Why Has Classical Capitalism Devolved to Crony-Capitalism?

The money-shot: “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.”

Here is the quote that perfectly captures our era: “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.” (John Kenneth Galbraith) The trick, of course, is to mask the unspoken second half of of that statement: everybody else gets destroyed along with the Elites when the system implodes.

Union pension funds: toast. Government employees’ pension funds: toast. 401Ks: toast. IRAs: toast. The echo-bubble in housing: toast. The Fed’s favorite PR cover to cloak the enrichment of their financier cronies, the wealth effect:toast.

The primary tool the Elites use to mask the risk of complete destruction is magical thinking–specifically, that “given enough time, the system will heal itself.”

That’s rich, considering that the Elites’ primary tool of avoiding destruction is crippling the market’s self-healing immune system: price discovery. Thanks to ceaseless interventions by central banks, the price discovery mechanism has been shattered: want to know the price of risk? It’s near-zero. Yield on sovereign bonds? Near-zero. And so on.

Prices have been so distorted (the ultimate goal of Central Planning everywhere, from China to the EU to Japan to the U.S.) that the illusion of stability is impossible without more intervention.

This leads to two self-liquidating dynamics: diminishing returns (every intervention yields less of the desired result) and the Darwinian selection of only those money managers who believe risk has been vanquished.

Everyone who pursues prudent risk management has either been fired or saw the writing on the wall and exited stage right. So the only people left at the gaming tables of the big institutional players are those individuals who are genetically incapable of responding appropriately to rising risk. Those who did have long been fired for “underperformance.”

So how did classical free-market capitalism become state-cartel crony-capitalism, a Ponzi scheme of epic proportions that is entirely dependent on ceaseless central bank perception management and interventions on a scale never before seen?

We can start with these six factors:

1. Those who control most of the wealth are willing to risk systemic collapse to retain their privileges and wealth. Due to humanity’s virtuosity with rationalization, those at the top always find ways to justify policies that maintain their dominance and downplay the distortions the policies generate. This as true in China as it is in the U.S.

2. Short-term thinking: if we fudge the numbers, lower interest rates, etc. today, we (politicians, policy-makers, money managers, etc.) will avoid being sacked tomorrow. The longer term consequences of these politically expedient policies are ignored.

3. Legitimate capital accumulation has become more difficult and risky than buying political favors. Global competition and the exhaustion of developed-world consumers has made it difficult to reap outsized profits from legitimate enterprise. In terms of return-on-investment (ROI), buying political favors is far lower risk and generates much higher returns than expanding production or risking investment in R&D.

4. The centralization of state/central bank power has increased the leverage of political contributions/lobbying. The greater the concentration of power, the more attractive it is to sociopaths and those seeking to buy state subsidies, sweetheart contracts, protection from competition, etc.

5. Any legitimate reform will require dismantling crony-capitalist/state-cartel arrangements. Since that would hurt those at the top of the wealth/power pyramid, reform is politically impossible.

6. Understood in this light, it’s clear that central bank monetary policy—zero-interest rates, asset purchases, cheap credit to banks and financiers, QE, etc.—is designed to paper over the structural problems that require real reform.

Japan is a case in point: the Powers That Be in Japan have put off real reforms of the Japanese economy and political system for 25 years, and they’ve enabled this avoidance by pursuing extremes of fiscal and monetary policy that have eroded the real economy and created long-term structural imbalances.

In this 24 minute video Gordon T. Long and Charles Hugh Smith discuss through the aid of 17 slides the rapid advancement of Crony Capitalism in America. The facts are undeniable, but why is it becoming so obvious and undeniable? Why is it accelerating without any apparent ‘checks and balances’? Where have the safeguards against this happening gone?

watch the program on YouTube


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  • unheilig

    Good piece Charles. However, I question your starting point. Has “classical free-market capitalism” ever existed? Hasn’t it always been a mixture of bribery, blackmail, extortion, piracy, and cronyism, and now has just expanded from a local and city level to state and global scope?

    • ax123man

      Successful businessmen will increase profit’s in whatever way is most affective. If government power reaches a point where money is more affectively spent on bribes and lobbying, then that’s what will happen. Removing the monopoly power is the only answer. Unfortunately those driven by envy will happily and blindly provide the bureaucrats with that power.

      • unheilig

        True, but I think it’s even worse than that. The oligarchs now arrange to elect the politicians that will pass the laws they want, and even introduce laws the oligarchs have written (see ALEC) to benefit themselves. And because they have mutual interests, the oligarchs effectively act as a cabal, so the system is self-reinforcing and virtually impregnable.

        • ax123man

          sounds like the intro to “The Creature from Jekyll Island” so I’d say that’s been true for at least 100 years. Separation of business and state, problem solved.

  • 1. Those who control most of the wealth are willing to risk systemic collapse to retain their privileges and wealth. –> that is EXCELLENT! I’m going to have to remember that one. That says almost the entire thing that’s wrong kind of like the “golden rule”. It’s absolutely TRUE, I never thought of that, but it makes so much sense. PERFECTLY WORDED.