Saturday, November 7, 2015


"I am often reproached for continually attacking the rich. Yes, because the rich are continually attacking the poor." 

John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople sixteen centuries ago, goes on to explain,

"But those I attack are not the rich as such, only those who misuse their wealth. I point out constantly that those I accuse are not the rich, but the rapacious ...."  Perhaps an appropriate sentiment for today.

All things being equal, here's how the market works:  Price leads the way! During gluts, prices fall and the least efficient pull out of the market. Supply falls and demand increases. Eventually equilibrium is reached where price increases toward marginal cost and risk-adjusted returns to equal the cost of capital. 

Then, during shortages, prices rise, sellers profit, and new sellers enter the market. The result, supply increases and demand falls. Eventually a new equilibrium is reached in which price decreases toward marginal cost, and risk-adjusted returns fall to equal the cost of capital.  That's free market capitalism.

But things are rarely equal.  Successful firms pursue and acquire their rising competitors and others in both related and unrelated fields.  The workforce is restructured for lean efficiency, and the process continues.  Some corporations will become larger than countries with irresistible influence among politicians and regulators.  The contest become political, and the winner goes home with billions.  Losers are driven from the market.  The larger the players, the greater the size of the societal impact.  

Even when there might be good intentions, problems arise.  NAFTA, the free trade agreement between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico was purported to be good for all when it removed agribusiness tariffs.  Mexican corn farmers found themselves competing with suppliers from the north who were substantially subsidized (ref, ref) by their governments.  Mexican farmers couldn't compete on price, and about two million farmers lost their land and livelihood.  Their desperate scramble for survival included many attempting to enter the U.S. in search of work.  Meanwhile in Mexico, real wages are down, unemployment is up, and 25% of their children are malnourished. Govt Rpt 2015

Expecting an unregulated market to solve social problems is high risk, especially when large governments and larger corporations are involved.  Profitability and wealth-flow often trump social good in the equation.

Since the 70's, developed nations have seen a widening gap between rich and poor, a stunning rise of the super rich and stagnation of wages for the rest.  Laws have been repeatedly adjusted to enable wealth extraction by the upper income and influential segment.  The middle has been in a steady decline.  Now it appears that the trend is spilling over into the developing world.

These are just some of the economic issues.  Of perhaps greater consequence are the cultural and societal changes brought on by economic participation.  Materialism seems to dominate the modern marketplace, does it not?  Ethics change.  Is that a problem?

At the personal level, if we're going to do something good, how do we decide what helps?  And anyway, what are 'good works'?