REFinBlog

Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

February 20, 2020

Money, Government and Mortgages

By David Reiss

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Robert Skidelsky

I just finished reading Money and Government by Robert Skidelsky (2018).  It is a bit tough in parts for non-economists, but it is a great read for those trying to understand the appropriate relationship between economic theory and government policy.  While that may sound dry indeed, it is of key importance to the design of a post-Financial Crisis world regulatory order.

The book delves into the the “Mysteries of Money,” providing a short history of a deceptively simple topic that I continue to find to be difficult to wrap my head around:  what exactly is money and what can you do with it?  The book then goes into some inside baseball analysis of the history of economic thought.  I skimmed this section because it related some pretty technical debates among early economists to set up its more accessible discussion of Keynesian economics and its challenger, Milton Friedman-led Monetarism.  The book then takes a look at how economic theory impacted governments’ responses to the Financial Crisis, for good and for ill.

I think readers of this blog would be most interested by Skidelsky’s insights in the final section, where he tries to sketch “A New Macroeconomics.”  He asks and answers the question, “What Should Governments Do and Why?”  He wants to make banking safe and address inequality.

Readers of this blog will be particularly interested in his analysis and  recommendations for the mortgage market.  He argues that the “main theoretical mistake behind securitization was the assumption that securities are always liquid:  they can always be sold quickly and without (much) loss.”  (328)  The Financial Crisis demonstrated in spades that this was not true.  He argues that “[c]ompelling banks to hold mortgages for a period of years” is the solution to this particular problem.  (363) I do not think that I agree with this solution, but as he argues his point at a high level of generality, it probably is best to say that the devil will be in the details for any reform program in this sphere.

I found his analysis of populism compelling.  He argues that the “political divide between right and left . . . is increasingly overshadowed by one between nationalism and globalism.” (372)  I won’t go into the details here, but he has a very trenchant analysis of how the economist’s theoretical Homo economicus fails to account for important aspects of our humanity as individuals, as members of groups and as citizens of nation-states.  He warns that we do that at our peril:  citizens of democracies will punish their leaders for failing to take into account their complex need to flourish in all of those ways that economists can reduce down to one-dimensional units of measurement, such as “utility.”

Yale University Press says that the book is out of print, but Amazon has paperback copies available if you dig a bit on the book’s web page (and, of course, there are Kindle versions available for those so inclined).  I recommend that you get yourself a copy.

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