“Failure: Why We Need It”

That was the provocative title of a seminar earlier this month organized by the Istituto Bruno Leoni, Italy’s free market think tank. The event was the IBL’s 9th annual Mises Seminar. As is common at multinational seminars in Europe, the event and the papers were in English, which is today’s lingua franca among well-educated Europeans.

My favorite paper was presented by Kaetana Leontjeva, who is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Lithuanian Free Market Institute. Her paper, Old-age state social insurance: may its failure be averted?, examines the history of old-age pension systems throughout Europe, with a special focus on the USSR, Lithuania and Georgia. She shows how these programs, initially of modest size, grew to an unustainable  level that is financed by borrowing. She argues that there are only two realistic alternatives:

1. Continuing the present systems, with only “technical” reforms. This will eventually lead to complete failure of the old-age pension system, as occurred in the USSR. “ This would lead to a sudden and dramatic change in conditions of the elderly, bringing about poverty and chronic insecurity.” OR

2. “managed failure.” This means starting to shrinking the existing pension systems, by requiring that they operate on a balanced budget. Young people should not be told to depend on the current system, but should be encouraged to start making plans for their own retirement, by setting aside some of their current income to provide for their retirement. “For the ‘managed failure’ approach to work, one generation has to concede and make a sacrifice by paying for the pensions of the current retirees and for their own. In the absence of such a consent and solidarity, the generation to make the sacrifice would emerge spontaneously, and the process of an unexpected old-age social insurance failure would be much more painful.”

Another interesting paper came from Peter J. Boettke (Mercatus Center, George Mason University) and Daniel J. Smith (Manual H. Johnson Center for Political Economy, Troy University). “Monetary Policy and the Quest for Robust Political Economy” examines the failures of economists in thinking about the Federal Reserve. It is possible to imagine a Federal Reserve which conducts its affairs in an economically sound and apolitical fashion. But in practice, the Fed has often been a pump-priming engine of inflation, for political reasons. In other words, “Technical optima are nonoperational in a contemporary democratic setting.” In the wake of the Great Recession, the economics profession has been busy dissecting recent technical mistakes by Fed. Boettke and Smith argue that economists instead ought to be analyzing the only solutions which can put an end to a century of Federal Reserve failures: the adoption of a monetary policy (e.g., based on an external standard, such as a commodities bundle) which removes Fed discretion to promote inflation. While such a policy might not be politically feasible in the short run, it is the only constructive alternative, and would become more politically feasible if economists did not self-censor their recommendations based on short-term political viability.

In “Bankruptcy: Why are Banks Treated Differently Anyway?,” Mathieu Bédard (Ph.D. candidate in economics, Aix-Marseille Université, and a Fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies) classifies and analyzes the 29 different forms of government intervention into bank failures. He argues that ordinary bankruptcy is often superior to liquidations managed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Even if you don’t agree with the policy recommendations in these papers, they are worth reading for their thoughtful analysis.