Streetwise Professor

July 16, 2009

The Pretense of Knowledge, Financial Regulation Edition

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Economics,Energy,Exchanges,Financial crisis,Politics — The Professor @ 9:34 pm

A reader sent me an email about my post ridiculing Timothy Geithner’s admission that restructuring the OTC derivative markets is really complicated, telling me that (a) I was very mean, and (b) I can be a real smart ass.  (That said, she also thought it was very funny.)  Both (a) and (b) are true–especially the latter, I guess.  My wife is always telling me that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but there are some things that are so outrageous that sarcastic ridicule is perfectly appropriate.

And I think that Geithner’s admission that a complete re-engineering of the financial system is extremely difficult is one of those things.  He is playing the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, unleashing forces that he doesn’t comprehend.  Somehow dry, play-it-straight analysis doesn’t seem to be an adequate response to such dangerous arrogance.

Indeed, one of the very pillars of his argument for the need for “reform”, the interconnectedness of the financial system, is precisely the reason why care is especially warranted in this instance.  Highly interconnected, dense networks like the financial markets are complex systems.  Small shocks to such complex systems can lead to discontinuous responses.  And such changes are almost always impossible to predict.

These markets are so complex that one should proceed with great caution before making wholesale changes.  This is especially true when these changes are predicated on a simplistic, not to say incorrect, diagnosis of the nature of the system.  Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

It would be useful if Geithner–and Obama, for that matter–would read Hayek’s The Pretense of Knowledge or Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions.  Perhaps such reading would at least temper the presumptuous arrogance that has characterized the administration’s financial regulation initiatives, and its other efforts to remake virtually every other part of the American economy from energy to healthcare.

But I doubt that it will.  And as a result, I would imagine that Mr. Geithner and his colleagues will provide numerous opportunities to exercise my talents in the lowest form of wit.

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  1. I think once they realize the magnitude of things, they are going to do what is humanly possible – namely, talk a lot and do nothing. Publish a lot of numbers drawn out of various body parts, engage in elaborate “kabuki” drama and ultimately claim credit for any good and say we tried our best for everything else.

    Comment by Surya — July 17, 2009 @ 5:55 am

  2. And I who thought the pun was the lowest form of wit. Punder that!

    Comment by Sebastian Franck — July 23, 2009 @ 8:51 am

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