Today this discipline is called econometrics, but then the field was just an assemblage of general concepts, too new to have a textbook or even a name…. I immediately saw the power of these new tools: if the economy could be accurately modeled using empirical facts and math, then large-scale forecasts could be derived methodically, without the quasi-scientific intuition employed by so many economic forecasters. I imagined how the could be put to work. Most important, at age twenty-five I’d found a growing field in which I could excel.
Although Greenspan would later discover the limitations of forecasts based on econometric models, he would use his mastery of economic statistics to develop a successful private business (i.e., providing useful economic statistics to businesses), and later to establish himself as the most important economist in the Republican Party (which is why Reagan appointed him as Fed Chairman in 1987). So mathematics and statistics were the making of Greenspan. In places where such tools are useful and necessary, Greenspan was a consummate master. The problem is, mathematical statistics is a mere tool for acquiring economic facts: it does not, in and of itself, provide any understanding of those facts. Indeed, it predisposes one against understanding them by placing too much emphasis on calculation and technique rather than on understanding and “quasi-scientific” intuition. It causes economists to unwittingly regard the economy as a mechanism instead of a complex outgrowth of cooperating and clashing human motivations. Regarding the economy in this manner predisposes free-market orientated economists to accepting the errors of monetarism, particularly two beliefs that have governed the Fed’s monetary policy during Greenspan’s reign: (1) that the role of the Fed is to maintain price stability in consumer goods; and (2) that any crisis in liquidity (i.e. deflation) can be solved by merely increasing the monetary supply.
Greenspan and his colleagues at the Fed, by holding fast to these principles, failed to understand what was happening in the nineties. Specifically, they failed to appreciate how the deregulation of the eighties, by encouraging dangerous experiments in high finance, particularly in derivatives and debt leverage, had resulted in a massive credit bubble that had swollen asset markets to a very dangerous extent. Greenspan appears to have had an inkling that something was wrong in 1997 when he made his famous “irrational exuberance” remark. But he was either unwilling or unable to do anything about it. He would later claim that bubbles were impossible to identify until they burst—an obvious testimony to the poverty of Greenspan’s economic understanding.
What could Greenspan have done differently? What was his major policy error? His major error was not to have recognized the credit bubble in the nineties, when it could have been safely deflated. To be sure, he may not have been able to do anything about it: after all, the Fed chairman is not a dictator, but merely one vote among seven colleagues. Moreover, due to the increasing ability of non-banks to expand credit, the Fed was losing control of the money supply in any case.
Curiously, Objectivists like Richard Salsman have criticized Greenspan for raising interest rates and tightening monetary policy in 2000. “ Last week, for example, Greenspan told Congress that he'll keep raising interest rates,” Salsman wrote in March of 2000. “In response, the stock market plunged nearly 3%—meaning that about $400 billion of wealth was destroyed. We have only Greenspan to blame for the drop, because there's nothing wrong with the American economy.”
This is, of course, palpable nonsense, and demonstrates that Salsman’s understanding of economic reality is, if anything, even worse than Greenspan’s. As I wrote at the same time (in March of 2000):
The stock market is vastly over-inflated. It has risen by a factor of the more the six in the last twelve and a half years. Now what economic fact could possibly justify so immense an increase? No amount of rise in productivity, Gross Domestic Product(GDP), research and development, corporate profits, or stock dividends can possibly justify a six-fold increase in the stocks. To believe that the current stock market reflects the genuine economic realities of the present economic situation is to demonstrate a blindness equalled only by investors during the other great speculative euphorias in history.
Now how did I know, in March of 2000, that the Stock Market was grossly over-inflated? It’s really quite simple: I merely applied intelligence and the lessons of history to the economic facts. When the Stock Market goes up by a factor of six, there’s something seriously wrong. You don’t have to be a great mathematical economist to figure that out. So why did Greenspan and Salsman get it wrong? With Greenspan, I think (as I have explained) it had a lot to do with his mathematical training, which predisposed him to accepting mistaken monetarist notions. With Salsman, it is his commitment to ideology, which makes him sacrifice truth to advocacy. Hence the absurdity of his criticism of Greenspan. He is not interested in understanding Greenspan: he merely wishes to find a rationale for abusing the former Fed chairman because the institution of the Fed violates Salsman’s tender ideological scruples.