Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God

Reading Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God is not easy; if it were, I suppose I would have finished the book quite awhile ago. Part of the problem, of course, is simply that I don’t have much of a background in economics. However, reading the books is also complicated by a somewhat disorienting switch in tone from a formal, philosophic style to an in-your-face kind of salesmanship. I suspect the latter may, unfortunately, be a requirement to sell such a book to a wide audience. Still, it does not make it any easier to follow an argument.

That said, I’m finding much in the book that interests me. Even a simple statement of purpose helped me to focus on some ideas that I’ve considered but hadn’t quite put into words:

It is the argument of this book that destroying the old and making the world safe for billionaires has been as much a cultural and political operation as an economic one. Consider for a minute the factors-weak trade unions, a declining regulatory apparatus, and the outright repeal of the welfare state under presidents Reagan and Clinton-that distinguish the United States, with its New Economy, from the other industrialized nations. Aside from the technological advances of recent years (which may or may not live up to the world-historical importance we routinely ascribe to them), very little of the New Economy is new. What the term describes is not some novel state of human affairs but the final accomplishment of the long-standing agenda of the nation’s richest class. Industries come and industries go, but what has most changed about America in the nineties is the way we think about industries, about economies. Once Americans imagined that economic democracy meant a reasonable standard of living for all-that freedom was only meaningful once poverty and powerlessness had been over come. Today, however, American opinion leaders seem generally convinced that democracy and the free market are simply identical. There is precious little that is new about this idea, either: For nearly a century, equating the market with democracy was the familiar defense of any corporation in trouble with union or government; it was the standard-issue patter of corporate lobbyists like the National Association of Manufacturers. What is “new” is this idea’s triumph over all its rivals; the determination of American leaders to extend it to all the world; the general belief among opinion-makers that there is something natural, something divine, something inherently democratic about markets. A better term for the New Economy might simply be “consensus.”

If it wasn’t already clear before, it is now painfully clear I am officially living in the past, something ex-students tried to convince me of many years ago. I still believe that “Once Americans imagined that economic democracy meant a reasonable standard of living for all-that freedom was only meaningful once poverty and powerlessness had been overcome.” And personally, I find it rather disturbing that “Today, however, American opinion leaders seem generally convinced that democracy and the free market are simply identical.” I don’t believe that, and, quite the contrary, would argue that unfettered capitalism would probably lead to an oligarchy rather than a democracy.

Of course, the further I read the more I discovered just how far out of touch I am with most of our political leaders, including ex-President Clinton:

In a manner largely unprecedented in the twentieth century, leaders of American opinion were in basic agreement on the role of business in American life. Daniel Yergin, a great celebrator of the laissez-faire way, called the new conviction that government had almost no legitimate place in economic affairs the “market consensus”; in international monetary dealings it was referred to as the “Washington consensus. Luttwak exaggerates only slightly when he remarks that, “At present, almost all elite Americans , with corporate chiefs and fashionable economists in the lead, are utterly convinced that they have discovered the winning formula for economic success-the only formula-good for every country, rich or poor, good for all individuals willing and able to heed the message, and, of course, good for elite Americans: PRIVATIZATION + DEREGULATION + GLOBALIZATION = TURBO-CAPITALISM = PROSPERITY”

I am convinced that privatization of, oh, say, Social Security would in the long run be a disastrous mistake, endangering the economic well-being of a large number of our citizens. Removing environmental regulations and leaving the protection of the environment up to business would also be disastrous. Nor am I convinced that in the long run globalization benefits either third-world countries or ourselves, though I suspect such development is probably inevitable. I was more than a little shocked to learn that there were actually people like this:

For Texas congressman Ron Paul (a former Libertarian elected as a Republican), the market populist equation was so self-evident that he asked Congress to repeal antitrust law on the simple grounds that ‘bigness in a free market is only achieved by the vote of consumers.” Corporations are the product of a democratic process far more sensitive and sophisticated than elections; by definition corporate behavior reflects popular consent. Compared to the market, in fact, government just plain sucks. The marketplace, at least, yields up ‘profits for stockholders” and happiness for consumers while the actual institutions of democracy- the various branches of government-are staffed with what Paul called “little men filled with envy” capable of producing nothing.””

who had somehow managed to be elected to congress.

So far, though, the real “AHA” in the book has been this observation:

Backlash populism has envisioned a scheming “liberal elite” bent on “social engineering.” A clique of experts who thought they knew what was best for us ” busing integration, the coddling of criminals, co-existence with Communism. Market populism simply shifted the inflection. Now the crime of the elite was not so much arrogance in matters of values but in matters economic. Still those elitists thought they were better than the people, but now their arrogance was revealed by their passion to raise the minimum wage, to regulate, oversee, redistribute and tax.

All those years of teaching have finally had their effect for I have become an “elitist” worried about minimum wages and regulation of environmental controls. No wonder I resent Limbaugh and his ilk so much:

“Liberals fear me,’ he once wrote, because “I represent middle America’s growing rejection of the elites.” Limbaugh could be very specific about who made him mad. In addition to the liberal media conspirators who so haunted the imagination of nineties populism, Limbaugh extended his list of “so-called ‘professionals’ and ‘experts'” to include “the medical elites, the sociology elites, the education elites, the legal elites, the science elites … and the ideas this bunch promotes through the media.” In contrast to the “arrogance” of these elites, Limbaugh offered his own humility before public tastes. While their social programs revealed a contemptuous desire to use “all Americans as their guinea pigs,’ and while they wanted only to “grab even more power and control over the lives of individuals,” Rush wanted merely to “let the marketplace rule,” to let each of us “think for yourselves.” His success, as he repeatedly reminded listeners, was due to the fact that he respected us

There I am, part of the “educational elite.” Too bad I wasn’t more aware of that when I was being dismissed as a mere high school teacher.

Still, this vision of “liberals” as somehow part of an “elite” seems a rather accurate picture of what has just occurred in the latest election, where Kerry and his supporters were denigrated as part of an Eastern liberal elite, who were trying to undermine the “moral values” of everyday Americans.

It’s easy to image how many conservative Americans must have felt vindicated when so many bloggerts in the blue states accused Bush supporters of being “stupid.” You can just hear the “told you so’s.”

“I told you so! They think they’re better than us. Bastards. We showed them.”