Monday, February 03, 2014

Taking a Hammer to a Life

What if a well-known company were to release a new hammer to your local big-box hardware store? And what if that hammer proved to have a design flaw that caused the head to separate catastrophically from the handle resulting in scores of deaths and hundreds of injuries to users and bystanders? What would happen? You might consider the question rhetorical because you know what the answer is; it's happened thousands of times. The hammer would be recalled, redesigned and re-released for sale. The manufacturer would be held accountable for the deaths and injuries and the world of weekend projects would be safe again.

Tool makers learned that users expect safer tools than our parents and grandparents used. There hasn't been a circular saw released in decades without a rotating blade guard. There are still the occasional user who disables the guards but they wind up with new nicknames like "Lefty" or "Nine Fingers".

It all seems so simple. Users learned that they didn't have to risk loosing a finger while using a saw; manufacturers learned that they couldn't release dangerous tools with impunity. Laws and regulations were created or updated to protect users driving a cycle of improvements and innovations but most importantly of fewer injuries and deaths. Tools were improved to work better and to be less harmful.

This isn't about hammers in the literal sense; this is about tools in the broader sense. But the lesson pertains.

Conservatives, in general, and so-called "business leaders" specifically love to talk about "The Market" as though it were something created at the time of the Big Bang; as though it were a Platonic reality, casting it's shadow over the world. For the their part the general public has accepted this framing: if they have no economic training they accept the word of the the framers; if they have taken even a token Econ101 course they learned from books written by the framers.

We all know that the victors get to write history.

The system we call "The Market" is a tool. It was cobbled together over centuries of business and wars and political wrangling. But the people doing all of the wrangling were those with the power to influence the process and - NOT coincidentally - those who would benefit most from the end product. These were the people who would never be injured by their own product. They never had to worry if the hammer would fly apart and injure them or their family. They got to write the history of the development of "The Market". But it was an odd history. Not one of incremental accretion. No, their history was of a force (an "Invisible Hand") that had always existed. Like some form of economic Physics that underlies the whole universe. A law of gravity for money where some people had some sort of invisible mass that somehow made them attractors for wealth while others did not.

Their history of course is a lie, but they are the victors to whom go the spoils. An aphorism written by a victor, of course.

Markets are tools. Like hammers and saws they can build wonderful things, but they can also cause great harm and misery. They need to be better regulated and perhaps redesigned so as not to cause so much injury and death. Despite what the victors will say - and no matter how much they protest - we CAN redesign the economy. Real tool makers protested that they could never create a saw or hammer that was safer. Then they changed their story saying that if the did redesign their tools the resulting items would be so expensive that nobody would be able to afford them. Then under pressure from consumer protection watchdogs and consumers they did the "impossible" and made safe, affordable tools.