Insider Capitalism – for richer or poorer…

We begin another look at Zombieland with this editorial from Martin Wolf in The Financial Times:

Why did it take so long? It is over four years since the financial crisis began. Yet only now are anti-capitalist protests emerging, including at St Paul’s Cathedral. So is this the beginning of a resurgent leftwing politics? I doubt it. Are the protesters raising some big questions? Yes, they are.

Socialism failed as a way of running economies. It did, however, succeed in establishing welfare states. Socialism is a conservative force, dedicated to defending entitlements built up over a century. Meanwhile, organised labour is only strongly entrenched in the public sector. This gives it the same conservative agenda: defending the welfare state. Strikes by UK public sector workers against the fiscal cuts will demonstrate this.

We have promoted an insider form of capitalism which exploits and indeed creates subsidies and tax loopholes on which the insiders prosper. The need to rescue banks was horrifying. The role of money in politics is disturbing. The danger is that we are moving from what the Nobel laureate economic historian, Douglass North, calls an “open-access order” to its opposite, a system in which political influence is decisive.

The era of bail-outs must end.

We rarely agree with Mr. Wolf. But he is right…so far. Later in his editorial he proceeds to fall into gross and obvious error — arguing that “we” need to find solutions to capitalism’s inherent excesses.

Humans seem prone to self-fulfilling waves of optimism and pessimism. Ways of mitigating the extent and the consequences of such instability always need to be found.

We see no reason to mitigate the instability of free markets. That’s what makes them so much fun!

But when The Financial Times undertakes to encourage its readers to fix capitalism, you realize how few real friends that disagreeable creed must have.

Few people really like capitalism — even people who call themselves capitalists. The feds could probably round them all up and gun them down in an afternoon. Capitalism is too chancy…too unpredictable…and too uncontrollable. No wonder so few people are fond of it; capitalism is a poor friend. It is disloyal. It is mischievous and willful. It is hard to get along with.

Capitalism offers is no sure route to success. You can be smart, work hard, and go to the best schools. There is still no guarantee that you will succeed.

Nor, once you’ve succeeded, is there any sure way to maintain your wealth, power and status. Wealth has no fidelity, neither to any one person, group, or family. It goes where it wants. It is fickle and unreliable.

Nor does it go necessarily to the strongest, fastest, or smartest. As it says of the race in Ecclesiastes, time and chance play a big roll. Neither can be made to stay put. Once you have made a lot of money, the same wheel of fortune that brought it to you can take it away from you. It never stops turning.

The rich tend to be even bigger anti-capitalists than the poor. As soon as they get some wealth they try to put the brakes on. They set up tests and hurdles…designed to keep the hoi polloi off their tennis courts and out of their businesses. They use every means possible to separate themselves from the masses — language, education, dress, customs, geography. They tend to speak differently…sometimes even using a completely different language. Probably the most recent and best known example comes from Britain, where the upper classes still speak a heavily Latinized version of English, called “RP” for ‘received pronunciation,’ while the lower classes speak a more Germanic, more archaic version. A thousand years earlier, the upper classes actually spoke a different language all together — French.

In France itself, the development of “French” was itself a long process; until the 19th century the language was foreign to most people who lived in France. It, and Latin before it, was used almost exclusively by the rich, the powerful, and the well-educated.

Education is another common means of helping the rich to hold onto their money. Special schools typically cater only to the upper classes, teach the right accents and attitudes, and help young people make the sort of connections that will keep them, and their money, in the same group. These schools were rarely hermetic, however. They usually allowed a few particularly bright people from the lower orders to enter into the moneyed classes. This had three beneficial effects. It nourished the gene pool of the rich. It provided them with the top talent they needed to stay rich. And it drew in ambitious and able young people who might otherwise compete against them.

Of course, the rich — especially if they are a coherent cultural group — tend to live together, socialize together, and do business together. These things too help to keep money “in the family” and out of the hands of strangers.

Nor do the rich typically stop at honest means. They also avail themselves of the police power of the state. Many laws, edits, and rules have been announced to regulate everything from the professions people must practice to the clothes they wear. “Serfs” were shackled to their farms, masters, and their station in life by law as well as by custom. Sumptuary laws forbade new money from imitating the fine dress of old money. Licensing requirements, tariffs, and regulations generally make it more difficult to enter into a profitable trade or business, thereby protecting those who are already in it.

The rich are not above using the tax code either. In pre- revolutionary France, for example, the aristocracy and the clergy were exempt from taxes. Even today, most taxes are taxes on getting rich, not on being rich. Governments tax income, not wealth. France is an exception with a wealth tax. But it is a relatively modest one — never exceeding 2% of assets. Compare that to the top marginal rate on income. Combined with social charges, it rises to more than 71%.

Warren Buffett has famously pointed this out, indirectly. He claimed that he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary. That was because his taxes were paid at rates levied on people who were already rich — capital gains and dividends — rather than income. The poor secretary had to pay taxes on the fruits of her own labors.

Does that mean the rich like government? Yes, of course they do. The state is a rich man’s best friend. The rich return the friendship, in cash.

As Bill Gross reported in January of 2010, what is amazing is not that politicians can be bought, but that they can be bought so cheaply. He wrote that “public records show that combined labor, insurance, big pharma and related corporate interests spent just under $500 million last year on healthcare lobbying (not much of which went to politicians) for what is likely to be a $50-100 billion annual return.”

But while hardly anyone actually likes capitalism, there’s a problem with the alternative. Efforts made to hinder, tame, and put a ball and chain on it always make things worse. They lead to zombification.

What’s that?

Here is the foundation of our General Theory of Zombieism:

  1. All (or almost all) people want wealth, power and status.
  2. They want to get it in the easiest way possible.
  3. The easiest way to get wealth is to steal it, which is why all groups turn to the government, the only institution which gets to steal lawfully.
  4. Over time, more and more groups are able to use the system for their own ends.

If they are poor, they implore the government to ‘tax the rich’ and give the money to the poor. If they are rich, they want the government to protect their wealth and status — with every means available to them. Democratic governments generally do both. They support the poor with loud attacks on the rich combined with whimpers of money (for the poor can generally be bought — vote for vote — much cheaper than the rich). As for the rich, their support is more subtle and underhanded. There are tax credits and loopholes for anyone who can afford them; sugar-laden contracts for the insiders and plenty of jobs for well-credentialized blowhards.

The rich complain about the poor. The poor complain about the rich. Both complain about the government. And everybody hates capitalism.

But over time, the giveaways, bribes, regulations, intercessions and meddling on the part of the government have a big effect on the economy. The more the government interferes with market signals and market-based capital allocation, the less able the economy is to produce real wealth. More and more resources are purloined by the insiders before the truck reaches its destination. Paperwork, lawyers, administration, regulation, taxes take a toll. So does misallocation of capital investment to huge, unproductive industries such as education, health, and defense. There is also a shift of wealth generally from those who earn it to those to whom it is redistributed…and from capital formation to consumption. And gradually the economy becomes paralyzed and parasitic…and nearly everyone gets poorer. And often, the state…and the mobs that support it…become desperate for more money. Then…the rich had better watch out!

Bill Bonner

Bill Bonner

Best-selling investment author Bill Bonner is the founder and president of Agora Publishing, one of the world's most successful consumer newsletter companies. Owner of both Fleet Street Publications and MoneyWeek magazine in the UK, he is also author of the free daily e-mail Markets and Money.
Bill Bonner

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