In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky suggested the lack of any alternative big theme gave the free marketeers a head start in shaping and continuing to dominate the United States economy. The free market big theme may have been planted by Adam Smith, but it developed on the open prairies of North America where land was the free resource – confirmed by the Homestead Acts – which drove the early development of the US economy. So the big theme was not just markets freed from government interference and control, but personal freedom to claim a bit of America and the right to defend it with guns to fight off its previous occupants, the native Americans. That tradition gave primacy to ownership. When Friedman declared that corporate officials had no social responsibility other than to make as much money as possible for shareholders, it was hardly a shot out of the blue, but the confirmation of a long tradition.
The takeover of British confectioner Cadbury, with its long and honourable history in British industry, from its Quaker origins to its death throes earlier this year, has been featured as the main topic of two posts on this site, and mentioned in passing on five others. It is a compulsive story which celebrates the satisfaction of greed, the naïve stupidity of ideologically driven government, the destruction of Britain’s real economy and its real jobs, and the fatalistic acceptance of all this by the population at large.
A recent article in The Economist pointed out that Britain, the original industrialiser for long in relative economic decline, owned 45% of the world’s foreign direct investment in 1914, but now has substantially less than 10%. The United States’ foreign direct investment peaked at around 50% in 1967 and is now less than half that. Today China (including Hong Kong and Macau) has a share of just 6%, but is growing fast. Britain and the United States might best be described as in the post-mature phase of their economic development. Such characterisation is also confirmed by the Anglo-American emphasis on finance and wealth ownership, rather than technology, customers and wealth creation. Those latter are the concern of more dynamically positioned economies, such as China and India, which are in the early growth stages of their development.
The desire to return to business as usual isn’t restricted to the obscenity of bankers’ bonuses. That same desire is shared by unemployed potters in Stoke on Trent, car workers in Detroit, and the governing politicians in London and Washington who are presiding over their people’s misery.
However, for the millions in China’s (not to mention India’s and Brazil’s) rural hinterland who have never lived much above the bread-line, some having experienced genuine famine, working on an iPad production line in Shanghai, or the like, may not pay much by Western standards, but it’s a huge improvement on business as usual.