So How To Make Money In The Dysfunctional Economy?

Ran into this interesting piece. Apparently much of the growth in corporate profits since the turn of the Century has  a result in lobbying rather than actually making and selling stuff.

But there is a more optimistic narrative about the rise of profits. Perhaps profits are rising because firms are increasingly making profitable investments in new technology, in IT, or in their organizational capabilities. In this account, high profits represent increased economic dynamism.

So which is it — political rent seeking or cutting-edge investments? In a new research paper, I tease apart the factors associated with the growth in corporate valuations relative to assets (Tobin’s Q) and the growth in operating margins. I account for the roles of R&D, spending on advertising and marketing, and on administrative costs, including IT. I also consider investments in lobbying, political campaign spending, and regulation; and I look for links between rising profits and industry concentration and stock volatility.

I find that investments in conventional capital assets like machinery and spending on R&D together account for a substantial part of the rise in valuations and profits, especially during the 1990s. However, since 2000, political activity and regulation account for a surprisingly large share of the increase.

Much of this result is driven by the role of regulation, so it is important to understand the link between regulation and profits. Lobbying and political campaign spending can result in favorable regulatory changes, and several studies find the returns to these investments can be quite large. For example, one study finds that for each dollar spent lobbying for a tax break, firms received returns in excess of $220.

It is less obvious, however, that regulation in general should be associated with higher profits. Indeed, critics of the regulatory state regularly decry the costs imposed by regulations. Yet even regulations that impose costs might raise profits indirectly, since costs to incumbents are also entry barriers for prospective entrants. For example, one study found that pollution regulations served to reduce entry of new firms into some manufacturing industries.

Jerry Pournelle has these comments.

So we began imports in the 50’s – 60’s, and Detroit became a sinkhole. Suddenly there was no tariff for revenue or for protection. We had Free Trade. Factory equipment was shipped south of the border, then to China and Singapore and anywhere else you could find educable workers, while the jobs vanished in the United States, fewer people learned the new skills demanded by globalization, and a National Commission on Education concluded that we had developed a national system of education indistinguishable from an act of war. Federal Aid to Education – non-existent before the 60’s – was supposed to give us schools for the space age. They succeeded in giving us a third world literacy rate.

We now have a low unemployment rate, but, astonishingly, fewer people who don’t have jobs – aren’t even looking for jobs, so they aren’t counted as unemployed. They just don’t work for a living. They aren’t trying to. The remedy to this, we are told, is more regulations to make work safer, higher minimum wages to make work more attractive, and more welfare benefits for those who aren’t working. This makes investing in new manufacturing enterprises hideously expensive.

My friend David Friedman believes the solution to all our economic problems is less government, and more Free Trade. He once told me “I am in all cases in favor of others dumping products on us.” This specifically included high tech stuff like memory chips. It hardly mattered where it was made: cheaper is better. Perhaps so; but he is almost in all cases in favor of less government, too, and that he doesn’t get with dumping and Free Trade. I would advise Mr. Trump to include Dr. Friedman in his circle of advisors, because David is infuriatingly able to explain his views and they need to be presented; but he needs some other around who aren’t so sure. Free Trade with high compensation for not working, and increased regulations making startup enterprises require high capital has produced this mess. For years the US economy consisted of opening cargo containers filled with Chinese stuff, much of it paid for with borrowed money.

America used to produce many of the world’s goods. Detroit and the industrial plant that city symbolized was the envy of the world, and Pittsburgh produced steel for the world. Neither is a symbol of productivity today. Capitalism requires creative destruction; but I would have thought it also requires good schools, loyal citizens, settled households and neighborhoods, people who are accustomed to self government, and a measure of stability.

Instead, we have an enormous and growing national debt – one we don’t just owe it to ourselves, not any more – an unemployable class which isn’t even officially unemployed, the wreckage of a school system that once was the envy of the world; and we are apparently going to vote for eight more years of Hope and Change.

The problem is that the Obama economy with it’s quantitative easing and rent seeking favored policies  prevented  the refragmentation and reorganization that American  imdustry needed to  reset itself for the next economy. Instead all too many companies chose the easy route of laying people off and buying back stock. Stock buybacks, while they may pump up the stock price temporarily, never actually added anything to the revenue that represent the bottom line.  You don’t grow by shrinking yourself.


The effects of World War II were both economic and social. Economically, it decreased variation in income. Like all modern armed forces, America’s were socialist economically. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. More or less. Higher ranking members of the military got more (as higher ranking members of socialist societies always do), but what they got was fixed according to their rank. And the flattening effect wasn’t limited to those under arms, because the US economy was conscripted too. Between 1942 and 1945 all wages were set by the National War Labor Board. Like the military, they defaulted to flatness. And this national standardization of wages was so pervasive that its effects could still be seen years after the war ended. [1]

Business owners weren’t supposed to be making money either. FDR said “not a single war millionaire” would be permitted. To ensure that, any increase in a company’s profits over prewar levels was taxed at 85%. And when what was left after corporate taxes reached individuals, it was taxed again at a marginal rate of 93%. [2]

Socially too the war tended to decrease variation. Over 16 million men and women from all sorts of different backgrounds were brought together in a way of life that was literally uniform. Service rates for men born in the early 1920s approached 80%. And working toward a common goal, often under stress, brought them still closer together.

Though strictly speaking World War II lasted less than 4 years for the US, its effects lasted longer. Wars make central governments more powerful, and World War II was an extreme case of this. In the US, as in all the other Allied countries, the federal government was slow to give up the new powers it had acquired. Indeed, in some respects the war didn’t end in 1945; the enemy just switched to the Soviet Union. In tax rates, federal power, defense spending, conscription, and nationalism the decades after the war looked more like wartime than prewar peacetime. [3] And the social effects lasted too. The kid pulled into the army from behind a mule team in West Virginia didn’t simply go back to the farm afterward. Something else was waiting for him, something that looked a lot like the army.

If total war was the big political story of the 20th century, the big economic story was the rise of new kind of company. And this too tended to produce both social and economic cohesion. [4]

The 20th century was the century of the big, national corporation. General Electric, General Foods, General Motors. Developments in finance, communications, transportation, and manufacturing enabled a new type of company whose goal was above all scale. Version 1 of this world was low-res: a Duplo world of a few giant companies dominating each big market. [5]

The late 19th and early 20th centuries had been a time of consolidation, led especially by J. P. Morgan. Thousands of companies run by their founders were merged into a couple hundred giant ones run by professional managers. Economies of scale ruled the day. It seemed to people at the time that this was the final state of things. John D. Rockefeller said in 1880

The day of combination is here to stay. Individualism has gone, never to return.

He turned out to be mistaken, but he seemed right for the next hundred years.

The consolidation that began in the late 19th century continued for most of the 20th. By the end of World War II, as Michael Lind writes, “the major sectors of the economy were either organized as government-backed cartels or dominated by a few oligopolistic corporations.”

For consumers this new world meant the same choices everywhere, but only a few of them. When I grew up there were only 2 or 3 of most things, and since they were all aiming at the middle of the market there wasn’t much to differentiate them.

One of the most important instances of this phenomenon was in TV. Here there were 3 choices: NBC, CBS, and ABC. Plus public TV for eggheads and communists. The programs the 3 networks offered were indistinguishable. In fact, here there was a triple pressure toward the center. If one show did try something daring, local affiliates in conservative markets would make them stop. Plus since TVs were expensive whole families watched the same shows together, so they had to be suitable for everyone.

And not only did everyone get the same thing, they got it at the same time. It’s difficult to imagine now, but every night tens of millions of families would sit down together in front of their TV set watching the same show, at the same time, as their next door neighbors. What happens now with the Super Bowl used to happen every night. We were literally in sync. [6]

In a way mid-century TV culture was good. The view it gave of the world was like you’d find in a children’s book, and it probably had something of the effect that (parents hope) children’s books have in making people behave better. But, like children’s books, TV was also misleading. Dangerously misleading, for adults. In his autobiography, Robert MacNeil talks of seeing gruesome images that had just come in from Vietnam and thinking, we can’t show these to families while they’re having dinner.

I know how pervasive the common culture was, because I tried to opt out of it, and it was practically impossible to find alternatives. When I was 13 I realized, more from internal evidence than any outside source, that the ideas we were being fed on TV were crap, and I stopped watching it. [7] But it wasn’t just TV. It seemed like everything around me was crap. The politicians all saying the same things, the consumer brands making almost identical products with different labels stuck on to indicate how prestigious they were meant to be, the balloon-frame houses with fake “colonial” skins, the cars with several feet of gratuitous metal on each end that started to fall apart after a couple years, the “red delicious” apples that were red but only nominally apples. And in retrospect, it was crap. [8]

But when I went looking for alternatives to fill this void, I found practically nothing. There was no Internet then. The only place to look was in the chain bookstore in our local shopping mall. [9] There I found a copy of The Atlantic. I wish I could say it became a gateway into a wider world, but in fact I found it boring and incomprehensible. Like a kid tasting whisky for the first time and pretending to like it, I preserved that magazine as carefully as if it had been a book. I’m sure I still have it somewhere. But though it was evidence that there was, somewhere, a world that wasn’t red delicious, I didn’t find it till college.

It wasn’t just as consumers that the big companies made us similar. They did as employers too. Within companies there were powerful forces pushing people toward a single model of how to look and act. IBM was particularly notorious for this, but they were only a little more extreme than other big companies. And the models of how to look and act varied little between companies. Meaning everyone within this world was expected to seem more or less the same. And not just those in the corporate world, but also everyone who aspired to it—which in the middle of the 20th century meant most people who weren’t already in it. For most of the 20th century, working-class people tried hard to look middle class. You can see it in old photos. Few adults aspired to look dangerous in 1950.

But the rise of national corporations didn’t just compress us culturally. It compressed us economically too, and on both ends.

Along with giant national corporations, we got giant national labor unions. And in the mid 20th century the corporations cut deals with the unions where they paid over market price for labor. Partly because the unions were monopolies. [10] Partly because, as components of oligopolies themselves, the corporations knew they could safely pass the cost on to their customers, because their competitors would have to as well. And partly because in mid-century most of the giant companies were still focused on finding new ways to milk economies of scale. Just as startups rightly pay AWS a premium over the cost of running their own servers so they can focus on growth, many of the big national corporations were willing to pay a premium for labor. [11]

As well as pushing incomes up from the bottom, by overpaying unions, the big companies of the 20th century also pushed incomes down at the top, by underpaying their top management. Economist J. K. Galbraith wrote in 1967 that “There are few corporations in which it would be suggested that executive salaries are at a maximum.” [12]

To some extent this was an illusion. Much of the de facto pay of executives never showed up on their income tax returns, because it took the form of perks. The higher the rate of income tax, the more pressure there was to pay employees upstream of it. (In the UK, where taxes were even higher than in the US, companies would even pay their kids’ private school tuitions.) One of the most valuable things the big companies of the mid 20th century gave their employees was job security, and this too didn’t show up in tax returns or income statistics. So the nature of employment in these organizations tended to yield falsely low numbers about economic inequality. But even accounting for that, the big companies paid their best people less than market price. There was no market; the expectation was that you’d work for the same company for decades if not your whole career. [13]

Your work was so illiquid there was little chance of getting market price. But that same illiquidity also encouraged you not to seek it. If the company promised to employ you till you retired and give you a pension afterward, you didn’t want to extract as much from it this year as you could. You needed to take care of the company so it could take care of you. Especially when you’d been working with the same group of people for decades. If you tried to squeeze the company for more money, you were squeezing the organization that was going to take care of them. Plus if you didn’t put the company first you wouldn’t be promoted, and if you couldn’t switch ladders, promotion on this one was the only way up. [14]

To someone who’d spent several formative years in the armed forces, this situation didn’t seem as strange as it does to us now. From their point of view, as big company executives, they were high-ranking officers. They got paid a lot more than privates. They got to have expense account lunches at the best restaurants and fly around on the company’s Gulfstreams. It probably didn’t occur to most of them to ask if they were being paid market price.

The ultimate way to get market price is to work for yourself, by starting your own company. That seems obvious to any ambitious person now. But in the mid 20th century it was an alien concept. Not because starting one’s own company seemed too ambitious, but because it didn’t seem ambitious enough. Even as late as the 1970s, when I grew up, the ambitious plan was to get lots of education at prestigious institutions, and then join some other prestigious institution and work one’s way up the hierarchy. Your prestige was the prestige of the institution you belonged to. People did start their own businesses of course, but educated people rarely did, because in those days there was practically zero concept of starting what we now call a startup: a business that starts small and grows big. That was much harder to do in the mid 20th century. Starting one’s own business meant starting a business that would start small and stay small. Which in those days of big companies often meant scurrying around trying to avoid being trampled by elephants. It was more prestigious to be one of the executive class riding the elephant.

By the 1970s, no one stopped to wonder where the big prestigious companies had come from in the first place. It seemed like they’d always been there, like the chemical elements. And indeed, there was a double wall between ambitious kids in the 20th century and the origins of the big companies. Many of the big companies were roll-ups that didn’t have clear founders. And when they did, the founders didn’t seem like us. Nearly all of them had been uneducated, in the sense of not having been to college. They were what Shakespeare called rude mechanicals. College trained one to be a member of the professional classes. Its graduates didn’t expect to do the sort of grubby menial work that Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford started out doing. [15]

And in the 20th century there were more and more college graduates. They increased from about 2% of the population in 1900 to about 25% in 2000. In the middle of the century our two big forces intersect, in the form of the GI Bill, which sent 2.2 million World War II veterans to college. Few thought of it in these terms, but the result of making college the canonical path for the ambitious was a world in which it was socially acceptable to work for Henry Ford, but not to be Henry Ford. [16]

The Obama Administration and it’s policies are over.  The damage it did continues. Unless actual tax cuts happen, and I mean very deep cuts, there will be no incentive for growth.  Growth needs to be the key issue or the country will start on a deep and long contraction where much of the country’s wealth will evaporate.  That is situation we all face.

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