Saturday, July 28, 2012

Productive Employment

With desultory interest, I picked up a 1993 novel at the library, The Surgical Arena, by Peter Grant, M.D., “a former navy pilot who became a surgeon.” The following snippet, on page 18, says a lot in a nutshell:
“We’ve got one shot at getting into medical school and that means getting our grades into the top twenty.”

“Why don’t we all just quit and take some gut courses that will prepare us to be brokers,” said Beckwith, one of the veterans. “We can sit on our asses and make a lot of dough.”

“You have to be a crook to be successful in that field,” said Norman. “Besides, you’ll never get any satisfaction out of life unless you put something worthwhile back into it.  I didn’t fight in the infantry to come back and become a broker.”

1993 was the same year that a short-sighted Congress cancelled the Texas supercollider project.  It’s been correctly noted that had that not happened, the recent Higgs-Boson particle observation might have occurred here rather than in Switzerland.  A number of the now-unemployed physicists involved were hired by Wall Street firms.

Although basic banking DOES perform a socially useful function -- firms and individuals DO need capital -- it is very questionable what if anything “banking innovations” (CDOs, derivatives, very rapid short-term computerized trading, etc.) that have proliferated since 1993 have contributed to society.   As Roger Bootle wrote:
For m]uch of what goes on in financial markets . . . [t]he gains to one party reflect the losses to another, and the vast fees and charges racked up in the process end up being paid by Joe Public, since even if he is not directly involved in the deals, he is indirectly through the costs and charges that he pays for goods and services.

In 1995, the assets of the six largest bank holding companies was no more than 17% of GDP, but at the end of 2010, the assets of the six largest bank holding companies were valued at  just over 63 percent of GDP. This financialization of the economy has been at the expense of the rest of us. And finance is now the top area where graduates of Ivy League universities find jobs.

As Dale Carnegie points out, all people – even gangsters like Al Capone – think of themselves as “good guys”.  Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs’ CEO, is probably sincere when he says he is “doing God’s work”.  But many of us do not agree. Things work as well as they do only because many people are actually still working hard at useful jobs that do contribute to society.  My thanks go to those – and not to the so-called “wealth creators.”

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