Friday, May 13, 2016

Yes, Let's Think About the First Principles of Capitalism, Rana Foroohar

Over at Time magazine, one of their managing editors, Rana Foroohar, has penned a long think piece about "American Capitalism's Great Crisis," and ends up with a typical non-ending:
Crises of faith like the one American capitalism is currently suffering can be a good thing if they lead to re-examination and reaffirmation of first principles. The right question here is in fact the simplest one: Are financial institutions doing things that provide a clear, measurable benefit to the real economy? Sadly, the answer at the moment is mostly no. But we can change things. Our system of market capitalism wasn’t handed down, in perfect form, on stone tablets. We wrote the rules. We broke them. And we can fix them.
The article is based, presumably, on Fohoorar's book Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business. But the article fails to address its subject in the same way that the AP's Seth Borenstein fails to address the question of climate change. When you are a media hack you really can't move too far from the conventional wisdom on your beat. It's not just that journalists are "Democratic operatives with bylines;" it is just a fact of life for a beat reporter that if you move too far from the conventional wisdom you will lose your audience and you will kill your access to powerful people.

So what do we learn from Foroohar?

There is, she writes, a crisis of faith in capitalism. In a poll, only 26% of millennials "considered themselves capitalists." Indeed, "Americans have plenty of concrete reasons to question their system." And it's not just a question of breaking up banks or raising taxes on hedge-funders or more or less regulation. The problem is bigger than that, as Foroohar's book explains.

In the old days from "the late 1790s to the early 1970s, finance took individual and corporate savings and funneled them into productive enterprises, creating new jobs, new wealth and, ultimately, economic growth." But now "only a fraction of all the money washing around the financial markets these days actually makes it to Main Street businesses." And that goes not just for the US but across the world. "Most of the money in the system is being used for lending against existing assets such as housing, stocks and bonds."
America’s economic illness has a name: financialization. It’s an academic term for the trend by which Wall Street and its methods have come to reign supreme in America, permeating not just the financial industry but also much of American business.
We are talking about everything from the size of finance to "debt-fueled speculation" to "risky, selfish thinking," public and private, the "increasing political power of financiers and the CEOs they enrich," and the ideology of "markets know best."

The rot started when post-WWII growth started to slow in the 1970s.
[Instead of making tough decisions] politicians decided to pass that responsibility to the financial markets. Little by little, the Depression-era regulation that had served America so well was rolled back, and finance grew to become the dominant force that it is today. 
So we got the "Carter-era deregulation of interest rates," Reaganomics "that favored Wall Street," then Clinton era deregulation to get out of the late 1980s doldrums, and Greenspan era loose money that led to today's "near-zero interest rates to keep from falling back into recession." We have a financial policy that amounts to "let them eat credit," a "palliative" to medicate the "downward mobility in the middle class" instead of facing the nation's problems.

Of course, there are many reasons for America's "low-growth economy," from "globalization to technology-related job destruction."
But the single biggest unexplored reason for long-term slower growth is that the financial system has stopped serving the real economy and now serves mainly itself. 
And now small business formation is down and big corporations buy back their stock rather than invest in R&D. Apple borrows money so it doesn't have to repatriate profits and pay taxes on it.

But hey, help is on the way.
Remooring finance in the real economy isn’t as simple as splitting up the biggest banks (although that would be a good start). It’s about dismantling the hold of financial-oriented thinking in every corner of corporate America. It’s about reforming business education, which is still permeated with academics who resist challenges to the gospel of efficient markets... It’s about changing a tax system that treats one-year investment gains the same as longer-term ones, and induces financial institutions to push overconsumption and speculation rather than healthy lending to small businesses and job creators. It’s about rethinking retirement, crafting smarter housing policy and restraining a money culture filled with lobbyists who violate America’s essential economic principles.
This is, of course, mainstream conventional wisdom, as it should be, coming from Time magazine. It's full of standard liberal memes, from the good old Depression era regulation to the crazed Reagan era to the greedy banker stuff to short-sighted CEOs. It is the view of someone "in the arena." And it assumes that the answers come from the usual experts "crafting smarter" policies. Oh yeah.

But maybe there is another way to look at Capitalism 2016. Maybe we need a whole new narrative.

The first thing to establish is that government and finance are joined at the hip. To understand that, go and watch The Tudors on Netflix. In an early episode, Henry VIII proudly points out of his window to a warship at anchor. How do you think that warship and its heart of oak got built? On the profits from Henry's royal estates? Or watch Admiral on Netflix, and then go and read up on Dutch national hero Admiral Michiel de Ruyter on La Wik. In the mid 17th century the Dutch merchants had to do something about the Russian and the Brit and the French monarchs mucking about with their trading system. For that they needed a navy to protect their argosies and teach the monarchs a lesson and for that they needed to give money to government to build a navy to make the world safe for capitalism.

That is the story of capitalism from that day to this. Capitalism can't bring us fabulous goods and services unless government keeps the peace. So merchants have provided credit to governments so that governments could finance navies and keep the trade routes open.

But things never stop just there. After inventing the central bank and national debt and financing their war of independence from Spain, the Dutch launched a 500 ship invasion force on the Brits in 1688 and then installed Willem of Oranje as King William III and set up the Bank of England and the National Debt and used Britain as a base for a Second Hundred Years War against the French, won in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. British national debt went from nothing in 1688 to 250% GDP in 1815.

National debt won the US Civil War, and World War I and World War II. And probably the Cold War too. The point is that the incredible wealth of capitalism allows government to borrow and spend. On wars, on education, on entitlement programs, on anything that buys votes.

For over a century, from 1848 to 1990, high-minded intellectuals tried to bury capitalism with the romantic idea of socialism and a money-free administrative system, but by the 1980s even socialists realized that a much better system would be to use the wealth of capitalism to finance their agenda rather than replace it with administration and bureaucracy. So now government is busy using the credit system for all sorts of projects. Most notably it subsidized home mortgages, first with the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, and lately with mortgages for people that couldn't service them. What could go wrong?

According to Walter Bagehot in Lombard Street, the credit system needs two things. It needs loans that are properly collateralized, and it needs borrowers that can be relied upon to make their payments. Looking back at the sub-prime mortgage era, what could go wrong? In fact, looking at everything that government does with borrowed money, what can you expect but mayhem?

You can see that the problem is mission creep. It's one thing to finance old Grandad de Ruyter to teach the absolute monarchs a lesson on the North Sea, or put the French in their place at a little town in Belgium. That is national debt serving the interests of commerce. But when government becomes 35% or more of GDP and the whole economy is riddled with government credit subsidy schemes, then something has to give. And don't forget that all the time the financiers are joined at the hip to the government. That's because, as I read years ago, the most important government program is the selling of the debt to the financiers. It misses the point to talk about breaking up the banks, or jiggling financial regulation. The elephant in the room is the government and its finances, and the various shifts and tricks it uses to get itself out of the latest jam.

It misses the point to complain that the finance industry doesn't finance growth. It never has. Credit and debt are for solid, no worries, ongoing operations, like financing a store's inventory, or lending money to get goods from where they are to where they are wanted. Financing growth is about startups and private equity and mad money.

It misses the point to complain about CEOs shorting R&D for buying back their stock. Big public corporations are usually reaching the end of their growth phase. They are just money machines until the inevitable day when some little startup puts them out of business.

It misses the point completely to write about American Capitalism's Great Crisis. Capitalism never had a crisis and never will. Capitalism uses credit as it is supposed to be used, to finance ongoing operations. And it can supply, from time to time, mad money for startups and other risky ventures which is the real engine that gets us from $3 per capita per day in 1800 to $100 per capita per day in 2016. The problem is the intersection of capitalism and government. When government grabs all the credit to fight a war, it really bollixes up the economy. When government encourages deadbeats to borrow money to buy a house, it leads to a Crash of 2008. And when government goes the easy money route to get out of a jam, the money sluices into all kinds of cracks and corners and encourages financial shenanigans from all sorts of shady characters.

But don't expect a Rana Foroohar to say that. A mainstream journalist has to stay mainstream. Just like Seth Borenstein, the AP's climate change guy. Really, how could an AP reporter on the climate beat do anything but breathlessly retail the latest wizard wheeze from the $1.5 trillion a year global climate community?

And how could a reporter on the finance beat do anything but retail liberal blame-the-bankers scapegoating?

1 comment:

  1. "The problem is the intersection of capitalism and government."

    Very well explained in this piece, I really enjoyed it. And also inevitable, unless we hit a point where governments are no longer needed for security.

    In the short term, stating the problem this clearly is important.

    Over the longer term, we don't really have a reliable way to avoid mission creep, do we? The USA was the latest experiment in this regard, and it has observably failed.

    On the other hand, once you communicate the core ideas here, the lunacy of any One World Government concept becomes glaringly obvious.

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