Economics textbooks, along with Fox News and shout radio commentators, spread the myth that fortunes are gained productively by investing in capital equipment and employing labour to produce goods and services that people want to buy. This may be how economies prosper, but it is not how fortunes are most easily made. One need only to turn to the 19th-century novelists such as Balzac to be reminded that behind every family fortune lies a great theft, often long-forgotten or even undiscovered.
But who is one to steal from? Most wealth in history has been acquired either by armed conquest of the land, or by political insider dealing, such as the great US railroad land giveaways of the mid 19th century. The great American fortunes have been founded by prying land, public enterprises and monopoly rights from the public domain, because (to paraphrase Willie Sutton) that's where the assets are to take. Throughout history the world's most successful economies have been those that have kept this kind of primitive accumulation in check. The US economy today is faltering largely because its past barriers against rent-seeking are being breached.
Nowhere is this more disturbingly on display than in Wisconsin. Today, Milwaukee – Wisconsin's largest city, and once the richest in America – is ranked among the four poorest large cities in the United States. Wisconsin is just the most recent case in this great heist. The US government itself and its regulatory agencies effectively are being privatised as the "final stage" of neoliberal economic doctrine.
Warren Buffet famously observed that no one is a self-made man: we all rely on other people and free resources to create our wealth, and we appropriate it as ours. Indeed, studies have shown that if we factor in the replacement costs for things that nature provides to our economic activity-- sunlight, air, water, pollination and so on-- we could easily double the costs of manufacturing in America (some studies show these costs are actually twice as high as the artificial production costs, thus tripling the costs to produce.)
George Will (of all people) also observed further that the American economy is one where profits are privatized but losses are spread out to society as a whole.
American history truly IS about theft for wealth. If it's not out and out piracy of someone else's property, then it's a grab for land and resources that no one else either wants or knows what to do with, without appropriate reimbursement.
Think about all those cowboy movies you saw back as a child where the ranchers battled the farmers over water rights, or mining companies would steal farms from families, and so on. Or even just ponder the tragic concept of slavery.
We've run out of the "free" resources, and so now have to cannibalize each other. This is the America we've left to ourselves. Rather than learn to live within our means, we've consistently expanded our resources so that we delay the inevitable accounting for what we've done to the land and to each other.