The Paulson Plan
The Too-Free Markets

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October 8, 2008

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I recommend to you the article at the end of this post. The notions in it provide the foundation for my support for the $700 billion plan -- even when, understandably, the majority opposed the plan.

I think we're in a real pickle. How we got here will be the subject of numerous studies. There's plenty of blame to go around -- from compromised elected officials, to ignorant elected officials, from horrifically bad leadership to very poor financial decision-making by housing speculators.

One thing I can say for sure is that blind faith in "free markets" is truly part of the problem. I'm an advocate of free markets, of free trade, and I welcome a more interconnected world. So let me explain my complaint.

Certain advocates of free-market thinking -- who climbed high in this and past administrations -- did not understand that all of our freedoms have limitation. We are not free to do anything we want and at any time. We are not free to throw rocks through our neighbors' windows. We are not free to launder money. We are not free to do a lot of things. There are rules in society, and we naturally understand the need for them.

Likewise, free financial markets do not work without rules. Taken to the extreme that it was in our banking sector, free-market philosophy would legalize drunk driving. "Hey, you takes your chances out there on the road." The free-market purist would say drunk driver should only be arrested if they can't successfully navigate their way through the neighborhood without hurting anyone. That's freedom of the sort I don't want.

And this is how our investment banks were allowed to operate, particularly after the abandonment of the net capital rule in 2004. The whole of Wall Street could leverage up recklessly, hoping to play hot potato with the bad debts, regardless of what risk it put other people in. This is where free markets have to give way to stop signs and speed traps and rules against reckless driving. Because without them, the risk of damage to others is great. And that damage actually isn't about a $700 billion burden to taxpayers. That damage is that unregulated financial markets foster corruption, greed, self-interest, and naturally lead to market collapses, and to depression.

Because the financial world is product-less and inventory-less, it can hard to pin down these concepts. So let's look at unregulated commerce of another sort, being practiced in China today.

If we wanted to, we could say, "Hey, consumers of the world, you takes your chances. Eat a chocolate bar and risk being poisoned because we are going to let anyone and everyone be free -- from criminally negligent business leaders to reckless drivers. We know you can take care of yourself."

You have a too-free market in China when it comes to food-quality standards right now. And I'm sure it's obvious to everyone that self-regulation doesn't work. So you have to tax citizens to fund the creation of basic food quality standards, basic requirements for creation of medicinals, highway laws, AND regulations to the financial world. Unbelievably, the S.E.C. in recent years has become an advocate of eliminating regulation. And we're not talking about excessive regulation. We're talking about the elimination of basic rules of fair play in finance, to protect the markets all the way through to consumers putting money into their local bank.

Now I am not asking for the introduction of massive new regulations. And I'm a strong opponent of socialism. I hate the idea that the government needs to take temporary ownership stakes in banks in order to a) protect customer deposits and b) return to the taxpayer what is rightfully theirs (in the form of deficit reductions). But I think this is the only way to begin biting the bullet now in the way the bullet must be bitten down on to avert a more permanent and more crippling freeze to the credit markets.

All of this is preface to what I think is a fine article describing the mess we're in. I hope you got this far, because I think this is a fine description of our predicament.