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Financial Firms Have Been Hollowing Out America for Decades -- Now We're on the Verge of a Debtpocalypse

40 years of austerity politics have hollowed out the heartland, as financial wizards of Wall Street gobbled up ever more of the nation's resources.

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Shocking statistics about life expectancy and social mobility suggest that those days are over.  Wealth, great piles of it, is still being generated, and sometimes displayed so ostentatiously that no one could miss it.  Technological marvels still amaze.  Prosperity exists, though for an ever-shrinking cast of characters.  But a new economic metabolism is visibly at work.

For the last 40 years, prosperity, wealth, and “progress” have rested, at least in part, on a grotesque process of auto-cannibalism -- it has also been called “dis-accumulation” by David Harvey -- of a society that is devouring its own.

Traditional forms of primitive accumulation still exist abroad.  Hundreds of millions of former peasants, fisherman, craftspeople, scavengers, herdsmen, tradesmen, ranchers, and peddlers provide the labor power and cheap products that buoy the bottom lines of global manufacturing and retail corporations, as well as banks and agribusinesses.  But here in “the homeland,” the very profitability and prosperity of privileged sectors of the economy, especially the bloated financial arena, continue to depend on slicing, dicing, and stripping away what was built up over generations. 

Once again a new world has been born.  This time, it depends on liquidating the assets of the old one or shipping them abroad to reward speculation in “fictitious capital.”  Rates of U.S. investment in new plants, technology, and research and development began declining during the 1970s, a fall-off that only accelerated in the gilded 1980s.  Manufacturing, which accounted for nearly 30% of the economy after the Second World War, had dropped to just over 10% by 2011.  Since the turn of the millennium alone, 3.5 million more manufacturing jobs have vanished and 42,000 manufacturing plants were shuttered.

Nor are we simply witnessing the passing away of relics of the nineteenth century. Today, only one American company is among the top ten in the solar power industry and the U.S. accounts for a mere 5.6% of world production of photovoltaic cells.  Only GE is among the top ten companies in wind energy. In 2007, a mere 8% of all new semi-conductor plants under construction globally were located in the U.S.  Of the 1.2 billion cell phones sold in 2009, none were made in the U.S.  The share of semi-conductors, steel, cars, and machine tools made in America has declined precipitously just in the last decade.  Much high-end engineering design and R&D work has been offshored.  Now, there are more people dealing cards in casinos than running lathes, and almost three times as many security guards as machinists.

The FIRE Next Time 

Meanwhile, for more than a quarter of a century the fastest growing part of the economy has been the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector.  Between 1980 and 2005, profits in the financial sector increased by 800%, more than three times the growth in non-financial sectors. 

In those years, new creations of financial ingenuity, rare or never seen before, bred like rabbits.  In the early 1990s, for example, there were a couple of hundred hedge funds; by 2007, 10,000 of them.  A whole new species of mortgage broker roamed the land, supplanting old-style savings and loan or regional banks.  Fifty thousand mortgage brokerages employed 400,000 brokers, more than the whole U.S. textile industry.  A hedge fund manager put it bluntly, “The money that’s made from manufacturing stuff is a pittance in comparison to the amount of money made from shuffling money around.”

For too long, these two phenomena -- the eviscerating of industry and the supersizing of high finance -- have been treated as if they had nothing much to do with each other, but were simply occurring coincidentally.

 
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