Boeing and the Higgs Effect

In their calls for greatly expanding the Federal Reserve System’s and Treasury Department’s roles in the economy, Chairman Bernanke, Secretaries Paulson and Geithner, and their academic enablers have repeatedly emphasized the temporary nature of these “emergency” measures. “History is full of examples in which the policy responses to financial crises have been slow and inadequate, often resulting ultimately in greater economic damage and increased fiscal costs. In this episode, by contrast, policymakers in the United States and around the globe responded with speed and force to arrest a rapidly deteriorating and dangerous situation,” said Bernanke in September. Yeah, no kidding. But, we are assured, the basic structure of our “free-enterprise” system remains soundly in place.

However, as Bob Higgs has taught us, “temporary,” “emergency” government measures are never that. Indeed, virtually all the major, permanent expansions of US government in the twentieth-century resulted from supposedly temporary measures adapted during war, recession, or some other “crisis,” real or imaginary. Cousin Naomi’s “disaster capitalism” thesis is exactly backward: it is socialism, or interventionism, that thrives during the crisis, and Washington, DC never looks back. I mean, does anyone seriously believe that the Fed will deny, or give back, the authority to purchase whatever financial assets it wishes at some future date when it deems the crisis officially “over”? Will the Treasury credibly commit never again to purchase equity or guarantee debt or otherwise protect some major industrial or financial firm after the economy returns to “normal”? Not a chance. Everything the authorities have done in the last two years to deal with this “emergency” will become part of the federal government’s permanent tool kit.

Today’s WSJ has a good example of Higgs’s ratchet effect, a front-pager on Boeing’s dependence on export loan guarantees from the Export-Import Bank, a federal government agency created in — you guessed it — 1934, as a temporary agency to deal with the Great Depression. “No company has deeper relations with Ex-Im Bank than Chicago-based Boeing. Without Ex-Im, aviation officials say, Boeing this year could have been forced to slash production, endangering hundreds of U.S. suppliers, thousands of skilled American jobs and billions of dollars in export contracts.” Bank official Bob Morin is described as “Ex-Im Bank’s rainmaker. His Boeing deals accounted for almost 40% of the bank’s $21 billion in business last year. To help Boeing through the credit crunch, his team has spent the past year developing government-backed bonds that promise to raise billions.” So, a massive industrial-planning apparatus, supposedly born during a temporary crisis, lives on as the lifeblood of a huge, politically connected US company.

Thank goodness all that money flowing to Goldman Sachs is only temporary!

[Cross-posted at Organizations and Markets]

Peter G. Klein is a Research Fellow, Associate Editor of The Independent Review, and Member of the Board of Advisors of the Center on Culture and Civil Society at the Independent Institute.
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