A populist interpretation of the latest Boom-Bust cycle

In an earlier post, I said that populism was the problem, not the solution. I reject populist methods of tariffs and protectionism because they are self-defeating economic poison. However, in this brief post, I do want to give voice to a populist interpretation of the last 35 years of U.S. economic history. This is a story of unequal re-distribution of wealth from the less fortunate to the more fortunate. This is a story of the United States in which the rich get richer at the expense of everybody else. At the conclusion, ask yourself: is this true and, if so, what should we do about it?

The Theory of Kleptocracy

First, let’s use a theory from Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond as the center-piece for this little theory. In Chapter 14, entitled "From Egalitarianism to Kleptocracy," Diamond postulates that more stratified societies are by definition less egalitarian, but more efficient and are, thus, able to eradicate or conquer more egalitarian, less stratified societies. Thus, all ‘advanced’ societies with high levels of GDP are complex and hierarchical.

The problem is: these more stratified, more complex societies are in essence Kleptocracies, where those in power re-distribute societal wealth to themselves. Those at the bottom of the society’s pyramid accept this unequal, non-egalitarian state of affairs because they too benefit from their society’s relative advancement. It’s a case of a rising tide lifting all boats.

Diamond says the Kleptocrats maintain power using 4 different methods:

"1. Disarm the populace, and arm the elite."

"2. Make the masses happy by redistributing much of the tribute received, in popular ways."

"3. Use the monopoly of force to promote happiness, by maintaining public order and curbing violence. This is potentially a big and underappreciated advantage of centralized societies over noncentralized ones."

"4. The remaining way for kleptocrats to gain public support is to construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy."

Kleptocracy in America?

The obvious corollary of this theory is that most successful modern societies are, in fact, kleptocracies. The key is to use the four methods to gain popular support in order to re-distribute as much wealth to the ruling class as the populace will support. If the ruling class takes too much, it will be overthrown and replaced by a new ruling class (which in turn will re-distribute wealth to itself using the same four methods).

While this angle seems cynical, it is a a line of argument that has great internal consistency.

So, is the United States a kleptocracy? Of course it is! Is that bad? Well, it obviously depends on who you are in society. But, it also depends on whether the kleptocracy is efficient and fair over the long term. Let me explain this last statement a bit more.

Efficiency and Fairness

Because any heavily stratified society is by its very nature non-egalitarian, there always exists the potential for disenchantment amongst the masses. The U.S. is no exception. In order to prevent this disenchantment from leading to revolt, the ruling class must appear to strive for efficiency and fairness.

According to dictionary.com, efficiency means "accomplishment of or ability to accomplish a job with a minimum expenditure of time and effort." So, for the US, it means the ability to increase productivity at a rate which makes the U.S. wealthier on a per capita basis now and in the future. And remember, it is the perception of efficiency, not actual efficiency which is important.

To be fair is to be "free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice." For the United States, this means maintaining the perception that most every person has the opportunity to succeed while few, if any, have unobstructed paths to guaranteed success.

Is the U.S. efficient and fair?

That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it. My populist take: no, the United States is neither efficient nor fair.

The United States has been living beyond its means for some time. Since the 1960s, we have run up a massive federal debt and current account deficit, while debt levels have doubled on a percentage of GDP basis. Our present levels of consumption are simply not justified by our current levels of productivity, if we want to maintain our present standard of living in the future.

Were we not the world’s major military superpower with the world’s reserve currency and the world’s largest economy, we would have succumbed to our profligacy years ago. Paul Kennedy has a great book on "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." By contrast, many developing countries have gone bankrupt in the last 30 years from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Yet, we are in worse shape than were they, if one looks at the signposts which represent our macroeconomic health: debt-to-GDP levels, current account deficit as a percent of GDP, Government budget deficit, savings rate, etc.

The fact is our day of reckoning is upon us. We will soon realize that our massive debt and an outsized credit bubble have not only saddled us with debt, but it has also misallocated capital so that we are less productive than we believed. We have built miles and miles of telecom dark fibre when we could have invested in schools. We have built massive numbers of new homes, when we could have repaired our bridges and roads. The last 35 years have been an illusion of extreme productivity and wealth because we have artificially pulled forward demand by misallocating resources in order to consume today, what could have been consumed tomorrow. In essence, we are consuming today, while unwittingly making it more difficult to consume tomorrow because we believe we are wealthier than we truly are.

And as for fairness, Real Weekly Earnings peaked over 35 years ago in September 1972! Using the CPI to adjust wages to today’s dollars, the average worker made $738.48 per week in September 1972. In January 2008, that figure was $598.18.

(Note: these figures are expressed in Jan 2008 dollars. I use the CPI Index to calculate real dollars, which is based on 1982-1984 dollars. But, I then multiply this figure by 2.1108, which represents the BLS’s index factor for Jan 2008).

So, we are getting poorer. And we have been for over 35 years. Only during the end of the Clinton Administration was there an appreciable upswing in real weekly wages over this time period. Don’t believe me? See the raw data yourself, here and run the numbers.

In the meantime, CEOs are earning hundreds of millions of dollars, even when they are forced to leave because of poor management which cost their firms billions. In 2005, the average CEO earned 262 times what an average worker gets. In 1965, that figure was 24 times (see story).

Conclusions

There it is: the U.S. ruling class is not living up to its role in either efficiency or fairness. We are getting poorer.

That is why people are so angry. That is why the poll numbers for the President and Congress are so low [remember, I wrote this in March 2008]. And that is why so many people are suffering from the housing bubble.

The question you should ask yourself is this: Why has it taken the citizens of the U.S. so long to figure all this out? Answer: Even though the gulf between rich and poor was widening and the rich were getting richer, we thought we too were getting richer as well. We thought that we too were profiting from all of this "productivity." In the 1980s, we came out of a steep double dip recession and stagflation and we won the cold war. This inflated our sense of well-being. In the 1990s, there was the tech bubble to inflate our assets. In this decade, there was the housing bubble. So, we thought we were getting rich too. We didn’t mind that the ruling class was benefiting disproportionately as long as we too appeared to be benefiting.

But, what was really happening is we were loading up on debt. We were not benefiting at all

And now that there are no more cold wars we can win quickly, no more tech stocks, no more double digit house price increases, and no more asset bubbles to hide the naked truth — now we realize that we were getting poorer all the time — just as it felt to us. The ruling class have used the four methods to maintain popular support that I enumerated before in order to give the appearance of equity and efficiency. All the while, the rich were milking the system for all they could.

I advise anyone who finds this populist line of argument compelling to read Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Chapter 14 is especially rich. Once you realize that we the American people have been duped for the last generation, you will be angry. And this is why we need a major change in Washington. The politics and policies of the past just will not do.

About 

Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.