Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The economy visualized as an ecosystem 2.0

Carl Sagan is famously quoted as follows, "Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception." This is the law in every ecosystem humans have ever investigated and explored. Noam Chomsky has observed that every dominant species lasts about 100,000 years, and we're getting toward the end of that. Everything, it seems, has a beginning and an end.

But there is one ecosystem that seems to defy the principles set out above: the American economy. This is particularly true at the tippy-top. You know, those "too big to fail" businesses like banks?

Once the extent and size of the financial crisis had to be admitted, a fair number of very wealthy people had to admit their mistakes. Worse, they were going to lose a fantastic sum of money in a very public way, unless...

They got the help they wanted. Bailouts by the trillions ensued, saving the banks from the great humiliation and calamity of investing in subprime mortgages that went south for the recession. Lucky for them, and thanks to President Obama, no one went to jail, and no one lost any money except the taxpayer. Where did that money go? Why, offshore, of course.

You just won't see anything like this in the animal kingdom. There is no species so completely dominating that they use up all of their resources. Nor will you find any animal at the top of the food chain hoarding food for themselves at the expense of everyone else. It's not practical and it's not really possible for animals to hoard food the way wealthy people hoard money.

There is something else that would happen if there were a few lions keeping it all to themselves: the other lions would starve. Extinction would be close at hand. An elephant stomping here and there, and the gazelles gang up on the remaining lions to kill them off with some serious goring. That's the end of the hoarding business for the lions in this fictional scenario.

Darwin says that the fittest shall survive, he does not say that the strongest survive, only the fittest. The fittest are those most able to adapt to changes in the environment. As we saw in 2008, the banks were not able to adapt to changes in the environment, changes that they themselves helped to precipitate.

The financial meltdown is the result of a very slow train wreck: a collision of more than 30 years of wage stagnation and a strong dollar abroad, combined with a predatory housing bubble. Somebody lost money in that collision, and it wasn't the top 0.1%. They got their money back and more with help from the government. But no one can honestly say that they adapted to the changing environment...without help from the government.

In Iceland, they let their banks fail, put the unruly bankers in jail, wrote off the debts as much as they could, and got their economy back on sound footing. Their unemployment rate is about 4.2%. The Icelanders saw how unfit the banks were to survive. Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.

Had we allowed our banks to fail, wrote off the debt, and put the unruly bankers in jail, the real capitalists would have swarmed in like sharks to pick up the pieces at fire sale prices. Capital would have been freed up to get the economy moving again. People would have money to spend again. We might be looking at 4% unemployment now instead of almost 7%.

If you're a capitalist and you're at the top, do you really need help from the government? If you own any business and you need help from the government to compete, you're probably not a capitalist, more likely, you're a socialist. Most certainly, you're not a fan of Darwin.
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