Monday, September 1, 2008

Centralization of Federal Power Has Led to Coddling of Business

The relationship between the state and federal governments fluctuates, but the overall trend has been toward centralization, with a few blips. This came about in part because of the Civil War, which enforced centralization in order to achieve noble objectives. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments enhanced federal power over the states, requiring states to recognize citizenship, right to make contracts, equal treatment under the laws and voting rights to former slaves and, for that matter, to all citizens. The states' reaction to the growth of the railroads in the late 19th century was to subsidize them, and they enhanced the natural advantages of economies of scale through land grants, rights of way and other subsidies. In turn, the new, complex corporations faced multiple regulatory regimes across the states. This raised their costs. In the 1876 Munn v. Illinois Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, writing for the Court, held that states have the right to regulate railroads because railroads reflect the public interest. In the 1886 Wabash, St. Louis and Pacific Railroad v. Illinois, law concerning the Illinois Grange's clamoring for regulation of railroad rates was federalized. The court held that states could engage in indirect regulation like safety regulation but not direct burdens on interstate commerce like rate regulation. The following year Congress passed and President Grover Cleveland signed the Interstate Commerce, which established the Interstate Commerce Commission. The ICC's responsibility was to set maximum railroad rates and eliminate individual discrimination. Thus, the age of centralization was born.

The aim of centralization was regulation coupled with subsidization. The regulation part reflected the impetus of Populist movements like the Grange, social Gospel Christianity, fear of labor unions and socialism and pressure from Progressives like Walter Weyl and Herbert Croly who, in the early 1900s argued that European-style social democracy was more "progressive" than American laissez-faire.

The centralization of regulation helped big business because it established a stable, unitary source of regulation that made it easy to comply. Fifty states pose a fifty times greater compliance problem than a single federal government. Moreover, industry or what Williams calls "syndicalist" influence over government is easier to organize. Mancur Olson and George Stigler have written about the economic conditions for effective lobbying, and centralization of power makes lobbying considerably easier for large firms and gives them considerable advantages over small. Many small firms over a national market are far more difficult to organize than one fiftieth the number over a state-wide market. At the same time, it is far cheaper for a few large firms to lobby a single federal government than it is for them to lobby fifty state governments. Thus, in the name of "regulation" the Progressives tipped the political scale in big business's favor.

Theodore Roosevelt and other Progressives of the early 20th century believed that big business produced wealth. Historians such as Alfred Chandler argued that transportation and communication advances with respect not only to canals, railroads and then trucking and air delivery but also with respect to telegraph, telephone, and then fax, e-mail and Internet, expanded markets facilitating reduced costs and enhanced economies of scale. There were other subsidies to big business, specifically the creation of federally subsidized credit and banking through the Federal Reserve System, tariffs almost continuously to the days of Wilson and then after, cartels and price fixing during World War I, and a host of regulations that make it more expensive for small business to compete with big.

But has big business really delivered? Since 1980 manufacturing firms increasingly exited the United States. Hence, the subsidization of manufacturing through credit and protection did not yield permanent jobs to average Americans. Executive compensation, rationalized through artificially elevated stock prices due to Federal Reserve policy, has been an exercise in self indulgence and waste. Increasingly, Americans hanker after a few high-wage investment banking and celebrity jobs, and are unwilling to work hard in traditional crafts. The images of today's youth, rap singers since the 1980s, Beavis and Butthead in the 1990s, Paris Hilton today, suggest a culture of dim wittedness and sloth. These images are broadcast by subsidized big business concerns, the media conglomerates, who profit from popular music that advocates drug use and violence. Television shows like "Entourage" suggest that the way to succeed is to hang out with other self indulgent boneheads, as long as they are good looking.

The transition from decentralized to centralized federalism and from laissez-faire to statism altered incentives in the economy. The combination of centralized creation of credit and inflation of scale enhances returns to stock offerings, first because large firms are artificially profitable because of their subsidization and second because monetary expansion itself inflates the stock market by reducing interest rates. This inflation of stock returns makes investment and commercial banking far more profitable than they would be in a decentralized and laissez-faire system. In turn, firms are encouraged to maximize stock returns by minimizing costs in that low interest rates make stock returns more elastic with respect to increases in net profit. This does several things. First, firms are encouraged to move plants overseas, where labor costs are lower. Second, their incentive to innovate is reduced because ample returns can be obtained due to the reduced interest rates and the elasticity of stock prices to small gains. Why risk invention of a new technology, when you can, like the typical US CEO, simply think about reorganization or moving plants to another country and so earn $100 million? Third, the returns to initial stock offerings are enhanced. Thus, returns to investment banking exceed market levels. Because the manpower needed to issue and trade securities is small relative to the inflated returns, the high salaries divert human resources from manufacturing to investment and speculation.

It is likely for these reasons that the innovation level of late nineteenth century laissez faire America was far greater than during the Progressive twentieth century. The most innovative Americans have been attracted to investment banking and law rather than manufacturing. Firms like Intel need to recruit engineers from overseas in order to compete. This misallocation of human resources leads to lower growth and less innovation in the economy than there would have been in a decentralized, laissez-faire economy.

The coddling of business results in a trade off between risk and return. In a laissez faire economy credit is difficult to obtain, profits are reduced and stock returns are reduced because interest rates are relatively high. This results in considerable discomfort to business executives, who in the nineteenth century complained about "overproduction" and "depression". However, the decreasing prices resulting from slow monetary growth increase real gains to labor. Real wages rise because firms are forced to think carefully about productivity given the intensely competitive milieu. Moreover, innovation is stimulated because that is the only way to earn large profits. Thus, the laissez-faire economy is rocky soil in which only the hardiest firms can grow, and they grow by extending roots that crush even the largest competitive rocks. Workers, the soil in which these competitive plants grow, benefit from the nutrients that the innovative stems produce. But the weaker plants, the firms that thrive in politically driven, low-innovation "Progressivism" complain endlessly about depression, the need for subsidization, the need for a central bank, the unfairness of the competitive economy. They are, of course, backed by feudalists and socialists, who similarly yearn for stability at the price of innovation.

The Progressive economy does not reward achievement. It rewards potential. Investment banks hire from the ranks of Ivy League students, who are in turn admitted to Ivy League schools on the basis of SAT scores. But SAT scores are not achievement, they are just potential, and they do not explain the majority of what might explain achievement. Americans are rewarded for ability, and this reduces their risk. But this also has the effect of draining men and women of ability from the ranks of the innovators into the ranks of transfer recipients. There may indeed be economic gains from stock offerings and trading, but they are minute compared to the potential gains from innovation. A single Tesla is worth all of the investment bankers in history times 10. Yet of all of the thousands of potential Teslas, only a handful will succeed. Why risk failure, when a certain career in investment banking has a far greater probability of significant success. Thus, elite Americans have become increasingly risk averse. They have chosen the way of relatively certain but high returns, but sacrificed the moral rectitude of economic creation and productivity. They have come to favor the sleight of hand that Wall Street capitalism offers, claiming to create efficiency but depending upon credit expansion and government largess.

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