebrated its centennial, many years ago, they invited, as their keynote speaker, my father [John Kenneth Galbraith]. The leading economists of the Austrian school—including von Hayek and von Haberler—returned for the occasion. And so my father took a moment to reflect on the economic triumphs of the Austrian Republic since the war, which, he said, “would not have been possible without the contribution of these men.” They nodded—briefly—until it dawned on them what he meant. They’d all left the country in the 1930s.

My own economics is American: genus Institutionalist; species: Galbraithian.

This is a panel on the crisis. Mr. Moderator, you ask what is the root cause? My reply is in three parts. (below the fold)

First, an idea. The idea that capitalism, for all its considerable virtues, is inherently self-stabilizing, that government and private business are adversaries rather than partners; the idea that freedom without responsibility is a viable business principle; the idea that regulation, in financial matters especially, can be dispensed with. We tried it, and we see the result.

Second, a person. It would not be right to blame any single person for these events, but if I had to choose one to name it would be a Texan, our own distinguished former Senator Phil Gramm. I’d cite specifically the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act—the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act—in 1999, after which it took less than a decade to reproduce all the pathologies that Glass-Steagall had been enacted to deal with in 1933. I’d also cite the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, slipped into an 11,000-page appropriations bill in December 2000 as Congress was adjourning following Bush v. Gore. This measure deregulated energy futures trading, enabling Enron and legitimating credit-default swaps, and creating a massive vector for the transmission of financial risk throughout the global system. When the Washington Post caught up with me at an airport in Parkersburg, West Virginia, a year ago to ask for a comment on Gramm’s role, I said very quickly that he was “the sorcerer’s apprentice of financial instability and disaster.” They put that on the front page. I do have to give Gramm some credit: When the Post called him up and read that to him, he said, “I deny it.”

Third, a policy. This was the abandonment of state responsibility for financial regulation: the regulation of mortgage originations, of underwriting, and of securitization. This abandonment was not subtle: The first head of the Office of Thrift Supervision in the George W. Bush administration came to a press conference on one occasion with a stack of copies of the Federal Register and a chainsaw. A chainsaw. The message was clear. And it led to the explosion of liars’ loans, neutron loans (which destroy people but leave buildings intact), and toxic waste. That these were terms of art in finance tells you what you need to know.