"What if" is a game for suckers.
What if you'd bought Apple stock when it was $20 a share? What if you'd majored in engineering instead of English? What if we'd known what those men were up to when they walked onto planes the morning of September 11. Whether it's something small or something very large, playing the what if game just invites useless regret and pointless woolgathering. It leads to fantasies of what might have been, rather than dealing with what is.
On the other hand, there's more to history than just a catalog of dead facts. Or at least, there should be. If we don't look to the past for examples, if we don't extrapolate, if we don't learn, then it's not just the past that's dead. It's us. We need to study those points where decisions were made for good or ill, where history took a turn. We need to understand how things went wrong if we ever expect to set them right.
There are many who are still intent on forcing Occupy Wall Street to cough up a list of demands and a set of leaders to present them. But Occupy Wall Street isn't about demands, it's about making a statement. It's a statement that the current system isn't working for the average American (and based on the the worldwide events this weekend, it's not working for a lot of people in a lot of places). It's a statement that the common people seem to have been abandoned by a government that cares more for corporations than for workers, more for the rich than the poor, more for the powerful than the weak.
The system as it stands is definitively broken. We've so wrecked the balance between workers and corporations that many people are willing to accept anything, anything, if they're told that it means a pay check. So how did we get there? Where was the crossroads where we hooked right when we might have gone straight or taken a left? Is it capitalism itself that's at fault? No... and yes.
It's only relatively recently that people began to think of capitalism as something that didn't include the government; that it was somehow preferable to have a "pure" market, and that this represented some more American system (though it is nothing like the system on which the nation was founded). This may be the most cancerous idea to take root in in a century.
Take a look on the field this week as baseball finishes up league play and heads into the World Series. In addition to the two teams, there are also a handful of umpires on the grass and behind the plate. There's also a lengthy set of rules that define balls and strikes, outs, balks, and such arcana as the infield fly rule. Do you think the game would function without those men and without the rules? Would it be better if innings went as many outs as the batting team desired? If the pitcher could throw at the batters without consequence? If plays could be settled by swinging a bat at other players? Would it still be baseball?
The rules aren't just a part of baseball, they are baseball. Executing those rules under those supervision of the umpires is what it means to play the game.
Functional capitalism has always required the same thing: rules and people to enforce those rules. Regulation isn't external to the system. The government's role in capitalism isn't one of an outsider placing restrictions on the market. The government makes the market. It shapes it and enables it, allows the market to function. A good government controls the market so that the market serves the citizens. It uses that market to set the price of goods, provide capital for new industry, and offer opportunities for investment. When the market doesn't handle those tasks well, government adjusts the regulations so that it can. When someone finds a loophole, government sews it shut. The regulations aren't an imposition on the market, they are the market, they define it, just as the rules define baseball.
It's just as ridiculous to expect the market to police itself as it would be to expect a baserunner to walk off the field if no one is calling outs. Games, and markets, are made to work through rules. Rules only work if they are enforced. If the game no longer serves the fans, or the market no longer serves the citizens, then the rules need to change.
When we look back over the last half century, we see a market that increasingly veers away from its role of serving the citizenry. Especially in the last three decades, the market has moved form being a vehicle designed to allow investment in companies that create goods and services, and become the target of its own interest. It's turned into a banquet of fiscal self-cannibalism. It does not serve the citizens, and in fact represents perhaps as great a risk as any enemy extant.
Without engaging in a lot of what if and if only, is it still possible to see where we went wrong and understand how we might set things back on course? How did we lose the market as a tool of the government, and instead turn the government into a servant of the market?
One way was in an increasing push for deregulation. Broad calls for weakening the government's role in policing the market—closely tied to the idea that markets were somehow more effective in the absence of government—has been the harbinger of downfall again and again. In particular the destruction of the Glass–Steagall Act, was directly responsible for eroding the boundaries that allowed the most recent fiscal collapse to become more massive. Deregulation was the first strike.
Another way in which markets ceased to serve the nation was in becoming engines of wealth concentration rather than means of wealth creation. There are several factors involved, including the creation of unregulated instruments that allowed trading in complex derivatives. However, even more important in this change was the reduction of top income tax rates and capital gains taxes. With no bounds at the top and no penalty for accuring more and more wealth, the system lost all incentives for creating investments and rewarding workers. Effects as diverse as sending jobs overseas and draining pension funds are directly attributable to massive reductions in taxes that allowed this wealth to pass into much fewer hands. Wealth concentration was the second strike.
This final way in which this market has turned against the public, is in declaring that it is the public; that corporations are not just citizens, but super-citizens privileged to levels of leverage and political favoritism well beyond that enjoyed by flesh-and-blood citizens. Corporate citizenship has such powerful implications in both the short and long term, that unless it is swiftly addressed, the whole idea of market and state will be perverted. It's the third strike, and it's a big one.
If we hadn't deregulated banks and markets, we wouldn't be facing the kind of disaster that we've seen over the last three years. If we hadn't drastically reduced tax rates for the wealthy, we wouldn't have seen pension funds dry up and middle class wages stagnate. If we hadn't given corporations more and more political clout, we wouldn't be where we are—in a broken system that serves them, not us.
But what if is a game for suckers. The question isn't where we went wrong, it's what we do about it.
The occupy movement is a withdrawal of consent. It's not a war on capitalism. It's an acknowledgement that we are doing capitalism badly, and in a way that does not serve to help real people in their real lives. To repair the system will require government to step up and take action.
A good first step might be remembering that the market belongs to them, and not the other way around.