DRI-179 for week of 5-3-15: Why Economics is Inseparable From Individual Responsibility

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

 Why Economics is Inseparable From Individual Responsibility

Many people know that the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, wrote An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776. Few today realize that his most famous prior work was The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1754. In Smith’s day, the conjunction of economics and moral philosophy was accepted, even taken for granted. Now economists are viewed as social scientists rather than philosophers, let alone moralists. Yet some of the most penetrating recent books and policy debates have revealed the economic underpinnings of genuine morality, rooted in the concept of individual responsibility.

Of all moral principles, individual responsibility may have been taken the worst beating at the hands of the 20th century. The chief abuser was Sigmund Freud, founder of the modern school of psychology and the profession of psychiatry. The book Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality is primarily an expose of the harm wrought by Freud and his descendants. The author, Theodore Dalrymple, is a psychiatrist who has viewed the profession from the inside as a former prison doctor and psychiatrist in private practice. (“Dalrymple” is the pen name for Englishman Anthony Daniels, but to avoid confusion we follow the author’s convention in this article.) He wonders whether “Mankind…would…be the loser or the gainer… if all the anti-depressants and anxiolytics… were thrown into the sea… all textbooks of psychology were withdrawn and pulped” and “all psychologists ceased to practice.” He is in doubt despite the “modest contributions to the alleviation of suffering” by some areas of clinical psychological practice. This implies that the harm done by psychology must be both significant and ongoing.

The maxim “It takes one to know one” was never better illustrated than by Dalrymple. His only drawback is occupational tunnel vision; he gives short shrift to economic logic as the motive force behind the failure of psychology.

Freudian Fraud

Sigmund Freud, born in 1883 in Vienna, Austria, underwent conventional medical education and training in neurology. Based on his interviews of patients, he founded the study of psychoanalysis. The fundamental principle of psychoanalysis is that the analyst possesses certain a priori truths about the patient’s mental makeup that establish a hierarchical relationship between the two. The analyst should enjoy a position of dominance, which the patient will inevitably resist. Only submission will enable the analyst to unlock the complexes and neuroses that plague the patient. These afflictions are the result of result of sexual pressures emerging in early childhood, including the male Oedipus complex and female penis envy. Patients are powerless to perceive and grapple with these primal forces; only psychoanalysis can bring them to the surface and resolve their conflicts.

Does it occur to you to wonder how the psychoanalyst himself became immune to these primal forces, hence worthy of the dominant analyst’s role? Well, the analyst himself supposedly had his own analyst, but the infinite regression involved in this issue was one of many logical problems never resolved in Freudian theory.

The term “psychology” derives from the ancient word “psyche,” used to denote human consciousness. Freud divided the human psyche into three parts: the ego, or conscious mind that allows us to interact with reality; the id, or unconscious; and the superego, the way station between id and ego and repository of societal and parental norms that control our behavior.

The first half of the 20th century elevated Freud to the status of cultural hero and icon. In the second half, rigorous study of his career, methods and techniques left Freudian theory in tatters. Freud based his theories on a combination of empirical generalization from his case histories and speculative conjecture. Many a successful scientific theory has been built on less, but in Freud’s case the result was a mess. Freud’s case histories were published using pseudonyms, a commendable attempt to protect the personal privacy of his subjects. This delayed their investigation and study. Eventually, it became clear that they had little or no scientific validity because their results were not measurable, they could not be replicated and they did not seem to be robust. Freud’s famous concepts – id, ego, superego, Oedipus complex and penis envy – have all been dropped from the lexicon of modern psychiatry.

Indeed, psychiatric practice today owes almost nothing to Freudian method. It is divided between the biological practitioners and the behaviorists. The biologicals treat “mental illness” completely differently than Freud did. Instead of viewing it as a unique phenomenon of the psyche, they see it as simply another branch of modern medicine. Conditions like schizophrenia and manic depression (now called bipolar condition) are recognized as physical illnesses caused by chemical imbalances within the brain; they are treated with prescription medicines. This reinforces the logic of training psychiatrists as medical doctors rather than wizards of the psyche. Behaviorists talk with patients about their problems and help them cope with those problems – in this they bear a superficial resemblance to psychoanalysts. But there is no hierarchical relationship and no a priori theory about the origin of those problems. Moreover, behaviorists must be on the lookout for psychological problems with a biological source.

Where does psychoanalysis fit into this modern paradigm? It doesn’t. Maybe we should call psychoanalysts as an endangered species – but there isn’t much impetus to preserve the species. Psychology is a profit-motivated profession. If psychoanalysis were capable of curing patients by resolving their problems rather than merely relieving them of an overburdened wallet, it would be thriving today. Instead, psychoanalysis is facing extinction.

If the commission of pseudoscience were Freud’s only sin, he would have slipped quietly into obscurity by now. Alas, this is the least of Freud’s mistakes. Sigmund Freud’s legacy lives on in ways that Freud himself hardly intended and would not have approved.

The Unintended Consequences of Freudian Psychology

Among Freud’s contentions were that sexually restrictive social mores created neuroses and inhibitions that repressed natural human behavior. In his day, this made Freud a name as a libertine. This label was false, for Freud was sexually quite strait-laced and conventional. As Theodore Dalrymple acutely observes, the “profoundly subversive” element of Freudian theory was “that desire, if not fulfilled, will lead to pathology… [This] makes self-indulgence man’s highest goal. It is a kind of treason to the self, and possibly to others, to deny oneself anything” [emphasis added]. Dalrymple supplies a chilling example of this philosophy in action: “[Dalrymple] quotes one of his patients, a murderer: ‘I had to kill her, doctor, or I don’t know what I would have done.'”

The idea that customs, traditions and morality evolve because they have value – survival value and competitive value in fulfilling human desires – may not have occurred to Freud. It definitely did not occur to his many successors, who were determined to engineer human evolution according to a central plan. The effects have been the reverse of those intended. Throughout the 20th century, Freudian psychology has walked side by side with Marxian philosophy and economics. Yet by encouraging people to shrug off the so-called “repression” of self that motivates respect for the rights and sensitivities of others, Freudianism has been the enabler of the self-absorption so often decried by critics of capitalist materialism.

Behaviorism

The heir to Freudian psychology is the behaviorism of B.F. Skinner and his disciples. Here, Dalrymple deplores the behaviorist tendency to categorize every complaint as a “disorder,” subject to psychiatric eradication by behavior modification. “No statement that a psychiatric disturbance has such-and-such a prevalence in such-and-such a population should be taken at face value, especially when it is a plea, as it so often is, explicit or implicit as the case may be, for more resources to treat it, the supposed prevalence having risen shockingly in the last few years.”

Dalrymple is not merely questioning the statistical validity of this technique – although that is sufficient justification for the warning, since the bogus use of statistics has been biggest scandal of the last two decades in both the social sciences and the natural sciences. He is also further extending the Heisenberg principle that by investigating a phenomenon the scientist is also altering its course. “It is not merely that epidemiological searchers in this field can find what they are looking for; it is that they can provoke what they are looking for.” This principle cannot be stressed too strongly.

The social-welfare establishment has identified dozens of conditions requiring treatment. This treatment requires money and the existence of a bureaucratic establishment to provide, fund and supervise it. That establishment provides a living for many people. The “victims” of the conditions get real income in various forms: money, medical treatment and certified “victim” status as addicts or whatever the jargon term is for their condition.

And the victims also get a certified excuse for their misbehavior.

This is a form of real income that cannot be underestimated. Whereas in pre-psychology days, the victims were ostracized or otherwise discouraged from engaging in the behavior, now they are encouraged in it by the various subsidies provided. While proponents of the “therapeutic state” may indignantly object that nobody wants to be sick, objective research strongly confirms the role of incentives in enabling bad behavior.

This whole system has become self-promoting and self-aggrandizing. “The expansion of psychiatric diagnoses leads paradoxically and simultaneously to overtreatment and undertreatment. The genuinely disturbed get short shrift; Those with chronic schizophrenia, which seems most likely to be a genuine pathological malfunction of the brain [e.g., not “mental illness” at all but physical illness of the brain], are left to molder in doorways, streets and stations of large cities, while untold millions have their fluctuating preoccupations attended to with the kind of attention that an overconcerned mother gives her spoiled child with more or less the same results.”

The genuinely ill get less treatment because, being less able to earn income, they get less attention. The pseudo-ill are more able to command attention and show better “results” with less effort; therefore, they are easier and more satisfactory to “treat.”

Psychology is able to create the demand for its services by creating pseudo-illness. It does so, argues Mona Charen in her book review of Dalrymple in National Review, by “creating one excuse after another for bad behavior – our terrible childhoods, our genes, our neurotransmitters, our addictions. In each case, and often with extremely unscientific reasoning, we are offered absolution. None of us is really responsible for our behavior. The whole psychological enterprise, Dalrymple argues, has had the effect of excusing poor choices and bad character. ‘Virtue is not manifested in one’s behavior, always so difficult and tedious to control, but in one’s attitude to victims'”[emphasis added].

This book may have opened our eyes to the 20th century. But it was written by a psychiatrist. How does economics come into it?

The Economics of Individual (Ir-) Responsibility 

In both classical and neoclassic economics, the unit of analysis is the individual human being. (For immediate purposes, the separation between “classical” and “neoclassical” will be taken as the “Marginal Revolution” in the theory of consumer demand beginning roughly in the 1870s. This distinction is not important to what follows.) When the focus shifts to the theory of the firm, the unifying element is the assumption of profit maximization that directs the diverse strivings of the firm’s members toward a single goal.

Free markets are governed by the principle of mutually beneficial voluntary exchange. Mutual benefit provides the motivation to exchange voluntarily. There is a tacit presumption that each individual is responsible for his or her actions; that is, neither is liable for the actions of the other. This is entirely logical, since each one is the reigning expert on his or her wants, desires, shortcomings, plans and expectations. Neither can possibly know as much about the other as he or she knows about himself or herself. Thus, the concept of individual responsibility is an automatic byproduct of the philosophy of free markets.

No wonder, then, that Adam Smith trafficked in moral philosophy. The surprising thing is that somewhere along the way this got lost in the transition of economists to men in white coats peddling business forecasts of future growth rates of GDP and interest rates.

Contrast the relationship between human beings engaging in free trade and that between analyst and patient in today’s “therapeutic state.” The patient has a problem. No surprise there, since all of us do virtually all the time. The patient has an incentive to view this problem as beyond his control – if not a physical illness, then a neurosis, a complex, an addiction, a “sickness” of a metaphoric kind. The incentive is multi-pronged.

First, his lack of control relieves him of responsibility. He has no moral responsibility for having created, nurtured or tolerated it. Since he has no responsibility for it, he need feel no guilt over it.

Second, he now has a moral claim on the resources of others that did not previously exist. This claim is a form of real income that may become tangible if he can extract voluntary charity from them or involuntary payment in the form of government subsidies.

Third, his status as a moral claimant who suffers from a problem not of his own making makes him a victim. Victim status makes him a member of a recognized interest group. In addition to the possibility of extracting tangible real income via charity or government subsidies, he can also receive the psychic benefit that goes with public recognition as a member of a victim class.

Now shift attention to the analyst, whose incentives run parallel with those of the patient. He has an incentive to identify the patient’s problem as either a physical sickness or a psychic “mental illness.” Either way, this identification immediately relieves him of any guilt that might otherwise attach to treating the patient. Now he is merely a doctor treating a sick patient. He need feel no guilt over that.

And once his doctor status is secure, the analyst has no qualms about filing an intellectual lien on the assets of the public, either by appealing to their charitable sympathies of to their legal responsibilities as citizens and taxpayers.

Victims require saving. Saving requires saviors. Saviors are heroic figures. Thus, analysts earn psychic benefits from assuming heroic public status, just as patients gain psychic benefits from assuming victim status.

When two groups of people have so much to gain from pursuing a congruent sequence of activities, what does economic logic say will happen? The “equimarginal principle” – the fundamental principle of economic optimization underlying the theories of consumer demand, the firm and input supply – says that as long as the marginal benefit of an activity exceeds its marginal cost, economic actors will increase their pursuit of the activity. Indeed, if two non-competing groups find that their ends coincide, the groups may even collude, either openly or tacitly, to further those ends.

And that is just what has happened in mental health during the 20th century. Psychologists and patients have tacitly colluded to enlarge the “mental-health” establishment. That is what Theodore Dalrymple has had the temerity to point out in his politically incorrect book. Its political incorrectness is its outstanding virtue; its sole vice is its economic incorrectness. Where Dalrymple has made a literary-career specialty of telling unpopular and unpleasant truths about havoc wreaked by the pseudo-science of modern psychology, he has been unaccountably reticent in failing to disclose the economic logic underlying his position.

Why is it Important to Acknowledge the Role of Individual Responsibility in Economics?

In the most important excerpt quoted above, Dalrymple acknowledges that “the genuinely disturbed get short shrift.” These are people who suffer from psychoses formerly diagnosed as “mental illness” and treated with (utterly useless) psychotherapy. Thanks to the onetime heretics who refused to knuckle under to Freudian dogma, we now know that schizophrenia and manic depression (currently called bi-polar disorder) are neurochemical disorders of the brain. As is true with the most intractable physical disorders, we can offer only limited medical therapy for these conditions. But even this help is often denied to those who need it most.

Dalrymple rightly sees the outlines of the problem because he has spent a lifetime within the system as prison doctor and psychiatrist in private practice. As a resident of the U.K., he lived under Great Britain’s infamous National Health Service (NHS). He knows the workings of government the way a gulag prisoner knows the workings of a concentration camp. But it would be expecting too much to hope that a man who spent his life acquiring expertise in medicine and psychiatry and emerged alive from the toils of NHS should also be conversant with economic theory.

The reason for the denial of therapy to the “genuinely disturbed” is straightforward. The victims are unable to act as their own advocates. The treatment of so-called mental illness is plagued by a version of Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good money”), in which bad therapy drives out good therapy. The pseudo-victims are the squeaky wheels, greased by their own financial and political resources and the very fact that their lack of true illness yields better “results” from treatment. Because the treatment of mental illness is a jealously guarded prerogative of government and government budget-allocation is a jealously guarded prerogative of politicians, funds allocated to the treatment of the truly psychotic are a small slice of an already-small pie.

Individual responsibility is vital to the operation of civil society. It goes hand-in-hand with human freedom and free markets. But it breaks down in the rare – but real – cases where individuals are incapable of acting in their own behalf.

As things stand, government is the agency designated to act for those who cannot act for themselves. For example, children cannot enter into contracts for employment without the consent of their parents or guardian. Just to make sure that this position is not abused, children’s earnings are subject to protection by trusts. Child-welfare agencies also exist (ostensibly) to prevent other types of abuse. But when it comes to mental health, government is a walking, talking, breathing conflict of interest. Essentially, it is in the same conflicted position as the analyst because government is not a neutral party. It does not act for “the common good” because there is no “common good” – there are only diverse goods. This diversity can be reconciled only by a mechanism that allows relative value to be placed on each good so that the tradeoffs required by the reconciliation can be made efficiently and consistently. When government becomes the arbiter in a situation when its decision can produce more government, it always decides in favor of government intervention. (The only exception is when it is called upon to perform a true function of government, which would require a sacrifice of some other non-essential government activity – in which case it always chooses the non-essential over the essential.) Relying on government, with its built-in conflict of interest, is what got us in the fix we’re in.

When people cannot act in their own behalf, somebody must act for them. Their closest relatives or spouse are the first place to turn. When they cannot or will not act and government is disqualified, the only alternative is private charity.

Why has the word “charity” acquired a pejorative tinge? After all, research shows that Americans are very much inclined to support charitable causes. The problem is that too many Americans are still bewitched by the wish-fulfillment fantasy of government as problem-solver of first resort. Were government confined to its true functions, we would have the additional real income and discretion with which to solve the problems that government is now purporting – but failing – to solve.

As Dalrymple notes, the paradigm for any problem relating to health is to identify a “new” disorder, spread the alarm about its “epidemic” status and demand (what else?) government action at once, if not sooner. The good news about Dalrymple’s book is that the “problem” is vastly smaller than advertised. The bad news is that a real problem exists that is not being addressed and is immune to government action. In fact, the best thing would be to keep government away altogether. The worst news of all is that the attempt to solve the non-existent problem has created a worse one – the erosion of the irreplaceable concept of individual responsibility.

The key to sorting all this out is the economic logic underlying it all.

DRI-303 for week of 5-11-14: The Real ‘Stress Test’ is Still to Come

An Access Advertising EconBrief:

The Real ‘Stress Test’ is Still to Come

Timothy Geithner, former Treasury Secretary and former head of the New York Federal Reserve, is in the news. Like virtually every former policymaker, he has written a book about his experiences. He is currently flogging that book on the publicity circuit. Unlike many other such books, Geithner’s holds uncommon interest – not because he is a skillful writer or a keen analyst. Just the opposite.

Geithner is a man desperate to rationalize his past actions. Those actions have put us on a path to disaster. When that disaster strikes, we will be too stunned and too busy to think clearly about the past. Now is the time to view history coolly and rationally. We must see Geithner’s statements in their true light.

Power and the Need for Self-Justification

In his Wall Street Journal book review of Geithner’s book, Stress Test, James Freeman states that “Geithner makes a persuasive case that he is the man most responsible for the federal bailouts of 2008.” Mr. Freeman finds this claim surprising, but as we will see, it is integral to what Geithner sees as his legacy.

This issue of policy authorship is important to historians, whose job is getting the details right. But it is trivial to us. We want the policies to be right, regardless of their source. That is why we should be worried by Geithner’s need to secure his place in history.

Geithner and his colleagues, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, possessed powers whose exercise would have been unthinkable not that long ago. Nobody seems to have considered how the possession of such vast powers would distort their exercise.

Prior to assumption of the Federal Reserve Chairmanship, Ben Bernanke wrote his dissertation on the causes of the Great Depression. Later, his academic reputation was built on his assessment of mistakes committed by Fed Board members during the 1920s and 30s. When he joined the Board and became Chairman, he vowed not to repeat those mistakes. Thus, we should not have been surprised when he treated a financial crisis on his watch as though it were another Great Depression in the making. Bernanke was the living embodiment of the old saying, “Give a small boy a hammer and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” His academic training had given him a hammer and he proceeded to use it to pound the first crisis he met.

In an interview with “Bloomberg News,” Geithner used the phrase “Great Depression” three times. First, he likened the financial crisis of 2008 to the Great Depression, calling it “classic” and comparing it to the bank runs of the Great Depression. Later, he claimed that we had avoided another Great Depression by following his policies. For Geithner, the Great Depression isn’t so much an actual historical episode or an analytical benchmark as it is an emotional button he presses whenever he needs justification for his actions.

When we give vast power to individuals, we virtually guarantee that they will view events through the lens of their own ego rather than objectively. Bernanke was bound to view his decisions in this light: either apply principles he himself had espoused and built his career upon or run the risk of going down in history as exactly the kind of man he had made his name criticizing – the man who stood by and allowed the Great Depression to happen. Faced with those alternatives, policy activism was the inevitable choice.

Geithner had tremendous power in his advisory capacity as President of the New York Federal Reserve. His choices were: use it or not. Not using it ran the risk of being Hooverized by future generations; that is, being labeled as unwitting, uncaring or worse. Using it at least showed that he cared, even if he failed. The only people who would criticize him would be some far-out, laissez-faire types. Thus, he had everything to gain and little to lose by advising policy activism.

Now, after the fact, the incentive to seek the truth is even weaker than it is in the moment. Now Bernanke, Geithner et al are stuck with their decisions. They cannot change their actions, but they can change anything else – their motivations, those of others, even the truths of history and analysis. If they can achieve by lying or dissembling what they could not achieve with their actions at the time, then dishonesty is a small price to pay. Being honest with yourself can be difficult under the best of circumstances. When somebody is on the borderline between being considered the nation’s savior and its scourge, it is well-nigh impossible.

And a person who begins by lying to himself cannot end up being truthful with the world. No, memoirs like Stress Test are not the place to look for a documentary account of the financial crisis told by an insider. The pressures of power do not shape men like Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner into diamonds, but rather into gargoyles.

We cannot take their words at face value. We must put them under the fluoroscope.

“We Were Three Days Away From Americans Not Being Able to Get Money from ATMs”

Not only are Geithner’s actions under scrutiny, but his timing is also criticized. Many people, perhaps most prominently David Stockman, have insisted that the actual situation faced by the U.S. economy wasn’t nearly dire enough to justify the drastic actions urged by Geithner, et al.

Geithner’s stock reply, found in his book and repeated in numerous interviews, is that the emergency facing the nation left no time for observance of legal niceties or economic precedent. He resuscitates the old quote: “We were three days away from Americans not being able to get money from their ATMs.”

There is an effective reply because its psychological shock value tends to stun the listener into submission. But meek silence is the wrong posture with which to receive a response like this from a self-interested party like Paulson, Bernanke or Geithner. Instead, it demands minute examination.

First, ask ourselves this: Is this a figure of speech or literal truth? That is, what precise significance attaches to the words “three days?”

Recall that Bernanke and Paulson have told us that they realized the magnitude of the emergency facing the country and determined that they must (a) violate protocol by going directly to Congress; and (b) act in secret to prevent public panic. Remember also that Paulson told Congress that if they did not pass bailout legislation by the weekend, Armageddon would ensue. And remember also that, typically, Congress did not act within the deadline specified. It waited  ten days before passing the bailout deal. And the prophesied disaster did not unfold.

In other words, Paulson, Bernanke, et al were exaggerating for effect. How much they were exaggerating can be debated.

That leads to the next logical point. What about the ATM reference itself? Was it specific, meaningful? Or was it just hooey? To paraphrase the line used in courtroom interrogation by litigators (“Are you lying now or were you lying then?”), is Geithner exaggerating now just as Paulson and Bernanke exaggerated then?

Well, Geithner is apparently serious in using this reference. In the same interviews, Geithner calls the financial crisis “a classic financial panic, similar to the bank runs in the Great Depression.” In the 1930s, U.S. banks faced “runs” by depositors who withdrew deposits in cash when they questioned the solvency of banks. Under fractional-reserve banking, banks then (as now) kept only a tiny ratio of deposit liabilities on hand in the form of cash and liquid assets. The runs produced a rash of bank failures, leading to widespread closures and the eventual “bank holiday” proclaimed by newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So Geithner’s borrowing of the ATM comment as an index of our distress seems to be clearly intended to suggest an impending crisis of bank liquidity.

There is an obvious problem with this interpretation, the problem being that it is obvious nonsense. Virtually every commentator and reviewer has treated Geithner’s backwards predictions of a “Great Depression” with some throat-clearing version of “well, as we all know, we can’t know what would have happened, we’ll never know, we can’t replay history, history only happens once,” and so forth. But that clearly doesn’t apply to the ATM case. We know – as incontrovertibly as we can know anything in life – what would have happened had bank runs and bank illiquidity a la 1930s so much as threatened in 2008.

Somebody would have stepped to a computer at the Federal Reserve and started creating money. We know this because that’s exactly what did happen in 2010 when the Fed initiated its “Quantitative Easing” program of monetary increase. The overwhelming bulk of the QE money found its way to bank reserve accounts at the Fed where it has been quietly drawing interest ever since. We also know that the usual formalities and intermediaries involving money creation by the Fed could and would have been dispensed with in that sort of emergency. As Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke was known as “Helicopter Ben” because he was fond of quoting Milton Friedman’s remark that the Fed could get money in public hands by dropping it from helicopters in an emergency, if necessary. Bernanke would not have stood on ceremony in the case of a general bank run; he would have funneled money directly to banks by the speediest means.

In other words, the ATM comment was and is the purest hooey. It has no substantive significance or meaning. It was made, and revived by Geithner, for shock effect only. This is very revealing. It implies a man desperate to achieve his effect, which means his words should be received with utmost caution.

“The Paradox of Financial Crises”

Geithner’s flagship appearance on the promotion circuit was his op-ed in The Wall Street Journal (5/13/2014), “The Paradox of Financial Crises.” The thesis of this op-ed – the “paradox” of the title – is that “the more aggressive the government is in designing a rescue plan, the easier it is to force more restructuring in the financial sector, and the better the chances of leaving the surviving system stronger and less dependent on the taxpayer.” Alas, Geithner complains, “Americans don’t give their presidents much in the way of emergency authority to fight” financial crises. As evidence of the need for this emergency authority, Geithner cites the loss of 16% of U.S. household net worth in 2008, “several times as large as the losses at the start of the Great Depression.”

No doubt eyebrows were raised throughout the U.S. when Geithner bemoaned the lack of emergency authority for a President who has appointed dozens of economic and regulatory “czars,” single-handedly suspended execution of legislation and generally behaved high-handedly. Geithner’s thesis – a generous description of what might reasonably be called a desperate attempt at self-justification – apparently consists of three components: (1) the presumption that financial crises are uniquely powerful and destructive; (2) the claim that, nevertheless, a financial crisis can be counteracted by sufficiently forceful action, taken with sufficient dispatch; and (3) the further claim that he knows what actions to take.

The power of financial crises is a trendy idea given currency by a popular scholarly work by two economists named Rogoff and Reinhart, who surveyed recessions featuring financial panics going back several centuries and ostensibly discovered that their recoveries tended to be slow. How much merit their ideas have is really irrelevant to Geithner’s thesis because Geithner’s interest in financial crises is entirely opportunistic. It began in 2008 with Geithner’s improvisations when faced with the impending failure of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, et al. It perseveres only because Geithner’s legacy is now tied to the success of those machinations – which, unlikely as it might have seemed six years ago, is still in dispute.

Geithner’s theory of financial crises is not the Rogoff/Reinhart theory. It is the Geithner theory, which is: financial crises are uniquely powerful because Geithner needs them to be uniquely powerful in order to justify his unprecedented recommendations for unilateral executive actions. In his book and interviews, Geithner peddles various vague, vacuous generalities about financial crises. In order to these to make sense, they must be based on historical observation and/or statistical regularities. But they cannot jibe with the sentiments expressed above in the Journal. Geithner claims to be enunciating a general theory of financial crisis and rescue. But he is really telling a story of what he did to this particular financial system in the particular financial crisis of 2008.

And no wonder, since the financial system existing in the U.S. in 2008 was and still is like no financial system that existed previously. Instead of “banks” as we previously knew them, the failing financial institutions in 2008 were diversified financial institutions – nominally investment banks, although that activity had by then assumed a minor part of their work – some of whose liabilities would once have been called “near monies.” Meanwhile, the true banks were also diversified into securities and investment banking, and the larger ones controlled the overwhelming bulk of deposit liabilities in the U.S. This historically unprecedented configuration accounted for the determination of Paulson, Bernanke, and Geithner to bail them out at all costs. But they weren’t drawing upon a general theory of crises, because no previous society ever had a financial structure like ours.

Geithner stresses the need to “force more restructuring in the financial sector,” as though every financial crisis was caused by corporate elephantiasis and cured by astute government pruning back of financial firms. This is not only historically wrong but logically deficient, since the past government pruning couldn’t have been very astute if crises kept recurring. Indeed, that is the obvious shortcoming of the second component. There are no precedents – none, zero, nada – for the idea that government policy can either forestall or cure recessions, whether financial or otherwise. This is not for want of trying. If there is one thing governments love to do, it is spend money. If there is another thing governments love to do, it is throw their weight around. Neither has solved the problem of recession so far.

What leads us to believe that Timothy Geithner was and is well qualified to pronounce on the subject of financial crises? Only one thing – his claims that “we did do the essential thing, which was to prevent another Great Depression, with its decade of shantytowns and bread lines. We put out the financial fire…because we wanted to prevent mass unemployment.”

Incredible as it seems now, Timothy Geithner had even fewer economic credentials for his post as Chairman of the New York Federal Reserve than Ben Bernanke had for his as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Geithner had only one economics course as a Dartmouth undergraduate (he found it “dreary”). His master’s degree at John’s Hopkins was split between international economics and Far Eastern studies. (He speaks Japanese, among other foreign languages.) He put in a three-year stint as a consultant with Henry Kissinger’s consulting firm before graduating to the Treasury, where he spent 13 years before moving to the International Monetary Fund, then becoming Chairman of the New York Fed at age 42. As Freeman observed in his book review, Geithner “never worked in finance or in any type of business” save Kissinger’s consulting firm.

This isn’t exactly a resume of recommendation for a man taking the tiller during a financial typhoon. Maybe it explains what Freeman called Geithner’s “difficulty in understanding the health of large financial firms.”

When asked by interviewers if he had any regrets about his tenure, Geithner regrets not foreseeing the crisis in time to act sooner. This certainly contradicts his theory of crises and his claim of special knowledge – if he was the man with a plan and the man of the moment, why did he fail to foresee the crisis and have to go begging for emergency authorization for Presidential action at the 11th hour? Why should we now eagerly devour the words of a man who claims responsibility for saving the nation while simultaneously admitting that he “didn’t see the crisis coming and didn’t grasp the severity of the problems when it appeared?” He now boasts a special understanding of financial crises, but “didn’t require the banks he was overseeing to raise more capital” at the time of the crisis. In fact, as Freeman discloses, the minutes of the Federal Reserve show that Geithner denies that the banking system in general was undercapitalized even while other Fed governors were proposing that banks meet a capital call.

Geithner offers no particular reason why we should believe anything he says and ample reasons for doubt.

“The Government and the Central Bank Have to Step In and Take Risks”

Geithner’s book and publicity tour are a public-relations exercise designed to change his image. Ironically, this involves a tradeoff. He had image problems with both the right wing and the left wing, so gains on one side rate to lose him support on the other side. The Wall Street Journal piece shows that he wants to burnish his left profile. He closes by lamenting that “we were not able to do all that was important or desirable.  …Long-term unemployment remains alarmingly high. There are very high levels of poverty and appalling inequality, not just in income and wealth, but in the opportunities Americans have for a quality education or economic mobility.” Having spent the bulk of the op-ed apologizing for not allowing undeserving Wall Street bankers to go broke, he now nods frantically to every left-wing preoccupation. None of this has anything to do with a financial crisis or emergency authorizations or stress tests, of course – it is just Geithner stroking his left-wing critics.

The real sign that Geithner’s allegiance is with the left is his renunciation of the concept of “moral hazard.” Oh, he gives lip service to the fact that when the government bails out business and subsidizes failure, this will encourage subsequent businessmen to take excessive risks on a “heads I win, tails the government bails me out” expectation. But he savagely criticizes the moral hazard approach as “Old Testament” thinking. (The fact that “Old Testament” is now a pejorative is significant in itself; one wonders what significance “New Testament” would have.) “What one has to do in a panic is the opposite of what seems fair and just. In a financial crisis, the natural instinct is to let creditors suffer losses, let firms fail, and protect taxpayers from any risk of loss. But in a financial panic, a strategy based on those instincts will lead to depression-level unemployment. Instead, the government and the central bank have to step in and take risks on a scale that the private sector can’t and won’t… reduce the incentive for investors, lenders and depositors to run…raise the confidence of businesses and individuals… breaking a vicious cycle in which the fear of a financial-system collapse and a deep recession feed on each other and become self-fulfilling.”

This is surely the clearest sign that Geithner is engaging in ex post rationalization and improvisation. For centuries, economists have debated the question of whether recessions are real or monetary in origin and substance. Now Geithner emerges with the secret: they are psychological. Keynes, it seems, was the second-most momentous thinker of the 1930s, behind Sigmund Freud. All we have to do is overcome our “natural instinct” and rid ourselves of those awful “Old Testament” morals and bail out the right people – creditors – instead of the wrong people – taxpayers.

Once again, commentators have glossed over the most striking contradictions in this tale. For five years, we have listened ad nauseum to scathing denunciations of bankers, real-estate brokers, developers, investment bankers, house flippers and plain old home buyers who went wild and crazy, taking risks right and left with reckless abandon. But now Geithner is telling us that the problem is that “the private sector can’t and won’t …take risks on a scale” sufficient to save us from depression! So government and the central bank (!) must gird their loins, step in and do the job.

But this is a tale left unfinished.  Geithner says plainly that his actions saved us from a Great Depression. He also says that salvation occurred because government and the Fed assumed risks on a massive scale. What happened to those risks? Did they vanish somewhere in a puff of smoke or cloud of dust? If not, they must still be borne. And if the risks are still active, that means that we have not, after all, been saved from the Great Depression; it has merely been postponed.

It is not too hard to figure out what Geithner is saying between the lines. He wants to justify massive Federal Reserve purchases of toxic bank assets and the greatest splurge of money creation in U.S. history – without having to mention that these put us all on a hook where we remain to this day.

In this sense, Timothy Geithner’s book was well titled. Unfortunately, he omitted to mention that the most stressful test is yet to come.