Crony Capitalism

The standard of living of the median income family in the United States has risen to heights that could not have been imagined just a hundred years ago ($73,891 in 2017). All other industrial countries have had similar experiences.  “As measured in 2011 U.S. dollars, the global income per person per day in the first year of the Common Era stood at $2. That’s also where it stood when William the Conqueror set sail in 1066 to claim the crown of England…. In 1800, the average income was $2.80. In the 18 centuries that separated the emperorship of Caesar Augustus and the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, per capita income rose by less than 40 percent….

“Then industrialization changed everything. Between 1800 and 1900, GDP per person per day doubled. In other words, income grew over twice as much in one century as it had over the preceding 18 combined. By 2016, the number…in the United States… stood at $145…. In other words, global and American standards of living rose twelve-fold and 24-fold respectively over the course of the last two centuries….  These and other fascinating data are presented by Marian Tupy in:

How was this miracle possible? It resulted from each worker on average becoming dramatically more productive and being able to trade his or her products for the other goods and services he or she wanted. But what was the source of such an amazing increase in productivity?  Workers developed and or were provided with tools and equipment (capital) that made it possible.  These machines, cooperative production structures and worker skills (so called “human capital”) were developed because “capitalists” creating and investing in them had protected property rights in them and shared in the profits from their use. In short, it was because people had an incentive to invent and learn that was lacking in feudal or earlier social structures.  Bill Gates, for example, became a billionaire from selling us the computer products and services that Microsoft invented and produced. We happily paid Microsoft these billions for its tools that greatly enhanced our own productivity in both production, household management, and play. In the win-win world of private property and trade, we gained from Microsoft as much or more than Bill Gates did.

Interestingly, there is more to this story. As industrialization took hold, and the incomes of the lower and middle classes rose, income inequality declined. The monopolies of feudal Lords were eroded.  More recently “global inequality is declining as developing countries catch up with the developed world. Between 1990 and 2017, argues Branko Milanovic from City University of New York, the global Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality among all of the world’s inhabitants, decreased from 0.7 to 0.63” i.e., became more equal (zero equals perfect equality). [Tupy]

In the U.S. after years of gradual decline, the Gini coefficient rose from 0.35 in 1979 to 0.49 in 2018, slightly less than China’s (0.47). What is going on? Though still more equal than the world on average, why is income distribution widening modestly over the last forty years in the U.S.?

A widely held explanation is that industries have become more concentrated and have exploited their quasi monopolistic market power to extract noncompetitive, i.e. monopoly, rents. Two hundred forty-four years ago, Adam Smith wrote that, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” [Wealth of Nations Book I, Chapter X.] What prevents such conspiracies from succeeding is the competition from other firms seeking to exploit these attractive prices. When faced with competition, a person or firm can only profit by satisfying customers better than the competition.

But why have American firms, and those of many other industrial countries, become more concentrated and protected from competition?  Largely via state capture. As he reluctantly increased U.S. military spending as the “Cold War” heated up, President Dwight D. Eisenhower worried that it would be hard to avoid a mutually self-serving relationship between the government paying the bills and the defense industry supplying the goods. In his famous Farewell Address on January 16, 1961, Eisenhower warned that: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

When government becomes involved or increases its involvement with private firms, the door (and the revolving door) is opened for firms to exploit the relationship to their advantage. It is not just the military-industrial complex (or the military-industrial-congressional complex as Eisenhower stated it in the first draft of his Farewell Address) that enjoys government favor and protection. President Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum are not for the benefit of American’s generally but are protectionist favors to America’s uncompetitive steel and aluminum firms. Protectionism is just another word for corruption.

Some products and industries need to be regulated to protect consumers and insure honesty and transparency. But larger firms increasingly accept, if not welcome, overly burdensome regulations because they are better able to devote resources to complying with them and thus absorbing their cost than are smaller firms. Such regulations protect them from competition from new, smaller firms. Professional licensing has increasingly been used to protect professionals from hairdressers to real estate agents to lawyers from competitors thus enjoying higher fees than would result in a more competitive market for their services.

The quasi monopoly rents firms are able to extract as the result of government protection against competition grow with the size of government involvement with the economy. The increase in income inequality (a reflection of shrinking competition) of recent decades (the increase in America’s Gini coefficient) have followed the large increases in the size of government, whether measured by expenditures, employment, or regulations.

“• In 1900 the federal government consumed less than 5 percent of total output.

  • In 1950 the federal government consumed roughly 15 percent of total output.
  • In 1992 the federal government consumed almost 25 percent of total output.”

Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed Socialist, and Elizabeth Warren, a self-proclaimed defender of capitalism (I am not joking), argue that to fix industrial concentration, to prevent or unwind monopolies, the government needs to be bigger and more active in the economy. This is backward in terms of logic and experience. I don’t question that overwhelmingly most public servants work for the government out of the desire to serve the public. However, the interface between government and the private sector creates opportunities and incentives (resisted by most I am sure) for corruption. By corruption I mean the exploitation of government regulations and contracts to reduce market competition for (i.e. to protect) established firms.

Political lobbying by firms and trade organizations can provide useful industry input to congressional legislation or executive rule making but it is generally the prospective of established firms rather than of potential competitors or the general public. “Since the 1970s, there has been explosive growth in the lobbying industry, particularly in Washington DC.  By 2011, one estimate of overall lobbying spending nationally was $30+ billion dollars. An estimate of lobbying expenses in the federal arena was $3.5 billion in 2010, while it had been only $1.4 billion in 1998.” “Lobbying_in_the_United_States – A_growing_billion_dollar_business”

In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, “that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political communications by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, unions and other associations.” “Citizens_United_v._FEC – Super_PACs”  This opened the door to direct corporate and union “donations” to political candidates and parties, providing a powerful tool in achieving government cooperation with what these groups consider their special interest.

The competitiveness, and whatever the lack of it contributes to income inequality, of American businesses will not be served by expanding the government’s role in the economy, quite the opposite. Competition is rarely stifled by natural market phenomena. Rather it is much more often blocked or restrained by government regulations that favor the established, dominant firms, who are able to gain the government’s favor. The political forces of expanding government regulation and interference in the economy promote every increasing state capture by dominant firms.  Crony capitalism will be the death of the real thing if it is not continuously resisted. As we should all well know, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.