Explaining the persistence of zombie ideas

As Paul Krugman notes in a piece where my book, Zombie Economics gets a nice plug

Free-market fundamentalists have been wrong about everything — yet they now dominate the political scene more thoroughly than ever.

Why have the zombie ideas that caused the global financial crisis been so rapidly re-animated.

I think there are quite a few different things going on here. I’ll talk about some, and maybe add some more as the post develops

On the US right (and among its Australian offshoots) there’s a familiar pattern of argument by talking point, with the objective being to score a win for the team, rather than to establish truth. The right wing retreat from reality has been going on for a while, but it really got into full swing with the Iraq War (remember Good News from Iraq?), and totally lost contact with the real universe over climate change. So, swallowing and regurgitating the suggestion that an obscure piece of anti-redlining legislation (the Community Reinvestment Act) forced the great Wall Street Investment bank to buy trillions of dollars of dodgy derivatives is (as you might say) a piece of cake.

Then there is the general pattern of thinking summed up by the catchphrase “no pain no gain”. That’s bad advice in sports training, in medicine (where it gave rise to such disasters as leeches and cupping) and it’s just as bad as a guide to economic policy. Sometimes, it’s true, the policies needed to fix an economic problem involve a fair amount of pain. But that doesn’t mean that painful policies are generally helpful.

Finally, for the moment, there’s the obvious class interest of the financial sector in directing the rage of the Tea Partiers and similar away from them and their rapidly regenerating bonuses.

39 thoughts on “Explaining the persistence of zombie ideas

  1. Ah, “class interest”. That’s a phrase Krugman seems to find himself unable to utter, or even integrate into his classic liberal worldview. Time and again he seems to be on the point of bringing in a more thoroughgoing post-Keynesian analysis of the economic role of social power (Kalecki, Robinson, Sraffa, Galbraith per et fils, et al), only to veer away from it.

    Take the start of his article: “When historians look back at 2008-10, what will puzzle them most, I believe, is the strange triumph of failed ideas.”

    I don’t think that historians will be at all puzzled. Certain ideas, true or false, advance the interests of the ruling class, which in America at the moment is the Ponzi kleptocracy. Those ideas are the ones that get pushed to the forefront, end of story. Perhaps with the exception of Bretton Woods’ adoption of Keynesianism (though of course it suited FDR, Attlee and Curtin very well) the ideas and economics debate is the window dressing of history, not the engine.

    At the risk of committing a Godwin, Krugman makes me think of a biologist in 1930s Germany earnestly demonstrating that there is in fact no substantive biological or psychological difference between Jews and Germans, and hoping that now he’s demonstrated it, the Nazis will go away.

  2. One reason zombie ideas persist is the question of modernity. The US rights retreat from reality, is actuality about the need to retreat from modernity. Hence the the attraction to classical economics and other strange ideas.

  3. In agreement. It irks me to no end how so many “conservative” economic arguments and of course all the Austrian school Libertarian talking points so desperately want the fault to lie completely with the nearly non-existent government intervention in financial markets. I think that illusion is allowed to continue because of a massive lack of understanding of the amplification mechanisms of the under-the-radar complex financial instruments; specifically a lack of understanding of the relative magnitudes. The housing bubble on its own was an asset bubble on the order of billions, tens of billions at best. JP Morgan alone held 25 TRILLION dollars in off-balance sheet derivatives (mostly CDS, I believe), and that was only one of many players repackaging and obscuring risk and ultimately keeping it within the system. Investors were not apprised of these investments, and the best they could hope for was an intentionally opaque footnote disclosure. The financial lobbyists, of course, argued and convinced regulators that “efficient markets” would correctly price in that information no matter where it showed up. I have to believe its a lack of understanding of these kinds of details that allow conservatives and libertarians to convince themselves that the CRA was the main culprit in the 08 crash. And this is not to scratch the surface so many more nuanced and complicated facts about the incentive structure of the corporate world of banking, finance, accounting, credit rating, etc. It pains me to read Austrians praise themselves as so clever while they never show they possess the slightest notion of the complexity and size of the financial system.

  4. Its the ratchet effect of governments that so many zombie ideas get embedded into models, procedures, paperwork, measurement criterias and spin…eventually when governments keep getting rolled at the elections… they might just slowly change the zombie mindset. Academic criticism of zombie ideas (thanks to academics like the Prof happens long before the government changes. The latter are a bit..or a lot… slower.).

  5. If zombie ideas are wrong, then they will be wrong in practice.

    However, if the wrongs in practice can be covered-up in at least one segment of the globe (the OECD) irrespective of the damage done to the rest of the poverty stricken world, then OECD people will espouse zombie ideas.

    The wrongs of zombie ideas have (since WWII) been covered up by increasing percapita debt, increasing population, and more recently, cuts in the factor shares going to labour.

    Obviously all this must come to an end eventually.

  6. Pr Q said:

    So, swallowing and regurgitating the suggestion that an obscure piece of anti-redlining legislation (the Community Reinvestment Act) forced the great Wall Street Investment bank to buy trillions of dollars of dodgy derivatives is (as you might say) a piece of cake.

    Here we go again. If you want to prove that your opponents are delusional or irrational its not a good idea to flout facts or at least ignore inconvenient truths for one’s own ideological position.

    Pr Q keeps demolishing strawmen or at least misdirecting on the crucial issue of the role of government regulation of housing finance in the US’s experience of the GFC. During the noughties the US government made a concerted attempt to drive up the home ownership rates and housing values of low-income minority groups, esp Hispanics. This was a bi-partisan effort, so it suits both REPs and DEMs debate the CRA, since it takes the heat off the REP Bush administration and the DEMs various low-income housing initiatives.

    The facts are that in 2002 the Bush White House encouraged the GSE’s (Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac) to massively move into buing housing securities in order to promote minority home ownership. He wanted to pump up the economy in such a way as to both bribe Hispanics into becoming REP voters and gift his Wall Street donors. And it worked for a while, as evidenced by his 2004 election victory which I predicted he would win due to the bullish bubble.

    The CRA was only a model for Bush. It is a formal piece of legislation aimed at formal banks. But the Bush White House was much more implicated in informal regulation of “shadow banks” like Washington Mutual and Country Wide. Thats where the Big Money played fast and loose.

    These shadow banks made multi-trillion dollar “CRA commitments”, encouraged by financial carrots rather than regulatory sticks. But the effect was just the same, which was to create an unusustainable bubble in the weakest part of the owner-occupied market. Which then spilled over into residential and commercial investment property.

    The location of the financial fall-out concludes the audit trail of destruction. The GSE’s had the wost load of toxic debt – over a quarter of a trillion dollars, the main part of TARP that has not been repaid. And the worst hit state was California (about half of all mortgage delinquencies) which is also the highest minority state.

    The Left’s response to this counter-narrative has been inadequate at best and at worst panicky and pathetic. Krugman has darkened acres of newsprint in trying to kill Rajan’s critique but he just keeps getting beaten like a drum. Rajan is a somewhat Left-of-centre Indian economist who is unlikely candidate as a “racist liar” (Pr Q’s standard characterisation of the proponents of the sub-prime theory).

    I would be the first to insist that financial institutions running amok was the primary underlying cause of the GFC. But it was triggered first and foremost in the US, in particular in the lower-end of the US housing market. Once that domino fell there was not much one could do about the rest.

  7. ‘Why have the zombie ideas that caused the global financial crisis been so rapidly re-animated’

    For the same reasons the zombie ideas (and the actions they licensed) that caused 911 were ramped up rather than down in the aftermath, and the worst knaves and fools were handed gongs and laurels rather than prison sentences. For the same reasons the US govt is wasting much of the nation’s patrimony so that the top military brass may continue to be mired in outdated 3rd generation warfare strategy while being regularly outflanked by global guerillas. For the same reasons Israel after Lebanon did Gaza, and after Gaza did Marmara, or indeed for the same reasons the US continues to provide cover for these regular outrages.

    Pride can be collective as well as individual and one major reason sense almost never prevails quickly is that whole ecologies of professional expertise are in danger of mass ridicule (or worse) if the new truths are allowed to take root. Those prides of financial, military and media lions act virtually as one in defence of the shibboleths that sustain them. Of course the argument that silly ideas persist because they preserve or extend the power of the already powerful is true, but so true as to be taken as read. Greed is always a component and sheer stupidity too is ever-present, but the collective self-esteem of classes of players should not be forgotten as a driver of behaviour.

  8. The most convincing account of the GFC so far has come from the pen of Rajan who has comprehensively rebutted Krugman on the role of the GSE’s. Rajan, far from being a “racist liar” or delusionist is a vaguely Left-of-Centre Indian economist who correctly predicted the way the housing bubble would cause the GFC, chapter and verse, at least two years prior to its full incidence. His predictions were superior to those of the Keynsians, Nouribini, Schiller, Krugman and Quiggin.

    Why Is Paul Krugman Blaming Foreigners for the Financial Crisis?

    Mr. Rajan Was Unpopular (But Prescient) at Greenspan Party

  9. The CRA did not directly cause the GFC, only a disingenuous fool would make such a case. Its disturbing that the Keynsian Left is concentrating on the weakest part of the Right-wing critique.
    But CRA was part of an array of housing finance programs and policies that was ramped up by the Bush administration in an effort to both stimulate the economy and win over the Hispanic vote (it succeeded in doing both by 2004 election). These programs and polices essentially went from the White House to Wall Street through the crucial conduit of the GSEs.

    Rajan (and I FWIW) are not saying that CRA was a direct instrument of regulation. The process was indirect and therefore does not have a satisfying “gotcha” moment. Crucially, the CRA legislation worked to regulate “shadow banks” by making CRA committments to low income loans conditional on approval for mergers and acquisitions.

    I wish for once that Pr Q could engage the substance of Rajan’s analysis without going off in a tangent in pursuit of straw men.

    Three Ways The CRA Pushed Countrywide To Lower Lending Standards

    Countrywide Expands Commitment to $1 Trillion in Home Loans to Minority and Lower-Income Borrowers

    September 19, 2005 NCRC Documents Trillions of CRA Dollars in Communities since 1977; CRA Commitments: 1977-2005

  10. The American Right has lost contact with reality. About 90% of Americans are right wing. Ergo, about 90% of Americans have lost contact with reality. They live in a false reality created by their 20th C power. However, they are living in the past. They do not perceive that their power is crumbling on all fronts.

    The 21st C will be a century of crumbling power all round. Russia is crumbling. China’s bubble will burst soon and then it will crumble too. India will never reach superpower status. There are not enough resources left to get them there.

    What this will mean in detail, I have no idea. The world will become very unstable and events very unpredictable. The one broad trend that is predictable is that the limits to growth will be reached soon and civilization will decline to a much smaller base.

    Perhaps the biggest zombie idea of all is to deny there are limits to growth.

  11. Jack has a few things wrong.

    Randall Kroszner says ‘Some critics of the CRA contend that by encouraging banking institutions to help meet the credit needs of lower-income borrowers and areas, the law pushed banking institutions to undertake high-risk mortgage lending. We have not yet seen empirical evidence to support these claims, nor has it been our experience in implementing the law over the past 30 years that the CRA has contributed to the erosion of safe and sound lending practices. In the remainder of my remarks, I will discuss some of our experiences with the CRA’
    He also says ‘Over the years, the Federal Reserve has prepared two reports for the Congress that provide information on the performance of lending to lower-income borrowers or neighborhoods–populations that are the focus of the CRA.3 These studies found that lending to lower-income individuals and communities has been nearly as profitable and performed similarly to other types of lending done by CRA-covered institutions. Thus, the long-term evidence shows that the CRA has not pushed banks into extending loans that perform out of line with their traditional businesses. Rather, the law has encouraged banks to be aware of lending opportunities in all segments of their local communities as well as to learn how to undertake such lending in a safe and sound manner.’

    He says it here

    Moreover 80% of sub-prime loans expired in 30 months in other words they had to be perpetually refinanced. 75%+ of sub-prime loans had a prepayment penalty.
    on the contrary CRA loans were a solid longer-term mortgage.

    In Massachusetts 60% of sub-prime loans were originated in prime mortgages. Thus a large part of sub-prime loans were prime loans that were collapsing.

    I am a little disappointed Jack uses John Carney’s article which was demolished long ago.
    The Fed and most Regional Feds have examined the CRA ‘link’ to death and found none.

    The GSE’s are not blameless however whilst the worst of the loans were being given they were losing market share by the bucket loads.

    you can do a lot better Jack

  12. @Jack Strocchi
    If as you say “The Left’s response to this counter-narrative has been inadequate at best and at worst panicky and pathetic.”

    Thats better than the right wing ideologies and the extremism they have gone to, which in fact caused the mess that now requires a counter narrative. Do I hear anything from the right that acheives this? No, far from it – they are up to their necks in denialism. Problem? What problem?… is all we are hearing from the now insane right. The lefts response may be disjointed but at least they arent wallowing in pointing the blame at everything but the real cause – the zombie models of their own creation (no matter which fool governments – left or right – ran with their ball later).

  13. I think the process is more like gamblers who keep believing they’ll make back their losses as long as they stick to ‘the system’. The more they lose the more they cling to ‘the system’ because otherwise they’ll have to face a pretty nasty reality.

    Zombie economics has already blown it’s savings, sold the family silver and defaulted on it’s mortgage, but it’s just acquired a fresh pocket full of change from the local loan shark and this time it’s gonna work!!!

  14. So John rejects policies which are “no pain no gain” and endorses policies like that of the US who wants to cut the deficit and to do this they cut taxes AND increase spending. Genius… now I call liberal spending policies and ballooning budget deficits the biggest zombies of them all.

  15. @Rationalist
    So does that mean you finally agree to accept tax increases on the wealthy (or the undoing of the largesse handed to them as tax cuts over the last two decades) Ratio or would you prefer the reduction in government spending that you imply is needed to reduce the deficit should proceed as spending cuts on the poor, the unemployed and the sick?
    I think most people have now realised that the right advocates the selective and unequal rationing of both the pain and the gain.

  16. @Alice
    Sorry for the delay, I was basting my meat.

    I feel a general austerity is needed in the US, a lot of spending cuts, some tax increases, some loopholes to be closed. The size of the tax base should not grow as a % of GDP over its long run average therefore most of the legwork should be done with spending cuts.

    There is heaps of fat in both the Australian government and the US government budget. A lot of this fat can be cut. There are many tax loopholes in both Australia and the US however ultimately you need to get the size of government stable and capped as a % of GDP and then rationalise and adjust spending and taxing levers to get debt and deficit under control.

  17. Rationalist the IMF show that your remedies only work when the economy is going okay.
    If implemented now it would make the US worse as Keynes explained in 1937.

    Fiscal consolidation in Australia is well advanced. Just how much more would you like it.

    Ken Henry says
    to overcome the mineral boom by fiscal policy you would have to cut the total current level of government spending in Australia. As he says that is implausible.

  18. @Jeepers Creepers
    The US economy is growing and it is set to do quite well in 2011, GDP wise.

    Our fiscal consolidation is going along nicely indeed and there is no pressing reason to accelerate that through austerity. I am more concerned with tax and transfer churn in Australia.

  19. I am more concerned with tax and transfer churn in Australia.

    Churn is a relative non-issue compared to inequality, anti-democratic plutocracy, economic unsustainability and ecological destruction.

    In fact, churn can be part of very efficient economy.

  20. @Rationalist

    I am more concerned with tax and transfer churn in Australia.

    This is an utterly trivial issue. The transaction costs are well worth the abatement of the very serious externalities involved in persiting with the current TotC.

  21. PrQ said:

    Sometimes, it’s true, the policies needed to fix an economic problem involve a fair amount of pain. But that doesn’t mean that painful policies are generally helpful.

    Indeed. The assertion of no pain no gain is at best a banality, and typically a kind of cum hoc fallacy, with its cultural roots in primitive asceticism. Even today, ritual self-flagellation is seen by some cults as purifying.

    That correcting poor situations sometimes entails accepting that losses have taken place, writing them off and doing extra work is beyond serious objection. On the other hand, this need not be so. Ending a practice which is wasteful and pernicious may entail no pain at all. Some may involve pain mainly for those who have acted unwisely and harmed others.

    There can be little doubt that a situation that adequately (but equitably) addressed the serious issue of escalating atmospheric CO2 would necessarily involve some economic sacrifices and pain being borne by those of modest means, especially in wealthy countries, but the bulk of it ought to fall upon those with very significant privileges.

    Equally, the kind of adjustment in the housing market that laid the basis for equity in housing would almost certainly involved pain for those with significant real property holdings, but very little pain for those at the bottom.

  22. I don’t think any of those [inequality, anti-democratic plutocracy, economic unsustainability and ecological destruction] are a problem in Australia or the US.

    There is strong evidence that you are wrong . Here are 15 facts that contradict your assumption. Media consolidation in both countries is a challenge to democracies, especially given

    the United States Supreme Court has allowed corporations the ability to finance candidates in future elections with unlimited funds

    Similarly, given the ecological footprint of both nations, and the dramatic rise in extinction rates, there is strong evidence you are wrong on this point.

    And given dependence of both nations on an abundance of cheap oil combined with the passing of peak conventional oil , there is strong evidence that our economy is not sustainable and need rapid restructuring.

    Then we could start on climate change.

  23. Yes Fran, that’s what I don’t understand either,
    re “Ending a practice which is wastful and pernicious may entail no pain at all”.
    From 2007 on everything the political centre in power has been done, usually in the face of public objections and common sense, has been “Zombie”. Obama offshore, the likes of Bligh, Costa, Kenneally and co, back home.
    The paradigm for the new age is best articulated through the pithy Rowson Guardian cartoons satirising the vile new Cameron government in Britain, feral inheritors of the centre’s weakness and scavengers of the resulting carcass.

  24. Pr Q deletes @ #10

    That’s enough from you on GSEs/CRA from you, thanks, Jack. Anything more will be deleted. Please, no further responses to Jack on this.

    Fine and fair enough. I have let my bee buzz in this bonnet enough for now.

    But can I make a constructive suggestion? That someone somewhere sets up a blog debate on this critical topic where proponents of these alternative views go head-to-head.

    Krugman and Rajan have already had a crack at it but obviously the ideological counterparties are not satisfied.

    Maybe those “someones” should be Pr Q and (if I may be so bold) me and maybe that “someplace” should be here. But in any case the problem is still unresolved, as indicated by the alternative REP report on the GFC.

    If you want to slay the zombies you must attack their citadel.

  25. Jeepers Creepers @ #29 said:

    Jack, this and this earlier by Mark Thoma contradict your argument.

    The blogmaster has prohibited any further debate on this issue on this thread, by me and my disputants. No doubt someone, somewhere, sometime will put the various disputants into one forum for a last-man standing cage match.

    May the best blogger win.

  26. @Rationalist

    Re Government debts (particularly in the US)

    Here is the first target for any fiscal changes if you are worried about government debt (when they are closing schools and not paying their bills, teachers wages and cant put fuel in policemans cars – something needs to happen differently). These millionaires say so themselves. We have been living a class war according to Warren Buffet and he states “my class started it. I am a conscientious objector.”


    They dont mind sharing the pain.

  27. #32 – in the Murdoch press you would be silenced by never having your comments published. There is plenty of opportunity Jack to start your own blog and argue the case there. Those in control of the blog have the absolute right to decide what is debated.

    The Zombie economics ideas appear to have life because those in power – including the media are seemingly only interested in the short term and the individual. Therefore if an individual can make hay while the sun shines then it doesn’t matter to that individual if when it rains others have to pay excessive amounts for hay as the individual will be wealthy. It is not their concern, if as a result many animals die and there is a resultant food shortage; after all they will still be able to buy food even at high prices.

    This is where the cult of the individual and the capitalist idea of choice comes unstuck. Socialism as an idea is portrayed as an evil and yet at least presents an idea that the good of all may involve pain for some for the greater good. Unfortunately that pain is likely to be felt by those making the decision, their friends or families and there is a definite lack of altuism as Dick Smith has pointed out this week. Long term it may result in worse outcomes but these are unknown. For instance, there are many historians who argue that the outcomes of WW1 directly contributed to WW2.

    In a place like Australia where people are required to attend a polling station the impacts of wealth are felt through media manipulation of information and the like. However where voting is voluntary the rich and powerful are far more likely to vote and their views therefore are far stronger in setting the policy.

    The number of times a point of view is put forward becomes critical to belief. If a powerful press puts forward views which lack evidence but are strong on belief then it is likely that people who don’t understand will take those beliefs as fact rather than look at the evidence – especially if their literacy and education levels are low.

  28. Jack

    I know your opportunity to comment further on this subject is limited however when assigning blame for the conditions leading to the GFC I think you need to consider the necessary conditions for the housing boom.

    In my opinion the existence of the GSEs and their implied guarantee was not a necessary condition whereas ultra-easy monetary policy was. So I Would lay the blame for the boom and bust cycle squarely at the feet of the Fed (with dishonorable mentions to a number of foreign central banks). The distortionary effects of the GSEs played very much a supporting role.


    I know it is your blog and you have every right to set the rules however putting a brake on Jack’s ability to respond to others’ comments really does limit debate. While I don’t agree with him I find Jack’s comments quite reasonable.

  29. John

    I’m quite happy to debate Jack on another thread. As I’m sure other commenters are.

    I think Krugman is wrong however in absolving the Fed and Co from fuelling the credit boom.

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