Monday, December 21, 2015

John Cochrane describes how we are going downhill - and why

Here is a link to a talk by John Cochrane, "Institutions and Experience".

John has an interesting perspective that is on target.

A snippet:

Our theme is “learning from experience.” I want to reflect on how we as a society learn from experience, with special focus on economic affairs. Most of these thoughts reflect things I learned from George, directly or indirectly, but in the interest of time I won’t bore you with the stories.

An English baron in 1342 tramples his farmers’ lands while hunting. The farmers starve. Then, insecure in their land, they don’t keep it up, they move away, and soon both baron and farmers are poor.

How does our society remember thousands of years of lessons like these? When, say, the EPA decides the puddle in your backyard is a wetland, or — I choose a tiny example just to emphasize how pervasive the issues are — when the City of Palo Alto wants to grab a trailer park, how does our society remember the hunter baron’s experience?

The answer: Experience is encoded in our institutions. We live on a thousand years of slow development of the rule of law, rights of individuals, property rights, contracts, limited government, checks and balances. By operating within this great institutional machinery, these “structures” as senator Bradley called them last night, these “guardrails” as Kim Strassel called them in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, our society remembers Baron hunter’s experience in 1342, though each individual has forgotten it.
In this regard, I fear we live in an era of great forgetting.

Foreign policy increasingly seems unhinged from simplest lessons of history as well as from the carefully built institutions of the postwar order. Eisenhower and Roosevelt did not call a press conference, announce the US putting 5000 soldiers on Omaha beach, and promise the soldiers would be out by July. They set a goal, and promised to unleash whatever resources are needed for that goal. As senator Bradley reminded us, they knew that managing the peace is just as important as winning the war.

As John Taylor reminds us in his remarks today, monetary and financial policy has veered away from its traditional base in both domestic and international institutions and institutional limitations.

In economic and domestic affairs, the administration and its regulatory agencies are more and more telling people and businesses what to do, unconstrained by conventional rule-of-law restrictions and protections.

But what will happen on a change of administration? Will a new administration retreat, say we must restore rights and rule of law? Or will a new administration — once again — admire an expanded set of tools for ramming through its agenda, punishing political enemies, demanding cooperation of people and business, and set to work institutionally grabbing power for itself?

The temptation will be strong: To direct Lois Lerner’s successor to blackball different applications; to use campaign laws to persecute a different set of officials; to have its environmental, health care, and financial regulators demand the same tribute and that a different set of doors revolve; to wipe out its predecessors executive orders and issue new ones.

Or will it say, no, we eschew these methods, we will go back to respect and rebuild institutional limits, though it will take a long time and reduce our hold on power? Once the traditional restraints are broken, it’s awfully hard to go back.

The leading candidates have already promised which way they’re going. For example, Ms. Clinton, quoted by Kim Strassel, promises to use Treasury regulation to punish companies that legally reduce taxes by moving abroad. And Mr. Trump outrages the law and constitution daily.

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