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Island Investing

Riffs, rants, and the upside of investing from way off Wall Street


On OWS, the Tea Party and Silicon Valley

Seems I’m a bit late to the blogosphere in commenting on the Occupy Wall Street movement, but, well, I’ve been busy, my firm being Too Small To Fail and what-not.

Here, however, is an excellent graphic, originally from this blogger, that shows one of the under-reported aspects of both the Occupy Wall Street crowd and the Tea Partiers.

What I believe both groups are concerned with at a very high level is really corporatism – not capitalism.

The angst of both groups seems to stem from independent observations that we are headed into a world of corporatism, where large companies give financial support to politicians who then lend legal support for those same companies to fend off competitors and provide regulatory barriers to entry.

“The government of an exclusive company of merchants is, perhaps, the worst of all governments for any country whatsoever,” wrote Adam Smith in 1776’s The Wealth of Nations. And he was the first true free market thinker, mind you.

I think we all realize what the cozy relationship between pols and corporations means when it comes time to vote. Something like 94% of all federal elections in this country are won by the candidate that has raised the most money. But what about the impacts going the other way? How does that relationship impact corporations, as opposed to voting booths?

Hard to say, but I’ll take a guess. I think it’s likely linked to a long-term decline in corporate R&D. More specifically, once companies learn that they can realize higher or more sustainable profits by hiring lobbyists instead of engineers, that’s all the incentive they’ll need to go with the lobbyists. It’s the cold, rational choice – in the short-term, mind you. And in a world where the average stock is held for just 22 seconds, it’s a mistake to underestimate how short-term many management teams can be in their thinking. I’d also estimate that buying a politician’s favor has a much better ROI than designing, manufacturing and launching a brand new product into the jungle that is the open market. See Solyndra, for instance. Or LightSquared. Or the S.E.C., even.

At some point, however, after enough of those engineers have been replaced by lobbyists, and as small businesses that refuse to play by those same rules continue to struggle, innovation is going to stagnate. And I think that’s a huge risk here.

I would submit that R&D is an investment that many public corporations have grown to believe is an unnecessary expense, due at least in part to corporatism. That among other things means we are growing less innovative in the areas that fundamentally impact our economy the most. We as a country seem to have already lost I don’t know how many years of progress in math and science as some of this country’s brightest young minds went to work for hedge funds. And our venture capitalists continue to fund a mind-numbing number of companies that don’t appear to solve any truly meaningful problems.

Now I have no idea, for instance, how to really fix our dependency on foreign oil, but I do know that no politician in this country is going to take the draconian steps that would be required to solve that problem through just policies and regulations. So the good news, Silicon Valley, is that we have some big problems that only technology can solve. And when it comes to anti-corporatism, you are our Obi-Wan.

So please, no more Farmvilles. It’s time to put away childish things.

Income inequality is something that all responsible governments have always wrestled with. And I would argue that it was the desire of politicians to start narrowing the gap between haves and have-nots 15 years ago that helped sow the seeds for the Great Recession to begin with. That and just plain old greed, I mean.

But what’s different now is that both sides of the political spectrum are claiming the usual tools aren’t working. I think they’ve realized that rational solutions are too often compromised by corporatism. And they’re rightfully torqued.

If you asked anyone in the Tea Party or OWS to list the causes of the Great Recession, I’d bet few if any of them would mention a synthetic CDO. But they all recognize a failure of character when they see it. And I think that speaks to something that both Wall Street and D.C. will never be able to fully overcome again.

So I’m hopeful that some long-term good comes out of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. The division between them seems to be that one side doesn’t trust Big Business but does trust Washington, and the other side doesn’t trust Washington but does trust Big Business. Once both groups learn to not trust either Washington or Big Business, they will find common cause. And who knows where that movement could go…but here’s to hoping it ends with some former start-up engineers running D.C. some day.

P.S. Here is my favorite sign from Occupy Wall Street.

Hat tip Swimmer.