Yes, to get back to some sane, healthy economic strategy we have to confront the Wall Street/Robert Rubins of the world, the corruption of the electoral system and a whole set of adversaries. But, I would put at the top of the list the false framing of the choices before us as a nation, and as a planet. And a thank you, not intended, to Wal-Mart for providing the opportunity to make this point.
Yesterday, in New York City, the City Council held a hearing about whether the door should be opened to Wal-Mart to open up a store here. There is great opposition to caving into Wal-Mart from labor, community organizations and a whole slew of elected leaders, and a rally preceded the hearing.
Our billionaire mayor had this to say about the hearing and the rally:
"You should let the marketplace decide," he said. "Anybody who has tried to manage the marketplace, it has not turned out very well. I think the Soviet Union is as good an example as you’d ever need of that."[emphasis added]
"The marketplace" versus "The Soviet Union". That is the choice the mayor believes is before the city. Now, it would be easy to dismiss this foolishness as the musings of a billionaire who has been viewed as regularly out of touch with the concerns of regular people here (and, while I have been a consistent critic of the mayor on economic issues, it's also important to not create a black-and-white caricature of one man--he's been great on health issues, anti-gun legislation and he took a very courageous stand, while other politicians ran for cover, in support of the building of the mosque/cultural center in downtown Manhattan).
But, I think it's worth pausing to understand that his "marketplace" versus "the Soviet Union" set of choices is, in some way, the biggest challenge we face: how do we change the conversation from two opposite poles of a false set of choices? Meaning, the choices put forth by the mayor: giving our future over to "the marketplace" or, alternatively, embracing a future with a Soviet Union-style lifestyle.
I don't want this thought to get too bogged down with the "Soviet Union" reference because it's just goofy, and not befitting of the mayor's intelligence (I doubt he wants to be seen occupying the same intellectual space as Sarah Palin, who recently asserted that...I can't think of this without bursting out in laughter...the Sputnik space program sowed the seeds of the collapse of the Soviet Union because of the debt incurred pursuing Sputnik). And I think it is sad that the mayor, who defends religious freedom for people who practice Islam, undermines his moral authority by dredging up "the Soviet Union", which is still a powerful, if waning, emotional weapon to stain your opponent as dangerous or deranged or not serious or, the most obvious, a threat to the American way of life.
In reality, trying to pose two ludicrous, opposing poles ("the marketplace" versus "The Soviet Union") is a conscious or unconscious attempt to muddle the real debate: "the marketplace" versus "not-the-marketplace". A slightly more honest juxtaposition would have been: either you hand over your economic prospects to "the marketplace", which guarantees "freedom" and "progress", or risk economic Armaggedon by relying solely on "not the marketplace".
So, let's check this out first by looking at Wal-Mart. The people who oppose Wal-Mart do so because:
Wal-Mart has at least 80 class-action lawsuits in dozens of states pending against it.
Wal-Mart abuses women, and is the defendant in the biggest sex discrimination case in history.
Wal-Mart is a habitual tax-dodger.
Wal-Mart sued a disabled women, demanding she give back money she won in a settlement.
Wal-Mart exploits children in Mexico.
And, as for the "marketplace", Wal-Mart actually profits hugely by a phony market--brace yourself--a market that is the opposite of a "free market". China artificially suppresses wages by anywhere from 47 to 85 percent of what they should be. That labor system--not the currency difference that people obsess about--is the reason that Wal-Mart saves 10-20 percent on its global procurement, according to the Harvard Business School. In fact, Wal-Mart fought tooth-and-nail againstsome very modest improvements in labor laws. And China is getting too expensive for a lot of corporations.
What the mayor really is saying here is not that "the marketplace", which is a somewhat vague and faceless concept to most people, should decide instead of "not the marketplace" ("The Soviet Union"). The message is really: we, the people who control the levers of the economy decide, and the citizens, you lowly people, have no say--none--in the conditions we set. Even if that means women face discrimination, people don't have health care, and workers earn slave wages.
But, the story is much bigger than Wal-Mart.
If we are honest, the mayor's rhetorical view has been triumphant over the past 30 years. Truthfully, a lot of people have bought this rhetoric because it has been hammered into our brains for decades. We have suffered an economic Stockholm Syndrome: the purveyors of "the marketplace" have held us hostage and, yet, too often, we've identified with them, made them heroes and bought into their foolishness.
It is not wise to rant that we come to this point because of FOX News--because the stupidity of "the marketplace rules" is seen across the traditional media world, from "conservative" to "liberal" outlets.
And it is not wise to rant that we come to this point because of the Tea Party and Republicans--because this view is central to the dominant philosophy of the Democratic Party (yes, partly because of the corruption of the electoral finance system). For every economic ill, the economic response is now, from many voices, more tax cuts, make business more "competitive" and "government is too big". Unleash the marketplace! That'll solve it all!
What do THE FACTS say?
"The marketplace" gave us:
The Saving and Loan scandal--which cost the people tens of billions of dollars.
The most recent financial implosion--which cost hundreds of billions of dollars in lost retirement funds, home equity and, more important, earnings of the millions of unemployed people you can't get back those lost wages...ever.
A steadily declining wage base--and, indeed, the very debt burdens carried by so many of our neighbors because they just can't make ends meet on pay checks handed out by "the marketplace".
"The marketplace" has poured an unimaginable pile of wealth into a few hands--this is not a new phenomena but stretches back decades when the CEO-owner class, like an organized crime syndicate, figured out how to cut deals amongst themselves to pocket wages, pensions and stock options through a self-dealing circle of boards of directors and consultants who spun a fairy tale of "market competition" to justify what was, and is, legalized robbery.
And what of the record of the "not-the-marketplace":
"Not-the-marketplace" has meant Social Security--the greatest anti-poverty program in our nation's history that has kept tens of millions of seniors fro, literally, starvation.
"Not-the-marketplace" gave us health and safety laws that make it possible to work in places that aren't sweatshops--and though that system is far too shaky and porous, think of what it would be like without that system.
"Not-the-marketplace" gave us food safety laws so that you don't die from food you eat--and, yes, that system is creaky too.
"Not-the-marketplace" meant, at one time, a sharing of the wealth of the nation through a progressive tax system that once meant the rich paid a fair share of taxes.
"Not-the-marketplace" meant we had unions who helped give people some dignity, respect and power at work--which resulted in the greatest expansion of the sharing of prosperity in human history.
No one thinks that "the marketplace" has no role. But, people who want companies to behave based on community standards, or people who think that we actually should live up to the Constitutional promise to "promote the general welfare", or people who view the current state of our country's economic picture as a disaster--those folks do not think "the marketplace" is a God and are fighting hard to end the moral disgrace that "the marketplace" has saddled on the nation.