We excerpt below a fascinating article from the WSJ on the increasingly incestuous and damaging relationship between the finance industry and our political institutions.
Mitt Romney’s résumé at Bain should be a slam dunk. He has been a successful capitalist, and capitalism is the best thing that has ever happened to the material condition of the human race. From the dawn of history until the 18th century, every society in the world was impoverished, with only the thinnest film of wealth on top. Then came capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. Everywhere that capitalism subsequently took hold, national wealth began to increase and poverty began to fall. Everywhere that capitalism didn’t take hold, people remained impoverished. Everywhere that capitalism has been rejected since then, poverty has increased.
Capitalism has lifted the world out of poverty because it gives people a chance to get rich by creating value and reaping the rewards. Who better to be president of the greatest of all capitalist nations than a man who got rich by being a brilliant capitalist?
Yet it hasn’t worked out that way for Mr. Romney. “Capitalist” has become an accusation. The creative destruction that is at the heart of a growing economy is now seen as evil. Americans increasingly appear to accept the mind-set that kept the world in poverty for millennia: If you’ve gotten rich, it is because you made someone else poorer.
What happened to turn the mood of the country so far from our historic celebration of economic success?
Two important changes in objective conditions have contributed to this change in mood. One is the rise of collusive capitalism. Part of that phenomenon involves crony capitalism, whereby the people on top take care of each other at shareholder expense (search on “golden parachutes”).
But the problem of crony capitalism is trivial compared with the collusion engendered by government. In today’s world, every business’s operations and bottom line are affected by rules set by legislators and bureaucrats. The result has been corruption on a massive scale. Sometimes the corruption is retail, whereby a single corporation creates a competitive advantage through the cooperation of regulators or politicians (search on “earmarks”). Sometimes the corruption is wholesale, creating an industrywide potential for profit that would not exist in the absence of government subsidies or regulations (like ethanol used to fuel cars and low-interest mortgages for people who are unlikely to pay them back). Collusive capitalism has become visible to the public and increasingly defines capitalism in the public mind.
Another change in objective conditions has been the emergence of great fortunes made quickly in the financial markets. It has always been easy for Americans to applaud people who get rich by creating products and services that people want to buy. That is why Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were American heroes a century ago, and Steve Jobs was one when he died last year.
When great wealth is generated instead by making smart buy and sell decisions in the markets, it smacks of inside knowledge, arcane financial instruments, opportunities that aren’t accessible to ordinary people, and hocus-pocus. The good that these rich people have done in the process of getting rich is obscure. The benefits of more efficient allocation of capital are huge, but they are really, really hard to explain simply and persuasively. It looks to a large proportion of the public as if we’ve got some fabulously wealthy people who haven’t done anything to deserve their wealth.
The objective changes in capitalism as it is practiced plausibly account for much of the hostility toward capitalism. But they don’t account for the unwillingness of capitalists who are getting rich the old-fashioned way—earning it—to defend themselves.
I assign that timidity to two other causes. First, large numbers of today’s successful capitalists are people of the political left who may think their own work is legitimate but feel no allegiance to capitalism as a system or kinship with capitalists on the other side of the political fence. Furthermore, these capitalists of the left are concentrated where it counts most. The most visible entrepreneurs of the high-tech industry are predominantly liberal. So are most of the people who run the entertainment and news industries. Even leaders of the financial industry increasingly share the politics of George Soros. Whether measured by fundraising data or by the members of Congress elected from the ZIP Codes where they live, the elite centers with the most clout in the culture are filled with people who are embarrassed to identify themselves as capitalists, and it shows in the cultural effect of their work.
Another factor is the segregation of capitalism from virtue. Historically, the merits of free enterprise and the obligations of success were intertwined in the national catechism. McGuffey’s Readers, the books on which generations of American children were raised, have plenty of stories treating initiative, hard work and entrepreneurialism as virtues, but just as many stories praising the virtues of self-restraint, personal integrity and concern for those who depend on you. The freedom to act and a stern moral obligation to act in certain ways were seen as two sides of the same American coin. Little of that has survived.