Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Vanishing Work Ethic

Hat tip to my former colleague, Jim Wright, who put me on to Steven Malanga’s interesting and well-researched article in the City Journal, “Whatever Happened to the Work Ethic?” which strikes at the heart of our economic crisis. Things have changed in America where we used to work hard to make things and where borrowing and bailouts were eschewed.

As Malanga states: “What would Tocqueville or Weber think of America today? In place of thrift, they would find a nation of debtors, staggering beneath loans obtained under false pretenses. In place of a steady, patient accumulation of wealth, they would find bankers and financiers with such a short-term perspective that they never pause to consider the consequences or risks of selling securities they don’t understand. In place of a country where all a man asks of government is “not to be disturbed in his toil,” as Tocqueville put it, they would find a nation of rent-seekers demanding government subsidies to purchase homes, start new ventures, or bail out old ones. They would find what Tocqueville described as the “fatal circle” of materialism—the cycle of acquisition and gratification that drives people back to ever more frenetic acquisition and that ultimately undermines prosperous democracies.”

Malanga’s full analysis of the topic is well worth reading.

On the eve of President Obama’s inauguration I wrote “The winners in this economy were not only the capitalists, the real creators of jobs due to hard work and innovation, but the even bigger winners: the financial masters of the universe who learned to leverage financial instruments with the blessings of a government that nurtured the thievery of the public good through deregulation, ineptitude, and political amorality. This gave rise to a whole generation of pseudo capitalists, people who “cashed in” on the system, bankers and brokers and “financial engineers” who dreamt up lethal structures based on leverage and then selling those instruments to an unsuspecting public, a public that entrusted the government to be vigilant so the likes of a Bernie Madoff could not prosper for untold years. Until we revere the real innovators of capitalism, the entrepreneurs who actually create things, ideas, jobs, our financial system will continue to seize up. That is the challenge for the Obama administration – a new economic morality.”

I still await that new economic morality.

Meanwhile, since the National Debt passed $11 trillion in March, the markets have moved strongly on the upside, led by the financials, anticipating a recovery from the Great Recession. I see little difference in the general shape of our financial institutions other than the federal government (uh, we the taxpayers) standing ready to bail out any deemed to pose a systemic risk to the system. As of the end of August the National Debt now stands at $11.8 trillion, so over the next several weeks that will undoubtedly pass the $12 trillion mark. That’s $1 trillion in additional debt in only 6 months. I make this observation in advance as this blog will go silent for several weeks while are traveling overseas.