The Impotence of the Economists, Part II
| Peter Klein |
The financial-market bailout is one thing. While most economists, rightly in my view, strongly opposed the Paulson plan, one can at least imagine intelligent arguments for it. The proposed auto-industry bailout is something else entirely. Does any economically literate person support it? Industry bailouts are textbook examples of the fallacy of composition, taught in every Econ 101 class. When I teach it I use exactly this kind of example (bailing out Chrysler in 1980, bailing out the airline and insurance industries after 9/11, etc.). Saving the X industry simply harms the Y and Z industries, while substituting the political process for the market in determining the allocation of resrouces. And yet, here we go.
Along these lines, here are some sentences to ponder from David Yermack, writing in today’s WSJ:
In 1993, the legendary economist Michael Jensen gave his presidential address to the American Finance Association. Mr. Jensen’s presentation included a ranking of which U.S. companies had made the most money-losing investments during the decade of the 1980s. The top two companies on his list were General Motors and Ford, which between them had destroyed $110 billion in capital between 1980 and 1990, according to Mr. Jensen’s calculations.
I was a student in Mr. Jensen’s business-school class around that time, and one day he put those rankings on the board and shouted “J’accuse!” He wanted his students to understand that when a company makes money-losing investments, the cost falls upon all of society. Investment capital represents our limited stock of national savings, and when companies spend it badly, our future well-being is compromised. Mr. Jensen made his presentation more than 15 years ago, and even then it seemed obvious that the right strategy for GM would be to exit the car business, because many other companies made better vehicles at lower cost. . . .
Over the past decade, the capital destruction by GM has been breathtaking, on a greater scale than documented by Mr. Jensen for the 1980s.
See also: Lynne Kiesling.