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Learning the limits of supply, demand

July 16, 2008|Peter G. Gosselin | Times Staff Writer
  • Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange July 11, 2008 in New York City.
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange July 11, 2008 in New… (Mario Tama / Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — For a generation, most people accepted the idea that the core of what makes America tick was an economy governed by free markets. And whatever combination of goods, services and jobs the market cooked up was presumed to be fine for the nation and for its citizens -- certainly better than government meddling.

No longer.

Spurred by the continued housing crisis, turmoil in financial markets, spiking oil prices, disappearing jobs and shrinking retirement savings, the nation and its political leaders have begun to sour on the notion that the current market system is the key to a fair, stable and efficient society.

"We're at a hinge point," said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who helped craft President Clinton's market-friendly agenda during the 1990s. "The strong presumption in favor of markets, which has dominated public policy since the late 1970s, has been thrown very much into question."

Now, to a degree not seen in years, politicians and outside experts are looking with favor at more, not less, government involvement in the economy.

Of course, Americans always grouse during troubled times. And as market advocates are quick to point out, the current run of bad economic breaks has yet to result in the throwing over of free-market principles in favor of some drastically different approach -- such as a government-directed economy.

"There may be a backlash against markets at the moment," acknowledged Kevin A. Hassett, economic studies director at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and an advisor to presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain. "But the backlash doesn't seem to be informed by any alternative view of how the world works."

Yet the sheer volume of setbacks that people have been dealt has sent consumer confidence to some of its lowest levels in half a century, according to Reuters/University of Michigan surveys. A remarkable 84% of Americans are convinced that the nation is on the "wrong track," according to a recent Gallup poll.

In just the last week, the financial markets have provided ample new evidence that markets are not working smoothly.

Washington had to ride to the rescue of two government-chartered mortgage giants -- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which hold or guarantee nearly half of the nation's $12 trillion in mortgage debt -- after investors all but extinguished the pair's market value amid fears that falling home prices would push them into insolvency.

Meanwhile, federal regulators seized IndyMac Bancorp, a $32-billion mortgage lender based in Pasadena, in what regulators called the second-largest bank failure in U.S. history. And the already battered stock market took another sharp dip.

The fact that experts keep pushing back the date when conditions may improve and the failure thus far of any national leader -- including either of the major-party presidential candidates -- to offer a convincing vision of how America will make its way back to sustained prosperity suggest that the current crisis will probably be very different from other recent economic bad patches.

So may Americans' reaction to it.

Even the Bush administration, which took office arguing that the Social Security crisis could be solved, in part, by tying some of retirees' future benefits to Wall Street, has begun advocating more government regulation of financial markets. When Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are government-chartered but investor-owned, began to teeter last week, the administration quietly went to work on possible government action.

"If the pendulum swung away from government toward much greater confidence in markets during the last generation, the pendulum is clearly swinging back again now," said Daniel Yergin, whose 1998 book with coauthor Joseph Stanislaw, "The Commanding Heights," chronicled the worldwide spread of the free-market credo.

"Everything is weighing in at the same time, and that affects how people view markets and government," Yergin said.

"Nobody in this country really believes in unfettered free markets, and nobody really believes in socialism," said UC Davis historian Eric Rauchway, but economic crises of the past have produced constituencies favoring the reining in of markets and regulation of the economy -- constituencies that ultimately grew large enough to produce change.

Consider just a few of the things that are pushing people in that direction now:

The price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline has nearly doubled in the last year, while that for a barrel of crude oil has more than doubled, cutting short Americans' love affair with gas-guzzlers and driving the nation's trucking, auto and airline industries into deep trouble.

Most mainstream economists assert that these increases are simply the logical outcome of booming global demand meeting limited global supply.

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