Saturday, April 02, 2011

The free market case against capitalism

By Carl 

Theoretically, laissez-faire capitalism predicts that the actions of self-interested individuals, on the whole, will benefit society. The balancing act any society has to commit to is to ensure that the community standards are upheld while people pursue their greed (itself a moral value that is antithetical to any society).

There are very few political systems that allow for the existence of capitalism. Certainly, democracy's attempt to "form a more perfect union" is diametrically opposite of the goals of capitalism, which is to destabilize and unbalance society as much as possible.

Still, capitalism does work in the framework of a society if it is kept reined in. Democracy can exist with capitalism, even thrive if, as with religion, the two are kept separate.

That crucial distinction is starting to fray.

Now, we may find capitalism itself has come unglued. Comes Rana Foroohar of Time magazine:

A new study from the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City, Mo.–based nonprofit that researches and funds entrepreneurship, has found that over the past several decades, the growth in size and importance of the financial sector has run in tandem with lower — not higher — rates of new-business formation. In the 1980s, when Wall Street really took off, the number of new firms created fell, and in the 1990s, it plateaued and has been stagnant ever since. Basically, the facts show the opposite of what Wall Street would have us believe. A number of factors explain that, but one of the most important, argue the study's authors, is that the financial sector is sucking talent and entrepreneurial energy from more socially beneficial sectors of the economy.

You can see it in the graduating classes of the country's top universities. Harvard graduates, for example, enter financial occupations at a far higher rate now than they did in the 1970s. It's a trend that accelerated markedly in the past decade, as the computerization of finance made the profession both more lucrative and more intellectually stimulating (one can now think about the 12th dimension rather than just golf). The proportion of graduates from MIT, for example, who went to Wall Street rose from 18% in 2003 to 25% in 2006.

The problem is that these are the types of people most likely to start the sort of dynamic, job-creating new companies that we need. No wonder economists like Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps speculate that the financialization of the U.S. and subsequent dampening of entrepreneurship may be at the heart of our long-term productivity slowdown (average productivity rates have been lower in the decades since the 1970s than in those before).

Whatever the corporate titans lobbying in Washington say, statistics show that it's new companies, not old, that grow the economy. Some 40% of U.S. GDP this year will come from firms that didn't exist in the 1980s. And nearly all the new jobs in the U.S. are created by firms less than five years old. "The political emphasis shouldn't be on making big firms work," says Kauffman Foundation head Carl Schramm, "but on helping new ones take root."

In other words, distilling these paragraphs to their essence, it's not the poor economy that's responsible for the slow creation of jobs.

It is, ironically, the excellent economy that's hampering job creation. The excellent economy in terms of Wall Street.

There's no getting around the fact that any rational person is going to engage in behavior that provides them with the best opportunity to create the most comfortable life for themselves. It's why Alex Rodriguez makes almost as much as a player for the Yankees than the entire Kansas City Royals baseball team.

It's why every kid on the farms of Indiana or the streets of the inner city plays basketball, for that one shot to make it to the NBA and earn bookoo bucks.

And it's why its ridiculous to whine about athletes when quants (those mathematicians who create these complex instruments that no one can explain without using higher mathematics), who do even less for Main Street America than any high-priced athlete, make fortunes while not creating a single job.

I mean, at least A-Rod puts fannies in the seats and that means you need a stadium and ushers and peanut vendors and security guards and ticket takers, all jobs for people like you and me.

Indeed, one could make the case that the job of a quant is to destroy jobs by betting on inefficiencies in the markets that hurt individual companies as well as individual investors. They suck money out of the economy and hide it in complicated financial instrument that can lose value faster than a banana can rot.

You'll notice that the free market still works for the community as a whole but the community itself has changed. Wall Street has wholly divorced itself from America, just as the rise of multinational corporations have guaranteed that "American" companies are no long American.

Wall Street has about as much fealty to Main Street as you have to the colony of mosquitoes forming on a puddle in your backyard. You come to view them as at best a nuisance and at worst an enemy.

I worry about the future of this country. Can you blame a kid who's really good at math for going in and making as much money as he can without risking a dime out of his pocket?

(Cross-posted to Simply Left Behind.)

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