Who's More to Blame: Adam Smith or the Media?

Join the Fool as we assess blame for this financial meltdown -- March Madness bracket style! Below is one of eight first matchups you can vote on … enjoy!   

The case for Adam Smith, by Matt Koppenheffer
All of us capitalists love the invisible hand, right? So why would I sink my teeth into the hand that feeds me by saying Adam Smith caused today's crisis? It's simple -- because I needed to get your attention.

Of course, I wouldn't really say that Adam Smith caused the crisis, any more than I'd say that JP Morgan -- the founder of JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) -- was responsible for it, or that Ray Kroc -- the franchising genius behind McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) -- is responsible for obesity. It's not about what Adam Smith said, it's about how we've used his words.

When Smith introduced the invisible hand, the phrase was simply a metaphor describing the fact that, when individuals do things to pursue their own self-interest, they tend to contribute to society's betterment. But just because this metaphor fits reality well doesn't mean that we can put it on a pedestal with the Flying Spaghetti Monster and worship it. A blind trust in this amorphous concept and an increasingly hands-off approach to the financial markets helped create the Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) and Lehman Brothers monsters -- among many others.

Now, my worthy opponent, Tim Beyers, will try to convince you that Adam Smith and his ideas had little or nothing to do with the current mess and that it was the really the media that was responsible -- but don't buy it. Tim has a way with words that can be very convincing, but don't be fooled (little "f"!) -- this Apple-happy (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) , Twittering Fool is leading you down the wrong path.

Sure, The New York Times (NYSE: NYT  ) and McGraw-Hill's BusinessWeek -- heck, even Gannett's USA Today -- may have published stories that helped excite folks during the bubble, or made them more fearful during the slippery slope down, but they had nothing to do with creating the mess we're in.

So, Foolish reader, I implore you to set the record straight right now and cast a vote in favor of a woeful misunderstanding of Adam Smith's work as the demon seed that created our financial disaster.

The case for the media, by Tim Beyers
How do I know the mainstream financial media deserves blame for the economic crisis? Jon Stewart told me.

Say what you will about his not-very-funny dressing-down of CNBC's Jim Cramer last week but Stewart did what no legitimate news outlet could: He captured a zeitgeist of populist outrage. 

And rightfully so. TheStreet.com founder took a pummeling from Stewart as The Daily Show editors ran clips of CNBC touting Cramer as its “Dear Abby” for ailing investors. "In Cramer We Trust," read the screen.

Yet none of us should have. More clips -- these, much more incriminating -- showed Cramer explaining tactics that he used as a hedge-fund manager to manipulate the markets. Watching him, I felt dirty. And I wondered what we don't yet know about market manipulation.

But blaming Adam Smith and, more generally, capitalism for this mess is like blaming the kitty litter for that awful smell in your house. What's in the litter is what counts. Spray cans of air freshener can only hide the smell for so long. Someone has to strap on a mask and go digging for the, um, goodies.

Extending the metaphor to the world of finance: The media never reached for a mask. It rarely did any serious digging.

Yes, I get the irony of a financial writer pointing fingers at his peers. Get out your pies; lump me in with the crowd. I didn't uncover the dangers, either, and I was too often bullish when I should have been bearish.

At the very least, I should have questioned Aubrey McClendon's rapacious buying of Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK  ) shares. I should have foreseen the margin calls to come.

Yet there is a difference between me, Cramer, and other not-so-Foolish financial writers. I'm sucking wind right now like everyone else. I'm an investor writing for other investors. I buy the stocks that I recommend for Motley Fool Rule Breakers, so when subscribers lose, I lose, too. And in 2008, Akamai Technologies (Nasdaq: AKAM  ) , my first Rule Breakers pick and one of my oldest holdings, tanked.

In other words, my bullishness cost me. You think you can say that about the rest of the media?

Now that you’ve heard the arguments, where do you stand? Who is more to blame for this crisis? Vote below and then leave your two cents in the comments section, if you're so inclined. The worst moves on to the Embarrassing 8.

Check out the Fool’s entire 2009 March Madness bracket here.

JPMorgan Chase is a former Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Chesapeake Energy and McGraw-Hill are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Akamai Technologies is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers owned shares of Akamai at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool's disclosure policy is partial to cold apple pie.


Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (15)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2009, at 3:40 PM, donaldjakel wrote:

    None of the above is to blame for this crisis. Blame the CEO's and Boards of Directors of FNMA, FHLMC, and every commercial bank and investment bank who did no due diligence and bet the farm on subprime loans and related derivitives. AND blame congressmen who blocked any limitations and reforms of the GSE's, ESPECIALLY after they had to restate earnings by billions. Only the financial press (WSJ & IBD) were on top of this and forewarned us of impending doom.

    Notice that they are both stating now that actions taken so far are exactly the opposite of what should be done. Prepare for many years of stagnation and likely stagflation if we don't reverse course soon.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2009, at 3:52 PM, whereaminow wrote:

    Are you guys ever going to investigate the Federal Reserve's role in the boom-bust cycle? I keep waiting for it. I also keep waiting for one Motley Fool writer to explain how unbacked paper money, excessive credit and monetary expansion, and central planning are examples of free market capitalism.

    I won't hold my breath.

    Thankfully, I did your work for you. See my series on Paper Money in the Blog section.

    David in Qatar

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2009, at 12:12 PM, Brettze wrote:

    For any of you who are chest beating about free enterprise and capitalism , are forgetting that you probably already have free dental/health insurance, pension plans, etc paid for by corporations that act as tax collectors from consumers who buy products and services from the corporations. The rest of us want the same things and we are not going to be stopped by you.. Screw you!

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2009, at 12:15 PM, Brettze wrote:

    Adam Smith lived long before the many events that occured in America like Civil War and the slavery, women's rights, civili rights, Federal Reserve, etc... Adam Smith is just a footnote in the history of America.. Nice guy, anyway.. Lets move on..

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2009, at 12:17 PM, Brettze wrote:

    Also Adam Smith were not aware about ecology, rocket science, psychology, Crocs shoes, Starbucks, etc.. Boy, the world had changed quite a bit since then... Any of you keeping referring to Adam Smith can become economic monks and sent up to one of the peaks and forgotten....

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