13 December 2016

A Man of Subsistence, part the second

We return with Eccles, again:
As mass production has to be accompanied by mass consumption; mass consumption, in turn, implies a distribution of wealth -- not of existing wealth, but of wealth as it is currently produced -- to provide men with buying power equal to the amount of goods and services offered by the nation's economic machinery.
-- Marriner Eccles (mid 1930s FDR advisor)

And we ask whether it's possible for the 1800-ish view of the USofA (a nation of yeoman farmers largely unconnected to government, to paraphrase Jefferson) so beloved by the alt-right remains a viable foundation in 2016. Or, to be blunt: can capitalists impose subsistence on the 99% and still have capitalists flourish? Well, in order to do that, the 99% have to be supplied with the three foundations of survival; food, clothing, and shelter. And the capitalists need to be in the business of selling such, not just conducting a continuing FIRE sale. In the mid-1930s, the USofA economy was largely self-sufficient; the Great Depression shuttered much productive capital, but didn't destroy it. Plants which had stopped making automobiles were quickly repurposed to build tanks and jeeps. Thus the WWII re-industrialization was only a matter of will to employ it. In today's economy, local food production is largely for the 1%, but staples are mostly domestic and shipped country wide. Clothing is almost wholly imported. Housing is moving from nail pounders making stick built houses, to site assembly of factory produced modules. In a nutshell, American capital doesn't come near enough to supplying the rudiments of 21st century subsistence; one might reasonably include personal transport as a necessity, for instance, since nearly no American tends his own few acres of bottom land with a mule.

If The Donald does get his way with 35% tariffs (he doesn't have the authority to do so by fiat; so far, anyway), the ones most hurt by that will be the poorly educated white folks in Pennsyltucky who voted for him, since they get most of their stuff from China and the like and not so much from Goldman Sachs. There's a certain irony in that, of course, but lots of others (3 million more or thereabouts who didn't, so far) get hurt too.

The point, of course, is that Eccles' observation, while the alt-right would likely see Marx in it, is merely a re-imagination of global equilibrium. Whatever goes out must be consumed. In an agrarian economy, with a smattering of simple manufacturing, such an economy can be self-sustaining of a 99% subsistence labor force, societies were such for thousands of years; Jefferson's vision put starkly. By 2016, USofA output is increasingly in FIRE and other intangibles. One can't make subsistence with tweets; they aren't very nutritious (particularly The Donald brand). In the early 1900s, Henry Ford rocked the world by raising the wages of his assembly line drones. He did so for the avowed reason that they'd be better able to buy his Model T. Do you imagine Blankfein at Goldman Sachs (once The Donald's pinata, now bromancer) having such an epiphany? Or that the poorly educated white folks could, miracle of miracles, afford his product? I doubt it. But either today's raptor capitalist must, or our economy collapses. Recent reporting of research that today's young-uns are less likely to earn more than their parents then any previous generation should come as no surprise. After all, we live in the culmination of the 1%'s Pac Man-ing of the GDP.

How to (re-)distribute is far less important (except to ideologues, of course) than it get done. While likely not the first to express it, Krugman put it well:
My spending is your income, and your spending is my income, so if both of us try to spend less at the same time, what we end up achieving is mutual impoverishment.

If, after all, Americans can't be supported by what their economy makes (financial services, mostly), and they can't develop the skills needed to make what the economy makes (ditto), then what's the result?

A question of balance. Switzerland and the island countries can make economies largely on shifting moolah twixt Peter and Paul, who of course live elsewhere, since they're teeny little societies. The USofA, not so much.

And we close, again, with Twain:
It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.
-- Mark Twain

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