Predators and Professors

WASHINGTON, DC – Are America’s great universities still the stalwart custodians of knowledge, leading forces for technological progress, and providers of opportunity that they once were? Or have they become, in part, unscrupulous accomplices to increasingly rapacious economic elites?

Towards the end of Charles Ferguson’s Academy Award-winning documentary Inside Job, he interviews several leading economists regarding their role as paid cheerleaders for the financial sector’s excessive risk-taking and sharp practices in the run-up to the crisis of 2008. Some of these prominent academics received significant sums to promote the interests of large banks and other financial-sector firms. As Ferguson documents in the movie and in his recent sobering book, Predator Nation, many such payments are not fully disclosed even today.

Predation is an entirely appropriate term for these banks’ activities. Because their failure would traumatize the rest of the economy, they receive unique protections – for example, special credit lines from central banks and relaxed regulations (measures that have been anticipated or announced in recent days in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland).

As a result, the people who run these banks are encouraged to assume a lot of risky bets, which include pure gambling-type activities. The bankers get the upside when things go well, while the downside risks are largely someone else’s problem. This is a nontransparent, dangerous, government-run subsidy scheme, ultimately involving very large transfers from taxpayers to a few top people in the financial sector.