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How Wall Street Hollowed Out Industrial America

Forget the fiscal cliff. America's real problem is a Wall Street that has eaten up industrial America and threatens to consume the rest of us.

| Mon Dec. 3, 2012 3:03 PM EST

In 2008, in the sunbelt town of Colorado Springs, Colorado, one-third of the city's street lights were extinguished, police helicopters were sold, watering and fertilizing in the parks was eliminated from the budget, and surrounding suburbs closed down the public bus system. During the recent Great Recession one-industry towns like Dalton, Georgia ("the carpet capital of the world"), or Blakely, Georgia ("the peanut capital of the world"), or Elkhart, Indiana ("the RV capital of the world") were closing libraries, firing police chiefs, and taking other desperate measures to survive.

And no one can forget Detroit. Once, it had been a world-class city, the country's fourth largest, full of architectural gems. In the 1950s, Detroit had a population with the highest median income and highest rate of home ownership in urban America. Now, the "motor city" haunts the national imagination as a ghost town. Home to two million a quarter-century ago, its decrepit hulk is now "home" to 900,000. Between 2000 and 2010 alone, the population hemorrhaged by 25%, nearly a quarter of a million people, almost as many as live in post-Katrina New Orleans. There and in other core industrial centers like Baltimore, "death zones" have emerged where whole neighborhoods verge on medical collapse.

One-third of Detroit, an area the size of San Francisco, is now little more than empty houses, empty factories, and fields gone feral. A whole industry of demolition, waste-disposal, and scrap-metal companies arose to tear down what once had been. With a jobless rate of 29%, some of its citizens are so poor they can't pay for funerals, so bodies pile up at mortuaries. Plans are even afoot to let the grasslands and forests take over, or to give the city to private enterprise.

Even the public zoo has been privatized. With staff and animals reduced to the barest of minimums and living wages endangered by its new owner, an associate curator working with elephants and rhinos went in search of another job. He found it with the city—chasing down feral dogs whose population had skyrocketed as the cityscape returned to wilderness. History had, it seemed, abandoned dogs along with their human compatriots.

Looking Backward

But could this just be the familiar story of capitalism's penchant for "creative destruction"? The usual tale of old ways disappearing, sometimes painfully, as part of the story of progress as new wonders appear in their place?

Imagine for a moment the time traveler from Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy's best-selling utopian novel of 1888 waking up in present-day America. Instead of the prosperous land filled with technological wonders and egalitarian harmony Bellamy envisioned, his protagonist would find an unnervingly familiar world of decaying cities, people growing ever poorer and sicker, bridges and roads crumpling, sweatshops a commonplace, the largest prison population on the planet, workers afraid to stand up to their bosses, schools failing, debts growing more onerous, and inequalities starker than ever.

A recent grim statistic suggests just how Bellamy's utopian hopes have given way to an increasingly dystopian reality. For the first time in American history, the life expectancy of white people, men and women, has actually dropped. Life spans for the least educated, in particular, have fallen by about four years since 1990. The steepest decline: white women lacking a high school diploma. They, on average, lost five years of life, while white men lacking a diploma lost three years.

Unprecedented for the United States, these numbers come close to the catastrophic decline Russian men experienced in the desperate years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Similarly, between 1985 and 2010, American women fell from 14th to 41st place in the United Nation's ranking of international life expectancy. (Among developed countries, American women now rank last.) Whatever combination of factors produced this social statistic, it may be the rawest measure of a society in the throes of economic anorexia.

One other marker of this eerie story of a developed nation undergoing underdevelopment and a striking reproach to a cherished national faith: for the first time since the Great Depression, the social mobility of Americans is moving in reverse. In every decade from the 1970s on, fewer people have been able to move up the income ladder than in the previous 10 years. Now Americans in their thirties earn 12% less on average than their parents' generation at the same age. Danes, Norwegians, Finns, Canadians, Swedes, Germans, and the French now all enjoy higher rates of upward mobility than Americans. Remarkably, 42% of American men raised in the bottom one-fifth income cohort remain there for life, as compared to 25% in Denmark and 30% in notoriously class-stratified Great Britain.

Eating Our Own

Laments about "the vanishing middle class" have become commonplace, and little wonder. Except for those in the top 10% of the income pyramid, everyone is on the down escalator. The United States now has the highest percentage of low-wage workers—those who earn less than two-thirds of the median wage—of any developed nation. George Carlin once mordantly quipped, "It's called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it." Now, that joke has become our waking reality.

During the "long nineteenth century," wealth and poverty existed side by side. So they do again. In the first instance, when industrial capitalism was being born, it came of age by ingesting what was valuable embedded in pre-capitalist forms of life and labor, including land, animals, human muscle power, tools and talents, know-how, and the ways of organizing and distributing what got produced. Wealth accumulated in the new economy by extinguishing wealth in the older ones.

"Progress" was the result of this economic metabolism. Whatever its stark human and ecological costs, its achievements were also highly visible. America's capacity to sustain a larger and larger population at rising levels of material well-being, education, and health was its global boast for a century and half.

Shocking statistics about life expectancy and social mobility suggest that those days are over. Wealth, great piles of it, is still being generated, and sometimes displayed so ostentatiously that no one could miss it. Technological marvels still amaze. Prosperity exists, though for an ever-shrinking cast of characters. But a new economic metabolism is visibly at work.

For the last 40 years, prosperity, wealth, and "progress" have rested, at least in part, on a grotesque process of auto-cannibalism—it has also been called "dis-accumulation" by David Harvey—of a society that is devouring its own.

Traditional forms of primitive accumulation still exist abroad. Hundreds of millions of former peasants, fisherman, craftspeople, scavengers, herdsmen, tradesmen, ranchers, and peddlers provide the labor power and cheap products that buoy the bottom lines of global manufacturing and retail corporations, as well as banks and agribusinesses. But here in "the homeland," the very profitability and prosperity of privileged sectors of the economy, especially the bloated financial arena, continue to depend on slicing, dicing, and stripping away what was built up over generations.

Once again a new world has been born. This time, it depends on liquidating the assets of the old one or shipping them abroad to reward speculation in "fictitious capital." Rates of US investment in new plants, technology, and research and development began declining during the 1970s, a fall-off that only accelerated in the gilded 1980s. Manufacturing, which accounted for nearly 30% of the economy after the Second World War, had dropped to just over 10% by 2011. Since the turn of the millennium alone, 3.5 million more manufacturing jobs have vanished and 42,000 manufacturing plants were shuttered.

Nor are we simply witnessing the passing away of relics of the nineteenth century. Today, only one American company is among the top ten in the solar power industry and the US accounts for a mere 5.6% of world production of photovoltaic cells. Only GE is among the top ten companies in wind energy. In 2007, a mere 8% of all new semi-conductor plants under construction globally were located in the US Of the 1.2 billion cell phones sold in 2009, none were made in the US The share of semi-conductors, steel, cars, and machine tools made in America has declined precipitously just in the last decade. Much high-end engineering design and R&D work has been offshored. Now, there are more people dealing cards in casinos than running lathes, and almost three times as many security guards as machinists.

The FIRE Next Time

Meanwhile, for more than a quarter of a century the fastest growing part of the economy has been the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector. Between 1980 and 2005, profits in the financial sector increased by 800%, more than three times the growth in non-financial sectors.

In those years, new creations of financial ingenuity, rare or never seen before, bred like rabbits. In the early 1990s, for example, there were a couple of hundred hedge funds; by 2007, 10,000 of them. A whole new species of mortgage broker roamed the land, supplanting old-style savings and loan or regional banks. Fifty thousand mortgage brokerages employed 400,000 brokers, more than the whole US textile industry. A hedge fund manager put it bluntly, "The money that's made from manufacturing stuff is a pittance in comparison to the amount of money made from shuffling money around."

For too long, these two phenomena—the eviscerating of industry and the supersizing of high finance—have been treated as if they had nothing much to do with each other, but were simply occurring coincidentally.

Here, instead, is the fable we've been offered: Sad as it might be for some workers, towns, cities, and regions, the end of industry is the unfortunate, yet necessary, prelude to a happier future pioneered by "financial engineers." Equipped with the mathematical and technological know-how that can turn money into more money (while bypassing the messiness of producing anything), they are our new wizards of prosperity!

Unfortunately, this uplifting tale rests on a categorical misapprehension. The ascendancy of high finance didn't just replace an industrial heartland in the process of being gutted; it initiated that gutting and then lived off it, particularly during its formative decades. The FIRE sector, that is, not only supplanted industry, but grew at its expense—and at the expense of the high wages it used to pay and the capital that used to flow into it.

Think back to the days of junk bonds, leveraged buy-outs, megamergers and acquisitions, and asset stripping in the 1980s and 1990s. (Think, in fact, of Bain Capital.) What was getting bought and stripped and closed up supported windfall profits in high-interest-paying junk bonds. The stupendous fees and commissions that went to those "engineering" such transactions were being picked from the carcass of a century and a half of American productive capacity. The hollowing out of the United States was well under way long before anyone dreamed up the "fiscal cliff."

For some long time now, our political economy has been driven by investment banks, hedge funds, private equity firms, real estate developers, insurance goliaths, and a whole menagerie of ancillary enterprises that service them. But high times in FIRE land have depended on the downward mobility of working people and the poor, cut adrift from more secure industrial havens and increasingly from the lifelines of public support. They have been living instead in the "pit of austerity." Soon many more of us will join them.

Steve Fraser is a historian, writer, and editor-at-large for New Labor Forum, co-founder of the American Empire Project, and TomDispatch regular. He is, most recently, the author of Wall Street: America's Dream Palace. He teaches at Columbia University.

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