Monday, November 03, 2008

First National Brontosaurus

Now for something different than Campaign 08. It is funny how the media has a hard time reporting more than one thing at a time. The world is still dealing with a major financial crisis, yet the US media has almost completely stopped reporting on it, because it is Campaign 08 all the time. Now I know the election is big, bigger than anything, but we are dealing with a world financial crisis, which will surely test the mettle of our next President.

I read an interesting post over on Daily KOS about a potential problem that is growing directly out of the current financial crisis, that is not getting enough coverage by the corporate media, financial institutions "too big to fail" growing even bigger through mergers and takeovers.

Read First National Brontosaurus here:

First National Brontosaurus
by Devilstower
Sun Nov 02, 2008 at 07:18:41 AM PST

This week, a letter authored by a quintet of governors arrived on the desk of America's most powerful official -- Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Unlike most of the traffic passing over Paulson's transom, this letter wasn't about another shaky financial giant, instead it was about an industry "...vital to millions of citizens in our states and across the country." It was cars. This time it was the automotive industry hoping to score some of the bailout cash. And their argument was a familiar one -- the Big Three automakers are too big to fail.

That's a phrase that's becoming all too common these days. AIG was too big to fail, so was Bear Stearns, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

What's the proposed solution for shaky giants too big to fail? Get bigger. Wachovia was too big to fail, so arrangements were made for it to be joined into a bigger entity. The top thing on the automaker's list was loan guarantees that would allow ailing GM to buy also ailing Chrysler. A big part of what the treasury is up to right now is encouraging mergers between financial entities, and even without the prodding of Treasury, these companies are eying each other like students at an eighth-grade dance; sure that their misery would be decreased if they could only find a partner.

The trouble with that is, it's the wrong direction. Mega-mergers aren't the solution to the issue, they're an aggravating factor. And if we don't revise our thinking, we'll soon reach a new distinction: too big to survive. Because the truth is, big doesn't make you safer. Larger equals riskier.

Any evolutionary biologist could tell you that. When we look back at the great extinctions in history, the temptation is to talk about them in terms of the types of animals that perished. The end of the Cretaceous is marked by the departure of the dinosaurs. Why dinosaurs? Eh, they were primitive brutes, unable to meet the challenges of the day and they got out hustled by the smarter, more "fit" mammals. Only... no.

When the Cretaceous came to a close, it didn't just take out dinosaurs. A lot of unrelated creatures perished -- even a lot of the birds and mammals that existed at the time. The events that marked the end of the Cretaceous weren't selective. Animals didn't make it through because they were particularly smart, particularly tough, or particularly furry. The best way to predict who makes it through these times of evolutionary stress is one simple measure: size. At the end of the Cretaceous, no land animal larger than about fifty pounds survived. That meant that 75% of all known species, including dinosaurs, didn't make the cut.

Look around your neighborhood and find a golden retriever. Had this friendly furball been living in the first days of the Tertiary, it would have been the largest animal to walk the Earth.
You can find the same pattern in other extinction events. Even in more modern events, you can make predictions about extinction based solely on size. As humans have reached different areas of the globe, the first things to disappear are the "mega-fauna," the large animals. In fact, the extreme stress we place on the system gives us a very distorted view of what size distribution looks like in a system not under siege. Go back to just before we came on stage, and there were big critters everywhere. Take a peek into any book of extinct animals, and the word "giant" appears with astounding regularity. Everything wasn't bigger in the past because God had out His magnifying glass. Things are simply tougher for wildlife today, and when the going gets tough, big things simply go. These days, the only land dwelling animals weighing over a ton live in Africa and Asia. The world of giants is extinct.

Why should massive, powerful giants be so perversely fragile and prone to failure? They get set up by nature. When conditions are good, there's an advantage to large size. Bigger creatures are harder targets for predators (who themselves have to become giants to tackle their expanding prey), and they have bigger offspring that are also safer than the smaller babies of their less-inflated neighbors. Bigger creatures can also access food sources that may be difficult for small animals to exploit. They may be better able to migrate long distances and even hold more food stores in their bodies against a hard year. All good, right?

But big animals also place a higher demand on their environment. Big bodies simply need big food sources, and if the system comes under prolonged stress, those sources become hard to find. Good times and readily available resources promote increased body size. Good times end... and big things die.

We're currently getting a vivid demonstration of the same factors at work in the economy. In good times, economies of scale support the growth of larger and larger corporations. These mega-fauna of Wall Street browsed on plains of loans and reached into the treetops to gobble down tons of credit derivatives, but when they overgrazed their environment, the only way to keep these behemoths breathing was for the government to truck in stacks of market hay. Making them bigger isn't exactly the best solution to this problem (for those wincing at the equally Brobdignanian lengths to which I've pushed this metaphor, I'm done. Almost.).
In another distant age – 1973 – economist E. F. Schumacher suggested a different approach. Shumacher was an associate of the ultra-influential John Maynard Keynes and a statistician and advisor to the British Coal Board. From this you might expect to find Schumacher's economic insights to be right in the center of the Keynesian ideas that now dominate our world. Instead,

Schumacher's book Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered is not only revolutionary, but looked on by some economists in the same way Iranian Ayatollahs look on The Satanic Verses.

What Shumacher puts forward in Small is Beautiful is the idea that not only are large industries dehumanizing, they're also painfully inefficient.

The most striking about modern industry is that it requires so much and accomplishes so little. Modern industry seems to be inefficient to a degree that surpasses one's ordinary powers of imagination. Its inefficiency therefore remains unnoticed.--E. F. Shumacher

There's a lot of fuzzy thinking that suggests large companies begat large profits and they can, but what Schumaker shows is that, on a piece by piece basis, large companies are frequently less efficient (and as a bonus, they're much more likely to be miserable places to work). The best way for large corporations to survive long term is not by throwing their weight around, but by behaving like a collective of small organizations. Even then they make large demands on their social, economic, and political environment. They're very unlikely to find enough advantage in becoming larger that overcomes the inherent problems in running a giant organization.

The evidence of this can be hard to spot in the everyday world, but you can see the effect by looking at the biggest mega-mergers. Did Daimler find improved economies of scale by merging with Chrysler? Just how much synergy was generated in the amalgamation of Time, Warner, and AOL? A large percentage of these deals unravel, and even among the survivors the value of the new merged company is often far short of the sum of its parts. Even when they succeed, it's often not because of purely business reasons. It's because we pay them to do it.

There are a number of incentives to be large. One of them is clearly displayed in the letter that went to Paulson last week. Big companies have political influence that far outweighs that of their smaller competitors. If you're Artie's Autoparts, you're not going to get five governors to beg your case for a loan with the Treasury Secretary. Neither are you likely to get legislation written to order, a ten year moratorium on your property taxes, or any of the other breaks large companies frequently enjoy. A big part of what drives companies to increase in size today is exactly the way we respond to them.

For Schumacher, the kind of system we've built is not only impossibly unstable, but frankly insane. As we've been reminded so many times in this campaign season, it's small business that generates the most new jobs, provides the greatest opportunity, and act as the most powerful engine of our economy. However, though our laws and behavior, we lure companies to become larger, just as nature provides incentives for animals to grow larger. But where nature and animals are driven by physical constraints that don't involve volition, we have a choice. Big animals die when the system gets stressed. So do big companies.

So why do we keep providing the incentive that generates big companies?

We seem to like bigger. There's something that's extremely satisfying about seeing companies expand, the number of employees increase, the bottom line fill up with larger and larger numbers. It not only scratches some deep psychological itch, it's practically the only way we measure success. Our measure for the standard of living is based on the amount of consumption, not knowledge or fulfillment or leisure. Our measure for efficiency is simply numbers over time, with little regard to quality, or pride, or environmental impact. Our measure for a company's success is simply size. After all, the Fortune 500 doesn't let you in because you're company is nice.

In a lot of ways, our overall economic system is an expression of the favored human activity: gambling. We readily accept policies that place our economy at horrible risk, so long as in most years those policies result in a higher return. We're willing to wave farewell to dependable retirement plans, in exchange for investment schemes that will provide more wealth – usually. We're open to polluting our planet to the extent that it's undergoing another of those mass extinction events, making the bet that we can stop before it gets too bad. The bets we're making keep getting bigger, as do the costs of losing.

As we head into a new administration, we can keep trying to bail out our fiscal Titanics, and keep encouraging the growth of more tottering giants, or we can take steps toward a more stable and sustainable economy. We can remove those factors that encourage companies to endlessly expand by treating small companies with the same attention we give to large companies. And we can take one more important step. We already have the tools we need to make a serious change – though we've allowed those tools to grow terribly rusty over the last three decades. They're called Antitrust Laws.

Antitrust laws have long been a target of the right, so much so that Robert Bork wrote an entire book decrying the existence of such laws. According to Bork, antitrust represents an effort to preserve competition which is sometimes good for consumers, but always bad for the competitors, because it interferes with the purity of the market. For market fundamentalists like Bork antitrust goes into the same bin as any other regulation. All of them get in the way of the sacred invisible hand. While Bork himself might not have gotten his seat on the Supreme Court, his attitude certainly got a spot. Recent rulings from the court have closely followed the arguments set forward by Bork. This view has limited antitrust to little more than investigation of price fixing. Not even clear monopolies have faced the threat of being broken up and can anyone even remember the last time antitrust was used to block a merger?

It doesn't have to be that way. As Robert Reich has recently suggested, the original scope of antitrust was not as limited as Bork pretends, and certainly not as restricted as the way it's been applied recently. It wasn't about price fixing, and it wasn't even just about blocking monopoly powers.

We seem to have forgotten that the original purpose of antitrust law was also to prevent companies from becoming too powerful. Too powerful in that so many other companies depended on them, so many jobs turned on them and so many consumers or investors or depositors needed them, that the economy as a whole would be endangered if they failed. Too powerful in that they could wield inordinate political influence of a sort that might gain them extra favors from Washington.--Robert Reich

The crippling of antitrust law is another aspect of the drive toward unfettered capitalism that gave us unregulated markets and the current crisis. When we pick up our tool kit to fix what's been done since 1980, we need to remember that antitrust is not an obscure tool whose use is limited to a few rare occasions. It's a critical piece of the puzzle for building an economy that's more flexible, more stable, and more able to stand on its own. If we keep following the economic model that's guided us toward disaster, and think we'll find the solution to "too big to fail" in getting bigger, the $700 billion we've already allocated to this massive failure of leadership will soon look like a drop in the bucket.

Pure unregulated capitalism is a fine system for faultless angels living in a boundless fantasyland (for that matter, so is pure communism). However, we live in a world that is populated by errant human beings facing limited resources. In that world, bigger is rarely better. Bigger is only more dangerous. A system that depends on smaller companies and less on expansion may not crank out that last one tenth of one percent of return on investment that we've seen in the best times with our current system, but in exchange we get improvements in stability – and maybe even in personal satisfaction.

Ultimately, we have to learn to measure progress in dimensions other than growth. Otherwise, we're doomed to keep pressing that growth until we hit failure.
Greed and envy demand continuous and limitless economic growth of a material kind, without proper regard for conservation, and this type of growth cannot possibly fit into a finite environment. --E. F. Shumacher

There is no way anyone would ever go for it, but our economy would probably benefit from breaking up many of these financial institutions. Smaller companies are more nimble, creative, and able to respond to shifting circumstances better. These "too big to fail" companies really are lumbering dinosaurs.

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