Here's how to solve all of the world's economic problems: invent a super-virulent strain of the ebola virus that will kill everyone on earth within a month or two. Voila! No more economic problems. You can't have economic problems without an economy.
What? Not the answer you were looking for? Not surprising. I put forth that extreme position to make this point: underlying any discussion of a solution to a problem are some tacit assumptions, like that you want to cure the disease without killing the patient. Yes, you can get rid of a whole host of problems (cancer, AIDS, hate crimes, athlete's foot) by exterminating humans from the planet, but surely everyone agrees that that is clearly missing the point?
Well, no. Not everyone. There are people who contemplate a planet devoid of humans with varying degrees of seriousness. And actively seeking a world devoid of one's own descendants (a.k.a choosing not to have children) is nowadays not uncommon. And there are a lot of people who argue in all seriousness that things would be better if there were fewer people, even if they stop short of advocating getting rid of them altogether.
Different people have different ideas of what constitutes a good outcome. Some people think that having a big family is the good life, others think it's a yacht and a private jet, and still others think that what really matters in life is getting right with Allah.
What I'm winding up to here is not the usual despair about the intractability of getting people to agree on fundamental issues, but wonder at the remarkable fact that we can afford to have these disagreements. Disagreement is a luxury that most creatures on this planet can't afford. You never see lions arguing about whether it is morally correct to eat wildebeests. They take what they can get or they starve.
It's important to keep things in perspective. Being able to get a banana any day of the year by going to the store and handing someone a piece of paper is not the natural order of things. It is only possible because we humans have built this thing called civilization, on which is layered the amazing system known as the global economy.
I have said in the past that one of the fundamental problems we are having in the U.S. today is that people have lost sight of the distinction between money and wealth. I think the problem actually runs even deeper than that. What people have lost sight of is the relationship between economies, civilizations, and quality metrics.
Civilization at root is based on division of labor. Some people do one kind of work, other people do other kinds of work, and so the overhead involved in learning how to do a particular task and become proficient at it is spread out over a population. Instead of everyone having to learn to do everything, an individual only has to learn to do one thing, and so the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
It's a terrific theory, but it has two problems: first, how do you decide who has to do the dirty work? If everyone decides to be a lawyer and no one is left to fix the plumbing the system breaks down. And second, how do you decide how to distribute the proceeds of the system? And then there is the meta-problem of how to decide who makes the decisions. Obviously, being a decider is preferable to being a decidee (just ask George Bush), which leads to certain conflicts of interest.
In the very earliest civilizations, someone managed to convince everyone else that they should be the decider either by killing all the rivals or convincing people that they were anointed by God (sometimes both). But then we invented trade, which is even more powerful and amazing than division of labor. Division of labor produces dramatic efficiency gains but at the cost of having to solve the problem of decision-making. Trade allows for decentralized decision-making that results in improved outcomes even -- in fact especially -- in the face of different quality metrics. This is an amazing result. It means that you and I can interact in a way that we both agree is mutually beneficial even if we don't agree on what that benefit is! We can have completely different quality metrics and still cooperate to mutually agreed upon mutual benefit. Trade is white magic.
To complete the trifecta we invented money, which makes trade orders of magnitude more efficient. Before money, in order to trade you had to find another person who wanted what you had and who also had what you wanted. It was like dating, with all of its attendant difficulties. (In fact, the reason finding a mate is so troublesome is that it is one of the few kinds of exchange that cannot be facilitated by money.) With the advent of money that problem went away. With money you can buy and sell independently. You still need to find a corresponding seller or buyer depending on which you want to do. But it's a lot easier to find someone who wants to buy a goat and then someone else who wants to sell a pair of shoes than it is to find someone who wants to trade shoes for a goat. (It also solves the problem of how to make change for a goat.)
The upshot of all this is that you can go to the store and buy a banana for the equivalent of about 20 minutes of menial labor. It is truly an amazing thing. Our simian forebears would be incredulous.
Money, alas, is not quite as free of adverse side-effects as trade. The only way to conduct trade is through the provision of mutual benefit (otherwise it isn't trade). Alas, there are two ways to acquire money. One is to produce and sell valuable goods and services. This is the way of Jedi. The other is to game the system. That is the dark side.
There are lots of ways to game the system. You can sell snake oil. You can run a Ponzi scheme. You can acquire a monopoly which allows you to impose tolls.
In the absence of a mechanism to keep people from gaming the system, small disparities in economic power tend to be amplified through positive-feedback effects. If I have enough money I can buy media outlets through which I can influence your thinking. I can give money to government officials so that they will pass laws that unfairly benefit me. I can run my businesses in a way that makes it all but impossible for you to acquire any resources beyond what you need to subsist. The result is the creation of an oligarchy.
This is the problem we have today in the United States. Our country is no longer a democracy, it is a moneyocracy. One dollar, one vote. Which might be acceptable if all those dollars represented the creation of value, but they don't. By and large today, the people making the money are not the ones creating value, they are the ones who are gaming the system. There are, of course, exceptions. But they are a rapidly shrinking minority.
Aside from the fact that the diversion of money to non-productive activity is a drain on the economy, there is an even more insidious and corrosive effect. Those who have acquired money by gaming the system generally live in denial about this. People don't like to think of themselves as parasites, so they invent elaborate stories about how they are producing value by "providing liquidity" or some such bullshit. This begins a process of decoupling decision-making from reality. The end result of this process is a world where the most ridiculous nonsense becomes not just part of the debate but the prevailing view. It begins with investment bankers being in denial about the fact that they are parasites on society. It progresses from there to the belief that the best way to deal with a recession is to cut government spending. It ends with most of the presidential candidates from one of the two major political parties professing to believe in creationism.
Once upon a time we were a country where wealth was more or less correlated with the creation of value. Americans made money building railroads or making steel or inventing computers. There was a strong middle class, so even if you weren't extraordinarily talented you still had a pretty decent shot at a car and a house with a white picket fence if you showed up for work. We had a grip on reality. Science was cool. We invented the Internet and sent men to the moon.
There is still a slow trickle of innovation coming out of the U.S., but the defining themes of this country today are not the latest technological advances but rather shrill ideology about things like terrorism and drugs, epic fiscal irresponsibility, voters who say things like "get government out of my medicare" with a straight face, and political extremism that a few weeks ago very nearly sent us over a cliff.
Above all, we have a tiny minority of people who have won the lottery (myself included) and a huge majority of people who are somewhere between struggling to make ends meet and being on the street. It is no coincidence that gambling is on the rise in the U.S. The entire economy is shifting from merit-based capitalism to a lottery economy. Instead of a pension, you get a 401-K, which may or may not leave you with enough to retire depending on what the stock market does. Instead of a steady job, you get contract work, which may or may not be there next week. Instead of a social safety net, you get your share of a mortgage that you didn't sign up for and have very little hope of ever paying back.
Unless you win the lottery.
If you win the lottery, which nowadays pretty much means being an early employee at a company that goes IPO or making partner at Goldman Sachs, then you don't need a social safety net. You don't need a steady job. You don't need a pension. You get to be one of the people who makes the decisions, buys the politicians, bypasses the security lines at the airport.
But your odds are not good. The top 1% now own about 40% of the nation's wealth. Your odds of being in the top 1% are about 1 in 100. Are you feeling lucky? And do you want to live in a country where that question is the one that decides the fate of your children?
The reason I support raising taxes on rich people is not just because it has to be done to close the budget deficit. There's a much deeper reason than that. Taxing the super-rich provides a vital countervailing force to the natural tendency of money and power to concentrate in the hands of the few people who are most willing to game the system and most able to be in denial about it. The corrosive effects of the phenomenon on the fabric of society are evident everywhere today. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our people are out of work. The middle class an endangered species. Our government is dysfunctional.
It doesn't have to be this way. We don't have to have a lottery economy. But the first step to recovery from any addiction is always the hardest: admitting to yourself that you have a problem.
[UPDATE: The lead story of the on-line edition of the NYT this morning is "Starved State Budgets Inspire New Look at Web Gambling."]