On the Soul-Sustaining Necessity of Resisting Self-Comparison and Fighting Cynicism: A Commencement Address
â€œIn its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.â€
By Maria Popova
I have long relished the commencement address as one of our few cultural forms that render us receptive to sincerity â€” receptive to messages we might dismiss as trite in any other context, but which we recognize here as the life-earned truth of the human being at the podium, shared in a spirit of goodwill with a group of young humans just starting out on the truth-earning gauntlet called life.
So I was thrilled to deliver the address to the 2016 graduating class at the University of Pennsylvaniaâ€™s Annenberg School for Communication, my own alma mater. Speech text below.
I want to talk to you today about the soul. Not the soul as that immortal unit of religious mythology, for I am a nonbeliever. And not the soul as a pop-culture commodity, that voracious consumer of self-help chicken soup. I mean the soul simply as shorthand for the seismic core of personhood from which our beliefs, our values, and our actions radiate.
I live in New York, where something extraordinary happens every April. In the first days of spring, those days when the air turns from blistering to balmy, a certain gladness envelops the city â€” people actually look up from their screens while walking and strangers smile at each other. For a few short days, itâ€™s like we remember how we can live and who weâ€™re capable of being to one another.
I also practically live on my bike â€” thatâ€™s how I get everywhere â€” and the other week, on one of those first days of spring, I was riding from Brooklyn to Harlem. I had somewhere to be and was pedaling pretty fast â€” which I like doing and must admit I take a certain silly pride in â€” but I was also very much enjoying the ride and the river and the spring air that smelled of plum blossoms. And then, I sensed someone behind me in the bike path, catching up, going even faster than I was going. It suddenly felt somehow competitive. He was trying to overtake me. I pedaled faster, but he kept catching up. Eventually, he did overtake me â€” and I felt strangely defeated.
But as he cruised past me, I realized the guy was on an electric bike. I felt both a sort of redemption and a great sense of injustice â€” unfair motorized advantage, very demoralizing to the honest muscle-powered pedaler. But just as I was getting all self-righteously existential, I noticed something else â€” he had a restaurantâ€™s name on his back. He was food delivery guy. He was rushing past me not because he was trying to slight me, or because he had some unfair competitive advantage in life, but because this was his daily strife â€” this is how this immigrant made his living.
My first response was to shame myself into gratitude for how fortunate Iâ€™ve been â€” because I too am an immigrant from a pretty poor country and itâ€™s some miraculous confluence of choice and chance that has kept me from becoming a food delivery person on an electric bike in order to survive in New York City. And perhaps the guy has a more satisfying life than I do â€” perhaps he had a good mother and goes home to the love of his life and plays the violin at night. I donâ€™t know, and I never will. But the point is that the second I begin comparing my pace to his, my life to his, Iâ€™m vacating my own experience of that spring day and ejecting myself into a sort of limbo of life that is neither mine nor his.
I grew up in Bulgaria and my early childhood was spent under a communist dictatorship. But for all its evils, communism had one silver lining â€” when everyone had very little, no one felt like somebody else was cruising past them motorized by privilege.
I came to Penn straight from Bulgaria, through that same confluence of chance and choice (and, yes, a lot of very, very hard work â€” I donâ€™t want to minimize the importance of that, but I also donâ€™t want to imply that people who end up on the underprivileged end of life havenâ€™t worked hard enough, because this is one of our most oppressive cultural myth and reality is so much more complex). In any case: When I came to Penn, I had an experience very different from my childhood. Suddenly, as I was working four jobs to pay for school, I felt like everybody else was on an electric bike and I was just pedaling myself into the ground.
This, of course, is what happens in every environment densely populated by so-called peers â€” self-comparison becomes inevitable. Financial inequality was just my particular poison, but we do it along every imaginable axis of privilege and every dimension of identity â€” intelligence, beauty, athleticism, charisma that entrances the Van Pelt librarians into pardoning your late fees.
But hereâ€™s the thing about self-comparison: In addition to making you vacate your own experience, your own soul, your own life, in its extreme it breeds resignation. If we constantly feel that there is something more to be had â€” something thatâ€™s available to those with a certain advantage in life, but which remains out of reach for us â€” we come to feel helpless. And the most toxic byproduct of this helpless resignation is cynicism â€” that terrible habit of mind and orientation of spirit in which, out of hopelessness for our own situation, we grow embittered about how things are and about whatâ€™s possible in the world. Cynicism is a poverty of curiosity and imagination and ambition.
Today, the soul is in dire need of stewardship and protection from cynicism. The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope â€” not blind optimism, because that too is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that.
In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.
You are about to enter the ecosystem of cultural production. Most of you will go into journalism, media, policy, or some blurry blob of the increasingly amorphous Venn diagram of these forces that shape culture and public opinion. Whatever your specific vocation, your role as a creator of culture will be to help people discern what matters in the world and why by steering them away from the meaningless and toward the meaningful. E.B. White said that the role of the writer is to lift people up, not to lower them down, and I believe thatâ€™s the role of every journalist and artist and creator of culture.
Strive to be uncynical, to be a hope-giving force, to be a steward of substance. Choose to lift people up, not to lower them down â€” because it is a choice, always, and because in doing so you lift yourself up.
Develop an inner barometer for your own value. Resist pageviews and likes and retweets and all those silly-sounding quantification metrics that will be obsolete within the decade. Donâ€™t hang the stability of your soul on them. They canâ€™t tell you how much your work counts for and to whom. They canâ€™t tell you who you are and what youâ€™re worth. They are that demoralizing electric bike that makes you feel if only you could pedal faster â€” if only you could get more pageviews and likes and retweets â€” youâ€™d be worthier of your own life.
You will enter a world where, whatever career you may choose or make for yourself â€” because never forget that there are jobs you can get and jobs you can invent â€” you will often face the choice of construction and destruction, of building up or tearing down.
Among our most universal human longings is to affect the world with our actions somehow, to leave an imprint with our existence. Both construction and destruction leave a mark and give us a sense of agency in the world. Now, destruction is necessary sometimes â€” damaged and damaging systems need to be demolished to clear the way for more enlivening ones. But destruction alone, without construction to follow it, is hapless and lazy. Construction is far more difficult, because it requires the capacity to imagine something new and better, and the willingness to exert ourselves toward building it, even at the risk of failure. But that is also far more satisfying in the end.
You may find your fate forked by construction and destruction frequently, in ways obvious or subtle. And you will have to choose between being the hammer-wielding vandal, who may attain more immediate results â€” more attention â€” by tearing things and people and ideas down, or the sculptor of culture, patiently chiseling at the bedrock of how things are to create something new and beautiful and imaginative following a nobler vision, your vision, of how things can and should be.
Some active forms of destruction are more obvious and therefore, to the moral and well-intentioned person, easier to resist. Itâ€™s hard not to notice that thereâ€™s a hammer before you and to refuse to pick it up. But there are passive forms of destruction far more difficult to detect and thus to safeguard against, and the most pernicious of them is cynicism.
Our culture has created a reward system in which you get points for tearing down rather than building up, and for besieging with criticism and derision those who dare to work and live from a place of constructive hope. Donâ€™t just resist cynicism â€” fight it actively, in yourself and in those you love and in the communication with which you shape culture. Cynicism, like all destruction, is easy, itâ€™s lazy. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincere, active, constructive hope for the human spirit. This is the most potent antidote to cynicism, and it is an act of courage and resistance today.
It is also the most vitalizing sustenance for your soul.
But you â€” you â€” are in a very special position, leaving Annenberg, because your courage and resistance are to be enacted not only in the privacy of your inner life but in your outer contribution to public life. You are the creators of tomorrowâ€™s ideas and ideals, the sculptors of public opinion and of culture. As long as we feed people buzz, we cannot expect their minds to produce symphonies. Never let the temptation of marketable mediocrity and easy cynicism rob you of the chance to ennoble public life and enlarge the human spirit â€” because we need that badly today, and because you need it badly for the survival of your soul.
So as you move through life, pedal hard â€” because thatâ€™s how you get places, and because itâ€™s fun and so incredibly gratifying to propel yourself forward by your own will and power of intention. But make sure the pace of your pedaling answers only to your own standards of vigor. Remain uncynical and donâ€™t waste any energy on those who pass you by on their electric bikes, because you never know what strife is driving them and, most of all, because the moment you focus on that, you vacate your own soul.
Instead, pedal forth â€” but also remember to breathe in the spring air and to smile at a stranger every once in a while. Because there is nothing more uncynical than being good to one another.
Thank you and congratulations.
This represents more than just millennials not minding the label â€œsocialistâ€ or disaffected middle-aged Americans tiring of an anemic recovery. This is a majority of citizens being uncomfortable with the countryâ€™s economic foundationâ€”a system that over hundreds of years turned a fledgling society of farmers and prospectors into the most prosperous nation in human history. To be sure, polls measure feelings, not hard market data. But public sentiment reflects day-to-day economic reality. And the data (more on that later) shows Americans have plenty of concrete reasons to question their system.
This crisis of faith has had no more severe expression than the 2016 presidential campaign, which has turned on the questions of who, exactly, the system is working for and against, as well as why eight years and several trillions of dollars of stimulus on from the financial crisis, the economy is still growing so slowly. All the candidates have prescriptions: Sanders talks of breaking up big banks; Trump says hedge funders should pay higher taxes; Clinton wants to strengthen existing financial regulation. In Congress, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan remains committed to less regulation.
All of them are missing the point. Americaâ€™s economic problems go far beyond rich bankers, too-big-to-fail financial institutions, hedge-fund billionaires, offshore tax avoidance or any particular outrage of the moment. In fact, each of these is symptomatic of a more nefarious condition that threatens, in equal measure, the very well-off and the very poor, the red and the blue. The U.S. system of market capitalism itself is broken. That problem, and what to do about it, is at the center of my book Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business, a three-year research and reporting effort from which this piece is adapted.
To understand how we got here, you have to understand the relationship between capital marketsâ€”meaning the financial systemâ€”and businesses. From the creation of a unified national bond and banking system in the U.S. in the late 1790s to the early 1970s, finance took individual and corporate savings and funneled them into productive enterprises, creating new jobs, new wealth and, ultimately, economic growth. Of course, there were plenty of blips along the way (most memorably the speculation leading up to the Great Depression, which was later curbed by regulation). But for the most part, financeâ€”which today includes everything from banks and hedge funds to mutual funds, insurance firms, trading houses and suchâ€”essentially served business. It was a vital organ but not, for the most part, the central one.
Over the past few decades, finance has turned away from this traditional role. Academic research shows that only a fraction of all the money washing around the financial markets these days actually makes it to Main Street businesses. â€œThe intermediation of household savings for productive investment in the business sectorâ€”the textbook description of the financial sectorâ€”constitutes only a minor share of the business of banking today,â€ according to academics Oscar Jorda, Alan Taylor and Moritz Schularick, whoâ€™ve studied the issue in detail. By their estimates and others, around 15% of capital coming from financial institutions today is used to fund business investments, whereas it would have been the majority of what banks did earlier in the 20th century.
â€œThe trend varies slightly country by country, but the broad direction is clear,â€ says Adair Turner, a former British banking regulator and now chairman of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, a think tank backed by George Soros, among others. â€œAcross all advanced economies, and the United States and the U.K. in particular, the role of the capital markets and the banking sector in funding new investment is decreasing.â€ Most of the money in the system is being used for lending against existing assets such as housing, stocks and bonds.
To get a sense of the size of this shift, consider that the financial sector now represents around 7% of the U.S. economy, up from about 4% in 1980. Despite currently taking around 25% of all corporate profits, it creates a mere 4% of all jobs. Trouble is, research by numerous academics as well as institutions like the Bank for International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund shows that when finance gets that big, it starts to suck the economic air out of the room. In fact, finance starts having this adverse effect when itâ€™s only half the size that it currently is in the U.S. Thanks to these changes, our economy is gradually becoming â€œa zero-sum game between financial wealth holders and the rest of America,â€ says former Goldman Sachs banker Wallace Turbeville, who runs a multiyear project on the rise of finance at the New York Cityâ€”based nonprofit Demos.
Itâ€™s not just an American problem, either. Most of the worldâ€™s leading market economies are grappling with aspects of the same disease. Globally, free-market capitalism is coming under fire, as countries across Europe question its merits and emerging markets like Brazil, China and Singapore run their own forms of state-directed capitalism. An ideologically broad range of financiers and elite business managersâ€”Warren Buffett, BlackRockâ€™s Larry Fink, Vanguardâ€™s John Bogle, McKinseyâ€™s Dominic Barton, Allianzâ€™s Mohamed El-Erian and othersâ€”have started to speak out publicly about the need for a new and more inclusive type of capitalism, one that also helps businesses make better long-term decisions rather than focusing only on the next quarter. The Pope has become a vocal critic of modern market capitalism, lambasting the â€œidolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economyâ€ in which â€œman is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.â€
During my 23 years in business and economic journalism, Iâ€™ve long wondered why our market system doesnâ€™t serve companies, workers and consumers better than it does. For some time now, finance has been thought by most to be at the very top of the economic hierarchy, the most aspirational part of an advanced service economy that graduated from agriculture and manufacturing. But research shows just how the unintended consequences of this misguided belief have endangered the very system America has prided itself on exporting around the world.
Americaâ€™s economic illness has a name: financialization. Itâ€™s an academic term for the trend by which Wall Street and its methods have come to reign supreme in America, permeating not just the financial industry but also much of American business. It includes everything from the growth in size and scope of finance and financial activity in the economy; to the rise of debt-fueled speculation over productive lending; to the ascendancy of shareholder value as the sole model for corporate governance; to the proliferation of risky, selfish thinking in both the private and public sectors; to the increasing political power of financiers and the CEOs they enrich; to the way in which a â€œmarkets know bestâ€ ideology remains the status quo. Financialization is a big, unfriendly word with broad, disconcerting implications.
Americaâ€™s economic illness has a name: financialization.
University of Michigan professor Gerald Davis, one of the pre-eminent scholars of the trend, likens financialization to a â€œCopernican revolutionâ€ in which business has reoriented its orbit around the financial sector. This revolution is often blamed on bankers. But it was facilitated by shifts in public policy, from both sides of the aisle, and crafted by the government leaders, policymakers and regulators entrusted with keeping markets operating smoothly. Greta Krippner, another University of Michigan scholar, who has written one of the most comprehensive books on financialization, believes this was the case when financialization began its fastest growth, in the decades from the late 1970s onward. According to Krippner, that shift encompasses Reagan-era deregulation, the unleashing of Wall Street and the rise of the so-called ownership society that promoted owning property and further tied individual health care and retirement to the stock market.
The changes were driven by the fact that in the 1970s, the growth that America had enjoyed following World War II began to slow. Rather than make tough decisions about how to bolster it (which would inevitably mean choosing among various interest groups), politicians decided to pass that responsibility to the financial markets. Little by little, the Depression-era regulation that had served America so well was rolled back, and finance grew to become the dominant force that it is today. The shifts were bipartisan, and to be fair they often seemed like good ideas at the time; but they also came with unintended consequences. The Carter-era deregulation of interest ratesâ€”something that was, in an echo of todayâ€™s overlapping left-and right-wing populism, supported by an assortment of odd political bedfellows from Ralph Nader to Walter Wriston, then head of Citibankâ€”opened the door to a spate of financial â€œinnovationsâ€ and a shift in bank function from lending to trading. Reaganomics famously led to a number of other economic policies that favored Wall Street. Clinton-era deregulation, which seemed a path out of the economic doldrums of the late 1980s, continued the trend. Loose monetary policy from the Alan Greenspan era onward created an environment in which easy money papered over underlying problems in the economy, so much so that it is now chronically dependent on near-zero interest rates to keep from falling back into recession.
This sickness, not so much the product of venal interests as of a complex and long-term web of changes in government and private industry, now manifests itself in myriad ways: a housing market that is bifurcated and dependent on government life support, a retirement system that has left millions insecure in their old age, a tax code that favors debt over equity. Debt is the lifeblood of finance; with the rise of the securities-and-trading portion of the industry came a rise in debt of all kinds, public and private. Thatâ€™s bad news, since a wide range of academic research shows that rising debt and credit levels stoke financial instability. And yet, as finance has captured a greater and greater piece of the national pie, it has, perversely, all but ensured that debt is indispensable to maintaining any growth at all in an advanced economy like the U.S., where 70% of output is consumer spending. Debt-fueled finance has become a saccharine substitute for the real thing, an addiction that just gets worse. (The amount of credit offered to American consumers has doubled in real dollars since the 1980s, as have the fees they pay to their banks.)
Let them eat credit
As the economist Raghuram Rajan, one of the most prescient seers of the 2008 financial crisis, argues, credit has become a palliative to address the deeper anxieties of downward mobility in the middle class. In his words, â€œlet them eat creditâ€ could well summarize the mantra of the go-go years before the economic meltdown. And things have only deteriorated since, with global debt levels $57 trillion higher than they were in 2007.
The rise of finance has also distorted local economies. Itâ€™s the reason rents are rising in some communities where unemployment is still high. Americaâ€™s housing market now favors cash buyers, since banks are still more interested in making profits by trading than by the traditional role of lending out our savings to people and businesses looking to make longterm investments (like buying a house), ensuring that younger people canâ€™t get on the housing ladder. One perverse result: Blackstone, a private-equity firm, is currently the largest single-family-home landlord in America, since it had the money to buy properties up cheap in bulk following the financial crisis. Itâ€™s at the heart of retirement insecurity, since fees from actively managed mutual funds â€œare likely to confiscate as much as 65% or more of the wealth that â€¦ investors could otherwise easily earn,â€ as Vanguard founder Bogle testified to Congress in 2014.
Itâ€™s even the reason companies in industries from autos to airlines are trying to move into the business of finance themselves. American companies across every sector today earn five times the revenue from financial activitiesâ€”investing, hedging, tax optimizing and offering financial services, for exampleâ€”that they did before 1980. Traditional hedging by energy and transport firms, for example, has been overtaken by profit-boosting speculation in oil futures, a shift that actually undermines their core business by creating more price volatility. Big tech companies have begun underwriting corporate bonds the way Goldman Sachs does. And top M.B.A. programs would likely encourage them to do just that; finance has become the center of all business education.
Washington, too, is so deeply tied to the ambassadors of the capital marketsâ€”six of the 10 biggest individual political donors this year are hedge-fund baronsâ€”that even well-meaning politicians and regulators donâ€™t see how deep the problems are. When I asked one former high-level Obama Administration Treasury official back in 2013 why more stakeholders aside from bankers hadnâ€™t been consulted about crafting the particulars of Dodd-Frank financial reform (93% of consultation on the Volcker Rule, for example, was taken with the financial industry itself), he said, â€œWho else should we have talked to?â€ The answerâ€”to anybody not profoundly influenced by the way finance thinksâ€”might have been the people banks are supposed to lend to, or the scholars who study the capital markets, or the civic leaders in communities decimated by the financial crisis.
Of course, there are other elements to the story of Americaâ€™s slow-growth economy, including familiar trends from globalization to technology-related job destruction. These are clearly massive challenges in their own right. But the single biggest unexplored reason for long-term slower growth is that the financial system has stopped serving the real economy and now serves mainly itself. A lack of real fiscal action on the part of politicians forced the Fed to pump $4.5 trillion in monetary stimulus into the economy after 2008. This shows just how broken the model is, since the central bankâ€™s best efforts have resulted in record stock prices (which enrich mainly the wealthiest 10% of the population that owns more than 80% of all stocks) but also a lackluster 2% economy with almost no income growth.
Now, as many top economists and investors predict an era of much lower asset-price returns over the next 30 years, Americaâ€™s ability to offer up even the appearance of growthâ€”via financially oriented strategies like low interest rates, more and more consumer credit, tax-deferred debt financing for businesses, and asset bubbles that make people feel richer than we really are, until they burstâ€”is at an end.
This pinch is particularly evident in the tumult many American businesses face. Lending to small business has fallen particularly sharply, as has the number of startup firms. In the early 1980s, new companies made up half of all U.S. businesses.
For all the talk of Silicon Valley startups, the number of new firms as a share of all businesses has actually shrunk. From 1978 to 2012 it declined by 44%, a trend that numerous researchers and even many investors and businesspeople link to the financial industryâ€™s change in focus from lending to speculation.
The wane in entrepreneurship means less economic vibrancy, given that new businesses are the nationâ€™s foremost source of job creation and GDP growth. Buffett summed it up in his folksy way: â€œYouâ€™ve now got a body of people whoâ€™ve decided theyâ€™d rather go to the casino than the restaurantâ€ of capitalism.
In lobbying for short-term share-boosting management, finance is also largely responsible for the drastic cutback in research-and-development outlays in corporate America, investments that are seed corn for future prosperity. Take share buybacks, in which a companyâ€”usually with some fanfareâ€”goes to the stock market to purchase its own shares, usually at the top of the market, and often as a way of artificially bolstering share prices in order to enrich investors and executives paid largely in stock options. Indeed, if you were to chart the rise in money spent on share buybacks and the fall in corporate spending on productive investments like R&D, the two lines make a perfect X. The former has been going up since the 1980s, with S&P 500 firms now spending $1 trillion a year on buybacks and dividendsâ€”equal to about 95% of their net earningsâ€”rather than investing that money back into research, product development or anything that could contribute to long-term company growth. No sector has been immune, not even the ones we think of as the most innovative.
Many tech firms, for example, spend far more on share-price boosting than on R&D as a whole. The markets penalize them when they donâ€™t.
One case in point: back in March 2006, Microsoft announced major new technology investments, and its stock fell for two months. But in July of that same year, it embarked on $20 billion worth of stock buying, and the share price promptly rose by 7%. This kind of twisted incentive for CEOs and corporate officers has only grown since.
As a result, business dynamism, which is at the root of economic growth, has suffered. The number of new initial public offerings (IPOs) is about a third of what it was 20 years ago. True, the dollar value of IPOs in 2014 was $74.4 billion, up from $47.1 billion in 1996. (The median IPO rose to $96 million from $30 million during the same period.) This may show investors want to make only the surest of bets, which is not necessarily the sign of a vibrant market. But thereâ€™s another, more disturbing reason: firms simply donâ€™t want to go public, lest their work become dominated by playing by Wall Streetâ€™s rules rather than creating real value.
An IPOâ€”a mechanism that once meant raising capital to fund new investmentâ€”is likely today to mark not the beginning of a new companyâ€™s greatness, but the end of it. According to a Stanford University study, innovation tails off by 40% at tech companies after they go public, often because of Wall Street pressure to keep jacking up the stock price, even if it means curbing the entrepreneurial verve that made the company hot in the first place.
A flat stock price can spell doom. It can get CEOs canned and turn companies into acquisition fodder, which often saps once innovative firms. Little wonder, then, that business optimism, as well as business creation, is lower than it was 30 years ago, or that wages are flat and inequality growing. Executives who receive as much as 82% of their compensation in stock naturally make shorter-term business decisions that might undermine growth in their companies even as they raise the value of their own options.
Itâ€™s no accident that corporate stock buybacks, corporate pay and the wealth gap have risen concurrently over the past four decades. There are any number of studies that illustrate this type of intersection between financialization and inequality. One of the most striking was by economists James Galbraith and Travis Hale, who showed how during the late 1990s, changing income inequality tracked the go-go Nasdaq stock index to a remarkable degree.
Recently, this pattern has become evident at a number of well-known U.S. companies. Take Apple, one of the most successful over the past 50 years. Apple has around $200 billion sitting in the bank, yet it has borrowed billions of dollars cheaply over the past several years, thanks to superlow interest rates (themselves a response to the financial crisis) to pay back investors in order to bolster its share price. Why borrow? In part because itâ€™s cheaper than repatriating cash and paying U.S. taxes. All the financial engineering helped boost the California firmâ€™s share price for a while. But it didnâ€™t stop activist investor Carl Icahn, who had manically advocated for borrowing and buybacks, from dumping the stock the minute revenue growth took a turn for the worse in late April.
It is perhaps the ultimate irony that large, rich companies like Apple are most involved with financial markets at times when they donâ€™t need any financing. Top-tier U.S. businesses have never enjoyed greater financial resources. They have a record $2 trillion in cash on their balance sheetsâ€”enough money combined to make them the 10th largest economy in the world. Yet in the bizarre order that finance has created, they are also taking on record amounts of debt to buy back their own stock, creating what may be the next debt bubble to burst.
You and I, whether we recognize it or not, are also part of a dysfunctional ecosystem that fuels short-term thinking in business. The people who manage our retirement moneyâ€”fund managers working for asset-management firmsâ€”are typically compensated for delivering returns over a year or less. That means they use their financial clout (which is really our financial clout in aggregate) to push companies to produce quick-hit results rather than execute long-term strategies. Sometimes pension funds even invest with the activists who are buying up the companies we might work forâ€”and those same activists look for quick cost cuts and potentially demand layoffs.
Itâ€™s a depressing state of affairs, no doubt. Yet America faces an opportunity right now: a rare second chance to do the work of refocusing and right-sizing the financial sector that should have been done in the years immediately following the 2008 crisis. And there are bright spots on the horizon.
Despite the lobbying power of the financial industry and the vested interests both in Washington and on Wall Street, thereâ€™s a growing push to put the financial system back in its rightful place, as a servant of business rather than its master. Surveys show that the majority of Americans would like to see the tax system reformed and the government take more direct action on job creation and poverty reduction, and address inequality in a meaningful way. Each candidate is crafting a message around this, which will keep the issue front and center through November.
The American public understands just how deeply and profoundly the economic order isnâ€™t working for the majority of people. The key to reforming the U.S. system is comprehending why it isnâ€™t working.
Remooring finance in the real economy isnâ€™t as simple as splitting up the biggest banks (although that would be a good start). Itâ€™s about dismantling the hold of financial-oriented thinking in every corner of corporate America. Itâ€™s about reforming business education, which is still permeated with academics who resist challenges to the gospel of efficient markets in the same way that medieval clergy dismissed scientific evidence that might challenge the existence of God. Itâ€™s about changing a tax system that treats one-year investment gains the same as longer-term ones, and induces financial institutions to push overconsumption and speculation rather than healthy lending to small businesses and job creators. Itâ€™s about rethinking retirement, crafting smarter housing policy and restraining a money culture filled with lobbyists who violate Americaâ€™s essential economic principles.
Itâ€™s also about starting a bigger conversation about all this, with a broader group of stakeholders. The structure of American capital markets and whether or not they are serving business is a topic that has traditionally been the sole domain of â€œexpertsâ€â€”the financiers and policymakers who often have a self-interested perspective to push, and who do so in complicated language that keeps outsiders out of the debate. When it comes to finance, as with so many issues in a democratic society, complexity breeds exclusion.
Finding solutions wonâ€™t be easy. There are no silver bullets, and nobody really knows the perfect model for a high-functioning, advanced market system in the 21st century. But capitalismâ€™s legacy is too long, and the well-being of too many people is at stake, to do nothing in the face of our broken status quo. Neatly packaged technocratic tweaks cannot fix it. What is required now is lifesaving intervention.
Crises of faith like the one American capitalism is currently suffering can be a good thing if they lead to re-examination and reaffirmation of first principles. The right question here is in fact the simplest one:
Are financial institutions doing things that provide a clear, measurable benefit to the real economy?
Sadly, the answer at the moment is mostly no. But we can change things. Our system of market capitalism wasnâ€™t handed down, in perfect form, on stone tablets. We wrote the rules. We broke them. And we can fix them.
Foroohar is an assistant managing editor at TIME and the magazineâ€™s economics columnist. Sheâ€™s the author of Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business.
This appears in the May 23, 2016 issue of TIME.
If you liked this here’s a bonus …
As a follow-up, here’s an interview between NewCo’s John Battelle and Rana Foroohar.
“This industry creates 4 percent of jobs and takes 25 percent of the corporate profit pie. That is just breathtaking. If you need one number to sum up where the problem is, it’s that.”
A MUST see 3 or 4 times. You must know this!