America’s economic problems go far beyond rich bankers, too-big-to-fail financial institutions, hedge-fund billionaires, offshore tax avoidance or any particular outrage of the moment. In fact, each of these is symptomatic of a more nefarious condition that threatens, in equal measure, the very well-off and the very poor, the red and the blue. The U.S. system of market capitalism itself is broken.
America’s economic illness has a name: financialization. It’s an academic term for the trend by which Wall Street and its methods have come to reign supreme in America, permeating not just the financial industry but also much of American business. It includes everything from the growth in size and scope of finance and financial activity in the economy; to the rise of debt-fueled speculation over productive lending; to the ascendancy of shareholder value as the sole model for corporate governance; to the proliferation of risky, selfish thinking in both the private and public sectors; to the increasing political power of financiers and the CEOs they enrich; to the way in which a “markets know best” ideology remains the status quo. Financialization is a big, unfriendly word with broad, disconcerting implications.
The changes were driven by the fact that in the 1970s, the growth that America had enjoyed following World War II began to slow. Rather than make tough decisions about how to bolster it (which would inevitably mean choosing among various interest groups), politicians decided to pass that responsibility to the financial markets. Little by little, the Depression-era regulation that had served America so well was rolled back, and finance grew to become the dominant force that it is today. The shifts were bipartisan, and to be fair they often seemed like good ideas at the time; but they also came with unintended consequences.
This sickness, not so much the product of venal interests as of a complex and long-term web of changes in government and private industry, now manifests itself in myriad ways: a housing market that is bifurcated and dependent on government life support, a retirement system that has left millions insecure in their old age, a tax code that favors debt over equity. Debt is the lifeblood of finance; with the rise of the securities-and-trading portion of the industry came a rise in debt of all kinds, public and private. That’s bad news, since a wide range of academic research shows that rising debt and credit levels stoke financial instability. And yet, as finance has captured a greater and greater piece of the national pie, it has, perversely, all but ensured that debt is indispensable to maintaining any growth at all in an advanced economy like the U.S., where 70% of output is consumer spending. Debt-fueled finance has become a saccharine substitute for the real thing, an addiction that just gets worse. (The amount of credit offered to American consumers has doubled in real dollars since the 1980s, as have the fees they pay to their banks.)
Remooring finance in the real economy isn’t as simple as splitting up the biggest banks (although that would be a good start). It’s about dismantling the hold of financial-oriented thinking in every corner of corporate America. It’s about reforming business education, which is still permeated with academics who resist challenges to the gospel of efficient markets in the same way that medieval clergy dismissed scientific evidence that might challenge the existence of God. It’s about changing a tax system that treats one-year investment gains the same as longer-term ones, and induces financial institutions to push overconsumption and speculation rather than healthy lending to small businesses and job creators. It’s about rethinking retirement, crafting smarter housing policy and restraining a money culture filled with lobbyists who violate America’s essential economic principles.
It’s also about starting a bigger conversation about all this, with a broader group of stakeholders. The structure of American capital markets and whether or not they are serving business is a topic that has traditionally been the sole domain of “experts”—the financiers and policymakers who often have a self-interested perspective to push, and who do so in complicated language that keeps outsiders out of the debate. When it comes to finance, as with so many issues in a democratic society, complexity breeds exclusion.
Rana Foroohar, American Capitalism’s Great Crisis
It will take an actual revolution – the Human Spring – to straighten out the financialization of the world.