Sunday, December 19, 2004

A Market Economy Gone Rogue

I am a lifelong ‘market economy’ supporter, a guy who thinks the major force behind our national success is surely part multi-ethnic, part individual opportunity, part regulatory simplicity, but mostly developing markets where they did not exist. The automobile may have been born in Germany but it saw its explosive growth in America. We pretty much invented and expanded the middle class to power the consumer engine, without which, market economy means the ancient vegetables-in-the-town-square model. There are, by the way, still vegetable markets in most of the town squares in Europe.

I applaud Henry Ford’s ‘Five Dollar Day’ as one of the major achievements of the 20th century. Henry knew that there’d never be enough customers for his cars unless the guy on the assembly line was able to buy one. Henry was a genius, a nut and a near-fascist, but he had that idea nailed and the market economy can name his five-buck day as well as any other for a birthdate.

But somehow it’s all gone off the rails and instead of innovating, developing and marketing, we’ve skipped the first two and gone directly to the last. Innovation and development were Ford’s long suits and he actually wasn’t much of a marketer, offering his cars in any color so long as it was black. Yet Ford and Edison, Whitney and Wright, Fuller and Salk are as much our founding fathers as Jefferson and Hamilton. These were product men, whether the product was flight or vaccine or a way to gin cotton. You had to stand back not to get run down by their success and yet it has become the fashion and the profit motive these days to flog the success ahead of the development and thus we’ve suffered through

  • drug      adverts that require whole pages      of disclaimers in glossy, feel-good double-page spreads and are then      pulled from the market because they kill people

  • wars      and political races that are ‘sold’ to us like patent medicine and bear      little or no reality to fact

  • misnomers      on a grand scale, as hundreds of ‘Concerned Citizens for this or that…”      turn out to be organizations that are industry-sponsored to fight the very      regulation their false names imply

  • spin      specialists that bend and warp and constrict truths in such a way that      right and wrong become interchangeable, subject to whomsoever has the last      and loudest word

  • a      pervasive feeling that nothing we hear or see any longer bears so much as      a nodding acquaintance with fact

  • the      degradation of trust in our trust-icons; doctors, lawyers, police,      politicians, teachers, parents, newspapers, television personalities and      even (perhaps principally) the clergy

We have become untrusting of one another as well, on the edge of a national paranoia. These past several political campaigns, airing some very ordinary differences between long-held political positions, were vindictive and personal in the extreme. The irony is that core American beliefs are not all that much changed and we see ourselves in the rosy glow of hope and freedom and purpose---it’s the other guy who’s hell-bent upon the destruction of the republic. That, I would posit, is the direct and uncomfortable result of marketing our differences red and blue.

Presidents are shameless band-waggoners and this president, more than any in memory, has jumped on the lead-horse of rhetoric over substance---saying it like it isn’t. The Big Lie repeated until it’s gotten used to by politicians, newspapers, oil companies, ‘green’ sounding organizations, school boards, corporate boards, husbands, wives, children and all those who make a buck from unrealistic expectation. Who really believes we can have a war and not pay for it, give trillions in tax breaks and never notice the revenue shortfall, put off environmental issues until we’re knee deep in arctic melt and make of the world a shell-game?

Like all social leakage, it’s our own damned fault that the air is let out of the American balloon. We pander to our lesser angels, consistently opting for credit over cash, the instant for the delayed, the comfortable belief instead of the difficult reality. And we’re good people doing this---the president does not wish bad things for the country, but it’s just no fun to ask citizens to give something immediate up for the long-term benefit. It’s become perfectly acceptable to lie, to let the next guy handle that and the next and the next until there are no nexts left.

I have no idea how we re-assert research and development into the market economy equation, other than to demand accountability. It’s tough, because you put a country to sleep citizen by citizen but it’s impossible to wake them the same way. They only wake in collective hysteria when the water is already knee-deep.

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