In his book The End of Normal economist James Galbraith makes a compelling case that our search for a return to the fast rate of economic growth experienced in the United States from 1945 to 1970 has led to fraud–fraud enabled by government actions that sought to “free the economy” from the shackles of “overregulation” and update the regulatory framework to meet “new challenges” such as globalization.

It turns out these sometimes well-intentioned moves signaled to the unscrupulous that Uncle Sam would be looking the other way when they duped customers, defrauded suppliers and swindled investors. In his book, Galbraith tells us how this happened.

First, we must understand that economic growth during the aforementioned period was exceptional and not the norm. Hence, the title of Galbraith’s book and his main focus. During this period the economics profession embraced the idea that such growth was normal, and policymakers, politicians and most American citizens came to believe that it was.

The reasons for this exceptional growth were more the result of good luck than anything else:

  1. The United States had come through World War II almost completely unscathed with a vast industrial infrastructure built for the war, but now available for more pacific pursuits.
  2. The country was about to embark on a baby boom that would goose consumer demand for decades and power the economy forward.
  3. The United States was a resource-rich country with huge reserves of oil, natural gas, coal and uranium; large native deposits of key metals including copper, iron, and zinc; and vast fertile farmlands that turned out food and fiber enough for both America and the world.
  4. The country had a reputation for stable legal and governance arrangements which encouraged investment.
  5. The United States had unrivaled security, protected as it was by two oceans and a nuclear stalemate with the Soviet Union.
  6. The U.S. dollar became the linchpin of the world monetary system under what is known as the Bretton Woods agreement; now, everyone needed dollars to buy what America was making to revive their war-torn economies.

Everything went swimmingly–that is, for the economy–until the 1970s when oil shocks slowed economic activity and led to a puzzling combination of high inflation and high unemployment in the United States. These shocks had, in fact, become inevitable as America’s own production of oil topped out and began to decline starting in 1970. America had a lot of oil, but not enough to continue to raise production continuously forever.

With the disappointing performance of the American economy in the 1970s, the Reagan administration promised better economic performance. Part of that better performance was to be delivered through deregulation which, as it turns out, was an invitation to fraud in the savings and loan industry.

When sound, profitable opportunities for ethical players abound, there is no need for chicanery. In fact, the ethical players cooperate to root out the unscrupulous ones in order to prevent widespread fraud from undermining confidence in the actions of the ethical players.

But, when there are few opportunities for the ethical participants–because the economy isn’t growing very fast or growing at all–the unscrupulous find their opening. And, they open vast new fronts for profit and economic activity. Eventually, they become the dominant players, driving out the ethical participants who can’t produce such extravagant returns while sticking to their principles.

Policymakers opened the way for this pattern by believing (wrongly) that the U.S. economy should be able to sustain the previously high growth rates experienced between 1945 to 1970 without the special circumstances that made that growth possible. High growth became “normalized” in the minds of policymakers. Those hunting for the reason behind slow growth often determined that government regulations were part of the problem. The troublesome regulations were then eliminated in order to unleash a wave of new investment that was supposed to return economic growth to the desired path. But the growth thus unleashed was illusory and often devastatingly fraudulent.

This is what happened due to the deregulation of the savings and loan industry in the 1980s. It is what happened in the home mortgage market in the 2000s. And, there was more than a hint of this is in the dotcom boom of the late 1990s which funneled money to many tech startups that had questionable business plans. The lack of solid business plans in the face of a surfeit of eager tech investors gave rise to crafty promoters offering an ample supply of not-so-solid business plans.

Here is how Galbraith summarizes the problem:

When resources to fuel economic growth are abundant, fraudulent activities are not generally tolerated. There are opportunities for “honest profit” and those pursuing such profits work to control the system, which means that they favor enforcement of laws against cheats and chiselers. However, when resources become scarce or expensive, opportunities for large profit for honest business are few. If the expected rate of profit–the rate that financial markets insist on as a condition for providing loans–nevertheless remains high, then fraud becomes a main channel to profitability, and fraudulent activities become part of standard practice. Fraud is a response, in short, to the failure of lenders to adjust to a decline in real possibilities.

In an era of slow growth that calls out for such an adjustment, we can only expect a continuation of fraudulent practices until the expectation for outsized profits comes down to a level consistent with actual conditions.

It is, of course, not in the interests of America’s leaders (or world leaders, for that matter) to manage public expectations about growth downward. A political or corporate message based on slow or no growth is the path to electoral or professional oblivion.

It turns out that we have harvested the low-hanging fruit from the the tree of growth–electricity, the internal combustion engine, the spread of public health, the rise of major worldwide communications networks–and now we are left with marginal improvements according to Robert Gordon, who cataloged the special nature of the period from 1870 to 1970 in his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth. The cellphone, it turns out, is still a phone. (Yes, I know it is a camera now, too. But the camera is a fundamental invention that has not been superseded. It has only been improved and refined.)

It’s not that we won’t see profound inventions that change our lives in the future. It’s just that we won’t be introducing electricity to every household again. And, we won’t be building a worldwide communications network for the first time, but rather refining what we have.

If someone tells you differently, you should be especially careful about buying any of the investments he or she is offering.

Image: “The grafters of America, who they are and how they work” (1906). Clifton R. Wooldridge, Clifton. Via Wikimedia Commons.