Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Inequality in the 21st century

It is hard to deny that Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has lent unprecedented attention to the issue of inequality, both of income and of wealth.  It's especially interesting that it has even captured the imagination of the U.S. media and politicians (don't forget the Fed) in a country where no one is poor...they just haven't made it yet!

Technology and productivity are part of the story and I think most reasonable people would say those are both good things.  But there's also the issue of fairness.  Are there mechanisms to curb outrageous concentrations of dynastic wealth; are there conditions for equal opportunity in the form of (realistic, not hypothetical, not mythological) access to education, healthcare, clean water, nutritious food, clothing, and shelter; are there incentives to innovate, advance our understanding of the universe and improve our (read: humans') standard of living?

This last point is not trivial, so I will digress.

It has been suggested that U.S. economic growth is over due to lack of technological innovation.  Try to imagine life without likes or tweets or lolcats or the latest killer app in the iTunes store.  Now try to imagine life without indoor plumbing.  Where's the real innovation?

The U.S. semi-conductor industry can trace their roots, through predecessor companies, founders, and employees, to public funding, for math, science, and engineering, and big government contracts from NASA.  And of course, this was before start-up companies had to contend with certain death from broken patent system.  What is the contemporary example of hardcore public support for the so-called STEM fields?

My mental model of this stuff is that it takes 5 years to put together a salable new product or process.  It probably rests on the work of 10 years of engineering research in novel and useful areas.  But that engineering rests on the results of 100 years of basic research in math and science.  That's 115 years of R&D.

Thoughts as an investor:

  1. Long term investing is relative.  In 115 years we'll all be dead.  In the absence of strong public sponsorship, investors will tend towards the path of least resistance and buy the nonsense (either of the Bay Area or Wall St variety) even if the present value of truly innovative R&D is exponentially higher and more beneficial for all of humanity.  
  2. There is a riskiness in a society that concentrates wealth and power to extremes.  I worry about the U.S. where it is legal to buy the government and where there is an origin story based on violence in the face of unjust rule. Remember, "No taxation without representation!"
  3. The plebs are multitude and the elites are, well, elite.  I have to believe in the benefits of a trickle up effect more than a trickle down effect.  It is a matter of surplus.  Billionaires are hoarding cash while people in U.S. cities are living in food deserts and without clean running water.  Give someone at the bottom $1,000 and it goes straight into the (local) economy.  Give a billionaire $1,000 tax break... and who knows.

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