Political Economics, Finance
A book in the series: Individualism
Without nations to build, the West builds economies, but rather than creating wealth, we often just move it around. More and more jobs have become manifestly about money, but it’s money for the moment and each of us alone.
This third and final memoir of the author’s corporate career reveals Western economies to be increasingly mirages. Without nationalism, the West is selling our countries and other inheritances to fund imports of products we don’t need from countries that still manufacture: where people’s work is real and productive. Eventually, we’ll run out of countries to sell.
- Economic Nationalism
- The End of Quality
- Happiness without Contentment
- Debt and Destruction
- Wealth without Work
- Rise of the Economists
- Corporations in Abstract
- Economic Ethics
- The Herd
- Philanthropy without Charity
- Tax Nationalism
- War without Warriors
- The Corporation as Theatre
- Charities without Charity
- The White Man’s Economic Burden
Chapter 1: Economies
The most obvious expression of Western individualism is our preoccupation with economics. Without cultures we call our own, Western peoples across Europe, the Americas, Australasia, and elsewhere concentrate on commerce. Without countries to grow, we grow economies, if we grow anything. Pursuing economic growth whatever the cost because that’s what we do, we want our economies bigger more than we want our lives better. What we’re doing can’t be limitless, but we’ve not reached the limit so hardly need care. Growth is good, very good, and necessary, we think, as if we’d collapse without it. We’re wrong.
The economies we value above all else aren’t real. They’re philosophies.
Economic systems, like capitalism, communism, and socialism, don’t produce or destroy anything. People do. Economic systems are simply descriptions of the rules and patterns by which people act, individually and collectively through, for example, governments, trade unions, and companies. Some systems encourage, others discourage. Some are efficient, others wasteful.
The British television series Shelley was among the few television programmes I watched late in the 1980s. Hard work and personal enterprise were returning to the fore, while changes from the recent past left as many as three million Britons unemployed. James Shelley was unperturbed. He was comfortably unemployed, while a woman gloated to him about the money she made, as if there were something virtuous about it. “You’re a real estate agent!” or something like that, he dismissed her. “You don’t make money, you move it around.”
Real estate agents replicated. The best plumber I knew was honest enough to telephone and candidly tell my wife, “I can’t make it today. I’ve been out last night on a blinder.” Steve married, tired of plumbing, sat a financial services course, and became a real estate agent. I miss him being a plumber.
Through the course of my working life, there’s become a never-ending array of people whose jobs aren’t just about money at some ultimate level (as most jobs are), but are manifestly about money. Brokers trade not just real estate and shares but mortgages, insurance, and pretty well everything else bought and sold. Not merely accountants, there are financial officers, investors, merchant bankers, fund managers, and financial advisers: people with nothing to do but rearrange other people’s money, collecting fees on the way.
They were some of the people within the businesses at which I first worked as a corporate lawyer: those I call TMT Shipping and Development Limited, Hodyman Limited, Badger Gold Mines Limited, and Cement National. They were essentially everyone within the fund management business I call Babcown & Black, at which I then worked: a multibillion-dollar assembly line from which individuals came and to which they and I came to herd, although they didn’t come very often.
Money movers can do some good, adding some value; real estate agents find people places to live. Financiers can assist companies doing something worthwhile, such as when Babcown led consortia building hospitals, but much more than that’s going on. Artificial hearts in fashion-label suits mightn’t create wealth but they create jobs, at least for themselves.
This book isn’t about money, not even its extraordinarily deep impact upon the West since the late twentieth century. It’s about us: we of the post-racial, post-religious West. Ours is financial selection: the choices we make when our primary consideration is money, but it’s money for the moment and each of us alone. The principal purpose of money became moving it around.
At its essence, leisure is anything apart from work. Consumers pursue leisure with the vigour with which we pursue our careers, cramming our lives so we’ve no time for anything else. At Babcown, the softly spoken analyst filled the last of her time with rushed weekends away doing more of the same as she did at home, except at home she lived alone.
Leisure can be the solitary person’s illusion of company: hordes of eager blank shoppers when we don’t know what to buy, audiences seated around us when we’re unsure of the show. Passengers squeezed around us in a train disappear when we bow our heads to tackle pointless newspaper puzzles, concealing the crowd from our sight. Through the months I boarded crowded trains each day to and from work at Babcown, the most pervasive of these was Sudoku. I couldn’t be bothered. Tiny computer screens soon superseded them.
If we don’t pack our leisure with adrenaline and experience, then it can’t be worthwhile. We prefer squash to bowls, running to walking. We eat expensive meals without savouring them, as if any meal was more important than simply food and water, before sweating through exercise to lose weight and look good again. We buy tri-weekly aerobics and Pilates classes, while paying maids to clean our homes and clothes. If jogging through the park in a designer-name tracksuit isn’t enough to keep pepping us forward, the headsets on our ears pump music through our electrified brains.
The leisure we buy is other people’s labour. Standing in a lift the last Wednesday before Christmas 2007, I first heard a Babcown employee mention that he hired a personal trainer. He was slightly younger than I was and a little overweight (although I never mentioned it). Later, in a conversation in the kitchen, he explained that the trainer disciplined him into using his gymnasium membership each week. In economies predicated upon our rights and choices, we buy the people to save us from our rights and choices.
Exhausted from leisure and work, we expect escalators and lifts to carry us forward. Leisure is nothing so sedentary as smelling the roses (that would reek of contentment), but can still be extraordinarily lazy.
Retired for the night in our homes or hotel suites, remote control handsets free us from leaving our couches and beds. We buy few electric appliances without infrared dots from fashionable plastic devices, activating and adjusting our entertainment systems, heaters, and fans. At the end of the day, our electric toothbrushes save us labour in cleaning our teeth. (Fluoride in the water supply does the same.) Our technology frees us from exercise, except for our fingers and thumbs.
If news of economic growth makes us happy, then too little else about our lives does. If the sight of people working, cranes against the sky, or goods piled high on hypermarket shelves excites us, then we know no other senses of growth.
Research published in 2010 by political economists Carol Graham and Eduardo Lora suggested that rapidly growing countries were slightly less happy than countries with slower growth rates: growing pains. Poor nations acquiring food, clothing, and good shelter become happier, but increased income thereafter reduces the sense of well-being. America the economy had become richer through the preceding half-century, without any measurable increase in Americans’ happiness.
A lot of things happened through that time. Increasing wealth might have made us happier, had the wealth been applied to our betterment. Like the rest of the West, America had become much more unequal, but inequality hadn’t reduced national happiness. Our nations have become arrays of individuals indifferent to each other. Enjoying being rich or complaining about being poor, the happiness we want is our own. That’s individualism.
In 2010, AMP Limited and the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling issued a report The Pursuit of Happiness, confirming that friends, family, health, and work are major contributors to personal happiness. People with children and jobs are more likely to be satisfied with their lives than those with fewer commitments, although satisfaction dips among people in their late thirties and forties trying to balance those commitments.
Some assets make us happier, but not others. Owning our homes makes us happy, as owning investment properties doesn’t. Huge home mortgages distress us less than do much smaller credit card debts; we regret borrowing money to buy gadgetry, but not to buy abodes.
Most interestingly, wealth makes us happier if we’re at least as wealthy as people we know; the inequities against us cause us pain. We complain about our compatriots richer than we are, but not about foreigners richer than all of us.
We make too much of numbers, unable to differentiate between desirable and undesirable transactions. We assume economic activity is that of the markets, taking no account of most household and subsistence production (beyond imputed rents) or many of the goods and services provided by government or volunteers. Economic statistics can’t distinguish between constructive labour making people happy, pointless activity, and actions making people miserable. All we count, by some measure, is money moving between a person, corporation, or other economic entity and another, if not in reality then at least in the accounts.
“Economists and statisticians have long known that GDP is not and was never intended to be a measure of well-being or progress,” Australian Treasury official David Gruen told the Nat Stats conference in Sydney in September 2010, referring to gross domestic product. “While we have long known its limitations, we as a discipline, have not done enough to discourage its use in inappropriate places. In fact, we arguably, if inadvertently, do much to promote GDP as a measure of progress.”
Gruen said the measure had concealed the looming global financial crisis a few years earlier. “In the period before the crisis, much of the strong growth in GDP in many countries was driven by unsustainable asset price inflation and strong growth in consumption, funded by increased borrowing that turned out to be unsustainable.” Finance sector output included compensation for bearing risk. “When banks increased interest margins in late 2008, in response to a radical reassessment of expected defaults and liquidity risks, this increase was booked as an increase in the output of the financial sector rather than a correction in the price of risk as it should have been.”
Extracting natural resources doesn’t necessarily create wealth. “The value of natural resources when they are extracted is treated as production and an increase in GDP,” said Gruen. “However, natural resources are assets already owned by the community. Their extraction and sale represents the transformation of an asset, the natural resource, into another asset – cash.” The problems of numbers hadn’t dampened our obsession with them. “By not counting the depletion of the natural resource asset, production or value added is measured by GDP is overstated, possibly at the expense of the well-being of future generations.”
The same can be said of land: fertile and infertile soil. The West sells our countries to foreigners at our descendants’ expense.
My wife’s and my shares and savings (even if we spend some) are stashes should we need to call upon them because financial catastrophe threatens our family. They become like insurance, purchases of interminable security. Those companies or banks might fail, as might insurance companies, but financial security is some security nevertheless, valuable because our home, health, and education we value. Nothing offers more financial and other security than a country, but it’s not so much that Western governments manage our countries poorly. We don’t manage them at all.
Financiers are less of a problem outside the West, because people are less of a problem. They’re not simply economies but nations, whose economies serve their peoples rather than the other way around. Japan has its challenges, but its government owes debt to its race secure in their island home. They control their destiny, as Western races no longer do. We’re the globalists, hopelessly individual, succumbing to other peoples’ empires.
Western individualism is unlike anything classical Western economics contemplated. Scottish political economist Adam Smith’s seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations was the subject of my first economics assignment and underpinned my economics studies, although I don’t think any students read it. Vendors sell for themselves. Consumers buy for themselves. Invisible hands inadvertently help all the self-interested people get richer, maximising their and their nation’s economic well-being.
Our curse isn’t economics, but the lack of much more. For all our talk of Smith’s 1776 masterpiece, none of the people I’ve heard cite him mentioned that he wrote of individuals in the context of nations. That’s in spite of the book’s title referring to nations.
Freedom and free enterprise are for finance service providers much as for everyone else, although no one else has the stature and scope of people with money. (We needn’t own money if we manage it.) Bankers, investors, and treasurers are the hugest of hands guiding Western economies supposedly for everyone’s benefit, but they’re hardly invisible as Smith described them. They can be proudly quite visible, with the tallest of tall city buildings now named not for statesmen and saints but for the largest of banks and superannuation funds. Invisible hands gave way to visible fists.
Regulating the money movers doesn’t change much. They’re often smarter than regulators. They’re certainly better paid.
They dictate Western economics we’ve made so important, meaning they dictate Western politics. In our post-national West, the distinction is minor. Whoever controls the money controls the company and country, however they acquire their finances.
We individuals don’t care if other countries rise at our country’s expense, provided we collect and spend money on the way. While China carefully controls foreign investment, the Australian government through 2010 and ’11 facilitated Chinese state-owned businesses buying Australian businesses as easily as privately owned Chinese businesses could. Anything else would have been discriminatory, a market distortion.
Nationalism draws people’s attention beyond Friday to the future. With its glut of foreign currency, China is buying the West and bits elsewhere, in a new era of empire: the empires to buy. China buys farms before needing the food. It maintains its mineral resources for the time when resources will be hard to obtain, while extracting the rest of the world’s resources.
We in the West look to the moment. We can’t wait to mine and sell all we have. We’re selling our countries as if they were exports in our country accounts, akin to the little plastic toys other countries export to us. By 2011, foreigners owned more than eleven percent of the Australian land area, almost doubling the percentage since 1984: a huge amount of country exported so we could buy chairs from China instead of making them ourselves.
Classical theories of free trade didn’t imagine individuals buying foreign tiddlywinks we don’t want and selling our inheritances: the countries our forebears built and died defending. We trade territory, our fortunes stored in soil, in return for resin shelf ornaments we soon discard. We have ten times as many toasters each falling apart twenty times sooner, but only for as long as we have land and other assets to sell.
Nor did classical economic theory contemplate nations buying so much on credit. We individuals don’t worry about economic futures: the problems more for later generations than ours. Racking up debt defers the sale of our countries until payment is due.
The free market forces that once redressed economic imbalances no longer do. The West is an economic mirage; economies are always mirages.
The West could do what the rest of the world does, restoring the framework in which Adam Smith wrote. Our governments could control large money flows and borrowing. Europeans could have national currencies allowing their industries to shape their economies and determine their destinies.
Most countries prohibit or limit foreigners buying land and other capital assets; we can buy handiwork but not houses. Others, to which few of us go anyway, would deny us before we bought huge tracts like those that foreigners buy from us. We might allow them leases, retaining the wealth our forebears entrusted to us to share with our shared descendants. At the least, we could restrict sales of land to countries that allow the same sales to us.
In simple terms, we could revive our economic borders. If the restoration of nations seems radical, then we believe too readily the Western globalist, individualist orthodoxy laid upon us. Two centuries after Smith died in Edinburgh in 1790 with the wealth of nations, the individualist West took up the sale of nations. Ours is the pending poverty of individualism.