Obligate Growth

This week Goldman Sachs announced that they were raising the starting salaries for entry level analysts to $110,000 from $85,000. When I heard that on the radio, I remembered the bailout of Goldman Sachs a dozen years ago. I thought of the many hospital workers who have risked their lives during the Covid crisis. Most were not making that kind of money. Under capitalism, market transactions direct resources but do they signal a society’s values?

In Sustainable Capitalism, John Ikerd (2005, 4) calls for a balance of our self-interest with our common-interests, citing the classical economists like Adam Smith who recognized that a market system must work within the ethical bounds of society (2005, 4). There is no point to capitalism if the wealth that the system can generate does not improve the general well-being of a society. Capitalism directs resources but only for goods where two parties can agree on a value. It’s hard to find common agreement on the value of many public or common goods. The infrastructure bill being negotiated in Congress this year bears witness to that reality. What is the value of a well-lit street, improved cable systems, safer electrical generation and the many public goods that we take for granted?

Capitalism evolved to assemble and deploy investment for shipping ventures, and to diffuse the extreme risk of shipping goods across oceans. In the 18th century as many as half of all ships returning to England laden with goods from India were lost at sea. Most ventures were launched without insurance. In the 17th century, insurers often went insolvent and could not cover a great loss (Johns 1958, 126). Many did not know how to price risk. In 1720, Lloyds of London and the Royal Exchange were formed to spread the risk. During the American Revolution the British government contracted out the shipping of armaments and British troops to the colonies. In 1780, a series of sea battles between the British, Spanish and French fleets severely damaged the West Indian fleet and caused great losses to underwriters (Johns 1958, 126). Loss is a good teacher of better risk management.

The underlying principle of capitalism is constant growth. In these early centuries the destruction of capital provided a natural constraint. In the 19th century, inflation from government money printing was another natural constraint (Formaini, n.d.). The capital grew but it bought less. The growth of most populations hits the bounds of their environment. Rabbits run out of food and the population periodically crashes. In the last century following World War 2, economists thought that countries who adopted democracy and capitalism would develop into thriving markets for capital. After key losses, capital managers became reluctant to deploy investment into poor countries without infrastructure, institutions and respect for private property.

Decades later, economists and political scientists now question that growth hypothesis. According to that theory, India and some former African colonies should be thriving. They are not. Given the global constraints of growth, the competition between capitals produces a concentration of capital in fewer multi-national corporations. Countries become segregated into two groups: those whose people are still very much engaged in agriculture and those whose people are engaged in services and to a lesser degree industrialization.

Agriculture is an economic trap because it is seasonal. Farmers harvest a particular crop at the same time and their competition drives the prices down. That is good for everyone except the farmers. Weather events can affect an entire region whose economy is dependent on crop production. As more farmers give up or lose their farms, large corporations take over the land. Their size and dispersal across several regions diffuses risk just as the insurance pools brokered through Lloyds of London in the 18th century.

As capital flows become more concentrated, the pool of those who benefit becomes smaller and smaller. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” no longer spreads a general sense of well-being to the greater community. A few industries, like finance, prosper while many struggle and scrabble for the remains.

Those on Wall Street make a lot of money, but it is highly competitive and stressful. When Goldman Sachs did an internal survey of entry-level analysts at their firm, those analysts reported working an average of 95 hours a week to meet the upswell of client demand as the Covid vaccine led to a lifting of restrictions (McCaffrey 2021). Many reported physical side-effects from the long hours and stress. That $110,000 a year works out to $23 an hour. The median pay for a plumber is $28 an hour. Those entry level analysts suddenly don’t look like titans of industry. Many have student debt. They live in New York City with its high cost of living. Many probably thought that, if they could hang on for a year or two, their load would lighten and all their study and hard work would pay off. They are on capitalism’s hamster wheel. How long can the wheel keep turning?

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Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021). U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters. Available from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/plumbers-pipefitters-and-steamfitters.htm (visited July 17, 2021).

Formaini, R. L. (n.d.). David Ricardo Theory of Free International Trade (2nd ed., Vol. 9) (Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas). Dallas, TX: Federal Reserve.

Ikerd, J. (2005). Sustainable Capitalism [Scholarly project]. In University of Missouri. Retrieved August 06, 2021, from https://faculty.missouri.edu/ikerdj/papers/WIMadisonSustainCapitalism.pdf

John, A. H. (1958). The London Assurance company and the marine insurance market of the eighteenth century. Economica, 25(98), 126. doi:10.2307/2551021

McCaffrey, O. (2021, August 02). Goldman Sachs Is Giving Entry-Level Bankers a Nearly 30% Raise. Retrieved August 07, 2021, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/goldman-sachs-is-giving-entry-level-bankers-a-nearly-30-raise-11627930285

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