Home > rant > To my Libertarian friends

To my Libertarian friends

First, I’d like to say thank you to the people who have been writing me very nice comments about the PBS Frontline special. It’s cool that people dug it, and it makes me really glad I did it. Thanks!

Second, I had a blast with Reno the other night doing her “Money Talks” show. You should definitely check her out soon.

Also, I’m on my way to the third day of a modeling conference at the IMA (which is part of the University of Minnesota) called User-Centered Modeling. I’ll be speaking tomorrow and I expect to be blogging quite a bit on the other talks between now and Friday.

And with that, I’d like to use the rest of my GoGo Inflight Internet service to start a conversation about the libertarian mindset.

By the way, in spite of my annoyingly opinionated personality, I actually love having friends I disagree with. It feels much more comfortable to be around people who give me friction and challenge my opinions than to be around people who all think similarly to me.

Why? Because it’s a lot easier to spot other people’s hypocrisies than it is to spot one’s own hypocrisies. So if I’m around people who agree with me, we are all very likely being totally blind to something obviously flawed in our mindset, but nobody’s there to point it out.

With that in mind, I really do want this to be a conversation about why libertarians think the way they do- so please comment if you have something to say (and feel free to tell me not to post your comment). I’ll start with what I see as an hypocrisy of the libertarian perspective.

Namely, the cry I hear over and over from the libertarian in the room (whichever one happens to be there) is that big government and welfare and socialized programs are helping people out who should be able to make shit work on their own, whereas they never asked anyone for any help.

This myth of the “pulled myself up by the bootstrap” kind of drives me nuts. It’s like they completely ignore the system in which they lived and (usually) thrived, and how advantaged they are in that system.

When people go into that riff where they talk about how they never owe anybody any money, and they put themselves through college and don’t see why they should feel bad for the students nowadays who owe a collective $1,000,000,000,000 in student loans because they managed to be successful without extra help, here’s what I ask them: do you think you could have been as successful as you are if you’d been born a female subsistence farmer in Africa?

That’s kind of an easy one (and I go from there) but what it does it contextualize the idea of what it means to not ask for help. Namely, when you have a good infrastructure set up with a good education, available health care, etc, then you don’t need to ask for help, because you can help yourself. But it doesn’t mean you’re doing it all by yourself!

So, if you were born into an honest family with a good work ethic and strong skills and intelligence, then yes it’s possible to work really hard and do well, and I’m always proud of people who work really hard and do well, but it needs to be understood that anyone who is a success in our culture is a success partly because our culture allows for such success – and then there’s the individual contribution component which is much much much smaller.

Did you ever notice in the Ayn Rand novel that there aren’t any kids in them? Or for that matter any disabled people, old people, or sick people? It’s a grownup world where you’re either brilliant and yearn to be free from the shackles of petty people trying to repress your innovation, or you’re one of those petty people.

But actually our world isn’t like that at all. We have a community of humans, and like it or not we each contribute to our culture and do our part in defining success or failure.

I always like to point out that I hate laziness, and I have no patience for laziness. It’s a distraction to talk about how lazy whiny entitled kids expect us to pay for their college and then also expect to be given a cushy job afterwards (because libertarians tend to start talking about such symbols of what is wrong with social programs).

Even if there are examples of such people, there are plenty of other examples of people who genuinely worked hard but needed to take out lots of loans and didn’t understand their terms and now are desperately looking for work but can’t find anything. If the conversation is going well I’ll even talk about how if, as a culture, we are raising a generation of entitled kids (which is an exaggeration), then maybe it’s our fault and not the kids’ fault. Because it is.

Categories: rant
  1. lee stephanie
    May 9, 2012 at 9:32 am

    on my list of top 10 terrible things in this world, laziness is #11–except when we’re too lazy to help and love each other.

    i was almost too lazy to post this–but i like your work too much not to.

    have liked Reno for years, too.

    on liberterians and repulsive Ayn Rand? Wish they were too lazy to speak/write…glad you do!

  2. berseliusx
    May 9, 2012 at 9:48 am

    Germane to this post is this Salon/Alter-Net article from a few weeks ago about the myth of the “self-made man”

    http://www.salon.com/2012/04/30/self_made_men_debunked_salpart/

    • May 12, 2012 at 12:30 pm

      In the words of J P Getty: “My formula for success is rise early, work late, and strike oil.”

  3. K.J.
    May 9, 2012 at 11:31 am

    I’m driving a taxi right now. (It’s fun, I enjoy it)

    I encounter a lot of Somali and Ethiopian immigrants. If you want to see what happens when government is weak, talk to some of them. When your biggest worry leaving your house each day is whether or not you’re going to live to come home again.

    The biggest benefits to living in America are the things that everyone takes for granted: roads, reliable electricity, clean plentiful water, safe cheap food, public transportation, public education, etc.

  4. libertarian by default
    May 9, 2012 at 12:18 pm

    (first time, long time, finally decided to hit send)
    I think there’s a more basic libertarian complaint than the “helping people who shouldn’t need help because I didn’t need help” noted above. I think we are awful at understanding complexity and awful at understanding uncertainty, and this forms a natural bias towards limited government (strength of the bias is admittedly “religious”) and decentralized authority.

    Any type of collective utility maximization scheme (utilitarianism, egalitarianism, etc) requires a huge model of the world (including rolling forward over time, weighting over people at the same time, weighting over people who happen to live versus some bigger set of could-have-lived, how about animals, “planet”, etc), and while I think it’s reasonable to run lots of “opt-in” experiments, it’s not reasonable to be so certain of these models that we’re willing to (taken to the extreme) put some people to death so their resources (in the sense of possession just prior to death) can go to others. Some things are clearer than others (let’s say banning murder and declaring the result universal and putting to death the minority that disagrees) and came out of the first few thousand years of experimentation, but the list is really not that large.

    Finally, even the evaluation (let alone definition) of these models requires meta-decisions that reasonable people can’t agree upon and I certainly feel like have no clear answers. So to me, whatever decisions end up being made and ruthlessly enforced are completely arbitrary just like the article alludes to “you could have been born , and isn’t that unfair”.

  5. Susama Agarwala
    May 9, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    “do you think you could have been as successful as you are if you’d been born a female subsistence farmer in Africa”

    Beautiful line. Does it actually work? I usually ask libertarians in the room to move to Somalia, if they want to live in a place without government shackles on them. They either don’t know that Somalia hasn’t had a formal government in decades, or balk at the and respond that a war zone is “different”. Maybe I’ll switch to your tactic.

    • libertarian by default
      May 9, 2012 at 2:22 pm

      I don’t want to move to Somalia (to escape government shackles) and I have high confidence that I would not be “as successful” if I had been born a female subsistence farmer in Africa. On moving to Somalia, I’d even generalize to say that many US libertarians have had the realistic opportunity to move to Somalia and we can infer that they’d answer “No” or protest if “told to move”.

      I think these types of questions are intended to be eye-opening thought experiments, but they don’t seem to affect me that way. I’m truly interested in knowing why I disagree with Mathbabe (and others) here, which is why I decided to reply.

      I don’t think I “balk war zone is different”, but instead claim that there’s nothing truly “formal” about government anywhere and its power comes from force in all cases, rather than formal pieces of paper? So Somalia is not free of shackles but actually has far more “government” than the US.

      So unfortunately, I don’t think these particular thought experiments bring us any closer to agreement and if anything, I’m confused why they sway some but have no effect on me.

      • Another libertarian by default
        May 9, 2012 at 11:05 pm

        I agree completely with both your replies. A big problem I see is that there are both the lazy types who seem to believe society owes them whatever they want, and there are the types who work hard (or are willing to) but are unlucky in some way. But I see a third group: the ones that make bad decisions. Bad decisions range from a poor choice of college degree (in a field where there is little demand for jobs, or insufficient salary to pay off their student loans), to staying in a bad relationship, or any decision that holds us back. Almost all of us have made bad decisions in our lives, but some people, for some reason, seem to make more bad decisions than others, and it’s unclear why. Are they stupid, and don’t learn from their or others’ mistakes? Are they just unlucky, and fell into unavoidable traps? Are they missing some quality that other people have? The truth is probably none of these at all, people and society are just too complex.

        I suppose my point is that every single person and their situation is completely different, and some (perhaps many) of those people are more than deserving of assistance, while others are little more than leeches on the system. So I think we’re doomed no matter what to make some errors of omission (where people who should get help don’t get it) and errors of comission (where people who shouldn’t get help do get it). So it’s a matter of deciding which error is more important to avoid making (and how much more impotant is it). And then it’s a matter of getting everyone to agree on the right proportions, and then implementing said strategy…good luck with all of that! :-p

  6. sheenyglass
    May 9, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    The archetypical Libertarian (1) tends to derive a significant amount of their identity from their view of themselves as being highly rational (2) views coercion as the only characteristic relevant to an inquiry on justice and (3) has a theologian’s faith in the free market’s ability to maximize utility. This leads to the view that coercion is a binary value rather than a continuum and if something doesn’t meet the threshold for that binary value of coercion, then its fine. This is cushioned by their faith that any problems that arise will be best fixed by freeing up the market.

    In thinking the libertarian view of a just society, I like Hirschmann’s voice/exit conception of political participation (when engaging with an institution which is performing unsatisfactorily, you can use “voice” to influence the institution or “exit” to leave the institution). For libertarians exit is paramount, so they don’t mind authoritarian institutions as long as you are free to disengage from them, by, for example, quitting your job or not paying for a doctor whose fee is too high. This allows them to balance their desire for unfettered individual freedom of action while providing an escape hatch for those oppressed by another person’s freedom. For people like myself who find individuality difficult (if not impossible) to separate from community, voice is an important component of a just society – because everyone has to participate in society in some form, everyone should have influence over how it is structured and no one should be forced to leave their community in order to avoid oppression.

    So, I don’t think the libertarian hypocrisy is derived from a delusional belief that they made it on their own–most libertarians I know are generally aware that they received help along the way (although, perhaps, a bit ignorant about its extent, they are no more ignorant than the average child of privilege)–rather it is their belief that help is find if freely given, but compelling someone to help another denies them the ability to exit the relation, which is the fundamental building block of their view of justice.

    This, coupled with the particular species of myopic unreasonableness found among people who pride themselves on their high rationality (which seems to be prevalent in libertarian personalities) and their market religiosity, leads them to (1) reject the idea of duty to help others (along with other non-market relations at odds with their perfect chain of reason) and (2) assume the market will fill in the gaps. When the market fails to fill in the gaps, it is because we have onerously taxed its priesthood and failed to give it sufficient propitiation in the form of regulations on the solstices and social welfare programs on the equinoxes.

  7. AL
    May 9, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    It’s all about the “enlightened self-interest” that recognizes that we’re all interconnected in ways we can’t even imagine!

  8. Jason Starr
    May 9, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    I have had conversations with libertarians, and have yet to meet one who denies the role of privilege in success or the importance of a helping hand for the underprivileged. Most libertarians seem to believe that the government should not be that helping hand. Their view seems to be that the government is inefficient, corrupt, and ultimately more interested in aggregating power (and consequently robbing private citizens of their own power) than in truly helping the underprivileged. Libertarians seem to believe that charitable organizations and initiatives carried out through the private sector are more trustworthy and efficient than government social services. I am certainly not saying that I agree with these opinions. However, these are quite distinct opinions from the opinion “that big government and welfare and socialized programs are helping people out who should be able to make shit work on their own.”

    • Another libertarian by default
      May 9, 2012 at 11:15 pm

      Very true, I have also experienced this same opinion when speaking to *American* libertarians. In other countries, their views on the government can be quite different. For example, from the Canadians I’ve spoken to, I believe the average Canadian feels their government better fulfills the role of helping the underprivileged than does the average American about their government. This is just to illustrate that one’s faith in one’s government probably plays a big role in how much influence/power the citizens are willing to give, with the intent of helping the underprivileged.

  9. May 9, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    I’m sympathetic to libertarian ideals, and I agree that government is often a bad solution. But bad as it is, it’s way better than giving over our governance to powerful, huge corporations and banks with no transparency or accountability, which seems to be the consequence of libertarianism, since the market place created those behemoths. Facing the current crisis, I don’t understand how libertarianism hasn’t scaled its ideals down a bit. Our national debate ought to be not whether government should regulate, but how to fix our political structure so it is capable of regulating effectively in a way that promotes the soundness of the market and promotes stability.

    Libertarians usually assume that even competent government shouldn’t intervene with the market. It’s not their argument that government could intervene effectively, it’s just that *our* government is immutably defective, so the free market, as bad as it is, is better. :-)

    • May 10, 2012 at 12:03 pm

      Corporations only exist because governments created laws providing employees, managers and owners very special privileges, including limited liability and corporate “personhood.” Many libertarians think governments should not have this power. The markets didn’t create corporate behemoths, governments deserve that credit. Corporations certainly aren’t necessary consequences of some forms of libertarianism.

  10. byrdxx
    May 9, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    Anyone interested in people who made it “without government help”should read Ira Katznelson’s “When Affirmative Action Was White”.

  11. May 9, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    Matt Stoller’s Naked Capitalism post about Ron Paul’s challenge to liberals provides some relevant background in ideological hypocrisies. We need to ask why libertarians are the only ones bringing many of the most important issues to the political debate. Would you rather have an uncaring libertarian opponent of the endless war machine, the war on drugs, big finance, limited corporate liability and the surveillance state? Or a caring Republicrat supporter of the same?

    On the issue of government support programs for the needy, I don’t see much more libertarian hypocrisy than Jason #9. Without government support, everyone would have an obligation and a large incentive to help others become productive, whether or not they are kids. This could be an individualized process involving much of society. It might compare favorably to a set of government programs that disconnect society from the neediest while herding them into programs that may not help them find roles.

    Why do libertarians think the way they do? Probably for the same reason you might despise helicopter parents – they just aren’t doing their kids any favors by constantly keeping them out of harm’s way and fighting their battles. Ultimately, big government will abuse its unchallenged power, join forces with corporate elites, and do more harm to its citizenry than it will help.

    Limited liability allows groups to take advantage of individuals through opaque contracts – the kind that defined the financial crisis. It’s really hard to do something jail-worthy while working for a corporation. Many libertarians would eliminate government-enforced limited liability and shift the balance of power back to the individual. This would reduce the fraud and deception prevalent in crony capitalism, even with student loans.

    A libertarian motive for helping others is to improve the society in which they live. Selfish – I guess so. You help others become productive so you can eventually benefit from the fruits of their labor. A hand up but no hand out. Harsh or tough love?

    Are there enough incentives to look out for the best interests of others in a libertarian society? I’d say yes for the youth but probably not for the elderly or incapacitated. Government social programs, including higher education, might be better for those not served well in libertarian society but I’m not sure about the youth. We don’t help young people find roles in our society very well.

    • May 10, 2012 at 10:23 am

      There are no Libertarians in the trenches of Hooverville.
      Libertarianism may be the luxury of a society with a high living standard and a welfare net in place. The masses of the unemployed in the Great Depression did not credit laissez-faire. What’s odd today is that laissez-faire has expanded from an economic policy to a political and social ideology so now, as popular Libertarianism, it has much broader and deeper psychological appeal, as you describe, across many demographics.

  12. May 10, 2012 at 6:18 am

    Shit, I don’t trust government either (especially politicians) but I don’t see how public education would happen without it. How do libertarians think people would be educated if it wasn’t organized through the government?

    For that matter who would be in charge of regulation? Are we supposed to not need that?

    In general I’d count myself as a huge skeptic but at the same time as a pragmatic person. I definitely don’t think we’d have needful basic infrastructure without government, and I would also observe that something as boring as infrastructure tends to be wasteful for whatever reason, but what’s the alternative?

    We can’t leave things like this to private corporations, since they will only invest in people they think will profit them, which would leave out people who are children, sick, or elderly. For that matter they wouldn’t invest in people who aren’t as profitable as others, and we’d see an even more enormous inequality gap. We already see these kinds of dynamics with the healthcare industry.

    • May 10, 2012 at 3:50 pm

      Without publicly supported schools, we’d have educational opportunities at private schools, apprenticeships, and through less formal mechanisms. It certainly wouldn’t be fair in the sense that everyone had an equal chance at that high school diploma. However, it might better meet the needs of everyone, especially the third who aren’t getting that diploma.

      We have a very diverse set of interests and abilities. It’s hard to see all of them nurtured through mandated public education. The libertarian approach would have access flaws but it’s not clear to me that it would be worse than what we have.

      My fundamental difficulties with libertarianism center on the need for government regulation. Much useful private regulation would undoubtedly occur in a libertarian world, just as it does today. Private organizations rate, accredit, certify and approve many products and services. Producers have organized these groups for their benefit while the consumer’s interests are important but secondary. Increasingly, more consumers are participating in less formal regulatory mechanisms, including comment threads on web sites and blog/news reports.

      Unfortunately, we lack effective consumer-organized regulatory bodies. While there is demand for such organizations, it seems difficult to create and operate without industry capture. Maybe I’m just not aware – Consumers Union is the closest organization that comes to mind but it’s too broad based to function as a regulator and some might say that it has had “capture” issues. The difficulty revolves around incentives – individual producers have many and individual consumers have few. In theory, the total consumer “skin” in the game is equal to the producer “skin.” Each transaction has two sides. It’s just much more efficient to organize a few producers than it is to organize many consumers. Government could be one of the most effective means of organizing consumers – and it’s still prone to industry capture.

      Information asymmetries characterize many transactions in modern society. In a libertarian world, there appear to be few mechanisms preventing the “muppet” party from entering into a transaction that is clearly not in his/her best interests. Health care, education, and finance come immediately to mind. There can be no effective contract in these situations because the muppet isn’t positioned to make an informed choice and “meeting of the minds” can’t occur in any meaningful sense. The muppet must trust the counterparty not to take advantage of the situation. When that trust evaporates, all suffer. Effective regulation must build that trust above all else. Producer-organized regulators have done a poor job on the trust issue in many industries, especially finance, education and health care. There seems to be little alternative to consumer-focused government regulation of transactions with information asymmetries. We’ll need to be more vigilant in preventing industry capture of such regulatory agencies to rebuild the trust lost over the past several years.

  13. May 10, 2012 at 11:18 am

    If there were a difference between the political culture and the corporate culture, government could be source of solutions. If there is no difference, not — to be concrete: the public schools will remain woefully substandard, endorsing inequality, and prison construction and maintenance will be the politically expedient solution to the educational system.

    I presume most people who go into finance and big business go into it to make money — not necessarily unethically, but ethics is not the priority. Politicians often go into their field with highly ethical ideals which are rapidly compromised. So any empirical difference in the motivational culture between the two erodes quickly, and to some extent the politicians end up serving the CEO’s anyway.

    The remaining difference I see is this: politicians enter politics in denial of their underlying power motives, seeing only their idealism, while the business types are well aware of their own less lofty motives. Gives another sense to “how are you a narcissist?”

  14. Mike
    May 10, 2012 at 11:46 am

    “…it needs to be understood that anyone who is a success in our culture is a success partly because our culture allows for such success – and then there’s the individual contribution component which is much much much smaller.”

    The first part of of this statement is (more or less, at least to me) self-evidently true, and supported by some discussion in the post. The second part is simply an assertion, with no discussion or evidence. The question of whether the societal or individual component is more important, and how they interact, is a fascinating if difficult one. However, the author’s point is weakened by the lack of any attempt to address it.

  15. Gordon
    May 10, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Given the lack of agreement on exactly what a libertarian is, your essay seems to be setting up a straw man. I’ve never met anyone who seriously believes that there is NO role for the government in a state – if you believe in property rights, for example, you probably believe that there should be an agency with the power to enforce them. Similarly, nobody seriously questions the role of government in providing public goods, like defense.

    Since most people accept the need for government in some form, the question then becomes what the limits on that government’s power should be, and I don’t think this is an easy question to answer a priori: reasonable people can differ. Many people from different parts of the political spectrum agree that some level of education should be publicly funded; however, should it be free to grade 10? 12th grade? Undergraduate? PhD?

    Health is another area which tends to yield polarized arguments. Many libertarians can concede that there might be a role for the government to play in terms of providing care to people who can’t help themselves. Again, though, people can reasonably argue about what that might mean in practice, and my belief that every available treatment for every illness should be funded by the state is as defensible, on some levels, as your belief that some healthcare constitutes a luxury which should be paid for by the consumer. These aren’t really opposing views: they’re graduations along a continuum.

    Ultimately I believe that libertarian principles are more defensible than not. Most advocates of larger government ex- or implicitly believe that a legislator or civil servant can do a better job of controlling your time and money than you can, and it’s unclear why this is necessarily true. Conversely, you can argue that people do stupid things with their own money and they make bad decisions about how to live their lives – but it’s more coherent to admit that it’s their money to waste and their lives to live sub-optimally than to try to regulate or co-erce them on to a better path.

  16. May 11, 2012 at 12:13 am

    First of all, I must say that as a libertarian, I am pleased to see that my philosophy is not being totally trashed here. Indeed, some folks seem to really “get it” even if they are not libertarians.

    A lot of the comments display an underlying false assumption that people change from selfish to selfless once they join the government. Since, in fact, there are generous people in the private sector and many selfish ones in the public sector, you may be surprised to see as much or even more good being accomplished if we enlarged the private sphere.

    Many government promises are false. Public education often fails to educate, with the victims usually being the less privileged. The SEC didn’t protect us from Madoff; the FBI didn’t protect us from widespread mortgage application fraud during the financial crisis, even though it had been a federal crime since 1948.

    Regulators are routinely captured, and whether you have laissez faire, communism or something in between power and good outcomes are ALWAYS distributed unequally.

    Don’t fall for the myth that top down, one size fits all systems produce predictable quality results. Even in the world of public education, you’ll often find that small towns have better school systems than big cities because they are more subject to parent (consumer) influence and are more competitive (with neighboring districts to which parents can more readily move).

    Rather than rely on government to improve our lives for us, we can improve ourselves and help our friends and neighbors.

    Finally, with respect to the Somalia thing: Western Europe and North America became rich because they developed institutions that minimized violence and protected property rights (for a great, non-libertarian exposition of this, see Why Nations Fail). People had an incentive to invest and build wealth. In Somalia, violence and theft are much more common, retarding social development. So, no, I don’t see Somalia as libertarian heaven and I have no interest in moving there. I think of it as a place with a large number of warring micro-states.

  17. andrew
    May 11, 2012 at 9:17 am

    Mathbabe- Let me say that I am on your website because I saw your PBS special. Good stuff. I don’t agree with you on everything of course. As far as your latest post. Let me say that my view is that if we do not involve churches in the process of our culture especially in matters of ethics and works of service then we are all lost. If the Government (insert “people like us with more power”) does not get their ethics from a higher power of authority then what is to stop them from devolving into fascism. We must allow the Church to be the Church and take care of the poor. Libertarianism has never worked in a society with out the foothold of the church and society that has wanted to use the government as their foothold has always turned out very badly. Just ask the Lutherans in Germany in 1920.

  18. May 11, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    Reblogged this on Left with Balls and commented:
    A post from Cathy O, at mathbabe.org that nicely puts together a line of thought I’ve been conceiving for weeks.

  19. May 12, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    “””do you think you could have been as successful as you are if you’d been born a female subsistence farmer in Africa?”””

    Cathy, I agree with your point. But please don’t perpetuate the “Africa as a country” stereotype. You’re too good for that.

    A simple proof that no-one could be successful without help goes like this: Does your income derive from a large company? Very well, then for your human capital to be realised you need that organisational structure.

    Even someone who started their own company (quite rare for that to make them rich) — they need customers. Those customers need to have enough money to pay them. QED. No one lives in a vacuum, and if they did it would be Adam and Eve camping without gear.

    • May 12, 2012 at 12:33 pm

      Should have said: the road to wealth is paved by counterparties, teammates, mentors, the law/capitalism, forebears/inventions/capital investment, and various other mechanisms to monetise human capital.

      Without that context, the best any of us could do is Robinson Crusoe (stone age income minus teamwork).

    • May 12, 2012 at 5:07 pm

      Of course Africa isn’t a country, sorry if it came off that way.

      I’ve been to Ghana, which is definitely one of the countries in Africa which is the most well-off (not via GDP calculations, but that doesn’t tell a complete story when you think of places like Equatorial Guinea). In spite of that there is incredible and shocking poverty and malnutrition even there. So I considered saying, “subsistence farmer in even the richest country in Africa,” but it seemed to wordy. I guess I could have just left it at “subsistence farmer.”

  20. May 12, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Can’t find a better place to write this. One question I wish you’d been asked in the PBS interview (in which you were composed and well-spoken):

    How is front-running lazy traders different than adding information to the system or increasing efficiency?

    If regulations on and laziness by a few big, slow traders cause things to be temporally mis-priced — that seems like a perfectly fine justification for some hedgies to smooth things out and profit from the arbitrage. Yet you didn’t see it that way despite going into DE Shaw with that mindset.

    • May 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm

      Yes that’s exactly what people at DE Shaw said, and probably still say- that we were correcting the market with trades like that. But I couldn’t stand that after a while, because it is always the “dumb money” getting skimmed. And anyway, making markets efficient doesn’t explain the amount of money being extracted from the system.

      As we now can see very clearly, what was actually going on was a bet on future taxpayer money. Nothing about adding information there.

    • May 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm

      I’ve always wondered how much the dumb money is shepherded by captured traders. If your job is trading dumb money and you know the counterparty is making many times your salary, isn’t there a substantial incentive to get lazy and let the other guy win in exchange for a position on the lucrative side of the trade? We hear a lot about the revolving door between regulators and Wall Street. Is there a similar door to the pension funds and other dumb money?

  21. May 12, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    One more challenge to what you said in your PBS talk. Again, sorry I can’t find a more appropriate place to write it. You describe the 401(k) system as being inefficient because Wall Street skims money off of people’s pensions. That seems like you’re taking autonomous growth of retirement savings for granted.

    The “default” would be that you save money for retirement and it doesn’t grow at all, but rather depreciates through price inflation. By lending the money to someone (your local CU–>mortgageers in town, a “safe” bond, or a knowledgeable finance person who mixes asset classes with some disclosure of risks) you hope to retire with more than you saved due to the future value of money. But that >1 future value assumes growth by profitable lending/sharing of cash. Someone has to steward those $trillions and make sure the debtors/managers pay back with interest. That work & skill cost something.

    So I could see an argument that Wall Street charges too much for its wealth-growing services, but not that the structure is wrong.

    NB: I realise this is very much like the standard MR[capital]–>0 story, which I don’t totally believe. I just want to draw out your counterarguments.

    • May 12, 2012 at 4:59 pm

      Yes it charges too much, and it is disingenuous about what it is offering, which is my first complaint. If you want “normal people” to benefit from the overall market growth, then ask them to put some of it into an ETF which follows the market or something, which has reasonable fees.

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