Back in 2012, Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan divided America into two classes: makers and takers. In that more genteel era of Republican politics, the GOP candidates for the White House argued that a growing portion of America had become dependent on the hard work of others through government assistance. Romney pegged the number at 47 percent while Ryan said the mooching class was much bigger. If this kept up, they intoned, the American economy would go to shit.
Rana Foroohar has flipped this argument on its head. The Time magazine business columnist and CNN global economic analyst contends in her new book Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business that the “Takers” in the U.S. economy are actually the ones who believe they are the “Makers”. These Americans have amassed their wealth through financial tricks and short-term thinking at the expense of investment in sustainable growth. Instead of creating new wealth, they are skimming off the top of the rest of the economy, which does, in fact, make things. Wall Street culture has swallowed up Main Street.
To what extent has finance come to dominate our economy? Foroohar cites two statistics. The first is, “Only about 15 percent of all the money in our market system actually ends up in the real economy—the rest stays within the closed loop of finance itself.” And the second is that “The financial sector takes a quarter of all corporate profits in this country while creating only 4 percent of American jobs.” But this isn’t just JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs hoovering up the country’s economic gains that hurts the U.S.; companies like Apple are focused increasingly on making money by moving money around instead of focusing on research and development that can make them viable for years to come.
We sat down with Foroohar to discuss her book, how our economic system came to be so broken, the unrest it has caused—and if she sees any hope for fixing the problem.
How did you sense that something had gone awry with the American economy?
I have been a business and economic journalist for 23 years. I would constantly be talking to CEOs that I knew were smart guys and not bad guys. They would be doing what they were incentivized to do. But they’d be making really short term decisions. A lot of it had to do with outsourcing, a lot of it had to do with cost cutting. It was always about marshalling your capital and making sure you were controlling the capital, but not thinking at all about people; not thinking at all about what does this mean for 5 years, 10 years.
But I noticed a really marked contrast there with family-owned firms compared to public companies. I grew up in the rural Midwest where you have a lot of family-owned businesses. So there were a lot of kids from big farm families or local community banking families that I went to school with. They had a totally different perspective. They still invested back in their companies.
It made me start thinking about all these arguments that you hear Fortune 500 companies putting forward about “If only there wasn’t as much red tape. If only taxes were lower. If only there wasn’t so much bureaucracy in Washington. We would be able to invest and be more magnanimous.”
But the private companies were already doing those things. What was the difference? I came to believe—and the research shows—that the difference is pressure from Wall Street causing business owners to make really bad decisions.
You use Apple to illustrate your argument, which is that American companies invest more and more in financial tricks instead of product development. What are examples of Apple doing this?
The first chapter of my book details this whole bizarre phenomenon where Apple, the richest company in the world, has $200 billion dollars in cash sitting in offshore bank accounts. It doesn’t want to bring it back to the U.S. to pay the corporate tax rate here so they’re borrowing money instead. They’ve made promises to borrow almost the exact same amount, close to $200 billion, to do share buybacks. To give you a little background, share buybacks are when companies go and buy up their shares on the open market and it artificially jacks up the share price because you decrease the number of shares. It’s like a numbers game. It’s a shell game.
Investors like Carl Icahn love it. He’s been tweeting for years telling Apple to pay back more money to shareholders in the form of share buybacks. Every time they do they get a kick up in the stock price, but they’re not putting that money into new products or factories or worker training. In fact, I would argue that they haven’t had a real game changer since Steve Jobs passed away in 2011 in terms of their underlying technology.
The whole thing—not to sound too Marxist or anything—is compounded by the fact that they’re hoarding these profits overseas to avoid paying U.S. tax rates but government research, pentagon research, basically invented all the smart parts of the smart phone: GPS, internet, touch screen, all that. It’s a strange hoarding of wealth that doesn’t increase prosperity at a broader level and is eventually going to, I believe, undermine the company. Carl Icahn just dumped all the stock a few months ago because they got some bad news in China. Then their stock price tanked. It just shows you how volatile that kind of growth is.
Steve Jobs was—almost ruthlessly—devoted to product and wouldn’t listen to people like Icahn in the way Cook does. Jobs built the company’s value on that. Cook gets to trade on the reputation for years until people realize the emperor has no clothes.
Exactly. There have been so many companies in the Valley that have gone this way. HP is a great example: Once a great company, now just really sort of a lame, has-been conglomerate. You think about what Steve Jobs did and you can’t imagine Tim Cook going to Wall Street and going hey, we’re going to build a bunch of giant glass boxes and put three products in them. It’ll be super cool. And we’re just going do it. He would never give that message. The analysts would laugh him out of the room and that would be the end of it. But Jobs did things like that. That’s why the brand became such a hot commodity.
Our economy wasn’t led astray overnight, how did we get to this point?
Two things. A lot of people associate the rise of Wall Street with the 1980s, but I actually think it goes back further. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—around the time of the Vietnam War—growth was slowing. There was a guns and butter debate about whether we’re going to spend on the war or spend on social programs at home. There were really hard questions being asked in society and in the economy, and Washington didn’t want to deal with it. They didn’t want to have to choose between voting blocs, basically. So they threw the ball to the markets. By 1980 you had deregulation of industries under Jimmy Carter. The Reagan administration continued it, so did Bill Clinton’s administration. Each time it was like politicians didn’t want to do the hard work of reforming education or building new bridges or rethinking manufacturing because that’s hard, and not easy to sell to the public.
So they said to Wall Street, “You create the growth.” And they did. But it was a fake growth, it was a saccharine growth, and I think what the markets are telling us now, and in particular the divide between the markets and Main Street is saying that we’re at the end of that. That division is about to break.
I actually think we’re going to be in for a market correction when that happens.
So, you believe the market bouncing back so strongly since the Great Recession is saccharine growth?
It’s a sugar high. The Fed—God bless them, they were the only organization that could do anything after the crisis, because Washington was so gridlocked—but they threw $4 trillion into the economy. And it has barely got us to 2 percent growth. But it has jacked the markets way up because that’s what easy money does.
So it gives everybody a false sense of optimism. But the smartest investors on Wall Street know the market doesn’t actually reflect the fundamentals on Main Street right now. There’s a widespread feeling that at some point those two things will correct and will rejoin.
That undermines the Efficient-Markets theory, that stocks trade at fair value. But the larger implication is of the theory is “markets know best; better than individuals or the government.”
The Efficient Markets theory is amazing. If there’s anything that 2008 showed us, it’s that markets aren’t always efficient. But this is still what’s being taught in business schools. It’s a really hard slog to get people to think about things differently. The killer stat in my book is that if you think about what banks are supposed to do, they’re supposed to take all of our money and hold it in the form of deposits and then lend it out to businesses that create jobs and growth.
Today only 15 percent of all the money in financial institutions goes to business. The rest of it essentially goes to trade up assets and bubbles in stocks and housing and bonds. What’s amazing is that figure did not exist until a couple of years ago because nobody actually looked at what the financial system did. The efficient markets theory just kind of assumes that finance is going to be efficient, and nobody really looked too much at what it’s doing. It’s just this huge blind spot in the economy.
Even if they are efficient, that doesn’t mean they help make society better.
All the metrics that the financial industry can produce, there’s one metric they haven’t come up with since the crisis. That is a number showing a clear measurable benefit in terms of lending and the type of deals they’re doing for society.
How have you seen attitudes change in your two decades of covering business? Before the crash you could have seemed like a radical for writing this book.
It’s funny, one of the things I remember is that right after the fall of Lehman Brothers, Marxism started trending on Google. And it has remained high ever since, interestingly.
One of the telling things to that point is that many of the top sources in the book that came from finance are older guys. They’re guys like in their 70s and 80s—people like Warren Buffet or Jack Bogle—they came of age at a time when financiers really saw themselves as stewards of people’s money and stewards for business. Helpmates to business. And they totally agree with everything in the book. They see these young trader guys straight out of the cast of Billions or something and they just see them as foreign species. It’s a different kind of business than it used to be.
Through my own experience, and I see echoes of it in your book, there’s an anxiety about overreliance on letting “The Market” drive all our decisions, because it lacks humanity—and the consequences of that make us feel even worse.
I think that’s absolutely right. The way I had thought about it is, to me, the idea that you can be in an economy like America’s that is 70 percent consumer spending and have nobody have gotten a raise since the early 1990s in real terms, at some point that stops working.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said to me one time that we’ve become a nation of latte makers and latte buyers and you’d better make sure you have enough buyers, because otherwise you’re not going to be making any lattes anymore.
You’re going deeper and saying something important. At the end of the day you’ve got to have an economic system that supports more than just the 1 percent. Otherwise you become pre-revolutionary France.
Maybe you are a radical!
[Laughs] I guess maybe I am a stealth radical. I mean, the truth is that I really respect business people. I’ve covered business for over two decades. I actually worked in venture capital briefly myself. I know how hard it is to make anything well, and to make things happen in business. It’s so much easier to write about it than to make it happen.
But I also see how selfish and transactional the system can be sometimes. And conversely, I see how when people do things that are not explicitly transactional and take even just a moderately longer-term approach, that you can come out in a much much better place.
We’ve all lived that experience. I think that’s why the book is resonating; it kind of chimes with people’s felt experience. It’s like we’ve all been in one of these companies where the CFO is making some incredibly dumb decision—like to outsource all of the technology to Bangalore and pay people 50 cents—and then suddenly when your laptop breaks it takes three weeks to fix it.
Do you sense a growing discontent with our financial system?
One thing that’s been super fascinating to me: I thought I was going get tons of Fortune 500 CEOs calling me saying, “This is such a great book, thank you for standing up for us.” Not at all. Interestingly, a bunch of financiers have been calling. Hedge fund guys, you know, big deal sort of traders, saying, “We’re really interested in this thesis. Tell us more about this.” Because they know that it’s a growth problem. They know the fact that finance has gotten too big is actually starting to erode Main Street and that will eventually hit their portfolios. So to the extent of Wall Street itself has become nervous about this problem, in a Machiavellian way it might be a good thing, that they’re starting to pay attention.
Is there a generational difference between Boomers and Millennials that could foster change?
Definitely. I think that Millennials, for starters, are questioning capitalism. Harvard did a study and it basically asked “Are you a capitalist and do you support capitalism?” Only 18 percent of Millennials considered themselves capitalists. Only 30 percent supported the capitalist system as a whole. Which is kind of amazing.
But you could even look at that and say, well, they’re young, that’s what they’re supposed to do. But then they asked people over 30. Among that group about half supported the system. So you have 30 percent of people over 30 saying I’m a capitalist and only half saying they support the system. To me, that’s no longer an “I’m feeling the Bern” fringy thing. That’s a majority of people questioning the status quo economic system in the country. So I think that’s a tipping point.
I think also Millennials are very interested in purpose-oriented companies. They’re willing to go for less pay if they sense that there’s a mission. I actually just spoke to the CEO today of Ocean Spray, which is the big cranberry drink company, they’re a cooperative. They’re worker owned. So they have the 750 farms that they harvest from own the company. The CEO was telling me he had seen a real uptick in high quality CVs coming in from Millennials who want to work there because they think it’s a cool model, a cool thing to be part of.
It will take a long time to solve this problem. We will have to change whole institutions and cultures, right?
Yes, but technology shifts are happening that are empowering individuals. The fact that you and I as journalists—we might not be successful—but we could go out and start a website. We could start a publication in a way we could not have 10 or 20 years ago. I think that we’re just at the beginning of what that change is going to evolve to.
I don’t know if it’s going happen. We could all just be Uberized to death. But it’s something hopeful I think. It’s also important to remember it took 40 years to get here so it’s not like there’s just one silver bullet. There’s lots of things we can do and I have a whole solutions chapter about that. But there isn’t just one thing. It’s a big ecosystem.
You have take hope from the fact that if you plant the seeds now, they’ll take a long time to germinate and change this system. Just look at how the conservatives planting the intellectual seeds of a conservative judiciary with the Federalist Society led them to take the Supreme Court decades later.
Conservatives have always been much better at doing this than liberals. In fact, there is a group called INET, the Institute for New Economic Thinking, which is funded by George Soros, and they were one of the big supporters of my book. They are doing this in the economic profession right now. They’re basically seeding funding chairs at universities, they’re supporting journalists like me—not monetarily but with sources and backup—that are doing more questioning of current paradigms, and they have a 20-year plan. The idea is we start now and then hopefully things are better later.
Do you think kind of the left was playing just defense for too long and not putting forth a proactive agenda?
I’ll say something which may rub certain liberals the wrong way, but I think it’s true. The left dropped the ball around the time of the Vietnam War and afterwards, and got very focused on identity politics and racial politics and not on the economic changes that were coming. Maybe that made sense at the time, but this is a battle that’s just starting to be fought with Bernie Sanders coming to the fore, we’re now seeing what minorities and working class whites have been struggling with since the ‘70s, everybody is now struggling with. Millennial women aren’t worried about electing a woman, they’re worried about electing someone that will get them a job. Black Millennials are not so much worried about racial issues as overall economic issues. So suddenly there’s this larger banner that the left can kind of rally under that has to do with the 1 percent versus the 99 percent and I think that conversation and that shift is starting to take place in politics.