As many economic pundits will tell you today, our current economic crisis was a long time in the making. Some point to over-consumption, others to the accumulation of debt, and still others point at a broken regulatory system, government spending, and political gridlock. However, the fundamental issue is none of these things, although each is a symptom of, or a bi-product of, the real issue: the decapitalization of wealth.
The value of capital is the utility that can be realized from it. Economists generally define utility as the measure of ‘need satisfaction’ realized by a consumer in the consumption of a good or service. Extending this concept to capital, the utility of capital is the measure of economic goods and services created through its deployment. Wealth deployed as capital that produces economic goods and services creates healthy economies with low debt, low inflation, and low unemployment. Unfortunately, much of the wealth created over the last twenty-five years or so has flowed to low capital utility venues. This process has accelerated over the last decade.
So what are these low capital utility venues? Wealth deployed for war making is a classic example. Anyone who has taken an introductory course in economics can probably remember the guns vs. butter analysis. Money invested in death and destruction is obviously not a creator of economic goods, and the US has spent more than $2 trillion in this manner since 2003. Financial bailouts also have low utility. As we have seen, we may have stabilized the financial system with the massive bailout of too-big-to-fail banks, but we have not created economic goods in the process, and the bailout funds are now trapped in the balance sheets of banks; idle dollars producing little to no utility. Our tax system, which is at least partly to blame for the inordinate concentration of wealth in the top 1% of our citizens, is also responsible for decapitalization. Wealth concentrated among the few means that capital has flowed to idle reserves – in low risk, low velocity trust funds. Dusty money is not happy money. Speculation and financial ‘engineering’ is also responsible for decapitalization. Currency manipulation, which amounts to more than $3 trillion in transactions per day worldwide, does not produce economic goods. Nor do the billions of dollars invested in credit default swaps that produce no more capital utility than dollars dropped into slot machines on the Vegas Strip. Another classic example is government spending and investment. When the Pentagon spends $6,000 on a coffee pot or the White House blows $500 million on Solyndra, it is clear that government bureaucrats make lousy purchase and investment decisions, regardless of party affiliation. Debt service payments and sovereign debt bailout funds are other examples. By now you get the idea: most of the places our money ends up today are venues of decapitalization. That must change.
In a recent article by the Washington Bureau Chief of The New York Times, David Leonhardt, argued that our current crisis might actually prove to be worse than the Great Depression due to one central difference: during the Depression, invention, production, and investment in public infrastructure continued at high levels. Leonhardt suggests, “The most worrisome aspect about our current slump is that it combines obvious short-term problems—from the financial crisis—with less obvious long-term problems. Those long-term problems include a decade-long slowdown in new-business formation, the stagnation of educational gains and rapid growth of industries with mixed blessings, including finance and health care.” “Mixed blessings” here means finance and health care are relatively low capital utility investments. When we see job growth in these private, and almost any public sector categories, we must refrain from patting ourselves on the back. They produce little more than single-round economic effects.
Correcting this problem is not easy, but it is doable. As you can see from the above list, one may even argue that decapitalization accelerates in an insidious manner, spawning more and larger venues of low utility. We need look no further than our own economic history to see that many of these venues, except war making, are relatively new developments in our economic system. Fiscal policy and, to a lesser extent and effect, monetary policy should both be oriented to direct wealth away from these venues. Financial system regulations and tax policy can also be changed to affect this. Education, research and development, small business development, and yes, liberal trade and immigration policies can also help stem the tide of decapitalization.
Creating wealth requires a relentless focus on capital utility. When capital works, it produces economic goods; when idled or addled, it leads to dire economic effects. Decapitalization is the overarching problem. Until we recognize this we have little hope of pulling our economy out of the ditch.