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October 02, 2008

Why the Bailout is Like God

Bear with me.

Consider an atheist and a believer arguing about the existence of God. Both know, for reasons they can't quite prove, that they are right.



They begin with a foundational assumption. That foundational assumption gives rise to a host of cascading beliefs about life and ethics and morality which are important to both. And, to some extent, each of those secondary implications can be supported by logic, but only if one buys into the foundational assumption from which each flows.

The atheist and the believer will become very frustrated with each other. Each can offer some evidence for the foundational assumption they're certain, in their gut, is right. The believer may point to the extreme unlikelihood of the universe's pronounced pro-life, pro-consciousness bias in absence of a planner Himself biased in favor of life and consciousness. The atheist will say God cannot exist, or else He would have designed the universe without pain, disease, and death.

There is a certain persuasiveness to each of these arguments (and the hundreds of others like them), but obviously none of them are quite convincing on their own. These arguments have failed to persuade anyone for 2000 years. Either you buy the foundational assumption in your gut, or you don't. The logical arguments aren't something you employ to convince yourself, but to convince others

And it never succeeds in convincing others. Hence the frustration. The entire situation is a black hole of uncertainty which many of us are, nevertheless, quite certain, or at least largely certain. But we have no good way of convincing others of our take. And so many momentous beliefs flow from that initial starting assumption. The atheist and believer can debate some point of morality to each other, but largely they're speaking entirely different languages, as they do not, and cannot ever, agree on the basic foundational belief undergirding most of their second and third order moral decisions.

The bailout is the same way. So much flows from one's starting assumptions.

Some assume the markets and private actors will always, or nearly always, work it all out.

Some -- including me -- believe the markets will almost always work it out, but once in a while they won't.

Some assume that the market cannot really be "dysfunctional," as that dysfunction is a rational reaction to the situation. So that dysfunction is actually functional.

Some -- including me -- do not believe dysfunction is functional, and also believe such dysfunctions are frequently irrational and ineffecient.

Some believe the government should never interfere in the markets, as that's either against principle (free markets over government action) or simply, as a practical matter, always doomed to create more problems.

Some -- including me -- believe all of that is generally true, but this is one of those exceptional cases that do come up from time to time.

And neither you or me can convince each other otherwise. You can offer appeals to authority. So can I. You can offer general principles. I can offer the Great Depression, which I assert is an exception to general principle. We can go back and forth with logic and evidence that is suggestive, but does not quite prove our case.

And similarly as with arguments over God, we get frustrated, because it's all so obvious to each of us, and the other side is plainly ignorant, or cowardly, or doctrinaire, or lacking in principle or conviction, and etc., but we can't quite prove we're right.

And yet so much flows from those starting principles we're certain (or at least believe) to be right.

This is why I gave up arguing about this. Part of it was chickenshit -- just not wanting to piss off a substantial bloc of readers. Part of it was the realization the blog was becoming single-issue -- and while certainly there have been periods when I was focused on one issue before, I really was posting about the bailout most of the day on some days to the exclusion of all else, including spending non-blogging time arguing in the comments.

But most of it was a realization that I couldn't actually persuade anyone. Anyone at all. The more "panicky" posts I put up -- intended to persuade -- the more I was told that crises were always used to move people's attitudes in ways that the elite establishment (and its socialist contingent, especially) wish them to be.

And, well, there's some truth in that. Global warming, obviously. But how does one distinguish between phony crises and real ones? Ultimately it comes down to a gut belief.

I believe, in my gut, that this crisis is real. I also believe that it is can be averted -- and yes, in this instance, by government action, acting counter-cycle, pushing back against market forces which have become irrational and dysfunctional.

I can't convince anyone of that. As I've allowed numerous times, I may well be wrong, and sometimes I doubt all this myself.

But, in the main, I proceed from my basic gut-level assumptions about this, the same as you do.

And pretty much those assumptions can't be changed.

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posted by Ace at 03:58 PM

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