ISBN: 9781603582056 Year Added to Catalog: 2009 Book Format: Paperback Dimensions: 5 3/8 x 8 3/8 Number of Pages: 224 Book Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing Old ISBN: 1603582056 Release Date: May 11, 2009 Web Product ID: 467
Also By This Author
The Looting of America
How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It
The crux of Les' thesis, if I can summarize without subverting, is that the roots of this recession lie in the gap between productivity and real wages, which began growing in the early 1970s. Instead of going to workers in the form of wages, who would have spent the money on real goods and services that grow economies, productivity gains began going to owners and executives, who, having all the stuff they needed, invested the money. All this new money seeking good returns led to risky lending practices and financial instruments, which, in turn, led to the current mess.
This is a provocative and debatable argument, and certainly one that will resonate in pro-labor circles. My question for Les: In pegging the financial meltdown in the U.S. to the decoupling of productivity gains and real wages, the underlying inference is that those gains – or a larger portion of them – were wrongly diverted away from wage earners. What caused this divergence and why are wage earners entitled to a larger portion of productivity gains?
Here's his reply:
There really is no consensus on why productivity and wages diverged so dramatically. I can only give you my read. I think several trends entwined to undercut the price of labor.
First was what we call “globalization” which, in this case, refers to the ability of corporations to move capital quickly to all parts of the globe. The Bretton Woods agreements, which ended in the early 1970s, had previously prevented such rapid movement of investment capital. But after its collapse, corporations could set up shop in low-wage areas and import the final products back into the United States. American labor, in effect, was in direct competition with workers all over the globe.
This led to the second factor: the decline of unions. The globalization process and its impact on U.S. workers could have been mitigated, in my opinion, had the labor movement been stronger. But labor union density had been in a secular decline since the mid-1950s. Why that happened is a much longer story, but the impact was two fold: First, unions could not moderate national policies on deregulation, capital flight and cheap imports; and second, unions could not effectively bargain hard at the workplace.
The third set of factors involved a shift in political power to the upper income brackets. During the Reagan era and beyond, social programs were slashed, taxes on the wealthy were reduced, the minimum wage was not increased to keep up with the cost of living, and labor laws were weakened.
I don't think we can blame new technologies for the transfer of productivity gains. The computer revolution came later as did the Internet. Manufacturing was becoming more and more automated throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, there was much hand-wringing in the late 1950s about the impact of automation on work and the rise of leisure --- what would workers do with all their free time?
That's why my main point is the following: The distribution of the fruits of productivity is more like a tug of war – a genuine struggle between the investor class and the rest of us. It’s not automatic. Policy impacts the division of the pie.
There is, however, an additional and very important factor to consider, no matter whether you favor more money for working people or more for the investment classes. I think we are living through a real life experiment about what happens when you let too much money accumulate at the top: It runs out of tangible investment opportunities in the real economy and much of it ends up in Wall Street’s fantasy finance casino.
There is a relationship between the rising gap between the super rich and the rest of us, and the crashing of the economy. Such were the conditions before the Great Depression and those conditions almost led us there again. I believe that for the sake of the entire economy, it is best to narrow the income/wealth gap.
I've just interviewed Les Leopold, who blames the recent financial disasters on trends that began over 30 years ago, explains how a great deal of Wall Street's "investing" has had as much connection to the real economy as fantasy baseball has to baseball, diagnoses the failures of labor and the left to resist the financialization of the economy, views the current situation with genuine optimism as a rare moment in which we might be able to make necessary changes to regulate finance and to shift money from a tiny group of billionaires to the rest of society, and explains why that latter step is needed to stabilize any economy.
With teach-ins planned everywhere on June 10th and people trying to educate each other on exactly what just happened to trillions of our children's dollars, you could do a lot worse than to gather some friends together, read or listen to, and discuss, this interview, and then take appropriate actions.
DS: This is David Swanson from AfterDowningStreet.org and Democrats.com and elsewhere, and I am very privileged to have here for this recording Les Leopold who has co-founded and directed both the Labor Institute and the Public Health Institute, who helped to form the Blue-Green Alliance which brings labor together with environmental activism, and who is the author of an award-winning biography, The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi, and of the book we are going to be talking about this evening, The Looting of America. It’s a long title, but it’s worth it: The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity and What We Can Do About It.
Les, great to have you.
LL: Well, thank you very much, David. I’m very glad to be here.
DS: Thanks for being here. It is a wonderful book. It’s not too long. I greatly enjoyed it, and it explained some crazy-sounding things to me from Wall Street that I had no idea what they could possibly be. Things liked “cubed, collateralized debt obligations,” and so forth. I don’t know if we have time on this, in this interview, for you to explain all the terms to everyone. They can get it from reading The Looting of America, but use your judgment and explain what we need.
But maybe if I could I’d like to start here: There is sort of a basic rule of economics that you say you and others have been taught. That is that when productivity goes up, the workers pay goes up. Not just that it should, but that it does, as some sort of a rule. And yet that hasn’t been true for quite some time. Can you discuss what has happened?
LL: Basically from World War II to the mid-70’s if you look at the productivity index, and we should define productivity – it’s the amount of output per worker hour. And the wealth of nations is basically determined by the value of output per worker hour. The more valuable that worker hour, the greater the prosperity of the nation. So it’s what is beneath pumping up the line of gross domestic product and other things like that. And our standard of living.
The productivity index and the average hourly wage of the non-supervisory production worker (which is something that is tracked in the statistics books, the government statistics books), those two numbers went up virtually in tandem from World War II to the middle of the 1970’s, and the thinking was that as productivity goes up, corporations make more money, they then hire more workers, which drives up the price of labor, and, the real price of labor after you take into account inflation, and as the two go up together, prosperity within your country goes up. And this was one of the reasons American capitalism was such a shining example around the world. The standard of living in the post-World War II period was phenomenal for the average working person, virtually throughout the country. There were exceptions – farm workers, African-American farm workers in the south, etc., - but overall there was a wonderful increase in the standard of living.
Something very strange started to happen in the mid 1970’s that, the two got de-coupled. It was no longer, what we thought was automatic turned out not to be automatic. In fact, there were other factors involved, and productivity continued to rise and, but the average worker’s wage after inflation went flat and started to go down. And this created an enormous change in the American economy, because the gap between those two lines first was hundreds of billions of dollars and now trillions of dollars, and that money had to go somewhere. It was no longer going to the average working person. In fact, it went to the very, very top of the income ladder. And that’s the source of our current crisis. A huge amount of money going to a very few people at the top.
DS: Now that seems relevant and interesting and disturbing and maybe even offensive, but I’m not sure it’s going to be clear to everybody right away how that 30-year trend could have caused the recent financial disaster. What’s the connection?
LL: It wasn’t clear to me either. And your listener or reader should be skeptical. So what. The money goes to the top, and the theory was when the money goes to the elite - and this was sort of the theory of the deregulatory, Reaganomics era – it started actually with Jimmy Carter, deregulation started then and some other trends we’ll talk about in a minute – but the theory was that the investor class, the elite, would be the investor class, and they would take that money and they would plough it back into new industries and this would lead to, you know, even more growth and productivity, even more jobs, even higher standard of living. And up to a point, that’s true. But there was so much money that floated to the top that there actually, the amount of investments that could be found that were moderate, you know, that were relatively good, solid investments began to get used up.
And the “Wall Street Journal” refers to a “wall of money” that existed out there that was looking for investments. And that wall of money, you could only buy, look, you could only invest so much, you could only spend so much on yourself. I mean, how many homes, how many cars, etc. The rest of it was still seeking investment opportunities. And Wall Street is not stupid. They became very aware that there were literally trillions of dollars out there seeking a home. And they came up with it.
They invented financial instruments to meet that demand. And the instruments they created are so amazing it would take, it took a book to kind of unwind it all, but they are so phenomenally detached from reality, they literally became a series of bets. And those chickens finally came home to roost on a lot of those bets. That’s the third piece of it.
So the first piece was the productivity got detached from real wages. Money drifted to the top, and those people ran out of places to invest it and they start to invest in what I call “vanity finance.”
DS: Can we stop at step two for a minute because I don’t know if that’s going to be clear to everybody right away. I don’t know if it’s clear to me. You say in the book as well, there’s a line on p. 17 that stopped me when I read it that says: “There was so much money roaming the globe that it ran out of real economy investments. Instead, much of this massive surplus found its way into high finance.”
And yet, we’re trained, I think, to think of entrepreneurs and the investing class as driving innovation. Why some handful of these people 30 years ago couldn’t have thought to create investments in infrastructure or in green jobs in better schools or in mass transit. What prevented the creation of real economy investment?
LL: That’s a good question. But some of the things that you mention there are public real investments. That’s not what, you don’t invest in infrastructure and schools, education if you are a private investor. And you’re also not likely to be able to by yourself break through on clean energy. That usually, you know, those, or alternative energy operations. That usually requires massive government investment.
What you’re looking for as a private investor is a good investment and you’ll be willing to speculate some on venture capital, and money did go there. In fact, the dotcom boom was fueled precisely by the money that was looking for a home.
But there was too much of it. You can only absorb in the private sector a certain amount of investment at a time. Otherwise it gets very, very risky, and if it’s your money, that’s not what you want to do. What you want is something that looks much safer, or at least moderately safe.
And so that financial instruments created by the financial community looked a lot safer. So, yeah, you put some money into new industries, into the dotcom boom, into securitized subprime mortgages as well, and then you start drifting into securities based on subprime mortgages that were designed to look like they were AAA-rated securities. That money, those kind of instruments attracted a whole lot of money.
Where that money could have gone, could have, should have gone, is precisely in infrastructure investment, education, energy, health care reform, but that’s what the public sector is supposed to do. And the public, if you recall, taxes were dramatically cut, especially on the wealthy, so the money to do those wonderful investments wasn’t there.
DS: So these investors who were looking for a safer place than risky new energy technologies or schools or things that tend to be public investments found investments that they thought were relatively safe but perhaps were not, were concocted with some fudging of numbers and some tricks and some fancy footwork that’s discussed in your book, The Looting of America, that perhaps in the way that some victims of predatory mortgage loans were taken in, the highest level of investors were taken in. Am I reading that correctly?
LL: It’s amazing, virtually everybody involved was taken in except the people who were, even the people actually who were marketing this stuff. See, the money is made by creating, packaging, selling, and reselling these instruments. The fees are embedded in it, so you make the money up front. And this was incredibly lucrative for the financial community.
Step by step the large financial institutions started making money hand over fist off the fees that these things generated, and as long as the economy was booming, especially the housing market going up and up and up, which turned out to be that which was being bet upon mostly during this period, but other things as well, as long as these things went up there was little chance of people losing their money, and the fees being made were enormous. The profits of the financial sector started to hog, became the most profitable sector of the economy, and it, I think at one point it almost hit 40 percent of all the corporate profits were in the financial community.
But it turns out as we’re learning now, these profits were phony. For example, the nine largest financial institutions had, according to the New York times, in the three years prior to the crash this fall, had earned quote/unquote 300 billion dollars. And now they’ve lost all that. It’s all gone. Except it was paid out. In other words, those companies are now, have now gone in the red equal to all the money they previously made. Of course, the money they previously made has already been paid out, half of which has gone to, you know, bonuses and salaries within those companies. And we’re now making up the difference through the TARP program, and trying to salvage the economy from a great depression.
So, but it was phenomenally successful as it was going on. And the reason that the investors invested in these instruments was (1) that they had these good ratings and they paid a little bit more than, they were constructed that they paid a little bit more than a super-safe government investment, or comparable government bond. And when you’ve got a lot of money and you can make a half a percent more, you’re making a lot more money.
LL: They couldn’t sell them fast enough. And they kept inventing new ways to create them, even when there were no underlying assets that were attached to them, which is, you know, a mind-blowing concept that I ran into as I was working on this book.
DS: Right. Investing in bets on investments actually owned by completely other people. I mean, these layers of phoniness so that this is not an economy in any way connected to the production of actual valuable products or services. Explain to people why this phony, fantasy finance economy couldn’t simply be allowed to fail without actually worsening the real economy.
LL: Well, I need to give a, maybe, let me try to explain a little bit more how these instruments work by going to the analogy of fantasy sports, fantasy baseball.
LL: Because it’s a, fantasy baseball is a synthetic derivative. In fantasy baseball, you and 12 other people get together and form a league and you draft real baseball players onto your team and you get ranked by how many home runs, RBIs, stolen bases, etc., your team has. And you own players, but you don’t really own them. The person, the real major league baseball player, if I have Derek Jeter on my team, Derek Jeter doesn’t know he’s on my team. In fact, he’s probably on a couple of thousand or 15,000, or 20,000 fantasy baseball teams right this very moment. Nobody owns him other than the New York Yankees, but he’s part of all these fantasy leagues.
And there is betting taking place right in these various leagues. The winner gets a certain amount of money, second place gets a certain amount of money. And money will exchange hands at the end of the year, and there are books that you can buy based on, you know, how to play fantasy baseball. There are stat services that track this every day for the teams involved. So there’s a whole enterprise surrounding fantasy baseball, which is all, it’s a game based on owning real players but you don’t really own them. You just track their statistics. Your team is derived, a derivative, a synthetic one, based on real major league baseball.
Well, imagine the same thing based on housing. And you can play, you can do the same thing. You can make all kinds of bets, and you can own all kinds of housing without actually owning it. You can play fantasy housing bets. And that all works really fine, except let’s go back to real baseball. What happens in fantasy baseball if the real major leagues go on strike? If the real thing has a problem and goes on strike, all the fantasy baseball leagues collapse, entirely. They are worth nothing. You can’t play. You can’t do anything. All the books and stats services collapse. They all go under, because they are built like a pyramid on top of the real thing.