Peter Goodman Faults America's "Faith in Unfettered Markets" and Horatio Alger-Optimism

The front page of the Sunday Week in Review featured "Casino America In Play," a "Whither Capitalism?" style think-piece by the paper's left-wing economics reporter Peter Goodman.



Given his lingo about "unfettered markets" and description of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as the "apostle of laissez-faire" in this and his previous writing for the Times, it's clear Goodman doesn't have a high opinion of the free market.


Throughout the history of American commercial life, one cultural trait has tended to dominate: Americans are optimists, a people prone to seeing the glass as not merely half-full but rapidly expanding, and bearing liquid that might yet be turned into gold.


This exuberant optimism has proven beneficial, emboldening risk-taking that has achieved innovation and wealth. It has prompted entrepreneurs to invest borrowed money in untested ideas that sometimes yield breakthroughs. It has encouraged ordinary people to accept debt in the name of accelerated gain - more comfortable homes, higher education, late-model cars.


Yet in recent times this eagerness to augment the present by borrowing against a seemingly lucrative future has reached dangerous levels. Excessive optimism and its close relation - a reckless disregard of risk - are widely blamed for helping carry the United States into the worst financial panic since the Great Depression. Millions bought homes they could not afford, convinced that something good would happen before the bill came due. Financial institutions bet trillions in borrowed funds while leaving little in reserve, soothed by the collective assumption that real estate prices could never fall.


Goodman made a tasteless and misleading comparison the recession to the World Trade Center attacks.


In a country inclined to celebrate its frontier roots and rugged individualism, how much shock is required before Americans opt to increase the powers of the sheriff? Fear does have a way of inducing change. Eight years ago, when terrorists slammed jets into the World Trade Center, the trauma was so powerful that it appeared to alter cultural norms. Without the spectacle of ordinary people plunging to their deaths, it seems difficult to imagine the United States wiretapping citizens without warrants and waterboarding people in the interest of national security.


The U.S. didn't wiretap "citizens," but terrorist suspects from other nations inside the United States.


Surely, it seemed, pain and populist anger had altered the balance between trust in the market and the desirability of oversight. Even Alan Greenspan, the long-time Federal Reserve chairman and apostle for laissez-faire, confessed that his faith had been shaken; at one point he suggested that the government might need to nationalize major banks.


In an October 2008 front-page gloat over the crisis of capitalism, Goodman also blamed Greenspan's love of free markets:


Over the years, Mr. Greenspan helped enable an ambitious American experiment in letting market forces run free. Now, the nation is confronting the consequences.


On Sunday he claims that the financial markets were somehow "lightly" regulated before the financial crisis, a surprise to anyone with knowledge of the alphabet soup of agencies devoted to policing financial markets.


In Washington, on Wall Street and on Main Street, many are aware that the era of lightly supervised markets was fabulously lucrative for those positioned to capture a piece. Financial services and real estate - nurtured by easy money - swelled into major sources of employment, while boosting stock portfolios for huge institutions and ordinary people alike. New York cemented itself as the global financial capital.


Over the last quarter-century, moreover, the traditional faith in unfettered markets deepened, and became entwined with the belief in the abundance of American opportunity, reinforcing a justification for laissez-faire: In a land that subscribes to the Horatio Alger story - in which anyone can supposedly make it - the market can be trusted to make the rules. For Milton Friedman, the most influential economic thinker of the last half-century, political and economic freedom were synonymous.