The public policy blog of the American Enterprise Institute

Subscribe to the blog

Discussion: (3 comments)

  1. Fully agree … but the big question is:

    Is Capitalism broken or what exactly has happened to this “fountain of money and growth” to draw such irritation among Wall Street financiers today?

    I personally don’t believe that capitalism is broken but it is a fact that capitalism requires freedom to work. It frankly is not and has never been designed to work in an environment dominated by market controls, regulations, artificial barriers to entry, monetary manipulation, and a myriad of other government interventions. To the extent that these things are present, I am afraid capitalism will appear broken. It is a wonder that what little capitalism that remains can still tug us along the path of progress as much as it does.

    By the same token, it is clear to everyone by now that the US is a more mature economy with lower growth possibilities and decreasing marginal returns. So I guess it all depends on what kind of capitalism we are talking about.

    Modern market capitalism has shifted recently with the domination of money markets and the financial system over the actual trade of goods. In effect you’ll make more money trading in derivatives than actually physically trading in commodities. In short capitalism, or the recent move into financial market dominated capitalism, works very well for a small percentage of the developed world. Bankers, hedge fund managers, derivative traders … and the rest would argue that it works well but having tax payers bail you out when it goes wrong simply means the risk has shifted from corporation to state, or you and me. Many would say that means a broken model.

    The second part is to look at trade…specifically manufacturing. What has happened here is a fundamental shift in where we make things. Corporations have outsourced their manufacturing base to China and India, or, more often than not are Chinese or Indian owned. The garment industry is a classic example of this shift where Bangladesh garment workers make a huge amount of clothing for big Western brands. The effect is twofold, a decline in manufacturing base in the developed world and a reduction in income from industry (direct result is a broadening trade deficit). Another example is car manufacturing where the U.S. ran a trade deficit in 2012. It imported $160 billion worth of cars, trucks and auto parts, while only exporting $81 billion, running a deficit of $79 billion. Add other industries and spread out the time period and it shows a serious problem. Outsourcing also negatively affects ROA as does a shift from manufacturing to a service based economy. Factors that, amongst others, that create a vicious circle of deepening budget deficit. Protectionism is one solution but so is paying everyone in the world a living wage and encouraging people to buy US or British – problem is we don’t make anything anymore.

    Again the state has to fund the deficit by borrowing. Add to this the byproduct of modern market capitalism. Pollution, decimation of fish stocks, land grabs, reduction in health and safety, poisoning of land, massive waste, lack of sustainability, open cast mining, the pushing out of small independent retailers by big box retailers, tax evasion, fraud, illegal dumping and removal of workers’ rights are all expensive byproducts the state has to pick up or irreversible shocks to the ecosystem, none of which are taken into account on a profit and loss sheet. As a fair and effective way of trading in goods capitalism is definitely broken, as a way of making a small elite incredibly rich it’s as utopian as you can get.

    Bottom Line: I believe Capitalism is still alive and well. It is based on Competition, Progression, Innovation, and Advancement. And it rewards those who are willing to take the risk. We should all have the right to take a risk and win…or lose everything … this in theory. But in reality, when the “new Capitalism” is based on mathematics rather than trade; credit default swaps over goods and services; when odds are stacked in the favor of big banks because of hedging, derivatives and CDS’s; when there is little to no penalty for market manipulation by investment banks, power brokers, ponzi schemers…these inefficiencies in the market cause redistribution of wealth to the people in power who design the system.

    Market inefficiencies like greed, fraud, and manipulation aren’t factored in with philosophical debate on whether capitalism works or not. And because some economics students (and certainly the big banks) would say that we must leave the market unregulated, and that capitalism wasn’t “designed to work in an environment dominated by market controls, regulations, artificial barriers to entry, monetary manipulation, and myriad other government interventions” the theft, manipulation and scheming will continue.

    Had the government not “intervened” some three years ago with the collapse of the financial system, most major banks in the US would have gone under…by their own hand.

    So I guess the answer to the question ” What is wrong with Capitalism Today? ” is dependent on who you ask. If you ask Goldman Sachs, they may give a different answer than if you ask the people picketing Wall Street.

    Capitalism works for capitalists. Problem is 90% of Americans are not capitalists, they are employees. Most of their ‘capital’ is tied up in housing, the rest in non-performing stocks. Median household net worth is the same now as in 1990 — $77,000. Since 1979, average income of the bottom 90% declined $900, while that of the top 1% increased $700,000.

    We are quickly reaching the tipping point where growth in GDP in any particular country comes at the expense of growth in GDP of another. We do not have global organizations capable of managing these tension points nor are societies willing to curb growth and consumerism. Capitalism as currently practiced is simply not sustainable.

    What do you say?

  2. I would just question the inherent assumption that return on skills equals growth potential.

    With regards to the US, I can see two reasons why there is such a stark return. First, that being low on the skills totem pole can be pretty lousy and lead to a lot of low-wage retail-type jobs. Second, that the cost to accquire those skillsets in the US is enormous so people will have to be paying off those debts for many years meaning the “true” returns may be much lower than indicated.

    All-in-all, this seems to be more just a basic measure of inequality than economic growth potential. Keep in mind, in all cases there is an economic incentive to be more skilled it’s just a question of how much the difference is from being less skilled.

    So yes, markets obviously reward higher skilled people more but the inherent question from a public policy standpoint should be how much more. Too much means you are going to leave a good chunk of society behind and too little may mean not enough incentive to produced a highly skilled workforce (though that certainly seems very debatable from these data).

  3. Two things grazed upon, but not fully addressed here:

    1. The costs of gaining qualification to enter into the labor market in the U.S. are significantly higher than in many other (union-burdened) labor markets. To gain the skills necessary to attain a higher level of income, one must also assume student debt that is unheard of in Scandinavian countries, for instance. The lifetime “Black Friday” (the point at which you have moved from being in the red to being in the black in the form of solvency) is much later for the average American, house mortgages notwithstanding. And that’s also not addressing the disparity in the burden of healthcare costs.

    2. The numbers in the graphic above are a mean based on the aggregate. It is very well known that the return at the upper end of the scale is disproportionately higher than even those found in the middle. This skews the mean upward. If you happen to be someone in finance or another high paying career field, you can become quite rich. Your ability to turn a 6-figure salary into a personal fortune drowns out groans from those earning barely enough to meet expenses (or not). Even those in the $30K – $100K range (being generous here) will largely still have to contend with the costs from item #1 for the privilege of qualifying for skilled work if they get there via post-secondary education, which means that whatever their earnings, a big chunk never makes it to their personal estate.
    By contrast, even lower-middle income workers in more tightly regulated labor markets are able to begin amassing a personal estate via savings. For all the economic shifting going on, the US only outpaces Japan in personal savings among OECD countries (

Comments are closed.

Sort By:

Refine Content:


Additional Keywords:

Refine Results

or to save searches.

Refine Content