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Economic Falsehoods, and the Facts About ... Collapse
Edward J. Walsh

The New American, October 7, 1985

In 1975, Business Week published a scary article predicting a "capital crunch" within ten years that would threaten the survival of the American economy.


BRENTWOOD, Tennessee -- In 1975, Business Week published a scary article predicting a "capital crunch" within ten years that would threaten the survival of the American economy. The economy did crash in 1980, but only because capital was consciously withdrawn from the credit markets by the Federal Reserve System in order to wring out inflation -- an excess of capital that many Americans actually enjoyed. To untold thousands of businessmen, the cure was worse than the disease.

Business Week has now done it again, with a story entitled "The Casino Society" dealing with financial speculation. The gist of the piece is that high-paid investment bankers, arbitragers, and takeover pirates are really running the economy -- and running it into the ground. Business Week predicted, as it did with the capital crunch story, that "the casino society has the potential of engineering a serious financial collapse."

Now, many things have "the potential of engineering" a collapse. That kind of phrase accomplishes what is called hedging one's bets.

A "casino society" story will very definitely sell copies. And there is an element of truth in the view that speculation diverts assets from productive investment. But, as with the capital crunch story, this one deals with symptoms, not the source of any impending financial collapse.

The source is U.S. economic policy, as it has been for many years. A new study to be released by the U.S. Business and Industrial Council reminds us that expenditures for compliance with pollution control regulations drain some $55 billion annually from U.S. manufacturing concerns. The tax system, despite the catcalls of the anti-business lobby, remains deeply biased against capital formation. Thanks to federal tolerance of labor union monopolies, the cost of creating a new job in a General Motors auto plant now runs to approximately $50,000. And trade and antitrust laws are a maze of bureaucratic contradictions.

For about ten years, however, many economists -- mostly the liberal variety -- have condemned business for paying more attention to quarterly earnings than to long-term investments. They were, and are, content with the theory that businessmen as a group are complacent, lazy and greedy. Today, the same critics are disturbed at the rash of arbitrage, short selling, takeover battles, and heavy borrowing in the corporate world, and are hauling out the old theory that business is either an insidious force, or plain dumb.

What is lost in all this lecturing and journalism is the core truth about economics, that business managers are responsible to shareholders for producing profits. If economic policy makes long-term planning and long-term gains unlikely or impossibly risky -- as economic policy indeed has -- then managers will settle for short-term gambles, including issuing huge debt instruments to buy rather than build assets, speculating in stocks and futures, shipping production overseas, and buying into questionable tax shelters -- the practices Business Week and others are now characterizing as immoral.

Something else obscured in all this is the vast, inherent strength of the American free market system. In the same issue, a different Business Week editor writes, "The leading indicators hint that new strength is building in the economy." In August, unemployment dropped to its lowest level in six years, despite the huge influx of women into the work force. Nonfarm payrolls grew by 288,000, including 37,000 new jobs in manufacturing. New factory orders were up, as was construction spending. Basic steel production was 9 percent higher than for the same period last year. Some 56,278 new businesses were started in the United States in May, up 4,000 over May 1984.

Huge problems persist in the U.S. economy, particularly in trade and fiscal policy. Those are the responsibility of the elected representatives of the people, who have thus far been content to ignore them -- thus far being about 20 years. If the editors of Business Week want to know why some people are gambling in the markets instead of investing, they can look to Washington. Otherwise, the free enterprise system is fine.


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