Free Market?

Not for the Oil Giants

In the mid-1970s, I spent a couple of years working in the British government as a kind of exchange civil servant. Yes, the meeting rooms looked exactly like the ones in the BBC/Alec Guiness version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and tea and sweet biscuits were served promptly at four. At the time, the civil service was still drawn from the top ranks of “Oxbridge” graduates, with the emphasis clearly on general intelligence rather than technical training. One of my colleagues at the Home Office, a Cambridge man, had majored in modern languages. When I asked him which ones, he said, “Greek and Latin.”

The British government’s preference for generalists, however, was beginning to fray, especially in the case of economists, who were being hired in the Treasury Department, although pointedly only in “adviser” roles. In the United States, by contrast, economists had already become the Dumbledore magicians of the modern state, based on their supposed ability to “fine-tune” the American economy.

The hollowness of the economists’ claims was soon exposed by the wild economic swings of the 1970s and ’80s, and has been brutally exposed again by the Great Financial Crash. Even Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, who happens to be an expert on crashes, failed to understand the catastrophe unfolding before him until very late in the...

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About the Author

Charles R. Morris, a Commonweal columnist, is the author of The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown (Public Affairs), among other books, and is a fellow at the Century Foundation.