I intend to write a short and admiring response to Rana Foroohar’s Makers and Takers and to her contention that American (and global) business has given way to speculative financialization (i.e. taking / not making), but the sheer volume of critical and inescapable SOLVE-ME-RIGHT-NOW crises has reduced me to near catatonia.
Please consider these realities: Quite aside from climate change, the disappearance of species, the certainty of wildfires, hurricanes, and melting glaciers (better hurry – Glacier National Park is almost out of glaciers, and one prognosticator advises that with sustained drought, Yosemite will look like Joshua Tree), aside from this apocolyptic global crisis, we have more than enough local issues to keep us nervous for quite a while. Wells in California have gone dry, the Colorado River no longer runs its full length, Phoenix and Las Vegas face some long-postponed issues of water scarcity, Oklahoma now has more earthquakes than California, thanks to extensive drilling, the City of Flint, Michigan still depends on bottled water, and children there have been irrevocably damaged by lead poisoning, and parts of the Louisiana Gulf coastline have already disappeared. Of course, it could be worse. In the Middle East, the Dead Sea is shrinking by the hour, vanishing into a giant sink hole.
Not enough? Homeless men, women, and children clog the streets; more than twenty percent of all children in the U.S. live in poverty. Schools and prisons have become warehouses, holding pens for the American underclass, much of which is made of people of color. Renewable resources are increasingly not renewable, what was once a middle class has largely disappeared, the number of working poor increases annually, millions of refugees live in desperation, some streaming into Europe, some into the United States (51% of whom are children fleeing gang and cartel violence), Russia is rattling sabers in the Middle East and China in the South China Sea. Oh, and North Korea has nukes.
So, the European Union is under siege, as is NATO and the United Nations, nativists are contending for power in Austria, France, and Britain, and a reality tv star has hijacked the Republican Party as millions of Americans have had enough. No new jobs, growing mountains of debt, and little in the way of encouraging growth in any sector but cosmetic surgery.
As far as I can recall, I was not notified when the decisons were made to abandon every certainty I had embraced throughout a reasonably long and happy life. I am pretty sure I would have noticed if a note had been slipped under my door promising that a free-market economy, liberal democracy, good jobs, clean air and water, multitude of animals, forests and icebergs, well-paved roads, national pride, effective government, and public civility would all be on the brink of extinction by the time I became a grandfather.
OK, I came of age in the tumultuous ’60s , when the promise of a better world was not only conceivable, but set to music. It had a beat; you could dance to it, and dance we did. Maybe we should have danced less and done the grunt work necessary to shaping the future as we imagined it, but the brightness of the future was so patently obvious; in the simplest of terms, all we needed was more of everything. More people, more money, more channels, more celebrities, more kinds of food, more technology, more medicine, more power.
Apparently, we all missed the memo. “Today is the tomorrow you should have worried about yesterday.”
Well, we didn’t worry enough, perhaps because for some time we were cowering under desks waiting for the next nuclear holocaust, or because a bit later things seemed to be going so delightfully well. Who or what is to blame for our current undeniably bleak prospects? I would love to pin it all on those who do not share my political or spiritual convictions, but the truth is probably in the shabby admission that we have been greedy.
“Greed is Good.” Gordon Gekko’s anthem to excess in 1987’s Wall Street rang down through the subsequent decades, and, even when we really did know better, there was something exhilarating about the cunning and craft of mergers, acquisitions, and booming markets. Sure, we used terms such as “Barbarians at the Gate” to describe corporate raiders turning leveraged buy-outs into huge personal fortunes, but we secretly thought corporations could use some shaking up, and, after all, is not the accumulation of 4.8 billion dollars (Henry Kravis) the real stuff of an American Dream? How does an ordinary Joe get in on the action? Play the market, sure, but in the 2000’s the fast money seemed to be in Real Estate. Need a loan? No Problem. No collateral? No problem. You can turn this house around tomorrow, buy two more, and join the parade. The big banks and investment houses leapt at the chance to play with pensions; the elevator seemed to go only up and up and up.
Then the economy went into the toilet. Not so much fun anymore. Well, actually, we loved that decade’s worth of hyper-speculation in which debt became the most significant American commodity; the market had gone berzerk, and paper fortunes puffed us up mightily. Then the bubble began to sag in 2006, got saggier in 2007, and totally went flat by 2008.
Michael Lewis had the chutzpah to think that he, a mere financial reporter, could untangle the complexities of the most debilitating collapse of Wall Street since the Great Depression; he not only figured it out but told the story with such clarity that had a six year-old read the book in 2005, he could have seen the collapse coming. The Big Short sold well as a non-fiction expose, and the film version was equally well received.
Huh. Let’s think about that. Audiences were charmed to see hedge fund managers make personal fortunes by betting against the market. Sure, it was fun to see the big houses take it in the shorts, knowing that Lehman Brothers went bankrupt with something like 600 billion in assets, but preventing the next depression brought even more swollen federal debt and virtually no reform of the structure of American (or global) financial machinery.
And that’s where I have to go next, having recently read Makers and Takers : The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business. The central premise of Rana Foroohar’s investigation of contemporary economics is so much worse than I had expected. Foroohar’s well documented assertion is that we learned nothing from the last global melt-down, did nothing to prevent other speculative bubbles, and, in fact have failed to see that the business of America is no longer business but financialization.
The book opens with a description of Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook’s most notable initiative in 2013 – borrowing $17, 000,000,000 in order to buy … stock in Apple. Apple could have been seen as quite comfortable, holding roughly 145 billion dollars in various safely held accounts (hello, Panama Papers/ good bye taxes paid to the U.S.), and another roughly 3 billion streaming in EACH MONTH. You and I might be cautious in borrowing 17 billion dollars, but Apple gets its money at a rate far lower than we mortals. OK, you say. Sure, that’s a lot of cash, but it costs big money to open new frontiers in technology. Hmmmm. are we talking about the Apple watch? Oh, that’s right. Nothing new from Apple in a while.
The 17 billion in repurchased stock created some hefty dividends and drove the price pf the stock higher, even though nothing new had been released into the market. So, what does Apple make these days? Paper fortunes for its largest stockholders (including Tim Cook).
In microcosm, that deal is what American capitalism looks like these days. Big money is in finance, essentially in speculation. It doesn’t take much deliberation to see that speculation has two notable disadvantages in the operation of a national (or global) economy. In the first place, obviously, nothing is created, fabricated, produced, grown, distributed, or sold. And, as a consequence, speculation does not create jobs or increase the financial well being of any but those who speculate successfully. There can be no “trickle-down”, especially if assets are hidden outside the country and invisible to taxation.
I am a bear of very little brain when it comes to issues of finance, but I found myself moved and surprised in hearing Hillary Clinton speak to coal miners in West Virginia. She told the truth: The jobs aren’t coming back. West Virginia’s economy is obsolete, and no amount of politically motivated posturing is going to fix their economy.
I would never counsel politicians to speak the truth in an election year; voters don’t want to know how little an elected official can actually do. I give Hillary a lot of credit for dropping the candidate’s mask long enough to see a real human across the table; that goes a long way toward starting a real conversation about banks and corporations “too big to fail”.
My grandchildren may not be able to see stars in the sky (hope they won’t miss tigers, polar bears, and most of Louisiana), but there is still time to address the ravages of piratical financial speculation in order to begin the process of rebuilding roads, bridges, dams, schools, and trust. There is still time to remember how to make rather than take.