Eric Posner & Glen Weyl on Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society

Radical MarketsMany blame today’s economic inequality, stagnation, and political instability on the free market. The solution is to rein in the market, right? Radical Markets turns this thinking—and pretty much all conventional thinking about markets, both for and against—on its head. The book reveals bold new ways to organize markets for the good of everyone. It shows how the emancipatory force of genuinely open, free, and competitive markets can reawaken the dormant nineteenth-century spirit of liberal reform and lead to greater equality, prosperity, and cooperation. Only by radically expanding the scope of markets can we reduce inequality, restore robust economic growth, and resolve political conflicts. But to do that, we must replace our most sacred institutions with truly free and open competition—Radical Markets shows how. Read on for an interview between the two authors. 

Eric: I’ve never thought of myself as a radical, yet our book is called Radical Markets. Is this a marketing gimmick or are the ideas really radical?

Glen: Our proposals seem pretty radical to me. In our scheme, private property turns into a kind of an auction, so there would be a price on most property all the time and the benefits would flow equally to all citizens, eliminating most inequality of wealth.  The conventional system of democracy—one-person-one-vote and judicial protection of most minority rights—would turn into a market-based system of trading voice credits and using them to buy votes. The current immigration bureaucracy would be radically decentralized, as ordinary people would take over sponsorship of migrant workers. There are certainly ideas more radical than these, but not many that you hear discussed seriously by our academic colleagues.

Eric: Yet, unlike true radicals, we urge a go-slow approach. Test things out, we say. Things could go wrong, we warn. And then we claim to be in favor of markets. That doesn’t sound like Saint-Simon or Marx. Sure, enough our book is #1 on Amazon in the category of libertarianism, though neither of us think of ourselves as libertarians.

Glen: True revolutions occur in slow motion; they begin with ideas. Democracy is a revolutionary idea in a world of kingdoms; it did not happen overnight. Unions began as working men’s associations and only gradually gained power and state sanction. Even Saint-Simon inspired small-scale utopian communities. Revolutions that move rapidly to take over a whole society, like the French or Russian, usually quickly determine they didn’t have their plans fleshed out and end in chaos or greater tyranny than the system they replaced. We have radical, even revolutionary, aims, but we want the changes we propose to stick and that will only happen if they are fully developed, their weaknesses exposed by experimentation.

Eric. I’m still not sure. I like the title because I’m a sucker for word play. The root of the word radical is, well, root. Being radical means getting to the root of things. I think we do that. A radical in math is the root of a number, and several of the ideas in the book have their origin in quadratic equations. And then there is the idea of radical as left-wing. Here, I’m not so sure. In fact, one of our goals is to appeal to people with different political views.

Glen: Well, radical doesn’t necessarily mean left wing, though I guess it depends how you define it.  In fact, The Economist defines its ideology as the “radical center.” To me, that sense of radical is more about favoring fundamental changes to the social order rather than, say, putting the government in charge of everything or redistributing wealth. In that sense, I think we are very much radicals

Eric: We even appeal to Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. What could be less radical than that?

Glen: Adam Smith has an unfair reputation as a “conservative” these days only because his ideas were so successful. He put the finishing touches, intellectually at least, on the unthinking feudalism of the day. In fact, Smith helped found the first major political movement to identify itself as “Radical,” the Philosophical Radicals who are our inspiration. Not surprisingly, ideas that were radical in the eighteenth century can be reactionary in the twentieth, when Friedman wrote. But we give Friedman credit for seeing that central planning and a certain kind of bureaucratic mindset leads to a dead end.

Eric: And for market thinking: Friedman was right to emphasize the value of competition and exchange—essential features of market system—but, like many economists, took our system of property rights and politics for granted, as if thinking on these topics had stopped centuries ago. One way you can tell that you are being radical in an intellectual sense—the sense I care about—is that you find yourself being criticized by people with different political views. If you’re radical enough, people will get angry. We’ve already seen a bit of this. Immigrant advocates and alt-right types don’t agree on much, but they seem to be scandalized by our foreign worker proposal. I’ll be curious to see how people react to our other proposals.

Eric A. Posner is the Kirkland and Ellis Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago Law School. His many books include Climate Change Justice. He lives in Chicago. E. Glen Weyl is principal researcher at Microsoft and visiting senior research scholar in economics and law at Yale University. He lives in Boston.

W. Kip Viscusi on Pricing Lives: Guideposts for a Safer Society

ViscusiLike it or not, sometimes we need to put a monetary value on people’s lives. In the past, government agencies used the financial “cost of death” to monetize the mortality risks of regulatory policies, but this method vastly undervalued life. Pricing Lives tells the story of how the government came to adopt an altogether different approach—the value of a statistical life, or VSL—and persuasively shows how its more widespread use could create a safer and more equitable society for everyone. In this book, Kip Viscusi provides a comprehensive look at all aspects of economic and policy efforts to price lives. Pricing Lives proposes sensible economic guideposts to foster more protective policies and greater levels of safety in the United States and throughout the world.

What do you mean by “pricing lives,” and where does this occur?

What we mean by pricing lives depends on the context. For the government’s risk and environmental regulation policies, the challenge is to determine how much we are willing to spend to prevent each expected fatality. The principal measure used to set this price is known as the value of a statistical life (VSL), or the amount society is willing to pay to prevent the risk of each statistical death. Companies also set an implicit price on life every time they make products that are not risk-free. Sometimes companies have assigned numerical amounts to the value of the fatalities that are prevented, though how they have done so is seriously flawed and has greatly undervalued life. There is also a role for pricing lives after fatalities have occurred. Regulatory agencies set the penalties that firms must pay for regulatory violations that led to the fatalities. The courts also set a price on lives in wrongful death cases in terms of the amount of compensation that must be paid to the decedent’s family after the death.

Why should there be any limit at all on what the government spends to save lives?

So long as resources are limited, we cannot make an unbounded commitment to a risk-free society. The practical issue is where to set these limits. In the 1980s, I was asked to settle a dispute between OMB and OSHA over the proposed hazard communication regulation. OMB had rejected the proposal, concluding that the costs exceeded the benefits. In my analysis of this debate, I introduced the VSL concept to government agencies. Doing so made the calculation of the benefits of risk regulations ten times more valuable than they were under the previous cost of death approach. It also led to the issuance of a regulation that previously had been rejected because it was viewed as being too costly. Although some government agencies were slow to adopt the higher VSL numbers, this approach is now the norm in government agencies. The VSL is the most important single number used in the evaluation of government regulatory policies.

Where can we get these values of a statistical life numbers?

The most reliable evidence is based on U.S. labor studies of the extra pay workers get for extra risk.  Suppose, for example, that a worker was paid $900 extra per year to face a risk of 1/10,000. Then, for a group of 10,000 workers, they would be paid $9 million (10,000 × $900) for the one expected death to their group. My current estimates of the VSL in the U.S. place this value at $10 million. Once people understand that the VSL greatly exceeds people’s earnings, the criticism that the approach is immoral generally diminishes. Instead, people wonder how people can value their lives by more than what they make. The reason for this surprisingly large value is that they are not buying out of the prospect of certain death. Instead, the VSL only pertains to very small risks of death that are much less costly to prevent.

What do other countries do? Does this U.S. labor market evidence have any pertinence to them?

Many other countries have also adopted the VSL approach, usually based on studies in which people are asked in interviews how much they are willing to pay for safety. Unfortunately, the VSL estimates that are used outside of the U.S. are very low—far lower than is warranted based on the income levels relative to the U.S. Even countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia greatly undervalue lives, with far greater disparities observed for many low-income countries. In this book, I present an approach for transferring the U.S. estimates to other countries, along with appropriate adjustments for income level differences. The estimates I provide for a wide range of countries will greatly increase the value placed on safety throughout the world.

Are there other factors, like age, that can affect the VSL?

What matters is people’s own willingness to pay to reduce risk. Unlike purported economic measures, such as the cost of death approach, people can still have a high VSL even if they are retired. As it turns out, the VSL rises over people’s lifetime, and then does decline somewhat, but it does not plummet with age. The VSL for those age 65 and over is very similar to that of people in their early 20s. There was a public outcry against the Environmental Protection Agency when it attempted an age adjustment that put “seniors on sale, 37% off.” Unfortunately, this age adjustment was not based on any U.S. labor market evidence but on a more speculative interview study from the United Kingdom. Typically, government policies have impacts across the entire population so that in most instances, relying on an average VSL is all that is needed. 

This whole idea of pricing lives sounds similar what businesses do when they decide how much to spend on product safety improvements. Do they get it right?

Unfortunately, companies historically have underpriced lives as well, as they have focused on how much they have to pay in court after a fatality rather than on how much it is worth to consumers to reduce the risk of death. Companies fell prey to the same cost of death approach that government agencies used to use. Jurors have expressed alarm after reviewing these corporate practices, sometimes levying punitive damages of $100 million or more against companies that have valued lives in this way. The result has been that most companies have abandoned such risk analyses altogether and now keep such deliberations secret, for fear of liability. In my book, I propose that companies adopt the VSL in their product safety decisions and that they be given legal protections to encourage responsible corporate risk analyses.

How is it that setting a finite price on life can provide “guideposts for a safer society?”

A properly set VSL raises rather than reduces the amounts that government agencies throughout the world assign to the prevention of fatality risks. Adoption of this approach for corporate risk decisions likewise would lead to safer products. In this book, I also advocate that the VSL be used to set penalties for regulatory violations leading to fatalities. Doing so would lead to an enormous increase in penalties by, for example, boosting penalties for job safety violations by a factor of 1,000. The courts similarly can use the VSL in both assessing product safety and setting damages in situations where deterring risky behavior is the concern. My proposed expansion of the application of the VSL will provide greater incentives for safety in all these contexts. What is particularly striking is that the single VSL number can serve multiple purposes and set the price on life in so many different situations.

W. Kip Viscusi is the University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics, and Management at Vanderbilt University. His many books include Economics of Regulation and Antitrust and Fatal Tradeoffs: Public and Private Responsibilities for Risk.

Paul Tucker on Unelected Power: The Quest for Legitimacy in Central Banking and the Regulatory State

TuckerCentral bankers have emerged from the financial crisis as the third great pillar of unelected power alongside the judiciary and the military. They pull the regulatory and financial levers of our economic well-being, yet unlike democratically elected leaders, their power does not come directly from the people. Unelected Power lays out the principles needed to ensure that central bankers, technocrats, regulators, and other agents of the administrative state remain stewards of the common good and do not become overmighty citizens. Like it or not, unelected power has become a hallmark of modern government. This critically important book shows how to harness it to the people’s purposes.

What is the regulatory state?

It’s a term that has come to be used to describe a host of government bodies that regulate particular economic sectors or the public more generally to protect, say, investors, the environment, consumers, workers, and so on. In a rudimentary form it has existed for a long time, going back to the 19th century and beyond. Going wider, Americans sometimes refer to the administrative state, meaning the evolution of government beyond a world of legislators and courts to one in which the executive branch makes policy and is divided up into departments, agencies, bureaus, commissions, and so on.

What are Independent agencies, and why do they matter?

They are government organizations that are not under the day-to-day control of elected politicians, whether in the executive branch or the legislature. Obvious examples today are the central banks, such as the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, and the Bank of England, but also various regulators insulated from ongoing political control. By no means all agencies in the administrative state are independent. On both sides of the Atlantic, many are under the control of cabinet ministers or subject to annual budget approvals from the legislature, which makes them sensitive to politicians’ sentiments and whims. Independent agencies are distinctive in that politicians can control them only by amending or repealing legislation.

That sounds problematic in a democracy. Is it?

That’s the point of the book. The way I’ve just described them it could be a hell of a problem. Imagine an independent agency that had lots of powers but only the vaguest purpose and objective. Who would be able to tell whether it had succeeded in its mission if it set its own goal posts?! That’s at odds with some of our deepest values: just as “no taxation without representation” was a rallying cry a couple of centuries’ ago, we might just as well demand “no regulation without representation.”

Are central banks a particular problem?

They have become the poster boys and girls of today’s unelected power. Compared with what happened after the Great Depression in the 1930s, when it was politicians who did the heavy lifting, this time it has been central banks that have led the way in reviving the economy and redesigning the financial system. They have used their balance sheets on a truly gigantic scale to influence credit conditions in lots of markets, and have been given lots of new regulatory powers. They are more powerful than ever before, ranking with the judiciary and military as a third core pillar of unelected power.

Do people object to all this?

Yes, but in rather different ways in different countries. In the US, since the New Deal there have been critics who object that regulatory agencies violate the values associated with the separation of powers or even the Constitution itself. In France, not long ago the parliament passed legislation to put more structure around such agencies. In the UK, there is episodic antagonism to government by ‘experts.’

And on central bank independence, there have been challenges in the German constitutional court and attempts to pass reforming legislation in the US Congress.

So what is the solution?

Our democracies need norms for whether and how to delegate to independent agencies that measure up to the deep political values of our democratic, liberal republics: the various values of democracy, rule of law, constitutionalism. My book proposes and defends just such a set of Principles for Delegation, as I call them. They come in two broad parts: criteria for whether to delegate, and precepts for how to delegate.

Criteria for whether to delegate: I argue that a policy function should not be delegated to a truly independent agency unless (1) society has settled preferences; (2) the objective is capable of being framed in a reasonably clear way; (3) delegation would materially mitigate a problem of credible commitment; and (4) the policymaker would not have to make big choices on society’s values or the distribution of its resources.

Precepts for how to delegate: (1) the agency’s purposes, objectives and powers should be clear and set by elected legislators; (2) its decision-making procedures should be set largely by legislators and should accord with the values of the rule of law; (3) the agency itself should publish the operating principles that will guide its exercise of discretion within the delegated domain; (4) there should be transparency sufficient to permit accountability to the legislature for the agency’s stewardship of the regime and, separately, for politicians’ framing of the regime; and (5) it should be clear what (if anything) will happen, procedurally and/or substantively, when the edges of the regime are reached but the agency could do more to avert or contain a crisis. 

Perhaps the biggest thing is that elected legislators should set a monitorable objective. Independent agencies really can improve the credibility of commitments made by government, but only if we know what we want them to do and can track whether or not they are doing it.

Would those Principles affect anything much?

Yes. Here are just three examples.

They would challenge the acceptability of judges completely having completely overhauled the principles of competition policy a few decades ago. The legislation was vague and the views of economists had moved on, so the courts had room and reason to act. But, given our democratic values, this should have been work for elected politicians.

They suggest that role of some financial-market regulators in preserving a stable financial system needs either to be better insulated from politics (such as the SEC in the US) or subject to much clearer objectives (UK).

And they would restrict the roles and activities of central banks rather more than we have seen in recent years.  

Is any of this realistic in actual democratic states?

Well, that’s the point of the book. There are no deep constitutional blockages, so it’s a question of whether we want to be governed in a way that’s consistent with our values. I’m hoping that people who see merit in my Principles for Delegation (or something like them) will cite many more examples than I can (or even know about), generating the kind of debate that is badly needed about how state power is allocated.

Anyway, surely something has to be done to bring the role of experts in government in line with our democratic commitments.

Why did you write the book?

I spent a good part of my central banking career helping to design regulatory and monetary regimes, none more important than the expansion of the Bank of England’s powers after the Great Financial Crisis. We resisted some powers, wanted others constrained, and had strong views on how the different responsibilities should be assigned to distinct committees so as to disperse power and focus incentives. I wanted to try to write down the values and considerations lying behind that. When I moved to Harvard in late-2013, I had the opportunity to do so.

Paul Tucker is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and chair of the Systemic Risk Council. For more than thirty years, he was a central banker and regulator at the Bank of England and the Bank for International Settlements. He lives in London.

Jerry Z. Muller on The Tyranny of Metrics

Today, organizations of all kinds are ruled by the belief that the path to success is quantifying human performance, publicizing the results, and dividing up the rewards based on the numbers. But in our zeal to instill the evaluation process with scientific rigor, we’ve gone from measuring performance to fixating on measuring itself. The result is a tyranny of metrics that threatens the quality of our lives and most important institutions. In this timely and powerful book, Jerry Muller uncovers the damage our obsession with metrics is causing—and shows how we can begin to fix the problem. Complete with a checklist of when and how to use metrics, The Tyranny of Metrics is an essential corrective to a rarely questioned trend that increasingly affects us all.

What’s the main idea?

We increasingly live in a culture of metric fixation: the belief in so many organizations that scientific management means replacing judgment based upon experience and talent with standardized measures of performance, and then rewarding or punishing individuals and organizations based upon those measures. The buzzwords of metric fixation are all around us: “metrics,” “accountability,” “assessment,” and “transparency.” Though often characterized as “best practice,” metric fixation is in fact often counterproductive, with costs to individual satisfaction with work, organizational effectiveness, and economic growth.

The Tyranny of Metrics treats metric fixation as the organizational equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes. It helps explain why metric fixation has become so popular, why it is so often counterproductive, and why some people have an interest in pushing it. It is a book that analyzes and critiques a dominant fashion in contemporary organizational culture, with an eye to making life in organizations more satisfying and productive.

Can you give a few examples of the “tyranny of metrics?”

Sure. In medicine, you have the phenomenon of “surgical report cards” that purport to show the success rates of surgeons who perform a particular procedure, such as cardiac operations. The scores are publicly reported. In an effort to raise their scores, surgeons were found to avoid operating on patients whose complicated circumstances made a successful operation less likely. So, the surgeons raised their scores. But some cardiac patients who might have benefited from an operation failed to get one—and died as a result. That’s what we call “creaming”—only dealing with cases most likely to be successful.

Then there is the phenomenon of goal diversion. A great deal of K-12 education has been distorted by the emphasis that teachers are forced to place on preparing students for standardized tests of English and math, where the results of the tests influence teacher retention or school closings. Teachers are instructed to focus class time on the elements of the subject that are tested (such as reading short prose passages), while ignoring those elements that are not (such as novels). Subjects that are not tested—including civics, art, and history—receive little attention.

Or, to take an example from the world of business. In 2011 the Wells Fargo bank set high quotas for its employees to sign up customers who were interested in one of its products (say, a deposit account) for additional services, such as overdraft coverage or credit cards. For the bank’s employees, failure to reach the quota meant working additional hours without pay and the threat of termination. The result: to reach their quotas, thousands of bankers resorted to low-level fraud, with disastrous effects for the bank. It was forced to pay a fortune in fines, and its stock price dropped.

Why is the book called The Tyranny of Metrics?

Because it helps explain and articulate the sense of frustration and oppression that people in a wide range of organizations feel at the diversion of their time and energy to performance measurement that is wasteful and counterproductive.

What sort of organizations does the book deal with?

There are chapters devoted to colleges and universities, K-12 education, medicine and health care, business and finance, non-profits and philanthropic organizations, policing, and the military. The goal is not to be definitive about any of these realms, but to explore instances in which metrics of measured performance have been functional or dysfunctional, and then to draw useful generalizations about the use and misuse of metrics.

What sort of a book is it? Does it belong to any particular discipline or political ideology?

It’s a work of synthesis, drawing on a wide range of studies and analyses from psychology, sociology, economics, political science, philosophy, organizational behavior, history, and other fields. But it’s written in jargon-free prose, that doesn’t require prior knowledge of any of these fields. Princeton University Press has it classified under “Business,” “Public Policy,” and “Current Affairs.” That’s accurate enough, but it only begins to suggest the ubiquity of the cultural pattern that the book depicts, analyzes, and critiques. The book makes use of conservative, liberal, Marxist, and anarchist authors—some of whom have surprising areas of analytic convergence.

What’s the geographic scope of the book?

In the first instance, the United States. There is also a lot of attention to Great Britain, which in many respects was at the leading edge of metric fixation in the government’s treatment of higher education (from the “Teaching Quality Assessment” through the “Research Excellence Framework”), health care (the NHS) and policing, under the rubric of “New Public Management.” From the US and Great Britain, metric fixation—often carried by consultants touting “best practice”—has spread to Continental Europe, the Anglosphere, Asia, and especially China (where the quest for measured performance and university rankings is having a particularly pernicious effect on science and higher education).

Is the book simply a manifesto against performance measurement?

By no means. Drawing on a wide range of case studies from education to medicine to the military, the book shows how measured performance can be developed and used in positive ways.

Who do you hope will read the book?

Everyone who works in an organization, manages an organization, or supervises an organization, whether in the for-profit, non-profit, or government sector. Or anyone who wants to understand this dominant organizational culture and its intrinsic weaknesses.

Jerry Z. Muller is the author of many books, including Adam Smith in His Time and Ours and Capitalism and the Jews. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, and Foreign Affairs, among other publications. He is professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Jonathan Haskel & Stian Westlake on Capitalism without Capital

Early in the twenty-first century, a quiet revolution occurred. For the first time, the major developed economies began to invest more in intangible assets, like design, branding, R&D, and software, than in tangible assets, like machinery, buildings, and computers. For all sorts of businesses, from tech firms and pharma companies to coffee shops and gyms, the ability to deploy assets that one can neither see nor touch is increasingly the main source of long-term success. But this is not just a familiar story of the so-called new economy. Capitalism without Capital shows that the growing importance of intangible assets has also played a role in some of the big economic changes of the last decade.

What do you mean when you say we live in an age of Capitalism without Capital?

Our book is based on one big fact about the economy: that the nature of the investment that businesses do has fundamentally changed. Once businesses invested mainly in things you could touch or feel like buildings, machinery, and vehicles. But more and more investment now goes into things you can’t touch or feel: things like research and development, design, organizational development—“intangible’ investments. Today, in developed countries, businesses invest more each year intangible assets than in tangibles. But they’re often measured poorly or not at all in company accounts or national accounts. So there is still a lot of capital about, but it has done a sort of vanishing act, both physically and from the records that businesses and governments keep.

What difference does the rise of intangible investments make?

The rise of intangible investment matters because intangible assets tend to behave differently from tangible ones—they have different economic properties. In the book we call these properties the 4S’s—scalability, sunkenness, synergies, and spillovers. Intangibles can be used again and again, they’re hard to sell if a business fails, they’re especially good when you combine them, and the benefits of intangible investment often end up accruing to businesses other than the ones that make them. We argue that this change helps explain all sorts of important concerns people have about today’s economy, from why inequality has risen so much, to why productivity growth seems to have slowed down.

So is this another book about tech companies?

It’s much bigger than that. It’s true that some of the biggest tech companies have lots of very valuable intangibles, and few tangibles. Google’s search algorithms, software, and prodigious stores of data are intangibles; Apple’s design, brand, and supply chains are intangibles; Uber’s networks of drivers and users are intangible assets. Each of these intangibles is worth billions of dollars. But intangibles are everywhere. Even brick and mortar businesses like supermarkets or gyms rely on more and more intangible assets, such as software, codified operating procedures, or brands. And the rise of intangibles is a very long-term story: research by economists like Carol Corrado suggests that intangibles investment has been steadily growing since the early twentieth century, long before the first semiconductors, let alone the Internet.

Who will do well from this new intangible economy?

The intangible economy seems to be creating winners and losers. From a business point of view, we know that around the world, there’s a growing gap between the leading businesses in any given industry and the rest. We think this leader-laggard gap is partly caused by intangibles. Because intangibles are scalable and have synergies with one another, companies that have valuable intangibles will do better and better (and have more incentives to invest in more), while small and low performing companies won’t, and will lag ever further behind.

There is a personal dimension to this too. People who are good at combining ideas, and who are open to new ideas, will do better in an economy where there are lots of synergies between different assets. This will be a boon for educated, open-minded people, people with political, legal, and social connections, and for people who live in cities (where ideas tend to combine easily with one another). But others risk being left further behind.

Does this help explain the big political changes in recent years?

Yes—after the EU referendum in the UK and the 2016 presidential election in the US, a lot of pundits were asking why so many so-called “left behind” communities people voted for Brexit or Donald Trump. Some people thought they did so for cultural reasons, others argued the reasons were mainly economic. But we would argue that an intangible economy, these two reasons are linked: more connected, cosmopolitan places tend to do better economically in an intangible economy, while left-behind places suffer from an alienation that is both economic and cultural.

You mentioned that the rise of intangible investment might help explain why productivity growth is slowing. Why is that?

Many economists and policymakers worry about so-called secular stagnation: the puzzling fact that productivity growth and investment seems to have slowed down, even though interest rates are low and corporate profits are high, especially since 2009. We think the growing importance of intangibles can help explain this in a few ways.

  • There is certainly some under-measurement of investment going on—but as it happens this explains only a small part of the puzzle.
  • The rate of growth of intangible investment has slowed a bit since 2009. This seems to explain part of the slow-down in growth (and also helps explain why the slowdown has been manly concentrated in total factor productivity)
  • The gap between leading firms (with lots of intangibles) and laggard firms (with few) may have created a scenario where a few firms are investing in a lot of intangibles (think Google and Facebook) but for most others, it’s not worth it, since their more powerful competitors are likely to get the spillover benefits.

Does the intangible economy have consequences for investors?

Yes! Company accounts generally don’t record intangibles (except, haphazardly, as “goodwill” after an acquisition). This means that, as intangible assets become more important, corporate balance sheets tell investors less and less about the true value of a company. Much of what equity analysts spend their days doing is, in practice, trying to value intangibles.

And there’s lots of value to be had here: research suggests that equity markets undervalue intangibles like organizational development, and encourage public companies to underinvest in intangibles like R&D. But informed investors can take advantage of this—which can benefit both their own returns and the performance of the economy.

Jonathan, you’re an academic, and Stian, you are a policymaker. How did you come to write this book together?

We started working together in 2009 on the Nesta Innovation Index, which applied some of the techniques that Jonathan had worked on to measure intangibles to build an innovation measurement for the UK. The more we thought about, the clearer it became that intangibles helped explain all sorts of things. Ryan Avent from the Economist asked us to write a piece for their blog about one of these puzzles, and we enjoyed doing that so much we thought we would try writing a book. One of the most fun parts of writing the book was being able to combine the insights from academic economic research on intangibles and innovation with practical insights from innovation policy.

CapitalismJonathan Haskel is professor of economics at Imperial College Business School. Stian Westlake is a senior fellow at Nesta, the UK’s national foundation for innovation. Haskel and Westlake are cowinners of the 2017 Indigo Prize.

The Greatest Showman and the Deceptions of American Capitalism

by Edward J. Balleisen

BalleisenPerhaps unsurprisingly, The Greatest Showman, the new cinematic musical about the nineteenth-century American impresario of entertainment P. T. Barnum, unabashedly takes liberties with the historical record. As reviewers have already documented (Richard Brody in the New Yorker, Bruce Chadwick for History News Network), it fabricates matters large and small, as is the wont of Hollywood screenwriters and directors who work on biopics, while ignoring a host of truthful vignettes that cry out for cinematic treatment. As a historian of business fraud, I found myself especially disappointed that the musical steered clear of many aspects of Barnum’s career that speak powerfully to elements of our own moment, including the rise of a Barnum-esque publicity hound and conductor of media misdirection from the White House, and the constant turmoil swirling over allegations of fake news. And yet, The Greatest Showman does get some of the larger implications of Barnum’s life right—especially his injection of a democratic style of hullabaloo into American capitalism.

A full inventory of the film’s flights of fancy would require catalogue length. But a sampling conveys the minimal concern for fidelity to historical detail. The movie portrays the young Barnum as the poorly-clad son of an impoverished Connecticut tailor, rather than the child of a respectable proprietor who had a number of well-to-do relatives and also owned a store and inn. It gives Barnum experiences that he never had (begging and stealing food as an orphaned New York City street urchin; clerking for an insurance company). It depicts his move into the world of entertainment as occurring sometime well after the establishment of the railroad, perhaps even after the Civil War, rather than in the 1830s.

The Greatest Showman ignores Barnum’s earliest promotions of lotteries, curiosities and hoaxes, including his cruel exhibition of the elderly African-American slave woman Joice Heth as supposedly the 161-year old former wet-nurse of George Washington, and his willingness to profit further after her death through a public autopsy, experiences that laid the groundwork for his management of the American Museum. The screenwriters (Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks) have Barnum buy the museum on a wholly fictional mix of frustration, fantasy, and fraud, made possible by his fraudulent provision of fake collateral to a New York City bank that lends him the necessary $10,000. Instead of coming to grips with the actual Barnum’s vociferous advocacy of temperance, the film conjures up a hard-drinking man who makes deals over whiskeys in saloons. Rather than showing how Barnum consistently found new performers over the years, it brings together the midget Charles Stratton (known on stage as Tom Thumb), the Siamese twins Change and Eng, and the other members of the troupe within weeks of Barnum’s purchase of the American Museum.

The historical Barnum had a falling out with the famed Swedish singer Jenny Lind not because he refused her amorous advances in the middle of their American tour (the musical’s explanation), but because she tired of his relentless focus on maximizing the returns from her concerts. A key antagonist for Barnum in The Greatest Showman is one “Bennett,” portrayed as a stiff-collared, high-toned theatre critic of the New York Herald. The actual James Gordon Bennett was the publisher of that paper, who proved more than happy to go along with hoaxes and sensationalism himself, using both to help cement his newspaper’s position as the first penny newspaper that catered to the broad masses. The character of Barnum’s high society sidekick Philip Carlyle is entirely fictional, as in his relationship with Anne Wheeler, an African-American female trapeze artist. One last illustration—the film attributes the fire that destroyed Barnum’s New York City Museum to neighborhood toughs who did not like his business, rather than the actual arsonist, a Confederate sympathizer who wished toward the end of the Civil War to strike a blow against the Union.

Of course, by indulging a willingness to elide facts or push outright lies in the service of a hokey story, the makers of The Greatest Showman adopt Barnum’s own modus operandi as a purveyor of entertainment. And the movie does a creditable job of engaging with some of Barnum’s larger cultural significance—his recognition that publicity and HYPE of any kind was often a marketing asset; his understanding that the public would be forgiving of misrepresentations and humbug if they, on balance, enjoyed the eventual show; his embrace of difference and variation within the human condition as worthy of celebration (if also exploitation); his compulsion to expand operations to take advantage of new opportunities, even at the cost of incurring gargantuan debts; his relentless focus on the American mythos of democratic opportunity, whether through his own experience (as carefully narrated in his autobiographies) or those of the stars in his shows. As the film implies, there was indeed deep-seated antagonism to Barnum’s business practices and willingness to engage in fakery, though the complaints came overwhelmingly from pulpits and the pages of evangelical newspapers, rather than protesters who made their presence known outside the Museum. And Barnum did in fact seek to defuse those critiques through the promotion of respectable performers such as Jenny Lind, alongside his curiosities, penchant for misdirection, and outright fakery.

Nonetheless, The Greatest Showman also missed many opportunities to explore episodes in Barnum’s life that have renewed resonance in the early twenty-first century. One crucial theme here concerns Barnum’s engagement with American race relations, both as promoter and in his post-Civil War forays in Connecticut politics and public service. Barnum’s often dehumanizing treatment of people of color and his evolving political views on race will surely occasion much commentary amid the current dramatic growth in ethnocentric nationalism and racially-grounded politics, as in a recent Smithsonian Magazine piece by Jackie Mansky. Other contemporary developments that suggest the value of reconsidering Barnum’s historical significance, closer to my own expertise, include the reoccurrence of massive business frauds, the emergence of enduring conflict over the appropriate role of government in consumer and investor protection, and diminished faith in institutions of all sorts.

The musical, for example, overlooks Barnum’s own bankruptcy in 1855, brought about because of his misplaced faith in the promises of a clock manufacturer who was willing to relocate his operation to Barnum’s adopted home town of Bridgeport, Connecticut, as part of an industrial development scheme. Barnum freely endorsed the Jerome Clock Company’s loans, opening himself up to devastating losses when the company failed, losses made worse by the firm’s eventual forging of Barnum’s endorsement on many additional notes. Yet he also sidestepped the worst consequences of that failure by illegally transferring assets into his wife’s name, a move that greatly facilitated his ability to get back on his financial feet, and for which he never faced public condemnation or legal penalty. Barnum’s insolvency thus speaks to the reality that even the savviest operators can be victims of imposition; and that well-connected perpetrators of commercial deceit have often been able to sidestep the most damaging fallout from their actions.

Another fascinating episode that The Greatest Showman ignores is Barnum’s growing focus on debunking the deceit of other purveyors of rhetorical (or actual) snake oil. By the 1860s, the promoter sought to legitimize his own brand of hokum and bluster not only by adding unquestionably respectable acts to his museum and eventual circus, but also by exposing frauds in many sectors of American life.  Compiled in his 1866 volume, Humbugs of the World, these endeavors targeted misrepresentations in retail trade, medicine, and religion (especially in the realm of spiritualism). Here Barnum intuited the great power associated with well-constructed strategies of deflection—that one could gain trust in part by setting oneself up as an arbiter of untrustworthiness. Perhaps there is no greater contemporary practitioner of this particular form of showmanship than the current occupant of the White House. Donald Trump has rarely hesitated to get out ahead of critiques of his own business and political practices by casting the first stones, as through his allegations of malfeasance by political opponents (the pleas during the 2016 general election campaign to investigate Hillary Clinton and “Lock Her Up”) or representatives of the media (the incessant allegations of FAKE NEWS.) In addition to muddying factual waters, such strategies can shore up support among the faithful, sustaining the conviction that their champion is fighting the good fight, and could not possibly be engaging in duplicitous behavior of his own.

In the end, The Greatest Showman cares most about exploring fictionalized or wholly fictional romantic tensions—those between Barnum and his wife Charity and between the Philip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler—as well as the degree to which Barnum lives up to his purported insistence on an inclusive respect for his socially marginalized performers. These choices constrain the musical’s capacity to engage deeply with Barnum’s historical significance as an entrepreneur who played an outsized role in creating modern mass entertainment. And so a multitude of opportunities go begging. Barnum’s many legacies, however, continue to reverberate in contemporary America, whether one focuses on the the dynamics of social media saturation, the process of invented celebrity, the sources of abiding racial tensions,  the implications of pervasive commercial dissembling, or the nature of popular skepticism about expert appraisals of reality. And so the ground remains open for cultural reinterpretations of the Great Showman’s life and times.  If the twentieth-century is any guide, we won’t have to wait too long for another cinematic treatment—every generation or so, some movie-maker finds the resources to put Barnum back on the screen.[1]

[1] Previous films include “The Mighty Barnum” (1934), “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), “Barnum” (1986), and “P. T. Barnum” (1999).

Edward J. Balleisen is professor of history and public policy and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Barry Eichengreen on How Global Currencies Work

At first glance, the modern history of the global economic system seems to support the long-held view that the leading world power’s currency—the British pound, the U.S. dollar, and perhaps someday the Chinese yuan—invariably dominates international trade and finance. In How Global Currencies Work, three noted economists provide a reassessment of this history and the theories behind the conventional wisdom. Read on to learn more about the two views of global currencies, changes in international monetary leadership, and more.

Your title refers to “two views” of global currencies. Can you explain?
We distinguish the “old view” and the “new view”—you can probably infer from the terminology to which view we personally incline. In the old view, one currency will tend dominate as the vehicle for cross-border transactions at any point in time. In the past it was the British pound; more recently it has been the U.S. dollar; and in the future it may be the Chinese renminbi, these being the currencies of the leading international economies of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty first centuries. The argument, grounded largely in theory, is that a single currency has tended to dominate, or will dominate, because it pays for investors and producers when engaging in cross-border transactions; specifically, it pays for them to do cross-border business in the same currency as their partners and competitors. This pattern reflects the convenience value of conformity—it reflects what economists refer to as “network externalities.” In this view, it pays to quote the prices of one’s exports in the same units in which they are quoted by other exporters; this makes it easy for customers to compare prices, enabling a newly competitive producer to break into international markets. It pays to denominate bonds marketed to foreign investors in the same currency as other international bonds, in this case to make it easier for investors to compare yields and maximize the demand for the bonds in question.

In what we call the new view, on the other hand, several national currencies can coexist—they can play consequential international roles at the same point in time. In the modern world, it is argued, network externalities are not all that strong. For one thing, interchangeability costs are low as a result of modern financial technology. The existence of deep and liquid markets allows investors and exporters to do business in a variety of different currencies and switch all but effortlessly between them—to sell one currency for another at negligible cost. The existence of hedging instruments allows those investors to insure themselves against financial risks—specifically, against the risk that prices will move in unexpected ways. Prices denominated in different currencies are easy to compare, since everyone now carries a currency converter in his or her pocket, in the form of a smartphone. These observations point to the conclusion, which is compelling in our view, that several national currencies can simultaneously serve as units of account, means of payment and stores of value for individuals, firms and governments engaged in cross-border transactions.

In our book we provide several kinds of evidence supporting the relevance of the new view, not just today but in the past as well. We suggest that the old view is an inaccurate characterization of not just the current state of affairs but, in fact, of the last century and more of international monetary history.

What exactly motivated you to write this book?
We were worried by the extent to which the old view, which pointed to a battle to the death for international monetary supremacy between the dollar and the renminbi, continues to dominate scholarly analysis and popular discourse. This misapprehension gives rise to concerns that we think are misplaced, and to policy recommendations that we think are misguided. Renminbi internationalization, the technical name for policies intended to foster use of China’s currency in cross-border transactions not just within China itself but among third countries as well, is not in fact an existential threat to the dollar’s international role. To the contrary, it is entirely consistent with continued international use of the greenback, or so our evidence suggests.

In addition, making a convincing case for the new view requires marshaling historical, institutional and statistical material and analyzing the better part of a century. We though this extensive body of evidence cried out for a book-length treatment.

To what revisions of received historical wisdom does your analysis point?
We use that historical, institutional and statistical analysis to show that the old view of single-currency dominance is inaccurate not just for today but also as a description of the situation in the first half of the twentieth century and even in the final decades of the nineteenth. In the 1920s and 1930s, the pound sterling and the dollar both in fact played consequential international roles. Under the pre-World War I gold standard, the same was true of sterling, the French franc and the German mark. Our reassessment of the historical record suggests that the coexistence of multiple international currencies, the state of affairs toward which we are currently moving, is not the exception but in fact the rule. There is nothing unprecedented or anomalous about it.

And, contrary to what is sometimes asserted, we show that there is no necessary association between international currency competition and financial instability. The classical gold standard was a prototypical multiple international and reserve currency system by our reading of the evidence. But, whatever its other defects, the gold standard system was a strikingly stable exchange-rate arrangement.

Finally, we show that, under certain circumstances at least, international monetary and financial leadership can be gained and lost quickly. This is contrary to the conventional wisdom that persistence and inertia are overwhelmingly strong in the monetary domain owing to the prevalence of network effects. It is contrary to the presumption that changes of the guard are relatively rare. It is similarly contrary to the presumption that, once an international currency, always an international currency.

So you argue, contrary to conventional wisdom, that changes in international monetary leadership can occur quickly under certain circumstances.  But what circumstances exactly?
The rising currency has to confront and overcome economic and institutional challenges, while the incumbent has to find it hard to keep up. Consider the case of the U.S. dollar. As late as 1914 the dollar played essentially no international role despite the fact that the U.S. had long since become the single largest economy. This initial position reflected the fact that although the U.S. had many of the economic preconditions in place—not only was it was far and away the largest economy but it was also the the number-one exporter—it lacked the institutional prerequisites. Passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913 corrected this deficiency. The founding of the Fed created a lender and liquidity provider of last resort. And the Federal Reserve Act authorized U.S. banks to branch abroad, essentially for the first time. World War I, which disrupted London’s foreign financial relations, meanwhile created an opening, of which the U.S. took full advantage. Over the first post-Fed decade, the greenback quickly rose to international prominence. It came to be widely used internationally, fully matching the role of the incumbent international currency, the British pound sterling, already by the middle of the first post-World War I decade.

The shift to dollar dominance after World War II was equally swift. Again the stage was set by a combination of economic and institutional advances on the side of the rising power and difficulties for the incumbent. The U.S. emerged from World War II significantly strengthened economically, the UK significantly weakened. In terms of institutions, the U.S. responded to the unsettled monetary and financial circumstances of the immediate postwar period with the Marshall Plan and other initiatives extending the country’s international financial reach. The UK meanwhile, was forced to resort to capital controls and stringent financial regulation, which limited sterling’s appeal.

What are the implications of your analysis for the future of the international monetary and financial system?
The implications depend on the policies adopted, prospectively, by the governments and central banks that are the issuers of the potential international currencies. Here we have in mind not just the dollar and the renminbi but also the euro, the Euro Area being the third economy, along with the U.S. and China with the economic scale that is a prerequisite for being able to issue a true international currency. If all three issuers follow sound and stable policies, then there is no reason why their three currencies can’t share the international stage for the foreseeable future—in effect there’s no reason why they can’t share that stage indefinitely. The global economy will be better off with three sources of liquidity, compared to the current status quo where it is all but wholly dependent on one.

In contrast, if one or more of the issuers in question follows erratic policies, investors will flee its currency, since in a world of multiple international and reserve currencies they will have alternatives—they will have somewhere to go. The result could then be sharp changes in exchange rates.  The consequence could be high volatility that would wreak havoc with national and international financial markets. So while a world of multiple international currencies has benefits, it also entails risks. Policy choices—and politics—will determine  whether the risks or benefits dominate in the end.

EichengreenBarry Eichengreen is the George C. Pardee and Helen N. Pardee Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Hall of Mirrors, Exorbitant Privilege, Globalizing Capital, and The European Economy since 1945Arnaud Mehl is principal economist at the European Central Bank. Livia Chiţu is an economist at the European Central Bank.

Rachel Schneider & Jonathan Morduch: Why do people make the financial decisions they make?

Deep within the American Dream lies the belief that hard work and steady saving will ensure a comfortable retirement and a Financialbetter life for one’s children. But in a nation experiencing unprecedented prosperity, even for many families who seem to be doing everything right, this ideal is still out of reach. In The Financial Diaries, Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider draw on the groundbreaking U.S. Financial Diaries, which follow the lives of 235 low- and middle-income families as they navigate through a year. Through the Diaries, Morduch and Schneider challenge popular assumptions about how Americans earn, spend, borrow, and save—and they identify the true causes of distress and inequality for many working Americans. Combining hard facts with personal stories, The Financial Diaries presents an unparalleled inside look at the economic stresses of today’s families and offers powerful, fresh ideas for solving them. The authors talk about the book, what was surprising as they conducted their study, and how their findings affect the conversation on inequality in a new Q&A:

Why did you write this book?
We have both spent our careers thinking about households and consumer finance, and our field has reams and reams of descriptive data about what people do—savings rates, the number of overdrafts, the size of their tax refunds. We have lots of financial information but very little of the existing data helped us understand why—why people make the financial decisions they make, and why they get tripped up. So we decided to spend time with a group of families, get to know them very well, and track every dollar they earned, spent, borrowed, and shared over the course of one year. By collecting new and different kinds of information, we were able to understand a lot of the why, and gained a new view of what’s going on in America.

What did you learn about the financial lives of low- and moderate-income families in your year-long study?
We saw that the financial lives of a surprising number of families looks very different from the standard story that most people expect. The first and most prominent thing we saw is how unsteady, how volatile households’ income and expenses were for many. The average family in our study had more than five months a year when income was 25% above or below their average.

That volatility made it hard to budget and save—and it meant that plans were often derailed. How people were doing had less to do with the income they expected to earn in total during the year and more to do with when that income hit paychecks and how predictable that was. Spending emergencies added a layer of complexity. In other words, week-to-week and month-to-month cash flow problems dominated many families’ financial lives. Their main challenges weren’t resisting temptation to overspend in the present, or planning appropriately for the long term but how to make sure they would have enough cash for the needs they knew were coming soon.

The resulting anxiety, frustration, and a sense of financial insecurity affected families that were technically classified as middle class.

How does this tie into the economic anxiety that fueled Trump’s election?
The families we talked to revealed deep anxieties that are part of a broader backdrop for understanding America today. That anxiety is part of what fueled Trump, but it also fueled Bernie Sanders and, to an extent, Hillary Clinton. A broad set of the population feels rightly that the system just isn’t working for them.

For example, we met Becky and Jeremy, a couple with two kids who live in small town Ohio where Trump did well. Jeremy is a mechanic who fixes trucks on commission. Even though he works full-time, the size of his paychecks vary wildly depending on how many trucks come in each day. This volatility in their household income means that while they’re part of the middle class when you look at their annual income, they dipped below the poverty line six months out of the year.

One day we met with Becky, who was deciding whether or not to make their monthly mortgage payment a couple of weeks early. She had enough money on hand, but she was wavering between paying it now so she could rest easy knowing it was taken care of, or holding onto the money because she didn’t know what was going to happen in the next couple weeks, and was afraid she might need the money for something else even more urgent. She was making decisions like this almost every day, which created not only anxiety but a sense of frustration about always feeling on the edge.

Ultimately, Jeremy decided to switch to a lower-paying job with a bigger commute doing the exact same work – but now he’s paid on salary. They opted for stability over mobility. Becky and Jeremy helped us see how the economic anxiety people feel is not only about having enough money, but about the structure of their economic lives and the risk, volatility, and insecurity that have become commonplace in our economy.

One of the most interesting insights from your book is that while these families are struggling, they’re also working really hard and coming up with creative ways to cope. Can you share an example?
Janice, a casino worker in Mississippi, told us about a system she created with multiple bank accounts. She has one bank account close to her she uses for bill paying. But she also has a credit union account where she has part of her paycheck automatically deposited. This bank is an hour away, has inconvenient hours, and when they sent her an ATM card, she cut it in half. She designed a level of inconvenience for that account on purpose, in order to make it harder to spend that money. She told us she will drive the hour to that faraway bank when she has a “really, really need”—an emergency or cost that is big enough that she’ll overcome the barriers she put up on purpose. One month, she went down there because her grandson needed school supplies, which was a “really, really need” for her. The rest of the time, it’s too far away to touch. And that’s exactly how she designed it.

We found so many other examples like this one, where people are trying to create the right mix of structure and flexibility in their financial lives. There’s a tension between the structure that helps you resist temptation and save, and the flexibility you need when life conspires against you. But we don’t have financial products, services, and ideas that are designed around this need and the actual challenges that families are facing. This is why Janice has all these different banks she uses for different purposes—to get that mix of structure and flexibility that traditional financial services do not provide.

How does this tie into the conversation we’ve been having about inequality over the last decade or so?
Income and wealth inequality are real. But those two inequalities of income and assets are hiding this other really important inequality, which is about stability. What we learned in talking to families is that they’re not thinking about income and wealth inequality on a day-to-day basis—they’re worrying about whether they have enough money today, tomorrow, and next week. The problem is akin to what happens in businesses. They might be profitable on their income statement, but they ran out of cash and couldn’t make payroll next week.

This same scenario is happening with the families we met. We saw situations where someone has enough income or is saving over time, but nonetheless, they can’t make ends meet right now. That instability is the hidden inequality that’s missing from our conversation about wealth and income inequality.

How much of this comes down to personal responsibility? Experts like Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey argue you can live on a shoestring if you’re just disciplined. Doesn’t that apply to these families?
The cornerstone of traditional personal finance advice from people like Orman and Ramsey is budgeting and discipline. But you can’t really do that without predictability and control.

We met one woman who is extremely disciplined about her budget, but the volatility of her income kept tripping her up. She is a tax preparer, which means she earns half her income in the first three months of the year. She has a spreadsheet where she runs all her expenses, down to every taxi she thinks she might need to take. She budgets really explicitly and when she spends a little more on food one week, she goes back and looks at her budget, and changes it for the next few weeks to compensate. Her system requires extreme focus and discipline, but it’s still not enough to make her feel financially secure. Traditional personal finance advice just isn’t workable for most families because it doesn’t start with the actual problems that families face.

What can the financial services industry do to better serve low- and moderate-income families?
The financial services industry has a big job in figuring out how to deal with cash flow volatility at the household level, because most of the products they have generated are based on an underlying belief that households have a regular and predictable income. So their challenge is to develop new products and services—and improve existing ones—that are designed to help people manage their ongoing cash flow needs and get the right money at the right time.

There are a few examples of innovative products that are trying to help households meet the challenges of volatility and instability. Even is a new company that helps people smooth out their income by helping them automatically save spikes, or get a short-term “boost” to cover dips. Digit analyzes earning and spending patterns to find times when someone has a little extra on hand and put it aside, again automatically. Propel is looking to make it much easier and faster for people to get access to food stamps when they need them. There are a number of organizations trying to bring savings groups or lending circles, a way of saving and borrowing with friends and family common everywhere in the developing world, to more people in the United States.

There is lots of scope for innovation to meet the needs of households—the biggest challenge is seeing what those needs are, and how different they are from the standard way of thinking about financial lives and problems.

Jonathan Morduch is professor of public policy and economics at the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He is the coauthor of Portfolios of the Poor (Princeton) and other books. Rachel Schneider is senior vice president at the Center for Financial Services Innovation, an organization dedicated to improving the financial health of Americans.

The Financial Diaries

FinancialThe Financial Diaries by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider details the results of a groundbreaking study they conducted of 235 low- and middle-income families over the course of one year. What they found is that the conventional life-cycle method of approaching finances, wherein a family saves steadily to prepare for eventual retirement, is unrealistic for many. This book combines hard facts with the personal stories of people struggling to make ends meet, even in a time when America is experiencing unprecedented prosperity. You’ll meet a street vendor, a tax preparer, and many more as Schneider and Morduch challenge popular assumptions about how Americans earn, spend, borrow, and save. Read on to learn more about the everyday challenges of a casino dealer from central Mississippi.

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Janice Evans has worked at the Pearl River Resort— a family-friendly destination on the Choctaw reservation in central Mississippi with water slides, a spa, two golf courses, a steakhouse, and a casino—for close to twenty years, since she was in her mid-thirties. She works the night shift, starting at 8am and finishing up at 4am. As a single, African American mother with a high school degree, she makes $8.35 per hour, but in a good week she can double that in tips. Customers can put chips in her “toke box,” and at the end of each shift they are collected and counted; the equivalent amount in dollars is then added to Janice’s next paycheck. She does well during the summer months, but fall is much slower. Her income also rises and falls based on where the local college football team is playing that year—when they play near Pearl River people often come to the casino after a game, and when they don’t the casino does not get that business. Over the course of the year Janice makes just over $26,000, or an average of about $2,200 a month. However, due to the fluctuating income from tips, her actual take home pay each month can vary from around $1,800 to approximately $2,400. That represents a 30% deviation between paychecks. Just before the study began, Janice’s son Marcus was laid off from his maintenance job when his employer lost a contract; as a result, he and his three-year-old daughter moved in with Janice. Since he no longer had an income, he qualified for food stamps, an average of $125/month, but this income was unsteady as well: at one point the local social services agency mistook Janice’s income for Marcus’s and canceled his food stamps. It took two months to get them back. And while he also qualified for unemployment benefits, several months passed before the first check arrived. Altogether, the benefits boosted the household’s net income to $33,000, but with the increased funds came increased inconsistency. Whereas before Janice’s income swung 30%, it now swung 70% from high to low months. Given the nature of Janice’s work in a seasonal, low-skill, tipped job and the unreliability of Marcus’s benefits, you might assume that her family’s income would be among the most erratic of the 235 households studied in the U.S. Financial Diaries. In fact, it’s not—the degree of inconsistency in Janice’s household was on par with most families that the authors got to know throughout the course of their study. Morduch and Schneider’s study of families who struggle with income volatility revealed new insights into how Americans make money, borrow, spend, and save.

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To learn more, pick up a copy of The Financial Diaries by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider.

Kenneth Rogoff: The Compactness of Big Bills

Today in our blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash:

From Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, comes a video story marvelously explaining why criminals, tax evaders, and corrupt official so love large denomination notes. Here, an apparently corrupt Nigerian official (who pleads innocence) finds $100s very convenient for stashing cash. The story comes at the top of the show.

I am grateful to Larry Kintisch of Blauvelt NY for drawing my attention to this story. Yes, there is a world of difference between a “less-cash society” as my book argues, and a cash-less society that the cash lobby likes to point to as a scare tactic for maintaining the absurd status quo.

The paperback edition of The Curse of Cash: How Large Denomination Bills Aid Tax Evasion and Crime and Constrain Monetary Policy will be coming out early this summer; now with an analysis of Indian demonetization and other issues that have arisen in the past year.

Read other posts in the series here.

Andrew Lo on Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought

Half of all Americans have money in the stock market, yet economists can’t agree on whether investors and markets are rational and efficient, as modern financial theory assumes, or irrational and inefficient, as behavioral economists believe. In this groundbreaking book, Andrew Lo cuts through this debate with a new framework, the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, in which rationality and irrationality coexist. Adaptive Markets shows that the theory of market efficiency isn’t wrong but merely incomplete. Lo’s new paradigm explains how financial evolution shapes behavior and markets at the speed of thought. An ambitious new answer to fundamental questions in economics, Adaptive Markets is essential reading for anyone who wants to know how markets really work. We asked him to explain the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, the strengths and limitations on the current theories, and how this new thinking can be practically applied.

What led you to write this book?

AL: Ever since I was a graduate student in economics, I’ve been struggling with the uncomfortable observation that economic theory doesn’t seem to work in practice. As elegant as this theory is, there are so many examples where the data just don’t support the theory that, after a while, I started wondering just how useful our theories were. For example, stock market prices don’t follow random walks, market prices don’t always seem rational, and people often make poor decisions, especially when it comes to financial matters. But it takes a theory to beat a theory. Rather than just criticizing existing theories, I decided to develop an alternative—this book describes the personal journey I took to arrive at that alternative, which I call the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis.

What’s the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis?

AL: The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis is my solution to the longstanding debate in financial economics between two competing camps. One camp consists of the disciples of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, who believe that investors are rational decision makers and market prices fully reflect all available information. The opposing camp consists of the psychologists and behavioral economists who believe that investors are irrational and market prices are driven by “animal spirits.” It turns out that both camps have correctly captured certain aspects of human behavior, but neither camp offers a complete picture of how investors and markets behave. The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis fills this gap.

How?

AL: By drawing on recent research in psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and artificial intelligence, I show that human behavior is the result of several different components of the brain, some of which produce rational behavior while others produce more instinctive emotional behavior. These components often work together, but occasionally they compete with each other. And for obvious evolutionary reasons, rationality can be trumped by emotion and instinct when we’re confronted with extreme circumstances like physical threats—we “freak out.” The problem is that these hardwired responses to physical threats are also triggered by financial threats, and freaking out is generally not the best way to deal with such threats. Therefore, investors and markets have a split personality: sometimes they’re quite rational but every so often, they freak out.

Are you suggesting that the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, which dominates financial thinking today, is wrong?

AL: No! On the contrary, the Efficient Markets Hypothesis is one of the most useful, powerful, and beautiful pieces of economic reasoning that economists have ever proposed. Generations of investors and portfolio managers have been saved from bad investment decisions because of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, which says that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The Efficient Markets Hypothesis is not wrong; it’s merely incomplete. Its focus is the behavior of investors and markets in normal business environments, where the “wisdom of crowds” rules the day. What’s missing is the “madness of mobs,” when investors are reacting emotionally and instinctively in response to extreme business environments—good or bad—leading either to irrational exuberance or panic selling. The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis provides a more complete framework in which both types of behaviors are possible. The combination of these behaviors yields a much richer set of implications for price dynamics, investment strategies, risk management, and financial regulation.

Who is the intended audience for this book?

AL: My intention was to write this book for the general reader, but only time will tell whether or not I’ve succeeded. In fact, I’m hoping that there’s something for everyone in this book. For example, readers wondering whether or not it’s possible to beat the stock market using mathematical models will want to read Chapter 2, “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” For readers already convinced that it’s possible and want to understand the neuroscientific basis of irrational behavior, they’ll want to read Chapter 3, “If You’re So Rich, Why Aren’t You Smart?” No book on finance would be complete without a discussion of how the recent financial crisis could have happened to us—a country with one of the most sophisticated financial systems in the world—and that’s Chapter 9, “Fear, Greed, and Financial Crisis.” And for readers interested in getting a glimpse of the future of the financial industry and the amazing things that can be accomplished with finance if used properly, there’s Chapter 12, “To Boldly Go Where No Financier Has Gone Before.” Although the book is based on my academic research, I’ve worked hard to translate “academic-speak” into plain English, using simple analogies and real-life examples to make the research come alive. In fact, there’s not a single equation or mathematical formula in the book, which is no easy feat for someone from MIT!

In Adaptive Markets you take an interdisciplinary view of financial markets, bringing in cognitive neuroscience, biology, computer science, and engineering. How did you come to bring all of these seemingly disparate fields together and why is that important?

AL: Although I do enjoy learning new things and have broad-ranging interests, when I started my academic career as a financial economist, I had no interest or intention in doing “interdisciplinary” research. I was perfectly happy spending my days and nights working on traditional neoclassical financial economics—portfolio theory, derivatives pricing models, asset pricing models, financial econometrics, and so on. But the more I tried to fit financial theories to data, the more frustrated I became that these theories performed so poorly. So I started trying to understand why the theories broke down and how they could be fixed. I began by studying behavioral economics and finance, which led me to psychology, which then to the cognitive neurosciences, and so on. I was dragged—sometimes kicking and screaming—from one field of study to the next in my quest to understand why financial markets don’t work the way we think (and want them to). This process ultimately led me to the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, which is a very satisfying (for me, at least) integration of various disciplines that have something to say about human behavior. I’m especially pleased by the fact that Adaptive Markets reconciles the two competing schools of thought in financial economics, both of which are compelling in their own right even though they’re incomplete.

Why do we need to understand the evolution of finance?

AL: Many authors and academics will use evolution as a metaphor when referring to the impact of change. In Adaptive Markets, I use evolution quite literally because financial markets and institutions are nothing short of evolutionary adaptations that Homo sapiens has developed to improve our chances of survival. Therefore, if we really want to understand how the financial system works, how it changes over time and circumstances, and what we can do to improve it, we need to understand the evolution of finance. And unlike animal species, which evolve from one generation to the next, the financial system evolves at the speed of thought.

You argue that economics wishes it were more like the hard science of physics where 99% of all observable phenomena can be explained with three laws. Will we ever have a complete understanding of how financial markets function?

AL: It’s true that most economists—myself included—suffer from a psychological disorder called “physics envy.” We wish we could explain 99% of economic behavior with three laws like the physicists but this is a pipe dream. The great physicist Richard Feynman put it best when he said, “Imagine how much harder physics would be if electrons had feelings!” I tell all my students at the start of the semester that all economic theories are approximations to a much more complex reality, so the key question for investors and portfolio managers is not “is the theory correct?” but rather, “how good is the approximation?” The answer to this question lies largely in the environment, which plays a huge role in evolutionary theories. Whether we’ll ever be able to develop a truly complete theory of human behavior—and, therefore, how financial markets function—is hard to say. But I do believe that we can get much closer to that complete theory through the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis.

How can investors and portfolio managers incorporate the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis into their investment philosophies?

AL: The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis has a relatively straightforward but sweeping implication for all investment philosophies, and that has to do with change. During normal business environments, the principles of Efficient Markets are an excellent approximation to reality. For example, from the 1930s to the early 2000s, a period where the U.S. stock market had relatively consistent average returns and volatility, a long-only passive investment strategy of 60% stocks and 40% bonds produced pretty decent returns, particularly for those who were investing over a 10- or 20-year horizon. The problem is that this approach doesn’t always work. When market conditions change and we experience large macro shocks like the financial crisis of 2008, then simple heuristics like 60/40 no longer work as well because financial markets have changed in their dynamics. Today’s markets are now much more responsive to intervention by governments and their central banks and punctuated by the irregular cycle of fear and greed. So since 2007 and 2008, we’ve seen a very different market dynamic than over the previous six decades. The point of Adaptive Markets is not simply to be wedded to any static theory, but rather to understand how the nature of markets can change. And once it does change, we need to change with it. John Maynard Keynes put it best when, in responding to criticism that he flip-flopped on the gold standard, he said, “When the facts change, sir, I change my mind. What do you do?”

Can you give an example of how change might impact today’s investors?

AL: One important implication of Adaptive Markets for investors and portfolio managers is that passive investing is changing and we have to adapt. John Bogle—the founder of the Vanguard Group and the father of passive investing and index funds—had an incredibly important insight in the 1970s which he calls the “Cost Matters Hypothesis:” reducing trading costs can have a huge impact on wealth accumulation. Bogle has done more for the individual investor than anyone else I can think of; he democratized the investment process. Thanks to technological innovations like automated trading, electronic market-making, and big data analytics, we’re ready to take the next evolutionary step that builds on Bogle’s legacy. For example, like the trend in healthcare towards personalized medicine, we can now create personalized indexes that are passive portfolios designed to achieve specific goals for a given individual. You might be more risk tolerant than your neighbor so your portfolio will have more equities, but because you work in the financial industry and she works in big pharma, your personalized portfolio will have fewer financial stocks and hers will have fewer biopharma stocks. Also, personalized indexes can manage the risk more actively to suit an individual’s threshold of “pain.” Current financial wisdom criticizes investors who don’t invest for the long run, and I’ve always thought such criticism to be terribly unfair. After all, how easy is it for someone to stick with an investment that’s lost 50% of its value over just a few months? Well, that’s exactly what happened between the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009. Traditional investment advice is a bit like trying to prevent teenage pregnancies by asking teenagers to abstain—it’s not bad advice, but it’s unrealistic. Why not manage the risk of an individual’s portfolio more actively so as to reduce the chances of freaking out?

Finance has developed a bad reputation in the popular press, particularly in the aftermath of the recent financial crisis. Does the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis have anything to say about this and how things can be improved?

AL: Absolutely. At the heart of all bad behavior, regardless of the industry or context, is human nature. Humans are the Curious George of the animal kingdom, but there’s no “man in the yellow hat” to bail us out when we get into trouble. Homo sapiens has evolved in some remarkable ways and we’re capable of extraordinary things, both good and bad. The same social and cultural forces that give rise to wonderful organizations like the Peace Corps, the Red Cross, and Doctors without Borders can sometimes lead to much darker and destructive organizations. The only way for us to deal more effectively with the negative aspects of society is to acknowledge this dual nature of human behavior. Chapter 11 of Adaptive Markets, titled “Fixing Finance,” is devoted entirely to this objective. We have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater—the financial system definitely can be improved, but we shouldn’t vilify this critically important industry because of a few bad actors.

What are some specific proposals for how to fix finance?

AL: Well, before we can fix finance, we need to understand where financial crises come from, and the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis has a clear answer: crises are the product of human behavior coupled with free enterprise. If you can eliminate one or both of these two components, you can eliminate financial crises. Otherwise, financial crises are an avoidable fact of modern life. Human misbehavior is a force of Nature, not unlike hurricanes, flash floods, or earthquakes, and it’s not possible to legislate away these natural disasters. But this doesn’t mean we can do anything about it—we may not be able to prevent hurricanes from occurring, but we can do a great deal to prepare for them and reduce the damage they do. We can do a lot to prepare for financial crises and reduce the damage they do to those individuals and institutions least able to withstand their devastating consequences. This perspective is important because it goes against the traditional narrative that financial crises are caused by a few greedy unscrupulous financiers and once we put them in jail, we’ve taken care of the problem. The Adaptive Markets perspective suggests something different: the problem is us. Specific proposals for dealing with crises include: using new technologies in data science to measure economic activity and construct early warning indicators of impending crises; studying crises systematically like the way the National Transportation Safety Board studies airplane crashes so we know how to make the financial system safer; creating adaptive regulations that change with the environment, becoming more restrictive during booms and less restrictive during busts; and systematically measuring individual behavior and corporate culture quantitatively so we can engage in “behavioral risk management.”

Now that you’ve written this book, where do you see your research going from here?

AL: Well, this is still early days for the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis. There’s so much left to be done in exploring the implications of the theory and testing the implications empirically and experimentally whenever possible. The Efficient Markets Hypothesis took decades and hundreds of academic studies to get established, and the same will be true of this one. One of my goals in writing this book is to motivate my academic and industry colleagues to start this vetting process. In the same way that Darwin’s theory of evolution had to be tested and challenged from many different perspectives, the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis has to go through the gauntlet of academic scrutiny. One important implication of the Adaptive Markets perspective is that we need to change the way we collect data and test theories in financial economics. For example, traditional tests of financial theories involve collecting stock market prices and analyzing the statistical properties of their risks and returns. Contrast this approach with how an ecologist would study a newly discovered tropical island in an effort to preserve it. He would begin by first cataloguing the flora and fauna, identifying the key species, and measuring their biomasses and behaviors. Next, he would determine the food chain, environmental threats, and predator/prey relationships, and then turn to population dynamics in the context of the changing environment. Ultimately, such a process would lead to a much deeper understanding of the entire ecosystem, allowing ecologists to determine the best way to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of that island. Imagine doing the same thing with the financial industry. We would begin by cataloguing the different types of financial institutions and investors, measuring their financial biomass, and identifying key species—banks, hedge funds, pension funds, retail investors, regulators, etc.—and their behaviors. Then we would determine the various types of business relationships and interdependencies among these species, which are critical for mapping the population dynamics of this financial ecosystem. This approach seems sensible enough, but it’s not yet being done today (except by my collaborators and me!).

How do you continue to evolve your own thinking? What do you do?

AL: Someone very wise once said that the beginning of wisdom is humility, and I’m convinced that this is how we make progress as a civilization. Once we’re convinced that we have all the answers, we stop asking new questions and learning. So I’m continually looking for new ways to understand financial market behavior, and constantly humbled by how little I know compared to how much we have yet to discover. In this respect, I guess I’m an intellectual opportunist—I don’t care where an idea comes from or what academic discipline it belongs to; if it gives me new insight into an existing problem, I’ll use it and build on it. I’m currently working on several applications of the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis to investments, risk management, and financial regulation, and also hoping to test the theory in the context of individual and institutional investment decisions. The initial results are quite promising and show that financial industry participants adapt much more quickly than we thought. These results point to several important unintended consequences that have clear implications for how we should regulate the industry so as to reduce the chances of another financial crisis.

Andrew W. Lo is the Charles E. and Susan T. Harris Professor at the MIT Sloan School of LoManagement and director of the MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering. He is the author of Hedge Funds and Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought. He is also the founder of AlphaSimplex Group, a quantitative investment management company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Edward Balleisen on the long history of fraud in America

BalleisenDuplicitous business dealings and scandal may seem like manifestations of contemporary America gone awry, but fraud has been a key feature of American business since its beginnings. The United States has always proved an inviting home for boosters, sharp dealers, and outright swindlers. Worship of entrepreneurial freedom has complicated the task of distinguishing aggressive salesmanship from unacceptable deceit, especially on the frontiers of innovation. At the same time, competitive pressures have often nudged respectable firms to embrace deception. In Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff, Edward Balleisen traces the history of fraud in America—and the evolving efforts to combat it. Recently, he took the time to answer some questions about his book.

Can you explain what brought you to write this book?

EB: For more than two decades, I have been fascinated by the role of trust in modern American capitalism and the challenges posed by businesses that break their promises. My first book, Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America, addressed this question by examining institutional responses to insolvency in the mid-nineteenth-century. This book widens my angle of vision, considering the problem of intentional deceit in the United States across a full two centuries.

In part, my research was motivated by the dramatic American fraud scandals of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which demonstrated how badly duplicitous business practices could hurt investors, consumers, and general confidence in capitalism. I wanted to understand how American society had developed strategies to constrain such behavior, and why they had increasingly proved unequal to the task since the 1970s.

In part, I was gripped by all the compelling stories suggested by historical episodes of fraud, which often involve charismatic business-owners, and often raise complex questions about how to distinguish enthusiastic exaggeration from unscrupulous misrepresentation.

In part, I wanted to tackle the challenges of reconstructing a history over the longer term. Many of the best historians during the last generation have turned to microhistory – detailed studies of specific events or moments. But there is also an important place for macro-history that traces continuity and change over several generations.

In addition, my research was shaped by increasingly heated debates about the costs and benefits of governmental regulation, the extent to which the social legitimacy of market economies rest on regulatory foundations, and the best ways to structure regulatory policy. The history of American anti-fraud policy offers compelling evidence about these issues, and shows that smart government can achieve important policy goals.

What are the basic types of fraud?

EB: One important distinction involves the targets of intentional economic deceit. Sometimes individual consumers defraud businesses, as when they lie on applications for credit or life insurance. Sometimes taxpayers defraud governments, by hiding income. Sometimes employees defraud employers, by misappropriating funds, which sociologists call “occupational fraud.” I focus mostly on deceit committed by firms against their counterparties (other businesses, consumers, investors, the government), or “organizational fraud.”

Then there are the major techniques of deception by businesses. Within the realm of consumer fraud, most misrepresentations take the form of a bait and switch – making big promises about goods or services, but then delivering something of lesser or even no quality.

Investment fraud can take this form as well. But it also may depend on market manipulations – spreading rumors, engaging in sham trades, or falsifying corporate financial reports in order to influence price movements, and so the willingness of investors to buy or sell; or taking advantage of inside information to trade ahead of market reactions to that news.

One crucial type of corporate fraud involves managerial looting. That is, executives engage in self-dealing. They give themselves outsized compensation despite financial difficulties, direct corporate resources to outside firms that they control in order to skim off profits, or even drive their firms into bankruptcy, and then take advantage of inside information to buy up assets on the cheap.

Why does business fraud occur?

EB: Modern economic life presents consumers, investors, and businesses with never-ending challenges of assessing information. What is the quality of goods and services on offer, some of which may depend on newfangled technologies or complex financial arrangements? How should we distinguish good investment opportunities from poor ones?

In many situations, sellers and buyers do not possess the same access to evidence about such issues. Economists refer to this state of affairs as “information asymmetry.” Then there is the problem of information overload, which leads many economic actors to rely on mental short-cuts – rules of thumb about the sorts of businesses or offers that they can trust. Almost all deceptive firms seek to look and sound like successful enterprises, taking advantage of the tendency of consumers and investors to rely on such rules of thumb. Some of the most sophisticated financial scams even try to build confidence by warning investors about other frauds.

A number of common psychological tendencies leave most people susceptible to economic misrepresentations at least some of the time. Often we can be taken in by strategies of “framing” – the promise of a big discount from an inflated base price may entice us to get out our wallets, even though the actual price is not much of a bargain. Or a high-pressure stock promoter may convince us to invest by convincing us that we have to avoid the regret that will dog us if we hold back and then lose out on massive gains.

How has government policy toward business fraud changed since the early nineteenth century?

EB: In the nineteenth century, Anglo-American law tended to err on the side of leniency toward self-promotion by businesses. In most situations, the key legal standard was caveat emptor, or let the buyer beware. For the judges and legislators who embraced this way of thinking, markets worked best when consumers and investors knew that they had to look out for themselves. As a result, they adopted legal rules that often made it difficult for economic actors to substantiate allegations of illegal deceit.

For more than a century after the American Civil War, however, there was a strong trend to make anti-fraud policies less forgiving of companies that shade the truth in their business dealings. As industrialization and the emergence of complex national markets produced wider information asymmetries, economic deceit became a bigger problem. The private sector responded through new types of businesses (accounting services, credit reporting) and self-regulatory bodies to certify trustworthiness. But from the late nineteenth century into the 1970s, policy-makers periodically enacted anti-fraud regulations that required truthful disclosures from businesses, and that made it easier for investors and consumers to receive relief when they were taken for a ride.

More recently, the conservative turn in American politics since the 1970s led to significant policy reversals. Convinced that markets would police fraudulent businesses by damaging their reputations, elected officials cut back on budgets for anti-fraud enforcement, and rejected the extension of anti-fraud regulations to new financial markets like debt securitization.

Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08, which was triggered in part by widespread duplicity in the mortgage markets, Americans have again seen economic deceit as a worrisome threat to confidence in capitalist institutions. That concern has prompted the adoption of some important anti-fraud policies, like the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But it remains unclear whether we have an entered a new era of greater faith in government to be able to constrain the most harmful forms of business fraud.

Many journalists and pundits have characterized the last several decades as generating epidemics of business fraud. What if anything is distinctive about the incidence of business fraud since the 1970s?

EB: Fraud episodes have occurred in every era of American history. During the nineteenth century, railroad contracting frauds abounded, as did duplicity related to land companies and patent medicine advertising. Deception in the marketing of mining stocks became so common that a prevalent joke defined “mine” as “a hole in the ground with a liar at the top.” From the 1850s through the 1920s, Wall Street was notorious for the ruthless manner in which dodgy operators fleeced unsuspecting investors.

Business frauds hardly disappeared in mid-twentieth-century America. Indeed, bait and switch marketing existed in every urban retailing sector, and especially in poor urban neighborhoods. Within the world of investing, scams continued to target new-fangled industries, such as uranium mines and electronics. As Americans moved to the suburbs, fraudulent pitchmen followed right behind, with duplicitous franchising schemes and shoddy home improvement projects.

The last forty years have also produced a regular stream of major fraud scandals, including the Savings & Loan frauds of the 1980s and early 1990s, contracting frauds in military procurement and healthcare reimbursement during the 1980s and 1990s, corporate accounting scandals in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and frauds associated with the collapse of the mortgage market in 2007-2008.

Unlike in the period from the 1930s through the 1970s, however, business fraud during the more recent four decades have attained a different scale and scope. The costs of the worst episodes have reached into the billions of dollars (an order of magnitude greater than their counterparts in the mid-twentieth century, taking account of inflation and the overall growth in the economy), and have far more frequently involved leading corporations.

Why is business fraud so hard to stamp out through government policy?

EB: One big challenge is presented by the task of defining fraud in legal terms. In ordinary language, people often refer to any rip-off as a “fraud.” But how should the law distinguish between enthusiastic exaggerations, so common among entrepreneurs who just know that their business is offering the best thing ever, and unacceptable lies? Drawing that line has never been easy, especially if one wants to give some leeway to new firms seeking to gain a hearing through initial promotions.

Then there are several enduring obstacles to enforcement of American anti-fraud regulations. Often specific instances of business fraud impose relatively small harms on individuals, even if overall losses may be great. That fact, along with embarrassment at having been duped, has historically led many American victims of fraud to remain “silent suckers.” Proving that misrepresentations were intentional is often difficult; as is explaining the nature of deception to juries in complex cases of financial fraud.

The most effective modes of anti-fraud regulation often have been administrative in character. They either require truthful disclosure of crucial information to consumers and investors, at the right time and incomprehensible language, or they cut off access to the marketplace to fraudulent businesses. Postal fraud orders constitute one example of the latter sort of policy. When the post office determines that a business has engaged in fraudulent practices, it can deny it the use of the mails, a very effective means of policing mail-order firms. Such draconian steps, however, have always raised questions about fairness and often lead to the adoption of procedural safeguards that can blunt their impact.

How does this book help us better understand on contemporary frauds, such as the Madoff pyramid scheme or the Volkswagen emissions scandal?  

EB: One key insight is that so long as economic transactions depend on trust, and so long as there are asymmetries of information between economic counterparties, there will be significant incentives to cheat. Some economists and legal thinkers argue that the best counter to these incentives are reputational counterweights. Established firms, on this view, will not take actions that threaten their goodwill; newer enterprises will focus on earning the trust of creditors, suppliers, and customers. And heavy-handed efforts to police deceptive practices remove the incentive for economic actors to exercise due diligence, while raising barriers to entry, and so limiting the scope for new commercial ideas. This way of thinking shares much in common with the philosophy of caveat emptor that structured most American markets in the nineteenth-century.

But as instances like the Madoff investment frauds and Volkswagen’s reliance on deceptive emissions overrides suggest, reputational considerations have significant limits. Even firms with sterling reputations are susceptible to fraud. This is especially the case when regulatory supports, and wider social norms against commercial dishonesty, are weak.

The title of this book is Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. What do you see as uniquely American about this history of fraud?  

EB: The basic psychological patterns of economic deception have not changed much in the United States. Indeed, these patterns mirror experimental findings regarding vulnerabilities that appear to be common across societies. Thus I would be skeptical that the tactics of an investment “pump and dump” or marketing “bait and switch” would look very different in 1920s France or the Japan of the early 21st century than in the U.S. at those times.

That said, dimensions of American culture have created welcome ground for fraudulent schemes and schemers. American policy-makers have tended to accord great respect to entrepreneurs, which helps to explain the adoption of a legal baseline of caveat emptor in the nineteenth century, and the partial return to that baseline in the last quarter of the twentieth-century.

The growth of the antifraud state, however, likely narrowed the differences between American policies and those in other industrialized countries. One hope of mine for this book is that it prompts more historical analysis of antifraud regulation elsewhere – in continental Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We need more detailed histories in other societies before we can draw firmer comparative conclusions.

What do you see as the most important implications of this book for policy-makers charged with furthering consumer or investor protection?

EB: Business fraud is a truly complex regulatory problem. No modern society can hope to eliminate it without adopting such restrictive rules as to strangle economic activity. But if governments rely too heavily on the market forces associated with reputation, business fraud can become sufficiently common and sufficiently costly to threaten public confidence in capitalist institutions. As a result, policy-makers would do well to focus on strategies of fraud containment.

That approach calls for:

• well-designed campaigns of public education for consumers and investors;
• empowering consumers and investors through contractual defaults, like cooling off periods that allow consumers to back out of purchases;
• cultivating social norms that stigmatize businesses that take the deceptive road;
• building regulatory networks to share information across agencies and levels of government, and between government bodies and the large number of antifraud NGOs; and
• a determination to shut down the most unscrupulous firms, not only to curb their activities, but also to persuade everyone that the state is serious about combating fraud.

Edward Balleisen talks about his new book:

Edward J. Balleisen is associate professor of history and public policy and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America and Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.