The Meat Grinder

Conservative commentators (not that I listen to them, but their blather is hard to avoid) have been accusing Obama of rushing the U.S. down the road to socialism.

Would that be such a bad thing? Why, exactly?

Conservatives view the hallowed Free Market with a toxic and inflammatory religious zeal. This mantra goes back a long way, but it got a big push in the 1980s thanks to Ronald Reagan. The Free Market, we were repeatedly told, would solve all our problems.

Has it done so? Not that I’ve noticed.

But of course the conservative knuckle-draggers can come up with villains to blame for our current crop of woes, and we could parse recent economic history until the cows come home (assuming there are any cows left — not a safe assumption). So let’s look at the theory instead.

I’m not an economist, I’m just a reasonably smart person who sometimes pays attention and thinks about stuff.

The way it looks to me, the free market requires two bedrock conditions in order to operate effectively and produce the kind of beneficial results that we’d all like to see. When these conditions are present, the free market works a treat. When they’re not — watch out.

First condition: Buyers and sellers have to be in a many-to-many relationship. If I don’t like the widgets you’re selling, I have to be able to stroll down to the next tent and buy the widgets Joe is selling. If you’re the only source of widgets, market mechanisms do not come into play. You can grow rich selling inferior widgets to everybody. Likewise, if I’m the only customer in town who wants widgets, you and Joe and Pete and Amy and Louise are going to have to compete for my business. I can offer a ruinously low price, and someone will still sell me widgets, while the rest of you starve. Again, the market has not produced good results.

Second condition: Buyers and sellers must have equal access to information. If I come into your town, where a healthy many-to-many market for widgets is operating, and offer widgets for 1/3 the price of locally made widgets, I’ll do a booming business. But why are my widgets so cheap? Because they’re all going to rot in two weeks. I’ve cut corners on manufacturing. But the buyers don’t know that. To them, my widgets look just like everybody else’s. In this case, I have access to information (the defects of the widgets) that buyers don’t have. So again, the free market has failed to produce good results.

There is, in the U.S., some dim understanding of these facts. That’s why the FDA requires labels on food: Because food buyers need to have the same information as food sellers. But oh, how the food sellers hate those labeling requirements! Why? Because they’re greedy. They want to get rich by cutting corners. They do not trust the mechanisms of the free market; they want to rig the market.

This is why we need constant, intrusive government intervention in and oversight of the markets.

When the government has failed to oversee and intervene in business transactions worth billions, as happened in the banking industry during the past decade, the greedy bastards make a mess of everything. At that point, government has little choice but to come in and clean up the mess.

Not that I trust our current administration to do an effective job of reining in the banking industry. From what I’ve read, the fox is still guarding the henhouse.

What we really need is government funding of election campaigns. Get rid of campaign contributions entirely. If a Congressman is found to have accepted as much as $5 from a lobbyist … well, I can think of several things we might do to them both. Tarring and feathering would be just the start. But that’s never going to happen, because the folks in Congress are just as greedy and stupid as the rest of the human race.

The system is broke. Socialism doesn’t always work too well either, but I say, let’s give it a try. Hell, we’ve had socialism for the rich in this country for decades! How about socialism for the poor? Wouldn’t that be a step in the right direction?

Here’s a slightly more modest proposal: Everyone in the halls of government in Washington D.C. gets the same medical coverage as a Medicare recipient. They’re not allowed to buy better care privately; Medicare is what they get.

How long do you suppose it would take them to reform Medicare if that happened? A week? Yeah, probably about a week.

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