Dining on ourselves…

by rsbakker

So I was thinking I would write about the Gee, 20 Something, given that I live a mere two hours away from the epicentre. After reading through the post summit coverage, I was left with the feeling that it amounted to little more than the most expensive political photo-op in Canadian history. Apparently, after spending 25 years kicking the middle-class in the nuts and delivering the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, it turns out another, even bigger kick in the nuts is exactly what we need.

My primary interest going into the summit was China. I’ve always been mystified by how a community of democratic nations that allows their currencies to float in open markets could allow an authoritarian one that fixes its currency to continue to leverage ever greater trade imbalances. Corporate lobbying? Free trade ideology, so dogmatic that it is pursued even when it’s so obviously one sided?

Of course, the Gee, 20, let China slink about in the safety of the summit shadows.

For the record, I genuinely believe that markets are an incredibly efficient way to distribute commodities, in certain contexts, given certain conditions. I also think we have a pretty good idea what those contexts and conditions are. I find it ironic to the point of inducing migraines, that the promoters of markets – which are so effective precisely because of the way they spontaneously organize communities in ways that solve super-complicated problems of distribution – can be so simplistic as to think that they solve all problems.

Markets require populations with market-amenable traditions. Markets require a plurality of players to propose ‘solutions’ – products – that they can then select between. Markets require robust legislative frameworks to minimize the chances of producing calamitous outcomes. Yet people think they can plant markets in any cultural context and they will magically flourish (think of the Bush administration’s economic reorganization of Iraq). People think that two or three immense corporate bureaucracies (central planning, anyone?) actually constitute genuine competitive markets. People think markets are oracular, that they are a kind of social end, rather than another social means.

Markets do not give a damn. They will starve as blithely and efficiently as they will feed (though when they work for us, their efficiency will generate enough to prevent starvation). They reward bargaining power, not ingenuity or piety or determination (though when they work for us, they will often reward these things with bargaining power). They are every bit as imperfect as that other maligned human institution: the government.

The question with markets, always, is how do we make them work for us.

Am I an ideologue for thinking this?

It flatters English professors to think the world is made of texts, because it renders their specialty the specialty. Likewise, it flatters Economics professors to think the world is made of numbers. But the world is made up of people living their lives working for the benefit of other people. And middle-class prosperity (though it might slit our environmental throat) seems to be a cornerstone of the industrialized world’s success – not ‘GDP.’ Erode that cornerstone, and you erode the foundation of that success. After twenty five years of middle-class stagnation, after twenty-five years of funnelling more and more bargaining power to the upper class, I think it’s high time we cut our losses, and start new experiments with ‘leftist’ economic policies, perhaps resign ourselves to slower, but more evenly distributed growth.

Markets are as good at distributing goods as they are at concentrating bargaining power. Tax the rich now, so that we don’t have to eat them later. Lord knows they’ve been scarfing down all our surplus labour.