Every businessman understands that every dollar of revenue that comes in has with it a cost required to earn it. If the business provides a service, then the biggest cost of sales is the labor required to provide the service. If the business sells a physical item, then the cost of making or acquiring the item is the big driver. There are indirect costs like rents and administrative expenses, but the starting place for any business is the cost of sales, as that is what ultimately determines profits.
There is another cost that is important, sometimes the most important, that does not show up in the financials. That is the cost of profit. This is an intangible cost. What unpleasant things do you have to do in order to make a profit? Maybe you have to be terrible to your employees or tolerate nasty customers. You can make a nice living running a pawn shop, but most people don’t think it is worth having to deal with the sorts of people, who avail themselves of the pawn shop.
As a society, this concept is easier to quantify, or at the minimum articulate, as a society has a shared morality. There is an agreed upon set of things that a society wants to minimize and a set of things it promotes. It may be better for the economy to rely upon slave labor in certain kinds of agriculture, but the moral cost of slavery is too high to contemplate such a policy. One reason manufacturing was shipped abroad is the cost of the pollution and the aesthetics was too high for our rulers.
The point is that certain types of economic activity may be lucrative for the people in that business or for the economy as a whole, but the intangible cost is too high. It is not just the moral cost either. There is the cost of risk. To allow certain types of lending, for example, puts the credit system at risk, so we forbid it. The cost of profit can also be the long term risk it poses the society, which generally means the cost that will be imposed on future generations when those risks become real costs.
A good example is the very lucrative basis trade popular with hedge funds, where they buy US Treasuries, while selling equivalent derivatives contracts. There is a small difference in price between the two, but when done in volume and with cheap credit, the profit to the hedge fund can be enormous. This is great for the private investors in the hedge funds, but it has huge risks for the economy. The recent bailout by the Federal Reserve is a good example of socializing the cost of profit.
This is just one example of economic activity that is profitable to the people doing it and good for those GDP numbers. It’s also high risk and therefore has an unacceptable cost for the profit gained. Throughout the financial system we see high risk strategies that can be highly profitable and serve some important purpose, like lowering the cost of borrowing, but bring with them unacceptable risks to the system. Socializing the cost profit through bailouts does not make it go away.
Another example of how the cost of profit works in the financial system is this story from Reuters about Capital One. This is the bank that peddles high interest rate credit cards to poor people and non-whites. They can specialize in high risk borrowers, because they charge mafia-esque interest rates. That covers the cost of collecting from deadbeats and the inevitable defaults. It turns out another one of their activities was gambling in the commodities markets, namely the energy markets.
Now, the obvious question is why is a credit card company that preys on dumb people playing at the high stakes tables in the commodities casino? Betting commodities is like playing at the baccarat tables in Monte Carlo. Actually, the odds are better in the casino, as the odds of winning are just 1.23% lower than the odds of winning a hand. The answer, of course, is the potential profit for the bank was huge, just as long as energy process never fell below a certain level, like they have recently.
As American states lost the will to directly tax their people, especially their rich people, they turned to indirect ways to fund government. One is the legalization of gambling, especially state-owned casinos. Since every state is in the gambling racket, a new type of casino has evolved. This is one with a grand shopping mall and Potemkin town center attached, so people can dine and socialize. The idea is to get everyone under one roof in order to encourage more consumption.
This model is the symbol of modern America. Our economy is a massive shopping mall, an international bazaar operated by traders from around the globe. Attached to it is a massive casino called the financial system in which the profits from the bazaar are wagered on increasingly high stakes bets. It has become so unstable that the landlord, the Federal Reserve and central government, has to keep stepping in to keep everyone afloat. It is a high tech, high stakes palace economy.
This is very profitable for the nation’s rich people, which get to enjoy luxury unimaginable just a couple generations ago. Even Louis XIV could not have rode out a pandemic aboard his floating castle. Meanwhile, the cost of such luxury will be his fellow citizens (does he consider them his fellow citizens?) lining up for miles to get food distributed by the local food bank. The price of such profit in terms of risk and inequality is simply too high to tolerate much longer.
In times of want, people are forced to think hard about their priorities. The same is true of a people facing a crisis. The Great Madness over the plague is going to send the economy into a depression. The West in general, but America in particular, is going to have to decide if the cost of profit, the cost of this high stakes casino economy, is truly worth it. Is this how we want to live? For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his soul?
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