Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How Greed and Ideology are Endangering America’s Financial and Mental Health

I just watched the excellent documentary Inside Job about the financial crisis. Its main point is that the 2008 crisis and subsequent Great Recession were a consequence of deregulation of the financial sector. This deregulation (primarily in the United States, but also in other countries like Iceland and Ireland) led to an explosion of trading in risky investments like CDO’s, that in turn led to the housing bubble and crash. The tragic thing about this crash is that if we had kept the regulations in place that came about after the 1929 crash and Great Depression, we would never have had the recent crisis. Protections such as separation of savings and investment banks, restrictions on leverage, and enforcement by the SEC and other regulatory agencies of securities and fraud laws were stripped away in recent decades. Also, the financial services industry created new exotic “financial weapons of mass destruction” and successfully lobbied to keep them unregulated.

How did this unstable and risky situation develop? Inside Job argues that a combination of greed and free market ideology led to the housing bubble and bust. The greed came about from the enormous profits generated by the deregulated post-1980 financial services industry. This money flowed to traders in the form of multi-million dollar bonuses, to politicians in the form of lobbying and campaign contributions, and to academic economists in the form of consulting fees. The free market ideology, promoted by right-wing think tanks, politicians, and academic economists, provided a rationalization for the government to deregulate the financial services industry. This ideology argued that allowing an unfettered financial services industry to generate incredible amounts of wealth, and to make riskier and riskier investments, was good for the economy. This attitude is best summarized by Gordon Gekko’s memorable line in the first Wall Street movie: "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good."

While the free market ideology is seductive, and I admit that I was once an enthusiastic follower, it clearly failed as a rationale for financial services deregulation. While it’s easy to blame the government for everything bad that happens, and the government did promote home ownership for people who should have been renting, the leaders of the Wall Street investment banks were the main culprits. They knowingly and deliberately invested their client’s savings in risky mortgage securities, sometimes while simultaneously betting against the securities (i.e. betting that their own clients would lose money). It was Wall Street money that bid up housing prices, that promoted subprime mortgages, that paid the ratings agencies to give ridiculously high ratings to what was basically junk, and that led to the worst financial crash and recession since World War II. Some foreign banks also were to blame, as they did the same thing that the Wall Street banks did. Ireland and Iceland are two egregious examples of investment banks destroying their economies. The executives in charge of the investment banks got greedy, and even after their companies lost billions and needed to be bailed out, they got to keep their multi-million dollar bonuses and salary. The most disgusting thing is that not one of them has been prosecuted (in the U.S.) for fraud or securities violations.

When an ideology fails in the real world, people who believe in it have two options. One is to accept reality, and stop believing in the ideology. The other is to continue believing in the ideology, and abandon reality. Most Democrats, who in the past (especially in the Clinton administration) joined with Republicans in eagerly stripping away financial services regulation, realized after the crash that they made a grave error. When they were in charge of Congress, they passed the Dodd-Frank bill to improve regulation of Wall Street. These regulations, while inadequate, were better than doing nothing. These regulations are now law, but as Paul Krugman writes in an article, they are in danger of not being enforced. The reason for this is that Republicans have chosen to keep their free market ideology, while abandoning reality. Republicans are now in charge of the House, and Republicans don’t believe in regulation in any form. Since they control the funds, Republicans can prevent the SEC and other agencies from doing any regulating and investigating. Wall Street will then be free to create more bubbles and more crises.

Why do people continue believing in an ideology when it has clearly failed? To answer this, consider the historical example of Communism. Within a few years after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, it was clear that Communism was failing in its ability to provide goods and services that people wanted. That’s when the scapegoating started. It wasn’t Communism’s fault, it was the fault of the capitalists (or the kulaks, or the imperialists, or the fascists, etc.). That scapegoating continued for decades, until finally no one believed the ideology any more, and all that was left was greed and corruption.

In the case of Republicans, the scapegoat is the government. Wall Street didn’t do anything wrong, it was government intervention in the economy that caused the crash and recession. The fact that the financial services companies made many risky investments and bad decisions, not just in the U.S. but also overseas, is also a result of U.S. government intervention. If the government hadn’t provided guarantees and bailouts, the companies wouldn’t have made these risky investments.

In the context of a mixed economy, with an internationally-linked market, the government needs to regulate the financial markets. If Republicans get their way, and repeal or refuse to enforce the new regulations, another crash will happen. We’ll then be in the same situation in which the choice will be government bailouts or a second Great Depression. Blaming the government for all our problems is similar to the Communists blaming the capitalists for all their problems. The free market ideology has failed the reality test vis-à-vis financial regulation, and continuing to adhere to it is a sign of either delusion or greed. Regarding the latter motive, Wall Street continues to utilize its vast wealth to lobby politicians to weaken and gut regulations.

Now let me turn to mental health and psychiatry. While watching Inside Job, I was struck with the parallels between the financial services industry and the psychiatric-pharmaceutical industry. While the free market ideology is used by the financial services industry to justify deregulation, the chemical imbalance ideology is used by psychiatists to justify their prescribing drugs to patients. The chemical imbalance ideology states that schizophrenia is caused by too much of the neurotransmitter dopamine, and that depression is caused by too little serotonin. These imbalances can be treated by antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs, respectively. Patients who take their drugs restore balance in their brains, become symptom free, and function better than patients who are unwilling or unable to take drugs.

This chemical imbalance ideology doesn’t fit the facts. As Robert Whitaker describes in his book Anatomy of an Epidemic (which I reviewed in a previous blog post), after many millions of dollars of research money, and enormous time and effort spent, this theory remains unverified. Scientists haven’t made much progress in understanding the cause or pathophysiology of mental illness. Diagnosis is still based on symptoms due to a lack of any reliable or valid lab tests. Drugs that seem to help patients in the short term, have a much more problematic long-term outcome. As newer drugs began to be prescribed more frequently, patients seemed to function worse than they ever did before, many of them becoming permanently disabled and unable to work.

Just as the free market true believers identify the government as an all-encompassing scapegoat, the chemical imbalance true believers come up with their own scapegoat: the disease. The reason why juvenile bipolar disorder prevalence skyrocketed, why so many children were being diagnosed and treated with drugs, and becoming permanently disabled, wasn’t due to drugs they were being prescribed. It was due to something else in the environment causing a psychiatric epidemic. It’s almost comical reading Whitaker’s description of how bipolar disorder was “discovered” in children. Before psychiatric drugs were widely used, children never got bipolar disorder. The fact that stimulant and antidepressant drugs induce manic episodes, and that many more children were taking stimulants and antidepressants than ever before, was conveniently ignored. Since many children taking antidepressant drugs became bipolar, some researchers argued that the drugs were an effective diagnostic tool, unmasking the bipolar disorder that was hidden underneath. Diagnostic boundaries for juvenile bipolar disorder were expanded to include irritable and antisocial children, and these children were given drug cocktails that led to functional impairment and serious physical and mental side effects.

Another similarity between the financial services industry and the psychiatric-pharmaceutical industry is greed. When the ideology has cracks, fill in the gaps with cash. Just as academic economists receive thousands of dollars from the financial services industry in consulting fees, academic psychiatrists receive thousands of dollars from the pharmaceutical industry. This money provides an incentive for economists to spout free-market/deregulation dogma, and psychiatrists to promote drugs.

This ideology-greed connection becomes self-perpetuating. Academic economists promote deregulation and free markets, which leads to more profits for Wall Street, which means more consulting fees, which means more economists promote deregulation, etc. Academic psychiatrists promote the chemical imbalance theory and drug treatments, which means more profits for the pharmaceutical industry, which means more consulting fees for the psychiatrists, which means more psychiatrists promote drugs, etc.

What can be done to emerge from these vicious circles of greed and failed ideology? Reform from within isn’t an option. Both the financial services and psychiatric-pharmaceutical industries are too hopelessly corrupt to reform or regulate themselves. The only institution powerful enough to take on the economic and ideological might of these two industries is the federal government. But the government is itself corrupted by Wall Street and Big Pharma money. The government must be spurred into action by grassroots advocacy groups.

Any advocacy group needs to have a clear, specific goal in mind. The American Tea Party had a vague goal of opposing big government and bailouts. It has now been hijacked by libertarian/free market extremists.

The group that takes on Wall Street should have these goals: Phase 1 should be to pressure the government to fully fund all the regulatory agencies involved in enforcing Dodd-Frank. In addition, the government should prosecute bank and financial executives who committed fraud and securities violations during the housing boom and bust. Phase 2 should be to make even more ambitious reforms to curb the power, influence, and money of the financial services industry.

The group that takes on Big Pharma should begin with pressuring for congressional hearings. Robert Whitaker and other people who criticize the psychiatric-pharmaceutical industry should be allowed to speak, along with academic psychiatrists, drug company representatives, and parents and patients. If it turns out that there’s not enough evidence to demonstrate that drugs do long-term good (the burden of proof is on the pro-drug people to show that they work), then Phase 2 should be a major overhaul of psychiatric drug regulation. This can include banning drug advertising, banning off-label prescribing, banning prescribing the drugs to children, and extending clinical trials to several years (from the current 6 weeks).

We Got Bin Laden (Finally)!

Congratulations to everyone responsible for taking down Osama bin Laden. After all the bad news we’ve been receiving, it’s nice to hear about things going right for a change. Praise is due to President Obama, his national security advisors, the CIA, the Navy Seals who conducted the raid, and others involved in the operation. Obama made a smart decision to not delegate this to the corrupt and incompetent Pakistani government. Our President took a calculated risk, and it paid off.