The Convergence: America’s Long Arc of Development

The following is a four-part post about the phases of the economic development of nations – pre-industrial, industrial, post-industrial – and a discussion of the current state of affairs in the United States and the world.

Part I: How Countries Develop

For all of their differences, countries, and even civilizations, follow a similar path in their development. The timeline and specifics vary from nation to nation, but the general formula remains constant. On a high level, poor countries become rich through industrialization. The Renaissance in Europe, the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and the era of outsourcing – services in India, manufactured goods in China, and raw materials in Brazil – are all examples of the broad arc of economic development in once-poor nations. Mechanization produces efficiencies that make a country’s exports more competitive. When the value of exports exceed that of imports, it creates a trade surplus, also called a “favorable balance of trade”, as it brings more foreign currency into the country and generally makes the country richer.

As countries become richer and more industrialized, the economy shifts toward producing value-added goods. The wealth increase strengthens the currency of the country, and skilled – and unskilled – workers demand higher wages. As a result, labor-intensive industries become less competitive, leading rich countries to outsource these jobs to poorer countries. In the 1600’s, Colonial America traded cash crops and raw materials for finished goods from England – one of the factors leading up to the American Revolution. As the U.S. became richer post-WWII, it began outsourcing its labor-intensive industries to China and India. And today, these two countries are vying for influence and access to raw materials and cheap labor in a modern scramble for Africa.

Clark's Sector model for US economy 1850 -2009.

Clark’s Sector model for US economy 1850 -2009.

When a country develops in this way, the spoils are more equitably shared, as millions of jobs are created in new industries. From the textile mills in Lowell, to the garment factories in Bangladesh, to the manufacturing facilities springing up in Ethiopia and South Africa, a generation of previously unemployed people starts to work, fueled by demand from wealthier countries for more finished goods. And those new additions to the workforce are introduced to one of the perks of earning a decent wage: paying your taxes.

In pre-industrial nations, income is highly stratified, with an ultra-wealthy elite wielding a disproportionate amount of both political and economic power. On the other extreme, a huge percentage of the population is impoverished, rarely sharing in the spoils of the natural resource contracts that enrich the elites. The only voices that matter are those with access to money and influence, and the poor are marginalized, resigned to the realities of corrupt politicians and unscrupulous businessmen stifling growth and progress in the country.

As a country industrializes, however, the inexpensive labor provided by the massive percentage of the population living below the poverty line enables those disenfranchised segments by creating a middle class. With greater disposable income, poorer families can invest in education, ensuring that their children will reap the benefits of development by ushering in the inevitable move toward value-added goods that immediately follows industrialization. And that middle class – which pays a percentage of its hard-earned money in taxes – starts to demand accountability from its political leaders. As the concentration of wealth shrinks, the broader population begins demanding greater freedoms. A free press develops to satisfy the new-found demand for information, and politicians are brought out of the shadows and into the light.

A more responsive government and an expanded treasury lead to investments in infrastructure, education, healthcare, and other institutions, laying the groundwork for the shift to post-industrialization. With the foundation in place, the country steadily moves up the ladder. The call center that once offered only customer service now offers accounting, IT, and financial services. The t-shirt manufacturer becomes a fashion house. And with each step, the country becomes richer.

A snapshot of a post-industrial economy. Sectors of the US Economy as percent of GDP 1947-2009.

A snapshot of a post-industrial economy. Sectors of the US Economy as percent of GDP 1947-2009.

And what happens to this newly-created middle class? As their income increases, the percentage spent on food, clothing, and housing decline. Their buying power increases, their lifespan becomes longer, and the shocks that once destroyed their lives – an illness left untreated, a drought that destroyed their crops, a civil war erupting out of desperation – decrease, enabling them to not only invest more money in themselves – in the form of better healthcare, better schools, better houses – but also free them from the debilitating stress generated by uncertainty. Not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or whether your daughter will be able to survive a bout of typhoid, or malaria, or tuberculosis, weighs on the poor, deeply affecting their decision-making. Short-term thinking becomes long-term planning, and the whole country is better off as a result.

At some point – when a country has reached this transcendental state of development – it begins a steady decline. Some thinkers for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect, like Fareed Zakaria, describe a “post-American world” marked not by the decline of the west, but the “rise of the rest”. For a time, I agreed with his conclusions. But lately I’m beginning to think that view is a shade too optimistic.

Part II: The Great Divergence

The Great Divergence: share of income by the top 10% of the population in the U.S.

The Great Divergence: share of income by the top 10% of the population in the U.S.

It is hard to pinpoint the moment at which America turned the corner and began its march to peak decadence and subsequent decline. If you ascribe to what some economist call “The Great Divergence,” the trend began in the late 1970’s, as a number of convergent forces changed the economy of the United States. This is right around the time the U.S. began outsourcing its manufacturing sector in response to the increase in standard of living that I described above. James Surowiecki of the New Yorker explains the trend:

In 1960, the country’s biggest employer, General Motors, was also its most profitable company and one of its best-paying. It had high profit margins and real pricing power, even as it was paying its workers union wages. And it was not alone: firms like Ford, Standard Oil, and Bethlehem Steelemployed huge numbers of well-paid workers while earning big profits. Today, the country’s biggest employers are retailers and fast-food chains, almost all of which have built their businesses on low pay—they’ve striven to keep wages down and unions out—and low prices.

Incarcerated Americans as a percentage of the population, 1920-2008

Incarcerated Americans as a % of population, 1920-2008

Simultaneously, just as the middle class was starting to see its job prospects shipped overseas, the most influential conservative president of the last hundred years arrived to reshape the political system to systematically dismantle the welfare state, declare a war on drugs that crippled the socioeconomic development of a generation of African-Americans, and establish an approach to domestic economic policy – colloquially referred to as “Reaganomics” – that sought to restrain the power of the federal government and empower the free market through de-regulation, lower taxes, a tighter money supply and relentless opposition to anything might cause inflation.

President Clinton largely maintained the laissez-faire approach to the economy, presiding over a period of growth and prosperity that continued deep into the Bush years. Then, of course, the inevitable happened: the economy collapsed, having been fueled by a mythical belief that housing prices would never go down. The resulting collapse plunged the global economy into its greatest recession since 1929 – one which it is steadily climbing out of now.

I have purposefully glossed over the last 20 years because the actual events leading up to the collapse – liberal lending policies by the Federal Reserve, de-regulation of the financial sector, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and other causes – are irrelevant. The financial collapse was a correction back to economy’s original state. It is simply the mechanism by which the truth was exposed. What is more interesting to me now is the current state of affairs. In a nutshell, the economic development trend is not only slowing, or even plateauing. Rather, it is actually happening in reverse.

Part III: The Current State of the Union

The share of income by the top 10% and 1%, respectively

The share of income by the top 10% and 1%, respectively

Income inequality – which decreased during the era of industrialization – is on the rise again. As money and power become more concentrated, fewer individuals enjoy the spoils of prosperity. Wealth concentration in isolated communities exacerbate already appalling disparities in our education system. In a 2012 study, the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) quantified the relative performance of students in the 33 high- and middle-income countries. Among 16-24 year olds, the United States ranks dead last in proficiency in numeracy. In other words, rather than investing in creating a highly-skilled workforce that will enable the country to thrive in that post-industrial economy, it allows any advantage it once had to slip away, damaging the prospects of future generations.

And what about on a microeconomic level? Remember how the poor in pre-industrial nations spend a disproportionate amount of their income on food, clothing, and housing, leaving them vulnerable to financial shocks? Well, that is happening again too. Derek Thomson of The Atlantic provides a sobering analysis of the realities from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

For the poor, food, clothes, and housing account for more than 60 percent of all spending. The rich have more left over for leisure, insurance, and savings.

The term consumption takes on a more literal meaning when you see the difference between rich and poor spending. Cash-hungry families consume more of their income immediately, spending two in three dollars on absolute essentials like food and shirts. The rich are more predisposed to spend toward the future, with eight-times more of their income going toward insurance and even more going toward savings (although the bottom 20 percent includes lots of retirees on Social Security, the next quintile doesn’t see much in the way of savings either).

There has been a good amount of research recently about how being poor changes your thinking about everything. “If you have very little, you often behave in such a way so that you’ll have little in the future,” Sendhil Mullainathan recently told Harold Pollack in Wonkblog. The poor don’t plan as much for the coming years, because they can’t afford to.

Thinking about the future is a form of luxury.

The percentage of income spent by category for the rich and poor

The percentage of income spent by category.

Why is this important? Aren’t we living in an era of unprecedented prosperity? Yes and no. If you are one of the 2.4 billion people living on less than $2 a day, life is hopefully going to get better for you. You will benefit from the broader trend of globalization and general connectedness of the modern world, by which information and goods flow more freely, regardless of borders. But if you are lower middle class, or, even worse, already poor in America, life is about to get a lot worse.

That is because this trend will continue. The concentration of wealth will only become more pronounced. The Citizens United decision, coupled with the recent Supreme Court decision to strike down the overall political donation cap, will only reinforce the increasingly disproportionate power the wealthy have over the American political system. This sad turn of events brings us one step closer to that pre-industrial political landscape, where the ultra-elite control the government.

Each of these developments bring us closer and closer to our origins as a pre-industrial country.

Part IV: The Future

This long arc of our historical development lead us to one inevitable truth, articulated nicely by the Nobel prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz:

Nowadays, these numbers show that the American dream is a myth. There is less equality of opportunity in the United States today than there is in Europe – or, indeed, in any advanced industrial country for which there are data.

This is one of the reasons that America has the highest level of inequality of any of the advanced countries – and its gap with the rest has been widening. In the “recovery” of 2009-2010, the top 1% of US income earners captured 93% of the income growth. Other inequality indicators – like wealth, health, and life expectancy – are as bad or even worse. The clear trend is one of concentration of income and wealth at the top, the hollowing out of the middle, and increasing poverty at the bottom.

At the end of his article, Stiglitz says that it is not too late for the American dream to be restored. To that point, I believe it is important that we collectively remember our roots – not as individuals, but as a country, and even a civilization. Remember that we all started from humble beginnings and invested in ourselves to ensure that we provided future generations the resources and skills to thrive in a changing world. Because not only will that ensure that we as a country are caring for one another the way that a country should, but also, from a more realpolitik standpoint, income inequality leads to greater economic instability, and a higher risk that we tumble down the chasm yet again.

There is another alternative: that we do nothing, and the trend continues, expanding the gap between what the creator of the show, The Wire, David Simon calls the “Two Americas.” In a speech given at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in 2013, Simon explains ones manifestation of these two options:

So how does it get better? In 1932, it got better because they dealt the cards again and there was a communal logic that said nobody’s going to get left behind. We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to get the banks open. From the depths of that depression a social compact was made between worker, between labour and capital that actually allowed people to have some hope.

We’re either going to do that in some practical way when things get bad enough or we’re going to keep going the way we’re going, at which point there’s going to be enough people standing on the outside of this mess that somebody’s going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there’s always the brick. I hope we go for the first option but I’m losing faith.

Like David Simon, I’m losing faith. I hope that we as a society can stand up and recognize this broader trend. In the opening song of the seminal Dead Prez album Let’s Get Free, “Wolves”, the narrator uses an interesting parable to explain how African-Americans in inner cities have been systematically disenfranchised and sabotaged by crack cocaine, the police state, and the prison-industrial complex:

I’m not a hunter but I am told, that, uh, in places like in the arctic, where indigenous people sometimes might, might, hunt a wolf, they’ll take a double edged blade, and they’ll put blood on the blade, and they’ll melt the ice and stick the handle in the ice, so that only the blade is protruding, and that a wolf will smell the blood and wants to eat, and it will come and lick the blade trying to eat, and what happens is when the wolf licks the blade, of course, he cuts his tongue, and he bleeds, and he thinks he’s really having a good thing, and he drinks and he licks and he licks, and of course he is drinking his own blood and he kills himself.

Paul Ryan, a disciple of Ayn Rand, who believed that faith is detrimental to human life, speaking at the Value Voters summit.

Paul Ryan, a disciple of Ayn Rand, who believed that faith is detrimental to human life, speaking at the Value Voters summit.

I would argue that that is what is happening to everyone. People are tricked to vote against their own self-interest after being whipped up into a frenzy about gay marriage, abortion, and other inconsequential issues.  “Look over over there,” while I reach into your pocket and steal your wallet. The party of Christianity and family values is the same party that votes against expanding healthcare, that votes against supporting the poor, that votes for the corporation that pollutes its rivers and destroys its communities. In the Dead Prez analogy, “social issues” are the blood, and economics are the blade.

Can we reverse this trend? I don’t know. I would like to hope that this is not the new world order. But, unfortunately, very little as of late has given me reason to think otherwise.

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1 comment for “The Convergence: America’s Long Arc of Development

  1. John Galt
    April 10, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    excellent.
    What about the effect of immigration in the US-that may have actually fueled industrial revolution. Also there was a reboot in 1908-1910 when Roosevelt broke the trusts and their owners (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Duke, Morgan). The rich have gradually regained their edge.

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