How to prevent economic Ebola?

Economic Ebola is “the virus that infects scientists and engineers and causes them to go to Wall Street rather than create something of societal value,” says Paul Kedrosky.  Graduates with quantitative skills are offered salaries up to five times what they could make in productive work, so of course many of them spend their time finding ways to scrape a few million from high-velocity financial markets, rather than designing products or processes that would actually increase society’s satisfaction.

“Let’s save the world by keeping our engineers out of finance,” says Vivek Wadhwa. [Well, they’re not really our engineers, they belong to themselves, but we’ll skip that for now.]  A fine idea, but how to do it?  One answer might be a financial transaction tax, a tiny levy on each financial trade which could remove the profit from “financial engineering.” It would have no real effect on “long-term” investors who hold a position for more than a day. Seems like a good idea, but of course there will need to be a definition of what is a “financial transaction” for tax purposes, and clever people will find a way to design a transaction which doesn’t meet the criteria.

Maybe a better approach is to eliminate or scale back some of the things that make financial engineering lucrative.  For instance, if a land value tax prevented private collection of land rent, the mortage/financial crisis we’re still in would have been much smaller, or perhaps not possible at all.  We might want to go back to the classical concept of usury, forbidding all transactions where interest is charged for the use of money.  (People can still get compensation for lending money, but it would be as some agreed share of the profits which the investment generates, keeping the lender conceptually closer to the borrower.)

Of course we could start with something simple, like having the government take over insolvent banks, prosecuting and imprisoning criminal executives, letting stockholders, bondholders, and others who have unwisely trusted the bank to absorb the financial loss.  That alone would make financial engineering a lot less appealing.

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