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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 1/11/12

How Markets Fail

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The choices engendered by the paradox raise ethical questions, not the least of which is our responsibility to future generations. Those questions often arise in the context of how individuals procure the energy required for survival, including which means of production to employ. Two choices exist at each end of that spectrum. (There are degrees and variances.) One may cooperate in a division of labor based on merit where everyone shares in the production and distribution of the product, or they may appropriate other people's labor by means that may or may not be equitable. Historically, the former has produced the most efficient societies, which may deteriorate by virtue of the conflict between individual and collective interests that Darwin observed, which leads to adaptations through means employing something like the second choice. Without ethics, that will probably happen.

Stealing other people's labor requires force, deception, or a regime for stigmatizing some people as inferior and therefore subject to a higher class's right to exploit their labor. Part of that regime includes the accusation that all those who recognize the pervasive role of class in all societies are fomenting "class warfare." America is not exceptional in this regard. Class is more subtle here but it exists in crucial ways. We were the last civil society to ban slavery and we still exploit immigrants and the poor. Exploitation of other people's labor is embedded in capitalism. The less you pay for labor the more you profit from it. Like natural selection, the market makes no value judgments outside of profit--measured by the virtual wealth of money.

The market may discourage merit-based divisions of labor, encourage short-term strategies, and in other ways produce inefficient and wasteful practices. Deception suppresses relevant information to a point where agendas, not research, determine views of reality. Science becomes the enemy. Government stands by while the public suffers the extortion (like health care costs) of a privileged elite who pay very little for the public benefits they receive, insisting all the time that they have a right to keep all their money and be free from taxes. Within this world view, ethics only get in the way of the righteous pursuit of profit.

How the ethical questions raised by the paradox Darwin identified (community versus individual interests) are answered will determine whether a culture will prosper or end up like Somalia and other places where corruption and intimidation prosper. We are what we adapt to. No invisible-hand exists for ethics. If natural selection cannot sort out the short term from the long term at the outset, the market certainly cannot.

Competition is a sacred cow in America, but natural selection demonstrates how destructive it can become when contests between individuals damage the wealth we all require to survive. Survival requires a set of norms for internalization by individuals and for public policy that limit destructive competition. No market exists for that purpose. The market cannot, in light of the paradox, resolve the conflict between individual aspirations and community needs.

These points remain obvious, uncontestable by anything but denial, yet propaganda by extreme conservatives has blocked all discussion and substituted slogans for facts. When crippled by manipulation, the market serves that purpose by ignoring the obvious lethal consequences of our present means of production and distribution--putting aside these consequences as so called "externalities."

Another overlooked feature of natural selection defines what we worship. It defines "God" as the thing we believe we must obey to survive. Natural selection dictates that result. Those who make the right choice survive. When we were hunter-gatherers, we worshiped animals. We only killed what we needed and what we needed was clear. Later we observed the mathematical certainty of the stars and worshiped the heavens. Math made technology possible--including virtual wealth like money. Virtual wealth has the unfortunate feature, unlike food, of not disclosing how much is enough to satisfy its holder.

Today few possess any hard assets. Most people survive on wages or income from small businesses. Their sole means of survival depends upon money. Consciously or unconsciously, they worship money. The logic and mythology of money governs their decisions. The world's oldest con game establishes a priesthood that claims all knowledge of God--a very marketable commodity in the context of worshipping idols. The world of finance is filled with people who play the role of priests to a public made slaves to money. They invent all sorts of mythical algorithms that are supposed to disclose the logic of money--the idea being that money has its own invisible-hand that they can divine. While considerable controversies arise over what constitutes the logic of money and the meaning of its myths, several precepts provide bedrock for the extremes the religion of money fosters. They reflect the marriage of Calvinism and virtual wealth.

As God, money may determine how we perceive virtue. Those who have money God loves and those who do not have money God does not love. Therefore, any support from government interferes with God's judgments. Like athletes on steroids, it distorts the competition to prove God's love. Only self-made men need apply. With some obvious exceptions, acquiring money serves God's purposes. Those who make it need not concern themselves with decency. The unintended consequences, the externalities, and the impact on the needs of others are all forgiven by God's love. The act of making money is sanctified. How you make it and how much you can get of it that way provides the basis for class in America. Money as God becomes self-validating.

So goes the logic and myth of money at its extremes. As extreme as this sounds, no other algorithm explains the irrational behavior that has gridlocked all solutions to what are becoming insurmountable problems, such as global warming. The use of taxes to provide equitable reallocations of wealth that are necessary to finance changes in production and to discourage harmful means of production have become unthinkable even to those who claim liberal credentials. I refer the reader to Robert Frank's definitive exposition of these points (The Darwin Economy ). He discloses how some transfers of wealth, unthinkable to many conservatives, can make needed changes possible, affordable, and equitable. His research leads him to conclude that a society that does not transfer some income from the rich to the poor (by taxes) always ends up addressing the needs of the poor in much more costly ways (p 111).

While few will admit their fealty to money, everyone is consciously or unconsciously infected by it to some degree or other. We are what we adapt to and much of what we must adapt to turns on money. It is a matter of survival. Nothing will change until the means of production and distribution change and that will not happen without an accounting system that reflects the real costs, including externalities of the way we do business. We cannot design sustainable means of production without full accounting. If wasting makes money, there will be waste. One can underestimate the value of money as a facilitator of commerce. The mistake more frequently made assigns intrinsic value to money. It is a tool not to be worshipped, as in the Bible's First Commandment, as a craven image.

One of the great mysteries for me, which I can only explain through the religion of money and the common individualistic goal of "Making It Big," the America pathology, is how people can fear big government but not fear excessive wealth in the hands of so few. These concepts justify the strange idea that power in the hands of a representative, democratically-elected government is somehow more dangerous than power in the hands of a largely unaccountable financial oligarchy.

This oligarchy has decided that the way to address the shortfall in real wealth caused by technology and by the population explosion is to return to an industrial form of feudalism rather than to increase efficiency and sharing. Their vision of the future is one in which a small elite hold a monopoly on wealth and knowledge. The masses attend substandard schools and lack access to health care or higher education without crippling sacrifices to pay for extraordinary costs. Most will work, until the day they die, for what do not amount to minimum wages today.

I have concluded that nothing can change as long as people continue to adapt to the wrong thing. As long as money provides the measure of all things, corruption will continue. Change requires a different accounting system, one based on resource consumption. Taxes on damaging activities and consumption are more effective than regulation and are better for the economy than traditional taxes. Frank, The Darwin Economy , outlines the ways various consumption taxes can help the economy that put the lie to many assumptions about the market.

Survival of the species provides the sustainable basis for morality and ethics. Morality not based on the survival of our children's children, as a first principle, only serves the agenda of the Religion of Money. Our true moral imperatives have more to do with resource efficiency, conservation, and the cooperation of brotherhood than with what often passes for social mores.

What we observe in Congress today more resembles an inquisition than a deliberative body studying the facts and arriving at solutions. The high priests of the Word demand fealty to a catechism supporting their agenda regardless of the consequences on the ground. The things that really matter, such as feeding, clothing, housing people, and a future for the generations to come take a back seat to philosophical purity. A society that fails to put the children first may not claim moral superiority. Ethics that do not provide for the future fail. If we abandon the wisdom of our genes, God will abandon us. Unbridled competition between individuals merely decides who dies last.

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I practiced law for 30 years as a city attorney. I taught elementary school before that. I became concerned with the many adaptations to our environment that I could not believe could be sustained. How could so many rational people adopt clearly (more...)
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