Like John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman before him, Robert Shiller is that rare economist who uses economic theory to design new and better ways of doing things. I highly recommend his book, The New Financial Order. (Indeed, I hope that Shiller will one day receive a Nobel prize for his work in economic design.) For some time, I’ve also been wanting to recommend The Atlantic magazine. This month’s issue is superb and includes the best piece on the state of the American economy that I have read (the link will take you to the online version but the magazine itself contains a number of useful charts and much else – buy it!). From that piece comes this quote on Shiller’s work:
A more radical variation on this concept comes from Robert Shiller, an economist at Yale, who believes that continuing financial-market innovations may soon enable private insurers to offer “livelihood insurance” that could protect workers from potential declines in their occupations (though not against an individual worker’s underperformance within a flourishing field). Similar products might insure against the eventual devaluation of specific academic degrees in the United States (such as those in software engineering or Russian language), or even against declines in the performance of the U.S. economy as a whole, relative to the rest of the world. (As Shiller notes, the fact that the past century was a good one for America does not necessarily mean that the next one will be.) Collectively, these products might lessen the large and arguably increasing risks inherent in the U.S. capitalist system.
These are bold ideas; it may be hard at first to wrap one’s mind around them. And it is perhaps ironic that financial markets–which are regarded by many people as amoral if not immoral–might ultimately solve some of the problems that socialist and utopian thinkers have been trying for centuries to address. But as improbable as livelihood insurance may sound, advances in data collection, data analysis, and financial-risk theory are lowering the technical barriers to such a system. Government action could help the creation of livelihood insurance on a large scale. Part of the government’s role would be technical–for instance setting the standards for the collection and sharing of personal income data that are necessary if livelihood insurance is to work. But two equally important tasks would be the articulation of a new vision of society–one where people are protected against the unexpected shocks that accompany rapid economic change–and the promotion of financial-services products that can sustain that vision. Without large markets covering a wide range of occupations, carriers offering livelihood insurance might have difficulty hedging their risk sufficiently.
Addendum: Robert Shiller’s homepage has lots of useful information.