January 12, 2018

A zombie lie that needs to be put to rest

“Zombie lie” is a term that has come into use in recent years. It means a false statement that keeps getting repeated no matter what the facts are.
It seems to me that the number of zombie lies walking around these days roughly approximates the number of undead flesh-eaters you might find on a good episode of “The Walking Dead.”
Some of the most prominent zombie lies these days have to do with the markets and the role of government.
Economist Dean Baker laid into one of the biggest zombie lies in his book, “The Conservative Nanny State.” It consists of the idea that conservatives support market outcomes while progressives rely on government.
Baker made the case that “both conservatives and liberals want government intervention. The difference between them is the goal of government intervention, and the fact that conservatives are smart enough to conceal their dependence on the government.”
The other big difference is that conservatives want to use the power of government to distribute more money to those who already have at the expense of everyone else.
There are plenty of ways this can happen. If you want a current example, you need look no farther than the vastly unpopular tax “reform” bill. It gives huge breaks to corporations and the wealthy that are likely to be paid for by cuts in programs for working Americans, seniors and kids — and favors those who inherit wealth without lifting a finger over those who work hard every day.
Then there are trade deals that expand the rights of multinational corporations at the expense of workers, communities, land, water and other natural resources.
Then there are numerous varieties of government subsidies for businesses ranging from the energy to financial to the agricultural sectors — not to mention the role that governments play in cleaning up the messes of the private sector, a term economists refer to as “negative externalities.”
Patents and intellectual property rights are in effect government sanctioned legal monopolies that protect their owners from free market forces. For example, this is the main reason the inexpensively produced prescription drugs cost so much to consumers. Any tiny modification of the drug in question extends the period of legal monopoly and freedom from competition. In a real free market situation, this would never happen.
Baker argues that bankruptcy laws allow the government to “act as a strong-arm debt collector for businesses that did not accurately assess the risks associated with their loans.” On the flip side, many West Virginia coal miners have found that bankruptcy laws also favor corporations that want to dodge long-standing promises to retirees, widows, and children.
“Tort reform” is a way for corporations to influence the government to avoid paying for the costs of the damages they may inflict on people, intentionally or otherwise.
Powerful interests are often able to use their influence to curb the government entities created to regulate them, a practice known as “regulatory capture.” (I could list examples from the current administration in Washington but it would take too much space.)
For that matter, corporations are government-sanctioned legal entities that are authorized to act as “persons.”
If all that wasn’t enough, it would be impossible to list all the times that the powers of the state — police, military, courts, prison, surveillance — have been used to break strikes, repress freedom movements, and defend big business interests at home and abroad, often at a high cost in human lives. You could fill a few bookshelves just with examples of that in West Virginia history, not that we teach our kids much about it.
All that looks like a (heavily armed) conservative nanny state for the well off to me. And it's way more generous than the one that supposedly exists to protect poor and working people.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose holiday is celebrated this month, came much closer to describing the real situation: “We all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free market capitalism for the poor.”
(This appeared as an op-ed in last week's Charleston Gazette-Mail.)