A bit over-the-top, but Richard Dooling's essay in today's NY Times ("The Rise of the Machines") has some ring of truth to it, to my eyes. It blames the financial crisis, in effect, on computers -- or, more precisely, on the networked machine intelligence without which the complex financial instruments now unraveling before our eyes could not exist:
"As the current financial crisis spreads (like a computer virus) on the earth's nervous system (the Internet), it's worth asking if we have somehow managed to colossally outsmart ourselves using computers. After all, the Wall Street titans loved swaps and derivatives because they were totally unregulated by humans. That left nobody but the machines in charge. . . .It was easy enough for us humans to understand a stick or a dollar bill when it was backed by something tangible somewhere, but only computers can understand and derive a correlation structure from observed collateralized debt obligation tranche spreads. Which leads us to the next question: Just how much of the world's financial stability now lies in the "hands" of computerized trading algorithms?"
There's something to it, I think. Nobody knows what to do about this crisis, at least in part because no one has the necessary information about the effects of small changes -- adding capital here, letting banks fail there -- in a complex interlocking network of financial instruments all linked to one another. I don't know if it's a case of the machines taking over (as Dooling suggests), but it's not like other crises we've seen before and will require some real innovative thinking to get it under control.