Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Less Graft, More Gadgets. More Widgets, Less Swindles.

I remember an informal debate I had more than a decade ago with an MBA over basic R&D and the role of entrepreneurs. His contention was that entrepreneurs were much more important than researches, since they were the ones that brought this "useless" basic R&D to market. My contention was that entrepreneurs were nothing more than conduits, and that they can't develop what isn't invented. Further, there were a lot less people doing the research than exploiting it. In other words, he stressed the importance of visionary business types due to a biased sampling error. There were plenty of useless gadgets on the market, many now found only in landfills, but much less useless basic research.

I'm pretty sure I won that argument, though he would not give in. At one point, I grabbed his iPod (they had just come on the market, so it must have been after 1998), and asked him "Who made this?"

"Steve Jobs", he said, without hesitation.

"Bullshit", I replied. "Fuck Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs couldn't get this on the market if it weren't for Mark Kryder".

"Who the hell is Mark Kryder?"

"Mark Kryder is a representative of the kind of guy that does basic scientific research. He worked on magnetic disk technology, and without guys like him, there would be no tiny little hard disks to put into the iPods that your asshole hero Steve Jobs promotes. That's who Mark Kryder is".

And the problem here in America is that we are going the wrong way. There are too many Steve Jobses, and not enough Mark Kryders. Forget about the monies funneled into basic R&D, the amount of brains you can put on the job is much, much more important.

In 1986, the USA had 52 percent of the global doctorates in science and engineering. By 2003, that number dropped to a dismal 22 percent. The U.S. ranks 17th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering. It was 3rd just three decades ago. Over the past two decades there has been an 18 percent decline in the number of students graduating with bachelor degrees in engineering, math, physics and geosciences in the United States. That trend is accelerating.

Where all the smart kids going? Into finance. That's where the money is. The question is, are we getting our money's worth out of it, and out of them? I would answer "No". To quote Dean Baker, in his book "The End of Loser Liberalism":
"An efficient well-run financial sector (channels money from savers to borrowers with the fewest possible resources), meaning that it employs a small share of the workforce and pays salaries comparable to those earned elsewhere in the economy. This is not the financial sector that the United States has today. Our financial sector is hugely bloated, and it is a massive source of waste in the economy. Measured as a share of private-sector GDP, our financial sector more than quadrupled between 1975 and 2009. The enormous expansion would be justifiable if it resulted in a better allocation of capital, so that promising start-ups, say, could more easily raise funds than they could in the 1960s. A better allocation of capital would also mean that hare-brained schemes like or Webvan would be less likely to receive funding today than in prior decades. But neither seems to be the case, or at least not obviously enough to justify the quadrupling of the sector as a share of GDP."
 Well, what has the financial sector been doing? Have they secured people's investments and retirement savings, grown pensions, reduced volatility in the stock and housing markets? No. The only area that seems to have benefited from the shenanigans of the so-called Masters of the Universe is to make people flee towards the rock-solid safety of Federal Treasury bonds. Standard & Poor downgrades the debt rating of the United States government, and more monies flow into bonds than ever before! That's a very strange way to grow an economy!

What else have these clever little boys been doing? Well, when they aren't busy figuring out for millionaires and billionaires to avoid paying any taxes, they set up all sorts of fun little diddling.

How about some churn? You know, moving money around without actually doing anything with it, and charging a percentage for moving it? Like high frequency trading, which takes advantage of well-timed arbitrage (small changes in information on stock and commodities prices that have not yet become general market knowledge). This type of trading, fully automated, and determined by computer models, accounts for more than 60% of all stock trades. And when the model is just a little bit off, or maybe just a tad bug-ridden? Why, you get an amusement park ride like what happened back in 2010. Thanks, finance guys! Way to take a shit!

And then, of course there is just your standard rent-seeking, making monies through tax and regulatory arbitrage that provides no real benefit to society. But for really classy stuff, you got to admire a scam like "dead peasant insurance". Again, from Mr. Baker's book:
"... the "dead peasant" insurance policy, gained prominence when it was featured in Michael Moore's film "Capitalism: A Love Story". A dead peasant policy is insurance purchased by a company on the lives of its lower-level employees. Wal-Mart reportedly purchased life insurance policies on 350,000 of its workers. Under these policies the company is the beneficiary and the employees generally do not even know that a policy has been taken out on their behalf. In fact, the relatives of employees typically will not know of the policy even after the family member has died. Moore focused on the morbid nature of the policies - companies profit from the death of employees who never knew they were insured. However, the fuller story is even more disturbing. Wal-Mart and other companies taking out dead peasant policies do not directly profit from the policies, in the sense that Aetna or some other major insurer is paying them more in benefits than they paid in premiums. Rather, the benefit is that dead peasant policies allow companies to control the timings of their earnings. ...the result is that the dead peasant policy is in effect another financial instrument that allows corporations to adjust earnings in ways that minimize their tax liability".

COCKSUCKERS! You know, my ancestors back in Europe may have been poor, but they never ever called peasants. We had to come to America to receive that distinction.

So, I don't about you, but the people who dream this kind of stuff up - dead peasant insurance,  mortgage-backed securities, etc., I'm not sure I want them in R&D. Well, maybe in 1940s Germany, but now? I'd just as soon pack them off to Afghanistan, along with their office desk that they can cower under, and a video cam so we can watch them shiver, and cry, and shit in their pants. It makes you reconsider the whole "cruel and unusual" language in the 8th amendment.

So, clearly, the graft, grifting, fraud, waste, chiseling, cheating, and pigeon droppings that occur in our financial industries could do with some reduction in size, and the clever little boys and girls seduced with the glistening and unholy sheen of its glamour redirected towards more worthwhile pursuits, don't you think?

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