Political bubbles

The Adelman biography of Albert Hirschman,

, is great but too big to carry around so I’m reading it at home, and on the tube I’m readingĀ 
by Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, & have almost finished.

[amazon_image id=”0691145016″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Political Bubbles: Financial Crises and the Failure of American Democracy[/amazon_image]

It’s long been my view that history is over-determined, looked at from today (under-determined of course, if you’re trying to predict events.) These three political scientists have another causal explanation to add to the list of explanatory factors for the Great Crash of 2008. As well as greed and fraud, toxic financial innovation, global imbalances, fiscal irresponsibility, gigantism in banking and all the other contributors, there is the political dimension.

The charge is that a combination of three political factors created the conditions for all those other contributors to financial meltdown to develop. The first is ideology, the pure belief that markets are good and government regulation bad; the second is the array of special interests hoping for an endless boom, especially in housing – the lenders, the realtors, the people getting cheap loans; the third is the American institutional framework, expressly designed to stop things happening rapidly, in the context of ultra-rapid developments in financial markets. The three interact in a pro-cyclical way, the book argues, hence the terminology of the ‘political bubble’.

Nobody in the political elite, on the executive or the legislative side, comes out of this book well. The authors even trace some of the rot as far back as the now-saintly-seeming Jimmy Carter – after all, the savings and loan debacle of the early 1980s had its root in his presidency. The book is equally scathing about the ideologically free market Republicans, Reagan and the two Bushes, and the differently ideologically free market economics team of the Bill Clinton years.

The focus is solely on the United States. This means there is more political detail than many non-American readers will either want or be fully able to interpret.

With that caveat, I found the argument persuasive. After all, there are plenty of other mature democracies that have experienced that combination of housing bubbles, Franken-finance, and political incapacity. The US financial markets have also hugely influenced global markets. It would be interesting to work through the same kind of argument in other countries. One might even add another layer of political sclerosis in the international context, adding a fourth ‘i’ for ‘international incompetence’ to the three ‘i’s making up the book’s hypothesis.