There’s been a great deal of discourse in the liberal media about all of the things we can do now that we have a “liberal” president. Finally, there’s the opportunity to put sensible economic, environmental, educational and health policies into effect. The atmosphere is awash in hope and dreamy-eyed, Utopian visions. We’ll finally have a fairly distributed economy with meaningful work and opportunity for all. Our planet will be cleaned and saved from the ecological catastrophe of global warming. All of our children will be educated and all of our health needs will be met. Hallelujah!
Well, I hope they’re right. Indeed, the strategies that I read about appear to be sensible. It makes sense to expand access to wealth on the demand side. We know this. It’s no radical departure from capitalism, unless we include Henry Ford as a radical socialist. No, he understood, as do all economists worth their weight in credentials, that for business to succeed people must have disposable income. So he payed his employees well with the knowledge that they would in turn purchase his cars. And he was right.
This also makes sense on the global scale. Impoverished countries are a drain on the global economy and a cradle of instability, violence, terrorism and pollution. By investing in infrastructure and schools in third world countries the world would be considerably safer, cleaner…and richer. So why do mega-corporations hesitate to implement this sensible idea?
Investing in education, rather than relying on local governments to define school policy makes sense. Educated people make better financial decisions, are more employable, have less children and are less likely to rely on social services. Increasing funding to education means decreased expenditures in other areas and a more versatile and innovative work force.
Clean environments mean healthy people. Healthy people are better able to acquire an education, with the consequent benefits thereof. They are also more productive, prosperous and likely to spread their disposable income far and wide, building new business opportunities.
We know all of this. I’m not saying anything contentious here. So why do we struggle so hard to advance these very sensible policies? If it was just a matter of profit, there would be no hesitation. We would all have our economic, educational, environmental and health needs met. It just makes sense from a free market perspective.
But this is where the Friedmanites of postmodern capitalism have neglected the discourse of economy, that is political economy. Yes, all of the policies above make sense from a financial and economic perspective. But it’s not just about the money. It’s about the power. It’s about the political economy.
The policies above would make everyone better off, and would increase the profit margin of all businesses. However, they would also make everybody freer, more autonomous, and more likely and able to pursue their own ends (which is what freedom means). Power, like wealth, is also a zero sum game. If common people are more empowered, that means corporate and even government entities have less. This is the rub. Wealth is tied up with power in a mutual bond. Those who acquire wealth often acquire power along with it and may be uninclined to sacrifice either.
So economic interests ally with political interests to not only maintain a ready flow of wealth into the hands of a chose few, but also to maintain the established distribution of power. I hypothesize that under these conditions, if there’s a choice between sacrificing wealth or sacrificing power, wealth will be sacrificed. This is the lesson of the nineteenth century, played out in the beginning of the twentieth as well as during the Great Depression.
In the nineteenth century the people in many countries felt alienated from the sources of power and wealth and were willing to their societies apart to express their malcontent. In some cases they did just that. From an elite perspective the nineteenth century was a hundred year exercise in re-establishing and maintaining elite power in the flash-flood of enlightened concepts of individual freedom. This exercise was painful, expensive and brutal.
In the twentieth century, when the riots began again, most of the elite still endeavored to maintain both wealth and power. Some, however, realized that if the status quo was to be maintained something would have to be sacrificed to the pedestrian masses. So investment was made. A social safety net created, protections put in place for children and workers. A little wealth made its way to the courser classes…and the status quo was maintained.
The late twentieth century and early twenty-first is the era of re-alignment toward the Gilded Age standards that ushered in the early twentieth century discord. In addressing matters such as the wealth gap, the uninsured, environmental sustainability and education gaps, as with any other issue, we can’t just focus on the obviously “sensible” solutions. We can’t just assume that the last thirty years are the fruits of “insensible” leadership. Power must be accounted for in our claims and actions for creating a better, more just world. Yes, if we critique the last thirty years from an economic perspective it appears that the actions of our politicians and corporate leaders “make no sense.” If, however, we factor power into the equation we see a more comprehensive strategy among the top tier.