Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Free Market Collapses (Again)

Within the last century our economy has experienced peaks and valleys punctuated by (now) two depressions. Presently, we're not (neither, officially, is the NBER) yet referring to what we're experiencing as a depression. Although, if we add together the list of things we need to accomplish and/or repair - unemployment, poverty, educational inadequacies, health care, housing, financial regulation, manufacturing, farming, needed infrastructure maintenance, climate change, to name just a few - it is a daunting task, and nothing but "depression" can describe it.

It's also interesting to note that both of the worst economic times in our recent history occurred after bouts of, what I like to call, "free market flu." The belief that the market is somehow a lone, all-knowing entity. That it is not somehow merely a creation of, or lack thereof, laws and regulations and societal institutions (laws and regulations are kind of like the game-board upon which our actual lives are played). Each time we've allowed ourselves to reach a fever pitch of the ole' laissez-faire attitude - culminating in 1929 & 2008 - we've collectively destroyed far more wealth with our greed (once the bubble pops) than we gained from the short-sighted speculation beforehand.

Let's also keep in mind that the gains go to mostly a top, select few. "Free" market practices as preached by it's disciples have never produced the gains, growth, or shared prosperity that they claim. Our employment is basically the financial speculators' insurance plan. Keep enough rats running on the wheel so that we can still provide something worthwhile to sell in the global market, just to keep up enough credit-worthiness for Wall Street's movers-and-shakers to get Chinese loans to make highly-leveraged and risky financial bets on everything under the sun. But then everything blows up. The managers and brokers keep their bonuses, salaries, and options. The loses incurred because of their poor management are paid by the U.S. Government (us). They get a meal. We're just left with the bill. This is criminal.

This is what happens when a country believes a bit too much in it's own hype, and forgets to give respect to the professions that provide the real long-term capabilities for the Country to do quality research and development, to manufacture it's own necessities, to provide for it's own energy and transportation needs, and to have the intellectual capacities to make technological innovation possible. This isn't just economic security, it's national security.

When the shit hits the fan, everyone comes with their hand out to Uncle Sam. (Suddenly socialism and redistribution aren't such dirty words.) The U.S. Government is supposed to sit idly by while the Masters of the Universe * (aka The Fortune 500 & Wall Street) pontificate about how they can create financial innovations to reduce risk, increase credit, provide high-yield returns, and make everything it's utmost efficient because of a magic place called the market, where everything is Utopian if you just leave it alone.

But when you leave the market alone, if it should happen to destroy retirement accounts, pensions, jobs, or employment opportunities, you must simply step in to cover the market's debts (aka private speculators loses) and leave it be. If you try to regulate, the next time will only be worse. Even though the market is supposedly somehow always moving toward an optimal state without regulation. Supply-side economics: one incorrect economic assumption after another in circularly infuriating logic.

It's been the cause of two depressions. The effects of the misguided supply-side theories have impoverished generations. Can we please let go of the chatter as if this is some sort of credible economic theory? We know what works. We know what gives modest returns, predictable growth, and stability. Can't we just do that and stop appeasing the discredited free-marketeers?

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