Economic Sectors and Where the Wealth Is

Do you know why all the world hates a Lannister? You think your gold and your lions and your gold lions make you better than everyone. May I tell you a secret? You’re not a golden lion. You’re just a pink little man who is far too slow on the draw. – Game of Thrones

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If only we had Master of the Card back during the conquest of the Americas – they could have gotten rich shipping credit cards back to Spain!

What is wealth?

In our world, wealth is the accumulation of tangible or intangible stuff that makes us better off.

Vague enough for you?  If a nation has of any of the following, that nation has wealth:

  1. Forests – they can make toilet paper. Or toothpicks.  Or Justin Bieber posters.
  2. People – they can make things or do stuff. Like accounting. Or making novelty t-shirts.
  3. Oil – they can make precious carbon dioxide – it’s what plants crave™.
  4. Pez© – they can mine the precious, precious Pez® ore.
  5. Cows – they can make ice cream or jerky (but not at the same time).
  6. Pez™ – Worthy of double inclusion because it’s Pez©. Plus, just say “Pez™ ore” out loud. I dare you.

At some point in history, an unnamed (because I’m too lazy to look it up) economist started thinking.  This is unusual, since economists are not normally prone to actual thought, as they tend to cluster in economist flocks and just repeat the same thing the other economists are saying in a herd behavior learned to prevent any one of them from being proven wrong.  It might be that this economist was being particularly unherdish that day?  Anyway, it was his thought to divide the economy of a nation into sectors.  He chose the term sectors so that he could pretend to be a starship captain and say things like “Chart a course for Sector Three, Mr. Sulu”, because that’s a lot more interesting than being stuck as part of an economist herd for the rest of your life.

Being crazily creative, he named the first sector the “Primary Sector.”

The primary sector is all about raw materials and extracting them – pumping oil, logging trees, growing quinoa, conjuring pigs from the underworld, and basset hound harvesting.  And you don’t have to extract it for it to count, unextracted resources are part of the base wealth of a nation, but you don’t get any money (most of the time) until you extract the resource.  It’s like picking your nose . . . but I’ll stop there.

Really, the primary economy is the basement of wealth creation.

It’s also trouble.

Nations that depend wholly on raw material production are associated with all sorts of negative outcomes, from being less developed (overall) and being less productive . . . for an example, let’s pick on the Spanish, because, after all, who hasn’t picked on the Spanish?

Spain managed to find tons of gold (more than 150 tons) and silver (more than 7,000 tons) in one century alone.  By find, I mean “take”, but that’s a longer story, and not the one I’m telling now.  The Spanish Conquistadores shipped the loot back to Spain, and the Spanish used the money to . . . be the lazy 16 year old trust fund kid who lived in Daddy’s other mansion.  The vast wealth allowed the Spanish to hire servants for their servants, and, hire people like the Dutch and French to come on over and do work the Spanish wouldn’t do.  (Sound familiar?)  The only things missing from this picture are Facebook®, Twinkies©, and PS4™.

And I don’t blame the Spanish one bit.  If I’m sitting on a billion or so dollars, I’d probably hire the Dutch and French to paint my house instead of making Pugsley and The Boy do it.

Anyway, this vast wealth took a productive, hungry, strong people who had a lot of gold into a people who hadn’t invested in an economy or infrastructure and had spent all of the gold within 200 years.

During the Spanish-American war, new steel American warships took on (by took on I mean “sank”) the Spanish Navy.  The state of the art US Navy with rifled cannon that could strike miles away with accuracy went up against ships that had cannon that were smooth bore and were older than the French Revolution (really).  I was the equivalent of The Rock going up against a six year old with a stick.

The war lasted 10 weeks, and that was because Spain couldn’t Tweet a surrender.

Spain had been weakened by her Primary Sector wealth.

The Secondary Sector

The secondary sector of the economy takes the stuff produced by the Primary Sector and turns it into something of actual use.

Sure, we all love crude oil, but besides bathing our birds in it, what can you do with it besides sell it to someone who will turn it into something useful?  Oh, you could eat it, but, it gets old after a while.

So, we take the Pez© ore we mined in the Primary Sector and smelt it into the Pez® bullion that we all covet so.  We turn cows into steaks and sell them.  We turn wood into boxes for the fidget spinners we have delivered from France.  We turn people into Soylent Green.

To best picture the Secondary Sector, imagine sprawling factories producing steel plate, dishwashers, tanks, computer chips, and canned soup.  To create this industrial giant requires massive construction, investment in roads, bridges, seaports, airports, building of factories and manufacturing equipment.  Beyond that, it requires investment in the people who will run the factories, from the labor on the factory floor to the engineers who design the equipment, to maintenance personnel who fix the equipment, to the manufacturers of the spare parts.

An industrial economy is a learning economy – there is a new problem to be solved every day to make the Pez® ore smelters produce 1% more Pez© per day.  Sure, everyone knows the basic principles of x-ray lithography for producing semiconductors, but how many could produce a single functioning computer chip, even given a week and the ultimate set of repair tools from the 1950s?

I thought so, only 75% or so of you raised your hands.

The secondary sector produces tremendous numbers of jobs for the economy, and those jobs are generally the gateway jobs to the middle class and a means for social mobility upwards.  Solving problems in the Secondary Economy generally often led to great wealth for the inventor involved, unless you were Tesla.  Then you died broke in a hotel room with a pigeon you loved (Wilder True Fact®).

The Secondary Sector took the wealth produced by the Primary Sector and multiplied it.  It took $1 worth of paper and turned it into $100 worth of books.  It took $300 worth of steel and turned it into an engine worth $2000.  That increased wealth flowed to people all up and down the line, including the people making the purchases.  A car made in 1998 is categorically better in almost every respect than one made in 1968.  A Camaro from 1968 has about the same horsepower as a 2018 Ford Taurus SHO, so the wealth increases to both the manufacturer as well as the consumer as competition and constant innovation improved the quality of the product and the efficiency of production.

The Tertiary Sector

The Tertiary Sector are the services that the nation produces.  So, we went from the base wealth in extractable resources to extracting them to turning them into something useful.  Services are . . . everything else.  Technically, trash companies and nurses and teachers and bloggers and hotels and restaurants are tossed into this branch of the economy.  And they do valuable things, especially the bloggers, but they’re not where the money is.  The real money is in FIRE.

What is FIREFinance, Insurance, and Real Estate.

The miner mined Pez®.  The smelter produced precious Pez™ bullion.  FIRE makes more money off of Pez© than anyone:

  1. They make money by selling stock in the Pez© Company.
  2. They make money by selling futures in Pez™, betting on what the price will be a day or week or year in advance.
  3. They make money by selling bonds so the Pez® miner can expand his operations.
  4. They insure the Pez© ore smelter against the all too common Pez™ smelter explosion.
  5. They sell the Pez® miner a house. And loan him the money.  And insure the house and . . .

You can see that the main profits of the economy are pretty well sucked up by FIRE.

In general, it’s also sucked up by a fairly small number of people.  I mean, sure there are millions of people engaged in the above, but when you look at where the money flows, it gets pretty concentrated up top, and no, I’m not a member of Occupy Wall Avenue or whatever it’s called.

The amount of payroll that goes to folks in Finance alone is 1.5 times the amount that goes to manufacturing, on a per person basis.  So where do our best and brightest (who want money) go?  Finance.

The financial sector creates (in some cases) wealth out of nothing – so when people buying stock get spooked, the stock market can drop in value an amazing amount in a short period of time (remember 2008-2009?) and cause the wealth to just vanish.  The farm is still there, producing basset hounds, the trees are still there, converting sweet carbon dioxide into oxygen and wood, yet the markets collapse.

As we move up the economic ladder we move progressively from the tangible (a hunk of coal) to the intangible (computer storage that says you have a million dollars, not even a real million Susan B. Anthony coins to back it up).  And the intangible multiplies the profits.  When you turned $1 of paper into $100 of books?  You had physical assets.  In stock, the price is based on how many books the investing public thinks you can make and sell over the next few years, and what sort of profit that might generate.  Tertiary wealth, in many instances, exists only because we all agree it does, and we stop believing?  It disappears as fast as George R. R. Martin’s ability to write a coherent sentence (that man is NEVER going to finish).

The economy in the United States continues to move from a Secondary Sector economy to a Tertiary Sector, which has broad individual implications, which I’ll discuss in the next post.

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom - How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.

4 thoughts on “Economic Sectors and Where the Wealth Is”

  1. You picked a very late in life time to tell me to go into finance…. I would have appreciated the advice in 1985…..

    1. Okay, on it. Where’s my Delorean? Also, Buy Microsoft in 1992 and Amazon on the first day. You can thank me later.

  2. The entire economy is going tech. A lot of experts are saying that many traditional industries will be replaced by robots, AI, and the Internet of Things. Not sure I agree, but I do think that a lot of industries will be changed significantly.

    1. Absolutely – but we can’t all spend time selling each other Uber, either (especially when Uber is run by Cyberdyne Systems – who make Skynet sometime soon). Massive dislocation is directly ahead.

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