Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Cult of the Expert – and How It Collapsed

On Tuesday 16 September 2008, early in the afternoon, a self-effacing professor with a neatly clipped beard sat with the president in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Flanked by a square-shouldered banker who had recently run Goldman Sachs, the professor was there to tell the elected leader of the world’s most powerful country how to rescue its economy. Following the bankruptcy of one of the nation’s storied investment banks, a global insurance company was now on the brink, but drawing on a lifetime of scholarly research, the professor had resolved to commit $85bn of public funds to stabilising it.

The sum involved was extraordinary: $85bn was more than the US Congress spent annually on transportation, and nearly three times as much as it spent on fighting Aids, a particular priority of the president’s. But the professor encountered no resistance. “Sometimes you have to make the tough decisions,” the president reflected. “If you think this has to be done, you have my blessing.”

Later that same afternoon, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, the bearded hero of this tale, showed up on Capitol Hill, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. At the White House, he had at least been on familiar ground: he had spent eight months working there. But now Bernanke appeared in the Senate majority leader’s conference room, where he and his ex-Wall Street comrade, Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, would meet the senior leaders of both chambers of Congress. A quiet, balding, unassuming technocrat confronted the lions of the legislative branch, armed with nothing but his expertise in monetary plumbing.

Bernanke repeated his plan to commit $85bn of public money to the takeover of an insurance company.

“Do you have 85bn?” one sceptical lawmaker demanded.

“I have 800bn,” Bernanke replied evenly – a central bank could conjure as much money as it deemed necessary.

But did the Federal Reserve have the legal right to take this sort of action unilaterally, another lawmaker inquired?

Yes, Bernanke answered: as Fed chairman, he wielded the largest chequebook in the world – and the only counter-signatures required would come from other Fed experts, who were no more elected or accountable than he was. Somehow America’s famous apparatus of democratic checks and balances did not apply to the monetary priesthood. Their authority derived from technocratic virtuosity.

When the history is written of the revolt against experts, September 2008 will be seen as a milestone. The $85bn rescue of the American International Group (AIG)dramatised the power of monetary gurus in all its anti-democratic majesty. The president and Congress could decide to borrow money, or raise it from taxpayers; the Fed could simply create it. And once the AIG rescue had legitimised the broadest possible use of this privilege, the Fed exploited it unflinchingly. Over the course of 2009, it injected a trillion dollars into the economy – a sum equivalent to nearly 30% of the federal budget – via its newly improvised policy of “quantitative easing”. Time magazine anointed Bernanke its person of the year. “The decisions he has made, and those he has yet to make, will shape the path of our prosperity, the direction of our politics and our relationship to the world,” the magazine declared admiringly.

The Fed’s swashbuckling example galvanized central bankers in all the big economies. Soon Europe saw the rise of its own path-shaping monetary chieftain, when Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, defused panic in the eurozone in July 2012 with two magical sentences. “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro,” he vowed, adding, with a twist of Clint Eastwood menace, “And believe me, it will be enough.” For months, Europe’s elected leaders had waffled ineffectually, inviting hedge-fund speculators to test the cohesion of the eurozone. But now Draghi was announcing that he was badder than the baddest hedge-fund goon. Whatever it takes. Believe me.

In the summer of 2013, when Hollywood rolled out its latest Superman film, cartoonists quickly seized upon a gag that would soon become obvious. Caricatures depicted central-bank chieftains decked out in Superman outfits. One showed Bernanke ripping off his banker’s shirt and tie, exposing that thrilling S emblazoned on his vest. Another showed the bearded hero hurtling through space, red cape fluttering, right arm stretched forward, a powerful fist punching at the void in front of him. “Superman and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke are both mild-mannered,” a financial columnist deadpanned. “They are both calm, even in the face of global disasters. They are both sometimes said to be from other planets.”

At some point towards the middle of the decade, shortly before the cult of the expert smashed into the populist backlash, the shocking power of central banks came to feel normal. Nobody blinked an eye when Haruhiko Kuroda, the head of Japan’s central bank, created money at a rate that made his western counterparts seem timid. Nobody thought it strange when Britain’s government, perhaps emulating the style of the national football team, conducted a worldwide talent search for the new Bank of England chief. Nobody was surprised when the winner of that contest, the telegenic Canadian Mark Carney, quickly appeared in newspaper cartoons in his own superman outfit. And nobody missed a beat when India’s breathless journalists described Raghuram Rajan, the new head of the Reserve Bank of India, as a “rock star”, or when he was pictured as James Bond in the country’s biggest business newspaper. “Clearly I am not a superman,” Rajan modestly responded.

If Bernanke’s laconic “I have 800bn” moment signalled a new era of central-banking power, Rajan’s “I am not a superman” wisecrack marked its apotheosis. And it was a high watermark for a wider phenomenon as well, for the cult of the central banker was only the most pronounced example of a broader cult that had taken shape over the previous quarter of a century: the cult of the expert. Even before Bernanke rescued the global economy, technocrats of all stripes – business leaders, scientists, foreign and domestic policy wonks – were enthralled by the notion that politicians might defer to the authority of experts armed with facts and rational analysis. Those moments when Bernanke faced down Congress, or when Draghi succeeded where bickering politicians had failed, made it seem possible that this technocratic vision, with its apolitical ideal of government, might actually be realised.

The key to the power of the central bankers – and the envy of all the other experts – lay precisely in their ability to escape political interference. Democratically elected leaders had given them a mission – to vanquish inflation – and then let them get on with it. To public-health experts, climate scientists and other members of the knowledge elite, this was the model of how things should be done. Experts had built Microsoft. Experts were sequencing the genome. Experts were laying fibre-optic cable beneath the great oceans. No senator would have his child’s surgery performed by an amateur. So why would he not entrust experts with the economy?

by Sebastian Mallaby, The Guardian | Read more:
Image: Ben Bernanke via: