THE SEDUCTIVE APPEAL OF FREE MARKET CAPITALISM
INNER LIGHT BULB GOES OFF
Did you ever have one of those experiences where even though you’ve heard some argument hundreds of times, along comes one more repetition and BINGO! You get it! Finally! I had such an experience yesterday about why it is that so many Americans vote against their own economic best interests.
Background. On my way back from the Korean Mega grocery store out in Virginia, I was listening to the Kojo Nnambi show on NPR. His two hour talk show from noon until 2 PM, has been around since 1998. When he first arrived on the scene (he was at Howard University radio and Public Television station WHUT and still is) we all thought: “Who’s this African dude with the funny name and why should we listen to him?” Come to find out, Kojo selected his current name (he was born Rex Orville Montague Paul in Guyana in 1955) but since then he has become a fixture on NPR. The reason? He’s smart, articulate, knowledgeable, has interesting guests and despite some of the fools who call into his show, I've never heard him raise his voice or display the slightest hint of anger.
Yesterday’s show dealt with the AMTAK tragedy and in typical fashion, Kojo traced the history of Conrail (CSX) and AMTRAK from their creation by Congress in 1971. One of the callers asked why the rail system wasn’t privatized since – as the caller unshakably believed – if it was then the trains would be clean, efficient, speedy, cheap and run on time. He referenced European rail systems apparently not knowing that outside of Great Britain, all are government supported.
Kojo responded to the caller’s privatization meme by citing O. Roy Chalk’s D.C. Transit System, still operational (barely) when I arrive in D.C. that featured a filthy, old, rattling, constantly breaking down fleet of busses and how Mr. Chalk was the most hated man in the city at the time. I can attest to Kojo’s description. The truly dreadful condition of the private bus system was the impetus for the creation of the Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a compact among the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia that since 1967 has operated the region’s transportation systems.
Ignoring Kojo’s example, the guy went on an on about how the private sector because of competition always provided better, more efficient, cheaper services than public entities. Of course he is apparently unaware that Congress created AMTRAK and Conrail back in 1971 because the private freight and passenger railroads were bankrupt. (At the time Congress had the choice of nationalizing the railroads or privatizing them. So in their infinite Free Market competitive wisdom they chose the latter course, awarding Conrail the lucrative freight business and saddling AMTRK with the money losing passenger business.)
But listening to this man so passionately defending Free Market Capitalism in such glowing terms, maintaining that private enterprise would always provide better, cheaper, more efficient service (apparently he is also unaware of the gross rip-off that was the privatized portion of the War in Iraq) it suddenly occurred to me:
Of course. I finally get it. Free Market Capitalism IN THEORY is always perfect. And this is what this man and God knows how many other Americans believe in. Passionately.
That’s why people keep voting for these Free Market wazoos like Brownback in Kansas and Walker in Wisconsin (there are several more examples) because the theory of Free Market Capitalism sounds so attractive. The theory posits a kind of autopilot balance of supply and demand which determine fair prices, constant innovation and entrepreneurial effervescence, competition determining who wins and who loses, and where everyone gains and no one loses so long and you’re not lazy.
It really is seductive but, of course, those of us “in the know” understand that the reality of Free Market Capitalism is as far removed from the rose colored theory conservatives hawk ad nauseum than are the relative climates of the Earth and the Sun. But it sounds so good! And this is what I realized today. It’s the packaging of Free Market Capitalism as a vision of economic nirvana that keeps people from looking around them and actually seeing reality of our economic system today. As I’ve noted so many times before, the disaster that the drive to implement this imaginary economic system has wrecked upon the country is enormous. And yet people want to believe. They want to have hope for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And they believe that Free Market Capitalism is the means to this end. Ironically, this is the very same feeling that Obama so adroitly and successfully tapped into with his 2008 “Hope and Change” Presidential campaign. Unfortunately, the Tea Party and their radical conservative friends (the Koch Brothers) quickly emerged as the defenders of the status quo with their campaign of fear and loathing against the President and all things not theoretical, unfettered Free Market economics.
But we’re six years out now from January 2009, and as Kansas, Wisconsin, Louisiana and Pennsylvania are proving, the fiction of Free Market Capitalism – cutting taxes creates jobs – is beginning to wear unbearably thin. Do I believe that the guy who was raving about the success of the Free Market and the private sector will see the reality of Governor Scott’s and Governor Brownback’s fiscal and social destruction that are undoing the progress we have made as a society since World War II? No. He won’t. At least not until the next Mega Depression when he’s destroyed by the very system he so blindly praises. There are some folks who despite their own experiences, despite all the evidence around them to the contrary, all the destructive results, will still continue to believe that if they or anyone else fails, it’s their own fault. They will continue to cling to the idea of a Free Market economic nirvana just as long as they play by its rules.
God help them because Free Market Capitalism will not.