End Of The Year Thoughts On Inequality And Its Remedies

In addition to cracking down on abuses, which can get complicated, a simpler issue is that private equity is no longer giving above market returns. In the 1980s and 1990s private equity companies were able to find many underpriced companies, turn them around and make large profits reselling them when they took the company public. This no longer seems to be the case as their returns have largely followed the market since 2006. This means that there is no reason for pension funds, the major source of private equity funding, to be tying up their assets with them.

Even though pension funds may not be gaining by investing with private equity, many of their managers are convinced that they do. There is an easy remedy here. Just require the terms of all contracts of public pension funds with investment managers, including private equity, be posted on the fund’s website, showing in clear terms what the managers get paid and the return on the investment. It is likely that the mediocre returns on private equity funds, coupled with the large payments to the private equity managers, would soon discourage pensions from continuing to turn over large amounts of money to these funds.

There are other areas where we can both make the economy more efficient and reduce the opportunities for large fortunes in the financial sector. The most obvious is cleaning up the room for abusive credit practices that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was designed to target. There is no economic reason to give clever lawyers and accountants incentives to design ways to rip-off their customers. If these practices are blocked, by regulation or law, it a pure gain for the economy.

As a general rule when it comes to the financial sector, we want it small and we want it simple. If we see lots of resources being devoted to the sector, it is clear indication we have a problem.

Fixing Facebook and Social Media: Treat Them Like Other Media

The battle over Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act has taken a bizarre turn in recent months because Donald Trump seems to have been convinced that repealing it would mean that Twitter and Facebook couldn’t comment on or take down his posts. Actually, the opposite is true. In their current form, without Section 230 protection, Twitter and Facebook would probably be more likely to remove material posted by Donald Trump because it could be libelous and make them subject to legal actions.

But ignoring the Trump confusion, the issue with Section 230 protection is why should Internet outlets be protected from damages, when the exact same material in a traditional print or broadcast outlet could lead to a lawsuit costing millions? Just to be clear, the issue is not directly posted material. If Facebook itself were to post libelous material it would face the same legal liability as the New York Times or CNN. The issue is third party content, where social media companies are completely protected.

If we applied the same rules to Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR), and other social media companies as we do to traditional news outlets, we would likely see a radically downsized Facebook and Twitter. There would still be considerable opportunities to make money in this sector, but likely much less than Mark Zuckerberg has made to date.

Even more important than downsizing Mark Zuckerberg’s fortune is the issue of democratic control. In both the 2016 and 2020 elections, the public was in the position of begging Mark Zuckerberg to be responsible in the material he was allowing to be spread across his network. We should never be in the position of hoping some billionaire media mogul acts responsibly, with enormous consequences for democracy if they don’t. This is a very good argument for breaking up Facebook, so that Mr. Zuckerberg’s decisions do not have so much impact on our political process, but repealing Section 230 may get us to the same place through a much simpler mechanism.

Wishing You a Happy and More Egalitarian New Year

Well, that’s the list for now. I have other schemes, as my regular readers know, but these are the big ones. The point is that we should never take market outcomes as simple givens. We can structure the market in an infinite number of different ways. Any political strategy that doesn’t acknowledge this basic point is doomed to failure.

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