A good flim flam needs a good mountebank and a good mark. Two weeks ago, we pointed out that Wall Street was full of bright cads and dull sharks. Then, last week, we showed that conceited humbuggers run the central banks. Today, it is the politicians we come, not to bury, but to praise. They did their work well; they set up the marks.
The two great political figures of the last thirty years were Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Reagan. These titans from the two sides of the Atlantic led the way to a new idea of how the world should work. Thenceforth, capitalism was king. But it was a new kind of capitalism they had crowned, one with a strange, unnatural face. It was not the old free enterprise, king of the jungle, red in tooth and claw. This new capitalism was more like the owner of a pet shop, where all the animals were cute and cuddly – and didn’t eat the customers.
Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Reagan and their followers had seen how centrally planned economies worked; the Chinese and Russians showed what happened when bureaucrats ran an economy. The free market seemed like the best alternative. But the trouble was, these new ‘conservatives’ had no real respect for it. Instead of quaking before it in genuine fear and awe, like Moses before the burning bush, they began to believe that they could be its master. Then, they developed a whole host of fantasies about what this tamed beast could do for them.
Not only could the free market solve the problem of poverty, it could solve almost every other problem too. It was a social panacea. Just look at the wealthy countries, they said. Switzerland is clean and prosperous. By contrast, communist China is a dump. People are healthier and happier in capitalist countries, where they have better automobiles and lower birthrates. Science, supported by the free market, would find cures to diseases too…and even help people live longer. The logic was simple enough: free enterprise made people rich. And with their money, they could do wonders – cleaning up the factories, building hospitals and clinics, organizing public day care and Pilates classes…even getting rid of smoking!
Nothing was too absurd or contradictory for the True Believers. Gradually, they began to confuse the fruit with the tree…and then mistake the tree for a lamppost. Financial incentives were thought to be the key to everything. If an executive failed to maximize shareholder value, it was because his bonus was not large enough. If students showed poor test results, it was because teachers were paid by the job, not by the outcome. And if terrorists attacked a building in New York, it was because they lacked financial opportunities in Cairo. (Later, people were dumbfounded when doctors who had worked for the National Health Service tried to blow up cars in Glasgow and London.)
The ideas were slippery but they greased the skids. Soon, the marks were ready to go along with anything. Shareholders consented to hundreds of millions in bonuses and stock options for key executives. Investors signed up for hedge funds, willingly giving managers “2% and 20%” for putting quarters in the slot machine for them. Taxpayers allowed huge tax cuts – widely believed to be aiding the wealthy – because they looked forward to the day when they would be wealthy too. And almost everyone, everywhere eagerly went on a spending spree, in the belief that this new, kindler, gentler capitalism would add wealth faster than they could get rid of it. And if they overspent, hyper-capitalism would soon catch up.
In public finance, this delusion led to Dick Cheney’s famous quip: “Deficits don’t matter.” This, in turn, led to the greatest explosion of government red ink the planet had ever seen. During the first seven years of the George W. Bush administration, about $20 trillion was added to the U.S. ‘financing gap’ – more than under all America’s other presidents put together.
What was good for the top was good for the bottom. Private households, too, ran deficits of their own. Savings rates fell close to zero while U.S. household debt rose from less than $2 trillion in the first year of the Reagan administration to nearly $13 trillion in the 6th year of the present administration.
In Britain the story is about the same. Before the Thatcher revolution, household debt was about 65% of household income. By 1988, it had reached 100%. And by 2007, it was more than 150%.
When a consumer spends a dollar he earned, it is taken in as income to the businesses that receive it. But it offset by a cost too – a wage expense. But if the consumer spends a borrowed dollar, it comes to business like manna from heaven, with no balancing wage cost. Higher profits, greater leverage, more debt – it was all catnip to Wall Street. Financial assets were only 4.5 times GDP in 1980. Now they are 10 times as large. But that is nothing compared to the sugary confections of the credit industry. Credit default swaps, alone, are said to be worth $45 trillion.
The earnings of the financial sector equaled only 10% of total corporate earnings in 1980. By 2007, they made up 40% of the total, even though they still only employed 5% of the workforce.
But, “that game is now up,” says the Economist . The “new” capitalism was a fraud. It didn’t make people rich. It only allowed them to get rich – or poor – depending on what they did with it. Americans used their economic freedom to ruin themselves. But that’s just the way capitalism really works. You don’t get what you expect…or what you want; you get what you deserve.
Markets and Money