Thursday, November 21, 2013

What Does a "Free" Market REALLY Look Like?

Ah, the Free Market:  A haven for those who advocate that individualistic ideal of pulling one's self up by the bootstraps on wit.  The concept that lies at the very heart of the American Dream.  Many Regressives today feel that the concept is still the bedrock of our society and should not be interfered with at all by legal governance.  And while to a large extent on the local level it's still possible for entrepreneurship to thrive in our beaten-up economy, it takes far more than mere guts, grit and cleverness to succeed in today's world.  It also takes a great deal of lucky timing, opportunity and an environment that truly fosters the little guy's best hopes of success.

Unfortunately, our society is not one that does any of that.  In fact, it's quite the opposite.  

Our history with economic regulation is, of course, a convoluted one.  As I've mentioned in previous posts, from 1880-about 1929, we had a system of economics that was exactly what modern Regressives are calling for -- largely unregulated by the Federal Government and accountable only to those at the top -- known as the Gilded Age.  It was during this time that child labor was common, limits on working hours were unheard of, getting sick on the job was a precursor to immediate termination from said job and unsafe working conditions were to be expected in any factory, as were wages at pennies a day.  

The wide economic disparity between those on top and those on bottom, coupled with a complete lack of public infrastructural support for the bottom made the perfect breeding ground for crime, disease and social unravelling.  The Free Market ruled largely unchecked and society suffered greatly for it.  And as your average person couldn't afford to be unemployed for any length of time, the ability of the average person to choose their occupation or to find any opportunity for personal advancement beyond the whims of their employer was little more than gossamer.  The Free Market -- to the vast majority of people in this country -- was anything but free.

It wasn't until the Unions -- after long-awaited aid from the Federal Government -- finally started winning their bitter and often deadly fights with Big Business that society started realizing that Business was an exploitive force that required the power of society itself -- using the mechanism of government -- to check and balance.  Even with successful attempts to do so such as Teddy Roosevelt's Square Deal, it took the Great Depression to show that the Market was far too dangerous to be left to its own devices.  With the implementation of the New Deal under FDR, a regulatory framework was established that allowed the economy to stabilize and, by forcing Corporations to pay their workers a living wage -- with benefits and a future -- and by legally preventing the sorts of under-handed tactics that created the old monopolistic Trusts in the first place, we as a society provided for ourselves an leveled playing field where a rigorous Middle Class would assume its rightful place as the backbone of American Society for the next 40 years.  

Because they were legally kept in check from abusing their position of power, corporate profits were kept at a lower level, with the trade-off being a great increase in the standard of living for the average person.  Ultimately, while the Top 1% weren't making money hand-over-fist to the degree they are today, they still enjoyed a lifestyle luxurious even by King Solomon's standards.  And the average person stood a fighting chance at passing onto their children an even better life

Fast forward to the 1970's.  A new generation of anti-regulators began taking control of Congress, using flowery talking points and misleading rhetoric to hoodwink the public into supporting the gradual dismantling of the very framework that had held the nation together for so long.   Little by little, the corporate masters on top gained more freedom to behave as they pleased.  And like any sore winner in a game of "Asshole", they took more and more for themselves at the cost of everybody else.   This had several results:  (1) Profit margins went up (2) Wages for the average worker either dropped or stagnated (3) Benefits were cut (4) More and more people had to go into debt in order to keep their share of the American Dream and, ultimately, Corporate power became increasingly solidified as fewer and fewer checks were put in their way.  And the corporations, drunk on their newfound power, once again drove our economy into the ground.

Fast forward to today.  Some of the most profitable companies, free from the requirement to pay their workers anything approaching a living wage, famously disparaged their own workers for needing to go on the dole in addition to working full time.   Most products that people buy are owned and distributed by a small handful of power corporate cabals who exercise an undisputed nigh-totalitarian control over the world's economy.  We're rapidly returning to where we were 100 years ago.  

Within a Wild West society of unregulated self-interest, Social Darwinism begins to apply.  The advantaged ruthlessly weed out everybody else with no incentive to provide for the health of the society that raised them up in the first place.  When a corporation controls more money and resources than your average nation, what else can it be to a Republic like ours but an invasive threat?  Adding into the mix Citizens United, which essentially legitimized the outright buying and selling of our representative governmental policy by those with money, what chance do those without stand?

Without a level playing field, where those who profit most are required a certain enforced handicap to give everybody else a fair and fighting chance, one has to ask who's really free in such a market?  Certainly not the majority of Americans to any real degree.  And when faced with an invading force of a nation, what else can check it but the legal force of a nation?  

Without that legal force, the invasion of ruthless corporatism will only continue to grind the average person into the ground.  Regulation alone can do that.  And such regulation cannot come about when representatives are bought and sold at the whims of the rich.  I fear we must do as our ancestors did -- organize ourselves enough to regain control over the one force capable of leveling the economic playing field:  The Federal Government.

Before my Regressive friends start whining about a mistaken concept of Socialism, That's not to mean that I endorse imposing Russian-style Sovietism.  Government doesn't need to own the means of production in order to check & balance corporate power.  Individual enterprise flourished as never before when Eisenhower restrained corporate profits with high taxes.  As our Constitutional government is designed to work on the basis of Separate Powers to prevent Monarchs from solidifying political power in a single entity, so too must our society relate to economic powers.  There must be checks and balances between Big Government and Big Business if the average person is to stand a chance at bettering his or her lot.

Until the average person regains their greatest advocate in a governmental power accountable to them, I'm afraid that this is the fate that awaits us all.

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