What I love about Les Leopold‘s new book, 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, is Les’s ability to take the most complex financial concepts—concepts that impact the real economy, that impact you and me—and make them perfectly lucid and understandable using a few simple metaphors—and make it interesting. That’s skill.
Les illuminates the financial crisis, shining a light on the game of high-stakes fantasy finance that led us to our current disastrous situation, and explains what we need to do to get out of it, in this interview with AfterDowningStreet’s David Swanson.
Here’s a partial transcript, courtesy of the folks at AfterDowningStreet.org:
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.