The American economy is a middleman economy, designed around the idea of there being a person or group of persons between the parties of a transaction. No matter how trivial the transaction, there is someone trying to get in on the deal. This middleman brings nothing to the transaction. He adds no value and only facilitates the deal because the rules have been set so that he is required. The middleman is the ever-present silent partner that is the point of the economic arrangements.
If you go back a century, selling a house involved three parties. The seller and buyer, of course, and the government. You had to register the transaction with the government so it was known who held the deed for the property. If there was a lien on the property, then the bank would be involved, but only on one side. Today there are dozens of people involved in the transaction. The government is promising to add dozens more in order to flood stable neighborhoods with magic.
Just about every transaction in the economy now has silent partners. This is why the economy is still a mess due to the Covid lockdowns. Shutting down supply chains was always a dumb idea, but getting them restarted means activating millions of middlemen who have to get paid for the system to work. In a completely financialized economy, nothing moves without money moving first. The money men are the ever-present middlemen in every deal, no matter how small.
The riddle for all human societies since the first settlements was what to do with the people who could not work or would not work. The old and the sick needed care, so they not only were not working, they took someone out of the workforce. This meant that those who did work had to produce extra. It also meant that those who were loafers had to be dealt with so they were not freeloading off the system. Of course, many of the loafers were called the rulers, so that was a problem.
The way out of this problem has been productivity. The farmer who could grow enough food for his family plus the king’s share was never enough. He had to grow enough to feed himself, plus the king and some extra for the king to sell. That way the king could field an army and have a nice castle. Every king wants a better castle, so the drive to produce more with less is a feature of human society. The great ideological wars since the Enlightenment have been about how best to do this.
The claim by communists and capitalists was that eventually, productivity would produce so much that scarcity would be solved. Human society, if planned the right way, would produce so much with so little that want would disappear. That could never happen, of course, but the West has reached the point where everyone has the basics if they want them. In America, poor people are obese because they spend all day eating and watching television in comfortable homes.
That does not mean the problem of economics has been solved. The old free loading problem is still there. Those millions of middlemen baked into the economy are still there, snatching away a little from every transaction. Not only are they skimming from every transaction, they no longer help facilitate the deal. Instead, they often just steal the entire value of the deal. America cannot build a road or bridge, mostly because the money is stolen before the first shovel hits the dirt.
In other words, all of those middlemen are now consuming the host. This army of people involved in every deal are no longer just a weird patina on the economy, but a very serious rot of the system. This is why hedge funds are buying up residential housing to create new renters. The very top of the rentier economy has run out of people from whom to skim, so they are forced to eat their own. The big skimmers are now going after the small skimmers down the ladder from them.
Running a skim is nothing new, but even the mafia understood that you can shear a sheep many times, but you can only skin him once. The modern mafia, the managerial elite, entangled with the powerful, are moving from sheering to skinning. They have busted out everything, so now they are busting out the bust outs. The hedge funds robbing the real estate bandits is like a bank robber robbing drug dealers, in that it says the criminal ecosystem is out of balance.
The story that started with the problem of scarcity has arrived where it started. What is to be done with those who don’t produce? Every society needs an elite and they do not produce in the conventional sense. Their duty is to coordinate. What happens when you have too many people in the elite? Turning them into middlemen seemed like a solution, but now we have too many middlemen. So many in fact that they are now making it impossible for the productive to stay ahead of demand.
The old image of economics is of a group of men pulling a wagon. In the wagon are the unproductive, like rulers and bankers. The goal was to keep the people in the wagon to the barest minimum. The modern wagon is still relatively light, but now the men pulling the wagon are surrounded by an army of people impeding their progress, as they demand a fee for every step. Worse yet, the people in the wagon are creating people who take up positions between the men pulling the wagon.
That has been one lesson of Covid. The reason the economy did not collapse when millions were sent home from their jobs is that most of the people being sent home were not doing anything all that useful. Some were, for sure, but the empty offices went unnoted for a reason. Just as every snowstorm in Washington reveals that vast number of unessential workers, Covid revealed the vast number of middlemen. Many were unaware of their middleman status. They thought they were essential.
Of course, the bizarre fads vomited up by the Cloud People is another sign that we have too many people standing around looking for something to do. Idle hands to the Devil’s work and Old Scratch is spoiled for choice these days. We simply have too many middlemen with time on their hands. The system is overstocked with them, so they sit around dreaming up new ways to horn in on the life of the productive. Now the middlemen have middlemen and that cannot go on forever.
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