The E-Trade Baby Blues

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When I was in college I learned about a theory called “the cultural contradiction of capitalism,” which claims that capitalism calls upon the public to assume two conflicting personas. As producers, people must be rational and responsible; but as consumers, they need to be irrational, carefree, and gluttonous, so they will buy as much as possible.

I recently recalled this theory while watching one of the incredibly annoying “E-Trade baby” commercials on television. The E-Trade baby’s message is that investing is fun and easy and, by implication, even a toddler could handle it. Although I am an aspiring lawyer, I do have some degree of background on investment advising, and I consider this message absolutely irresponsible. Investing is difficult. To beat the averages and outperform the indexes (which is the only sensible goal for day-trader-type, individually managed investing accounts such as E-Trade sells), an investor needs brilliance, discipline, and a ton of luck.

Investing without understanding how to research stocks is like gambling your life savings at a casino. A rational strategy for saving for retirement would include buying index mutual funds and highly rated bonds with gold or gold-related stocks as a hedge against inflation. Picking individual stocks (even supposedly “safe” or large-cap stocks such as IBM or Microsoft) is too risky for someone investing retirement savings. It is mathematically impossible to predict future stock prices accurately enough to eliminate the risk that your portfolio will be wiped out by bad luck or short-term swings on precisely the day when you need to dip into your savings. Stock-picking is not suitable for any investor unless you spend several hours each day researching your stocks. But actively managed investing for mainstream America is what the E-Trade baby sells.

Many Americans learned the dangers of Wall Street investment when the recent recession ate their portfolios. And Wall Street is a symbol of capitalism for the American public; when retirement accounts go down, Main Street always blames Wall Street. This happened in 1929, when the stock market crash started the chain of events that led to the Great Depression and the New Deal. It happened recently when the so-called Great Recession instigated the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act.

My own opinion is that a fool and his money are soon parted. The American investing public believed that stock prices and real estate values could never go down, and that the principle of “more reward requires more risk” did not apply. The public got what it deserved. But although I blame the investors, it is undeniable that Wall Street, from Goldman Sachs to Jim Cramer to E-Trade, promoted itself as an easy, riskless way for mainstream families to make money and save for retirement. The investing public’s “irrational exuberance,” to quote Alan Greenspan, can only help Wall Street to make money. Vast fortunes are made by investment banks when stock market bubbles inflate. Wall Street is partially to blame.

What I am trying to get at here is that even though libertarians love capitalism, we do not have to love everything that results from the profit motive. My favorite movies are the original Star Wars trilogy. But George Lucas, desiring to milk as much money from his franchise as possible, has produced several re-edited versions, each more atrocious than the last, and also filmed the pathetic “prequels.” Similar stupidity was behind the decision to film “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” as two separate movies instead of one, dooming the two movies to artistic ineptitude. Generally, whenever a novelist or movie studio produces something good that people like, sequel after sequel follow, for no other reason than to make easy money and feed off the brilliance of the original.

Even though libertarians love capitalism, we do not have to love everything that results from the profit motive.

From a different angle, consider the widespread use of “intro rates” to persuade people to buy cellphone or cable TV services or six-month intro rates on credit cards. Are consumers so stupid that they don’t plan more than six months ahead? Ads full of colorful sights and sounds and subliminal associations but empty of facts and information about why their product is superior are the rule on television, not the exception. The stupidity of the public makes advertising easier. It is easier to sell car insurance by building a brand image around a jingle or a cartoon character than to produce a product that can be objectively demonstrated through scientific testing to be better than its competitors. Ads paid for by businessmen are a huge part of what shapes American culture and the American media — which helps explain why American culture is so strongly slanted in favor of shallowness, stupidity, and irrationality (though this is not a complete explanation, but merely one piece of the puzzle). America is full of instances in which businessmen appeal to consumers not on the basis of reason and logic but through gimmicks and psychological manipulations. Judging by the widespread success of ads like the E-Trade baby, many members of the public make some horribly irrational choices, in their consumer goods no less than their political beliefs.

You can’t blame capitalism for the fact that people make bad choices. Consumer irrationality is not a valid excuse to strip people of their freedom to choose. Wall Street gives us a far higher standard of living than any of the Soviet states ever achieved, and capitalism is the only system with a proven track record of prosperity and progress.

Nevertheless, the moral of this story is that the profit motive has a dark side. I know that some would say that the desire to make easy money by appealing to irrationality is not actually in any businessman’s long-term rational self-interest. I completely agree. Yet it is natural for people to seek to make money as easily as possible, and we see what results. Instead of blindly insisting that the profit motive can do no wrong, we should take the more refined approach and recognize that the fault lies with the people themselves, not with freedom as an economic system.

So I support the profit motive — but supporting the profit motive does not mean supporting everything that results from the profit motive.




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Appleby's Revolution

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One thing that has always struck me about the Communist Manifesto is that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels held capitalism in awe. “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together,” they wrote in 1848. They listed the wondrous accomplishments one by one, from steam navigation to canal building, and “whole populations conjured out of the ground.” Of course, their praise preceded a call for workers to overthrow the great capitalist conjuror.

Joyce Appleby’s book, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, conveys the same sense of wonder. She praises capitalism, saying that its “distinctive characteristic . . . has been its amazing wealth-generating capacities. The power of that wealth transformed traditional societies and continues to enable human societies to do remarkable things."

Appleby certainly doesn’t recommend overthrowing the system. But her appreciation of capitalism diminishes as the book goes on, just as Marx’s and Engels’ did in the manifesto. At the start, The Relentless Revolution is like an exhilarating train ride, full of insights and a historian’s gold mine of information, but it loses steam and slows to a crawl once the Rubicon of the Industrial Revolution has been crossed. At the end, Appleby is praising the US government for trying to rein in the capitalist beast.

Appleby, who taught history at UCLA, describes herself as a “left-leaning liberal with strong . . . libertarian strains.” Given today’s academic history departments and her own attitudes, she deserves admiration for looking at capitalism as objectively as she can. “In this book,“ she writes, “I would like to shake free of the presentation of the history of capitalism as a morality play, peopled with those wearing either white or black hats.” For half the book, she achieves that goal.

The Relentless Revolution fits into the recent parade of big books trying to explain the rise of the industrial West — books such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, and Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules — For Now. These and other authors are trying to answer a couple of giant questions: why did the West (not China, India, or another part of the world) make the transition from subsistence living to a world of constantly increasing productivity? And how exactly did it happen? As I shall explain, Appleby offers two major responses that I found valuable.

Appleby identifies two main factors in Britain’s rise: higher wages providing the incentive to increase productivity, and coal providing the means.

The pivotal moment in world history is normally called the Industrial Revolution (although perhaps that’s a misnomer, given its slow gestation). Many factors contributed to this revolution, and part of the “game” motivating the big books is to offer new factors. It’s generally agreed that the process flowered first in Great Britain, but the reasons may stretch back to such things as the European practice of primogeniture, the separation of powers between the Catholic Church and the state, and the system of rights spawned by feudalism under changing population pressures.

Appleby focuses on 17th and 18th-century England (why she gives short shrift to Scotland is a puzzle). She points to two reasons why the Industrial Revolution occurred there: England had higher wages than the Continent, and also cheap sources of coal. Higher wages provided the incentive to increase productivity, and coal provided the means.

The idea that England’s wages were higher is actually new to me and undoubtedly has a complex history of its own; Appleby merely says that England’s population growth had leveled off in the 17th century. As for coal accessibility, she agrees with Pomeranz, who says that China fell behind Europe partly because its coal deposits were harder to reach.

Whatever the precursors, actual inventions — especially of the steam engine — required talent and knowledge, and herein lies the first of Appleby’s distinctive insights. In a way that I haven’t seen before, Appleby integrates two related forces: the British tendency toward scientific theorizing (or “natural philosophy”), and the British tendency to tinker. “Technology met science and formed a permanent union. At the level of biography, Galileo met Bacon,” she writes.

She elaborates: “Because of the open character of English public life, knowledge moved from the esoteric investigations of natural philosophers to a broader community of the scientifically curious. The fascination with air pressure, vacuums, and pumps became part of a broadly shared scientific culture that reached out to craftsmen and manufacturers in addition to those of leisure who cultivated knowledge.”

The Royal Society illustrates this integration. Created in 1662, it was both practical and scientific. Its members studied that New World import, the potato, but it also “brought together in the same room the people who were most engaged in physical, mechanical, and mathematical problems.”

Appleby’s second valuable contribution is to take a cold-eyed look at the role of New World slavery in creating the markets that nurtured the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, like Pomeranz, she sees slavery as a major factor behind the engine of progress.

In The Great Divergence, Pomeranz says that the vast expansion of agricultural cultivation in the New World enabled Europe to avoid the “land constraint” that kept the Chinese from developing an industrial economy. And slave labor played an enormous role in the cultivation of sugar in the Caribbean and cotton in the United States. Thus, Pomeranz says, Europe overcame the limitations of land by colonizing the New World, which made agriculture possible to an extent unlikely in tiny Holland or England.

Appleby’s take is a little different. She emphasizes more the three-way trade that we learned about in middle school (slaves from Africa were taken to the New World, where sugar was purchased and taken to Great Britain, where finished clothing and other products were bought, to be sold in Africa). Pomeranz and Appleby are not arguing that slavery was profitable, or that it was “necessary,” but, rather, that it was a significant element in the system of trade that led to the Industrial Revolution. Enthusiasts for capitalism such as myself tend to focus on the “trade”; critics of capitalism — along with Appleby — stress the “slave” part of the trade.

Furthermore, Appleby considers American plantations and British inventions as two sides of the same coin. “These two phenomena — American slave-worked plantations and mechanical wizardry for pumping water, smelting metals, and powering textile factories — may seem unconnected. Certainly we have been loath to link slavery to the contributions of a free enterprise system, but they [the phenomena]must be recognized as twin responses to the capitalist genie that had escaped the lamp of tradition during the seventeenth century.”

Whether she is right about this, I don’t know, but she brings to public attention the periodic debate by economic historians over the role of slavery, a debate that Pomeranz reawakened with The Great Divergence.

Unfortunately, after these interesting observations, The Relentless Revolution begins to wind down. As the book moves on, Appleby tends to equate anything that takes industrial might — such as the imperialist armies that took possession of Africa in the late 19th century — with capitalism. “Commercial avarice, heightened by the rivalries within Europe, had changed the world,” she writes in explaining the European adventures in Africa. I dispute that. While Cecil Rhodes and Henry Morton Stanley may have been private “investors,” for the most part Africa was overcome by government power, not by individuals or corporations.

While Cecil Rhodes and Henry Morton Stanley may have been private “investors,” for the most part Africa was overcome by government power, not by individuals or corporations.

Even greater blindness sets in as Appleby’s 494-page volume moves into the recent past and she becomes influenced by modern prejudices. In Appleby’s view, the financial crash in 2008 was caused by financiers; the only contribution by public officials was to “dismantle the regulatory system that had monitored financial firms.” No word about the role of the Federal Reserve, the Community Reinvestment Act, or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Indeed, capitalism becomes the same as exploitation, in spite of her more balanced initial definition of capitalism as “a cultural system rooted in economic practices that rotate around the imperative of private investors to turn a profit.”

In her last chapter, Appleby writes, “The prospect of getting rich unleashed a rapacity rarely seen before in human society.” This extravagant statement does not jibe with archaeological (not to mention historical) evidence of the human past. In Why the West Rules — For Now, Morris reports on an archaeological excavation at Anyang village in China. In 1300 BC, this home of the Shang kings was the site of massive deaths. Morris estimates that, in a period of about 150 years, the kings may have killed 250,000 people  — an average of 4 or 5 a day, but probably concentrated in large, horrific rituals — “great orgies of hacking, screaming, and dying.” This was the world before capitalism.

To be fair to Appleby, she is saying that the productivity unleashed by capitalism extended the breadth of human rapacity, and to some degree the example of slavery supports that notion. Eighteenth-century British gentlemen could think high-minded thoughts while enjoying their tea with sugar grown by often brutally treated slave labor — which they may have invested in. “This is the ugly face of capitalism,” Appleby writes, “made uglier by the facile justifications that Europeans offered for using men until they literally dropped dead.”

True. At the same time, it was the British who abolished the slave trade, at high cost in patrolling the seas. Before that, Africans were enslaved only because other Africans captured and sold them to the Europeans. (Malaria and other diseases kept Europeans out of the interior of Africa until late into the 19th century.) There is a lot of blame to go around.

So this book is a mixed bag. Even though Appleby increasingly departs from objectivity as she proceeds into modern times, I respect her project and appreciate her insights. I hope that her “left-leaning” historian colleagues read her book and expand their understanding of the past — just as I have.

fits into the recent parade of big books trying to explain the rise of the industrial West


Editor's Note: Review of "The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism," by Joyce Appleby. Norton, 2010, 495 pages.



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