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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Why do smart people do stupid things? (II)

An economist, of the modern variety, is a statistician…an extrapolator…and a mountebank. If numbers go up two months in a row, he predicts they will go up another one. He rarely stops to ask whether his numbers really make any sense. Instead, he merely adds them up and rolls them out. Thus - at the bubbly top in 2006 - he was he able to describe the likelihood of default on a certain derivative instrument as a “Six Sigma event” without laughing. A Six Sigma event happens once every 2,500,000 days. Then again, when the Bubble of 2002-2007 popped, they happened once a week.

The blogs are full of chatter on the subject. What good is the economics profession, asks Paul Samuelson, if it cannot foresee the biggest single economic event in at least a quarter-century?

Yet, those same economists - who had failed so miserably at diagnosis and prevention - they barely hesitated. Rather than spend months in drunken shame, contemplating their own incompetence, and wondering what a bubble really is, they denied the wild bubble side of life altogether…and tried their hands at prescription. President Obama’s economics advisors went to Congress last autumn to predict that without the stimulus measure joblessness in the United States could rise to 8%! Bernanke made it seem that if the bill wasn’t passed that day, the economy may cease to exist all together. How he could know the future, when he demonstrably knew so little about the recent past, was a mystery. Still, the politicians responded by enacting the biggest bank bailout boondoggle in history.

What would have happened had the legislators failed to jump when economists threw them a bone? We don’t know. But we know what happened after the stimulus measures were passed - they failed to stimulate. The employment numbers for June showed that economists had misjudged both the direction and the speed of the oncoming bus. Instead of shifting down, the rate of job losses increased to 9.5% in the United States. Instead of going forward, the economy was backing up!

Do these setbacks cause economists to stop and wonder if their theories are bogus and their numbers are nonsense? Nope, they do what McNamara did. They turn up the heat. They propose to spend more money they don’t have on more programs that don’t work. Predictably, Obama advisor Laura Tyson now suggests that the stimulus thus far is “too small.” Other economists too are talking about a “son of stimulus,” that will offer even more credit to the debt-saturated consumer. Only trouble is, neither consumers, businesses nor banks cooperate. Despite trillions in cash and credit to the financial system, lending is still going down.
-- from Bubble Deniers by Bill Bonner

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