Oil traders still outpace surgeons
In the Washington Post, Danielle Kucera and Christine Harper discuss the continuing disconnect between the amount of pay in top jobs and the value generated to society:
Wall Street traders still earn much more than brain surgeons. An oil trader with 10 years in the business is likely to earn at least $1 million this year, while a neurosurgeon with similar time on the job makes less than $600,000, recruiters estimated.
After a decade of deal-making, merger bankers take home about $2 million, more than 10 times what a similarly seasoned cancer researcher gets.
“I don’t think it’s healthy for the economy to be this skewed,” said Stephen Rose, a professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “I believe there’s some sort of connection between value added to the economy and pay. Everyone is losing sight of any fundamentals.”
What is the basis for the financial rewards?
John Cassidy, writing in The New Yorker asked a banker how he and his co-workers felt about making loads of money when much of the country was struggling.
“A lot of people don’t care about it or think about it,” he replied. “They say, it’s a market, it’s still open, and I’ll sell my labor for as much as I can until nobody wants to buy it.” But you, I asked, what do you think? “I tend to think we do create value,” he said. “It’s not a productive value in a very visible sense, like finding a cure for cancer. We’re middlemen. We bring together two sides of a deal. That’s not a very elevated thing, but I can’t think of any elevated economy that doesn’t need middlemen.”
The [banker] is right: Wall Street bankers create some economic value. But do they create enough of it to justify the rewards they reap? In the first nine months of 2010, the big six banks cleared more than thirty-five billion dollars in profits.
It hasn’t always been this way. Cassidy notes that from around 1940 to 1980 things were different.
Economic historians refer to [this as] a period of “financial repression,” during which regulators and policymakers, reflecting public suspicion of Wall Street, restrained the growth of the banking sector. They placed limits on interest rates, prohibited deposit-taking institutions from issuing securities, and, by preventing financial institutions from merging with one another, kept most of them relatively small. During this period, major financial crises were conspicuously absent, while capital investment, productivity, and wages grew at rates that lifted tens of millions of working Americans into the middle class.
Banking of course wasn't the only factor. This was a period when oligopolies were in charge of the marketplace and could charge pretty much what they wanted, even for products that weren't particularly good. So they could afford to offer life-time employment with good salaries.
Since the early nineteen-eighties, by contrast, financial blowups have proliferated and living standards have stagnated. Is this coincidence?
For a long time, economists and policymakers have accepted the financial industry’s appraisal of its own worth, ignoring the market failures and other pathologies that plague it. Even after all that has happened, there is a tendency in Congress and the White House to defer to Wall Street because what happens there, befuddling as it may be to outsiders, is essential to the country’s prosperity. Finally, dissidents are questioning this narrative. “There was a presumption that financial innovation is socially valuable,” [a critic] said to me. “The first thing I discovered was that it wasn’t backed by any empirical evidence. There’s almost none.”
True, but banking wasn't the only factor. This was also a period in which the big companies that used to be in charge of the marketplace, found themselves struggling to cope with global competition and the new power of the customer and could no longer offer life-time employment at high salaries.
One might have hoped that the banks would have provided an element of stability in a turbulent period. As it turned out, the net effect of the financial sector has been to aggravate the instability.
Slum lords in pin-striped suits
The case for bankers, if any, rests on the argument that their activities grow the economic pie. However, most of the income comes from extracting rents in a zero-sum game. Cassidy quotes Gerald Epstein, an economist at the University of Massachusetts:
“These types of things don’t add to the pie. They redistribute it—often from taxpayers to banks and other financial institutions.”
Cassidy’s overall take? He cites with approval Lord Adair Turner, the chairman of Britain’s top financial watchdog, the Financial Services Authority, who has described much of what happens on Wall Street and in other financial centers as “socially useless activity”:
Many people in the City and on Wall Street are the financial equivalent of slumlords or toll collectors in pin-striped suits. If they retired to their beach houses en masse, the rest of the economy would be fine, or perhaps even healthier.
Read the Washington Post article here.
Read The New Yorker article here.