President Reagan was not the originator of this central trope of free-market (neo-liberal) politics, but he famously said in his first Inaugural Address in 1981, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” President Clinton, a Democrat, continued this theme during his terms culminating the the deregulation of the financial industry in 1999 setting the table for the collapse of 2008 and the Long Recession. Listening to almost any discussion by Republicans and Democrats you can find this theme, “If just get government out of the way, free markets will solve our problems.”
This ideology is ahistorical, counter-factual nonsense. It is asserted without any basis in fact. It is rhetorical cover for policies that have led to the vast enrichment of the wealthy and corporations and the impoverishment of everything public.
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“There” is our current situation in which our government has been bought by the rich and corporations, over 80% of the population has not had a pay raise in 40 years and the public sphere, schools, parks, our infrastructure, really anything not behind the gated walls of private wealth, is being starved in the name of free market ideology. The American promise that hard work, pluck and a bit of luck can bring success to anyone, regardless of their rank at birth, is an empty myth. If you are born poor you will die poor. Even if you are middle-class, there is a significant chance that you will sink and at any rate you will always struggle just to keep that middle-class status.
The rich and corporations have waged a 40 year class war. At this point they have won all of the battles and continue to take home the spoils.
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The values of capitalism, especially as expressed through free market (neoliberal) ideology, have come to dominate how we organize our lives. Silicon Valley and the tech sector is busy celebrating the “gig” economy. Companies have simply stopped hiring employees and now conduct much of their work using “temps”, “1099ers”, part-time contract workers. The companies, and the champions of free markets, tout this as a wonder of flexibility and opportunity. For gigers not being recognized as an employee means that they lose out on all sorts of direct and indirect benefits long part of the contract between employers and employees: minimum wages, overtime benefits, health insurance, workers compensation for those hurt on the job, unemployment benefits for those who are laid off, proof of employment for those trying to rent or get a loan, and, perhaps most significantly, lower taxes (workers who are “independent contractors” have to pay the employer’s share of payroll taxes, thats an additional 7.7%). Part-time employees have no regular schedule, in many cases no regular place of work, no regular contact with other employees, or even a job at all. They are the ultimate commodity, entirely replaceable with very few contingent liabilities for companies.
American higher education long ago became an essential part of the corporate state and therefore focus for application of free market ideology. As the accompanying chart shows, in 1975 the contingent faculty (full-time non-tenure, part-time and graduate assistants) made up 55% of the academic workforce.
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As the presidential campaign of 2016 fades away and the Trump Era begins, we find a national scene without any real discussion of the facts of jobs and unemployment and what the future might bring. Trump and others talk about bringing manufacturing back to the US. No plan, plausible or otherwise, has ever been mentioned for how to accomplish this. The Democrat are hardly better. Much has been made and continues to be made of the role various trade agreements have had in the loss of manufacturing jobs. Even Bernie Sanders can do no better than talking about creating millions of good paying jobs through a national infrastructure program. It is laudable to fix the infrastructure that has become third world, but that is not a long-term jobs strategy.
There are structural changes in the capitalist economy that must be understood and accepted as fact. Lets begin with a few examples. US steel production, one of those lost American industries, is now as high as it was at the beginning of the 1960s.
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– The Morning After –
The election of Trump and the continued Republican control of both Congress and Senate guarantee that the rich will continue to get richer at the expense of the shrinking middle class and further aggravate conditions for the poor. Trickle down economics and tax subsidies will flow for the rich and corporations. The financial sector will buy its way out of the weak regulations of Dodd/Frank and lurch towards new adventures in gambling; a financial disaster will once again require the socialization of their risk at taxpayer expense.
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There is more evidence that the current run of religious mania about “free markets” is finally giving way to a more fact-based approach to this important human invention, many countries are now applying capital controls on the flow of monies into their economies. The world flood of money seeking higher rent districts is terrorizing smaller economies like a tsunami. Fears of speculative bubbles burgeoning and then bursting with disastrous consequences for local economies are driving many to control inflows. Recently the NY Times posted an article about this phenomenon, “Countries See Hazards in Free Flow of Capital”.
“The world has learned about the perils of free market finance — global financial liberalization just does not work as advertised,” said Dani Rodrik, a political economy professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “Just as John Maynard Keynes said in 1945 — capital controls are now orthodox.”
Despite the obvious lessons of the last 4 years, “free market” advocates, just like religious zealots throughout history, remain undeterred by the facts on the ground. Financial firms ride along with this zealotry because its suits their business strategies to a T. Nevertheless, some governments, in the face of what must be enormous pressures from the world financial industry that profits coming and going in these financial boondoggles, are facing up to the facts and doing their best to take actions to control the impacts of markets on their local economies. Unfortunately for us in the US, we have no such governments. Ours are owned more than ever completely by big money, overwhelmingly by big corporate money and the super plutocracy of the super rich. They have always known that “free markets” is a wonderful religious cover their control over the real wheels of commerce and politics.
“Free market” has always struck me as a rather strange phrase. Never more so than in this period of financial market disasters. The phrase ‘free market’ continues to be used reflexively. Just as commentators go right on speaking of Wall St. as a source of capital and innovation, few want to ask out loud why we need most of Wall St.’s “services”; few people are openly using the most obvious words to describe these services as gambling; and, we go right on using this phrase, “free market” to describe an economy that is not free and in many sectors not a market. A recent exception to this are the comments of Ben Friedman, a professor of economics at Harvard, who said, speaking on the PBS Newshour of the continuing high percentage of our “best and brightest” going to employment on Wall St., “…it’s all the more troubling when I think that, after they leave us, so many of them go into activities that are not economically productive for the country, for society, even, just narrowly, for the economy.”
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What Is the Function of Wall St.?
The global financial meltdown of 2008 – 2009 with its ongoing sequelae seems not to have definitively demonstrated the dangers of our continuing belief in the religion of “free markets” nor shaken, especially it seems in the Obama administration, our thrall with Wall St. and all things financial. We are seeing the combined effects of Wall St.’s funding of the Democrats and Republicans, the primacy of Wall St-ers in positions in government, and the tendency of the rest of us to want to beat the table and make wonderfully large profits (winnings). A deeper question here is what is the function and usefulness of gambling in the financial markets for our overall economy and society?
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