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How Big Finance Crushes Innovation and Holds Back Our Economy

Bold economic thinkers warn that it's time to tame the financialization monster.
 
 
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Author's note: This post is based on papers presented and remarks made during a *conference panel I moderated featuring William Lazonick of U Mass-Lowell, Jan Kregel of the Levy Institute and Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO.

Whatever happened to innovation in America? President Obama told us that our future depends on it. Across the political spectrum, everyone pretty much agrees that innovation is vital to prosperity.

So why aren’t we getting the job done? Clearly, we’re in desperate need of clean technology that won’t poison us. Our information and communications systems are not up to snuff. Our infrastructure is outdated and crumbling before our eyes. We’re not investing enough in these areas, and it shows. Yet they’re necessary not only for America’s economic health, but for stability and prosperity around the globe.

The U.S. used to be the envy of the world when it came to innovation, making things that dazzled the world and enhanced the lives of millions. But the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a bipartisan think-tank that ranks 36 countries according to innovation-based competitiveness, tells us we’re getting pushed aside on the global innovation stage. In 2009, to the surprise of those conducting the study, the U.S. ranked #4 in innovation, behind Finland, Sweden and Singapore. In 2011, the U.S. ranking was unchanged. Worse, the U.S. ranked second to last in terms of progress over the last decade.

Research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) also shows that the U.S. is not making as many cutting-edge products as it used to, and that other countries with strong investment in the foundations of innovation, like education and research and development, and fewer of the things that hinder it, like income inequality, are making greater strides than we are.

What went wrong?

William Lazonick, an expert on the history of the American business corporation, points out that the U.S has enjoyed, over its history, an extremely productive economy. We still have important productive assets, but we’re now taking money out of our productive economy instead of investing in it. The shift has happened over time, but the mechanisms of extraction have become dangerously efficient. A giant financial sector and wealthy class are sucking money, vampire-like, out of the productive sector, where the goods, technologies and services that we want are created.

Financiers may appear to be simply “making money out of money,” but if you look closely, you can see that they are really getting rich on the backs of people producing useful things, like consumer electronics, and capital goods like factories and equipment. Good jobs, the health of the overall economy and society, growing incomes for the poor and middle class—all of these things have been put aside in the quest for more financial profits. The game is unsustainable. And it’s turning out badly.

To get the economy humming, argues Lazonick, you want to fuel the kind of growth that allows people to enjoy higher living standards. You want an economy that is stable and allows everyone to share in prosperity. But nowadays, the executives who are running large industrial corporations like GE, Dupont, Cisco and Microsoft are focused on making as much money as they can in the short-term for shareholders, and more importantly, themselves.

Unsurprisingly, they support the policies that allow them to do this: things like low taxes, risky speculation, sky-high executive pay, and pulling investment out of education and infrastructure. What happens to our economy in the long-term is not really their concern. There’s a motto on Wall Street: “I.B.G.-Y.B.G.” or “I’ll Be Gone, You’ll Be Gone.” As long as you’re making money right now, what happens tomorrow is not your problem.