Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why the Wheels Fell Off

Three years after the financial collapse of ’08, the American economy is still on life support. The main devastation occurred in unemployment, which remains above 9% nationally, as high as 25% in some regions and much higher among some age and ethnic groups. Even among those employed, the mortgage crisis limits economic growth, with almost half of mortgages worth more than equity, and tens of millions of houses in foreclosure. GDP has been limping along at 1% for years, with no prospect of an upturn as long as consumers don’t spend (what would they spend?) and retail credit remains inaccessible. There is talk about continued recession for at least two more years, more likely six.

What happened is that rich people took all the money. They left next to nothing for the rest of us. They played the capitalist game and won. They are still winning, and I expect will continue to do so, barring the unforeseen. This does not make the rich, bad people. The whole point of the capitalist game is to get rich. There are winners and there are losers. But the present outcome, painful recession for most people, is the inevitable consequence of the rich siphoning off America’s wealth over the last thirty years. It could have been moderated, but it wasn’t. Now here we are.

First, let’s make sure we understand that in fact, the rich have siphoned off the country’s wealth. According to G. William Domhoff (http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html),

As of 2007, the top 1% of American households (the upper class) owns 34.6% (more than a third) of all privately held wealth in this country.

The next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) holds 50.5% (more than half).

This means that the wealthiest 20% of Americans hoard 85% of the country’s wealth, leaving only 15% for the rest of us (wage and salary workers).

If you exclude the value of one’s home from the calculations (because the rich often have very expensive homes), then you see that just the top 1% of households owns 42.7% of the all the nation’s financial wealth. The richest 20% hold more than 93% of financial wealth. That’s basically all the money there is! Nearly all of the country’s money is in the personal bank accounts of just a few people. The rest of us are left to squabble over the remaining 7%.

The rich are the big winners in the game of capitalism, and the winnings have been huge. A hundred years ago, the richest 1% of Americans owned only 18% of the nation’s wealth (Noah, http://www.slate.com/id/2266025/entry/2266026). Today’s huge wealth inequality is a recent phenomenon, since about 1980. It is the most obvious outcome of a capitalist system gone awry, and an explanation of the current economic recession.

Today’s painful recession is the consequence of the richest people having sucked all the money out of the economy since 1980. The rich are not having a recession. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is about 11,000 today, down a few percentage points from its bubbly high of three years ago, but by no means disastrous for the companies indexed, such as American Express, Chevron, IBM, Microsoft, Verizon, and others. Some of the big banks are having disasters recently, but that is a separate situation, and long overdue anyway. Most large businesses are doing well, making plenty of money. It’s ordinary wage-earners who are hurting.

How did nearly all the money in America flow to the top 20% of bank accounts, leaving the rest of us in recession? In my opinion, the main factors since 1980, in order of importance, were:

1. The information technology revolution.
2. Failure of education.
3. Government corruption and incompetence.
4. Globalization of economics.

The rise of the computer put a lot of people out of work from automation. I made much of my personal wealth doing just that (although not for that reason – I plead na├»vete). I spent many years automating the pulp and paper industry with computer controls and robots, putting scores of hard-working people out of jobs forever. My bad. As a possible redemptive factor, I spent many more years using networked computers trying to educate the youth. However, I had far more success with the former than the latter.

Other aspects of the computer and information revolution made it easier for those who understood and controlled technology to separate people from their money, through deceptive and unscrupulous advertising and marketing (e.g, Big Pharma, Big Finance, etc.), and accumulation and exploitation of information about people. Technology and information resources are expensive and knowledge-intensive. Those who could understand it, and who could afford to put it to work, reaped wealth. Those who couldn’t, suffered. The technology revolution was not neutral – it favored the economically privileged and the well-educated, and still does. It was a primary factor causing wealth to flow from the bottom to the top of the economic pyramid.

And that brings me to the second cause of today’s financial crisis: failure of education. I have been a lifelong educator of youth and adults (except for my two-decade stint as a technology raptor). From personal experience, I can say that the educational system in this country is largely ineffective, virtually moribund. The basic cause of that is economics. Teachers are not well-paid because their product is very long-term (tomorrow’s leaders, movers, and shakers) and as we know, future value is heavily discounted. Also, students don’t vote, so why worry about them? Consequently, society as a whole has little incentive to properly finance education. Granted, many teachers are incompetent and curricula laughable, but those are consequences of economic underdevelopment, not causes.

There are plenty of smart people in this country who would become educators if they thought they could make a living at it. But except for the most elite, it is not possible. I myself dropped out of academia for twenty years because I needed to make some money. If a starting college teacher made $75,000 a year (instead of 30,000), and could expect salary growth comparable to a business or legal career, there would be qualified candidates. Actually, if there even were such a thing as a starting college teaching position, it would be an improvement. About half of college teachers are now “adjuncts,” which means part-time, with no health-care or pension, and that percentage is on the rise. Currently, postsecondary education is not a viable career for a principal earner. The situation is comparable for K-12 education (but much less so for educational administrators, who do better).

This economic analysis assumes that talent in education, as in any other field, costs more than lack of it. It is simply not reasonable that widespread, high-quality education in this country is impossible. The problem is that inadequate investment is made in classroom and administrative talent. There are also profound structural flaws in the educational system that entrenched interests are loath to address. In addition, political corruption favors the status quo (see #3: Corruption). The failure of education ultimately makes it easier for the economic elites to separate ordinary people from their wealth.

Third on my list of causal factors is government corruption and incompetence. The corruption is a direct consequence of how American politics is financed. The rich pay the politicians, who in turn, write laws that favor the rich. It’s an incestuous system that works well for both sides, selling power for money, trading money for privilege, all at the expense of ordinary people. It is not overt bribery, usually; this is not suitcases full of money. No, just as racism and sexism have moved from being overt to subtle, government corruption at all levels is now only detectible to the discerning. Just a special-purpose clause in a bill here, an appropriations contingency there, a blind regulatory eye, a tax loophole, and plenty of rhetorical obfuscation. It doesn’t take much to shave points off a game.

I’m not saying that illegal things are being done (though recent history suggests some of that goes on too), only that corrupt things are being done. Actions are corrupt when they violate the trust that ordinary people grant to politicians when they ask them to work on their behalf. Anyone who doubts that the American political system is corrupt is under-informed (see #2: Education).

The fourth and final causal factor in my list is globalization of economics. This came about mainly as a consequence of the technology and information revolution (see #1), which allowed rationalization of labor markets and currencies. As a result, jobs flowed out of America’s expensive labor market to cheaper markets abroad, to the great benefit of many millions of people around the world (e.g., in China, Mexico, and elsewhere), but to the loss of high-priced American workers.

Globalization of labor will continue, eventually consuming the livelihoods of the American affluent. We are already seeing this as jobs like legal research, financial trading, and X-ray interpretation move offshore. That trend will continue as global economics reaches equilibrium over the next couple of centuries, when even the most wealthy will find it difficult to exploit market anomalies to their own advantage.

Beyond labor market equilibration, globalization of trade, especially in oil, has sucked money out of the economy and funneled it to Big Oil. It is largely due to government corruption and incompetence (see #3) that America’s addiction to oil has not been treated in the past half century, despite numerous and obvious warnings.

What should be done, what can be done, about the current economic recession and its dark shadow of unconscionable wealth inequality? I have ideas, but that’s a different essay. Here I want only to enumerate my perception of the fundamental, distal factors causing the deep economic hole we are now in and from which we may never fully emerge.