October 14, 2008
The twilight of the idols
Worshipping the golden calf. Image courtesy of wikipedia.
If there is a bright side to the current global economic meltdown, it might be the demise of one of the loopiest religious cults of recent times. The cult in question is that of the market god, which has dominated American political life for nearly the last 30 years.
According to this pseudo-secular cult, "the market"--an ideological abstraction or reification--is viewed pretty much the way monotheistic believers view God. It is all good, all knowing and, like the God of the Hebrew Bible, it is jealous--punishing the sins of disbelievers unto the fourth and fifth generation.
Like the God of the Bible, sometimes the ways of "the market" are mysterious and hard for us to understand, but we must remember that its ways are not our ways, nor are its thoughts our thoughts and that it ultimately works for the good of those who truly believe.
Don't get me wrong. I buy I lot of stuff in "markets," which in one form or other have been around for thousands of years. I don't advocate state ownership of the means of production or the abolition of private property--in fact I wouldn't mind having a bigger goat pasture. But to turn the process of exchange into the equivalent of an object of worship and to elevate this imperfect human idea and institution to the level of the highest good makes many other strange religious practices seem rational.
Say what you want about worshipping and sacrificing to Zeus the Thunderer or Dionysus the god of wine--at least thunder and wine really exist. But an ideal market in which rational actors optimize their decisions and, by pursuing their own interests without regulation or limitation, work for the benefit of all exists only in the heads of academic devotees or political hacks. The great conservative Edmund Burke referred to such people as "sophisters, economists, and calculators."
In the real world, the abstraction of "the market" involves imperfect competition; public subsidies for private wealth; externalities or the passing on social costs to workers, consumers and taxpayers; information asymmetry; speculation; and cronyism. The economy is a human institution and bears the human stain.
In the realm of public policy, devotees have put forward and in large measure enacted their program. They have pursued tax cuts for the wealthy on the basis of a counter factual claim that these "pay for themselves"--which is kind of like saying that taking gas out of your car is the best way to go for a long drive. And they have advocated deregulation of industry and the shredding of the social safety net, which brought us where we are today.
Capitalism could have used better defenders, ones who recognized that the best basis for such an economy of necessity requires some sense of the common good and policies that promote shared prosperity.
The verdict is in on the cult of the market god and the writing is on the wall. As in the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible, it says "mene, mene, tekel, uparsin"--weighed in the balance and found wanting.
MELTDOWN 101. Here's a pretty good overview of the current mess and how we got there.
ECONOMIC CARNAGE. CNN reports on a rash of violence in the wake of the economic meltdown.
CONGRATULATIONS to Princeton economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman for his Nobel Prize! The award came mostly for his academic work on issues of trade but he also deserves one for talking sense.
IN CASE YOU'RE WORRIED, here's an item from Newsweek about how the superrich are surviving tough times.
ANIMAL PLANET? Not so much. Many species are vulnerable to climate change.
GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED