Archive for the ‘Michael Lewis’ Category

Note to William Anderson: Limited liability is a key to understanding the Great American Ponzi scheme

January 5th, 2009 No comments

William Anderson (an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute and economics prof. at Frostburg State University) has a thoughtful New Year’s Day post, pointing out how Paul Krugman fails to understand the causes of ouir economic stagnation and financial meltdown.

I posted the following comment, in which I argue that the state grant of limited laibility (which I have discussed in several recent posts) is a key to understanding the Great American Ponzi scheme:

Bill, I agree with the thrust of your criticisms of Krugman, but have a few small quibbles.

First, while you rightly condemn “most economic regulation … of the command-and-control variety”, you blame all of this on “the whims of bureaucrats and environmentalists” and completely fail to note that state and federal environmental regulation (i) initially responded to real environmental problems and (ii) also represents the successful efforts by established firms to raise barriers to entry and to cartelize their industries.  See Roger Meiners & Bruce Yandle, Common Law and the Conceit of Modern Environmental Policy, 7 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 923, 926-46 (1999), and Walter Block, Environmentalism and Economic Freedom: the Case for Private Property Rights..

Second, while you are correct that Krugman fails to understand the role of the state in creating the distortions that underlie our current problems, it seems to me that you have neglected one of the key state interventions that has fuelled the rent-seeking and risk socialization that we see today – the grants of legal personhood (with unlimited purposes and life and Constitutional rights) to corporations and blanket limited liability to shareholders.

Limited liability has enabled corporate managers to act without close shareholder oversight and management; this I believe has played a key role in the vast misalignment of incentives that Michael Lewis and David Einhorn describe at the NYT, and in the risk mismanagement that Joe Nocera of the NYT describes at length in the NYT Magazine.  Those taking large bonuses (whether in the financial industry or large corporations) were essentially playing with OPM – Other People’s Money – and capturing the upside of short-term gains while leaving shareholders and taxpayers holding the bag for loses.

I hope that you and others here will look more deeply at the role of the state in the problem of misaligned incentives that continue to corrupt American capitalism.