Thursday, May 31, 2012

Economics:  1950s thru 1970s

Once upon a time, this fairy tale tells us, America was a land of lazy managers and slacker workers. Productivity languished, and American industry was fading away in the face of foreign competition.

Then square-jawed, tough-minded buyout kings like Mitt Romney and the fictional Gordon Gekko came to the rescue, imposing financial and work discipline. Sure, some people didn't like it, and, sure, they made a lot of money for themselves along the way. But the result was a great economic revival, whose benefits trickled down to everyone.

You can see why Wall Street likes this story. But none of it -- except the bit about the Gekkos and the Romneys making lots of money -- is true.

For the alleged productivity surge never actually happened. In fact, overall business productivity in America grew faster in the postwar generation, an era in which banks were tightly regulated and private equity barely existed, than it has since our political system decided that greed was good.

What about international competition? We now think of America as a nation doomed to perpetual trade deficits, but it was not always thus. From the 1950s through the 1970s, we generally had more or less balanced trade, exporting about as much as we imported. The big trade deficits only started in the Reagan years, that is, during the era of runaway finance.

And what about that trickle-down? It never took place. There have been significant productivity gains these past three decades, although not on the scale that Wall Street's self-serving legend would have you believe. However, only a small part of those gains got passed on to American workers.

For more, see Egos and Immorality by Paul Krugman, May 24, 2012 at NYTimes.com.

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