“Conservatism” and Market Failure

Save the Rich: Discipline the Poor!

I grew up going to anti-Vietnam War protests and Impeach Nixon rallies; there is a picture of me in the New York Times, in the early 1960s, with my mother, an active member of Women Strike for Peace, at a Ban-the-Bomb rally at the UN — in my stroller: a Red Diaper Baby, indeed!

I continue to think of myself as a committed Progressive — though the meaning of that term has been something between blurring and curdling for some time now.

On the other hand: I have spent two decades writing for business publications; I spent eight years teaching writing at MIT; I think of myself as someone firmly connected to facts-on-the-ground, to data, to economic reality.

From those twin perspectives: I’ve been confused and upset by long term trends in “Conservative” circles for some time now — and I’ll get to the reason for the quotes in a moment.

What Should Government Do?

I have a few friends and acquaintances who identify as Conservative; they are, for the most part, good and rational people.

Arguing about “what government should do,” “at what level,” “at what cost,” “paid for how”? Those are all perfectly reasonable questions; those are discussions — or arguments — that we need to have, if we are to figure out how to better “organize” the country, how to “make things — and people — work.”

We disagree?

Of course, we do!

That’s fine; that’s normal; that’s democratic back-and-forth, political discourse; that’s how things are supposed to work.

One core Conservative credo is, “The government does best that does least.”

Okay . . . an argument can be made.

There is, of course, always some rational — if disputed — floor.

Some people, for example, would argue that it is the role of the federal government to control the borders, defend the country, and maintain a national currency: period; done; that’s it. The rest should devolve to states or more local jurisdictions.

Okay . . . an argument can be made.

Undergirding much of this is the idea that “The Market Unfettered,” and “The People” —both unburdened as much as possible by taxation and regulation— would do a better job of allocating resources, satisfying needs, and creating necessary infrastructure, than any micro-managing-interfering-government-bureaucracy could.

Okay . . . an argument can be made.

To be clear: I am entirely serious and sincere when I say these are reasonable things to discuss, and to argue about.

But, back to those quotation marks around Conservative . . .

The Republicans — because, really, that’s what this is about: those are the, self-identified, “Conservatives” who have power — who espouse this philosophy in theory?

That is very much not what they put into practice when given power and opportunity.

“On the ground,” it’s a bit of a cliché but that doesn’t make it less accurate: they have both espoused and practiced what can only be called, “Capitalism for the Poor and Socialism for the Rich.”

Free-Market, laissez-faire, discipline, for example, has been harshly enforced on the middle class, and — with even greater rigor — poor, families who lost their homes in the Crash of ‘08.

On the other hand — it has been explained to the population at large — the banks, and the bankers with Golden Parachutes, who profited before, during, and after the crash, simply had to be protected, bailed out with taxpayer dollars, given that they were “too big to fail,” a crucial part of making sure that “the system continued to work.”

There are two crucial issues here.

One can be broadly described as “Regulatory Capture.”

Those tasked with “regulating” have long been in service to the people and industries they are supposed to be keeping tabs on; the more straightforward description for that behavior: Corruption.

The second issue is what amounts to — colossal and ongoing — “Market Failure,” a great deal of which, one has to think, has to do with “time horizon,” and points toward one important reason that a healthy society needs to take account of something more than just “bottom-line economic actors and factors.”

As a matter of “rational,” quarter-by-quarter, investment behavior?

There’s no real reason to “invest in people.”

Housing, education, medical care, even infrastructure: all of that can always be “pushed onto the next balance sheet.”

If you don’t do that, after all, you’re saddled with the upfront costs, while the benefits — always a gamble — are off somewhere on the fuzzy horizon.

But that’s not how Humanity works.

If you want a solid workforce in twenty-five years — and not for altruistic reasons: perhaps just because you would like an economy capable of sustaining your retirement benefits?

You really need prenatal nutrition: now.

Put aside morality and politics, preaching and pontificating, arguing and moaning: that’s Bottom Line Reality.

The people unable — or, if you want, “unwilling” — to take care of their children?

You like them or you don’t; you respect them or you don’t; you “deem them worthy” or you don’t. But if their children fail?

We have no economy moving forward.

We don’t even have the “consumers” we need to drive the economy: people unequipped to work are people unable to “buy.”

And it’s really not possible to discuss this without “poking at” issues of race and ethnicity.

Momentarily, a majority of the US population will be made up of people of color.

You can “reject” that, you can be leery, you can embrace it; doesn’t matter. That’s just demographic reality: the majority cohort in our public schools is “non-white.”

[The majority cohort in private schools, by way of contrast, is overwhelmingly white, with the highest rate of “secession” of students and resources from the public sector concentrated in . . . the former Confederate States. What could possibly be behind that trend!]

“Non-white” students are significantly “disadvantaged” in a variety of ways, the great majority of them “resource-related.”

You can blame the students, you can blame their families, you can blame their communities, and (okay . . . an argument can be made) you can rail about “personal responsibility.”

But, in the end?

Functional workers and empowered consumers are the basic drivers of any healthy economy.

Investing is a Conservative value.

Infrastructure — human infrastructure very much included — is a core “business need.”

Government should “interfere” with the economy as little as necessary?


But . . . two important points a genuine free-market Conservative would make:

  1. “The rich and powerful don’t need, or deserve, government subsidy — certainly not to bail them out of messes of their own making” (in fact bailouts represent a classic case of “moral hazard,” encouraging bad behavior by safety netting those who commit economic crimes); and,
  2. “While you want to ‘protect’ the poor from the siren song of dependence, it is clear, cold, Capitalist self-interest to make sure that we properly support and educate the work force of the future.”

Most of us — on whatever part of the political spectrum?

We’re hoping to live past the next quarter’s results.

We’d like the country to . . . work.

Taking care of people — providing a floor for healthcare, education, housing, and nutrition — is not just “Liberal Bleeding Heart Soft-Headed Delusion.”

It is . . . Rational Protection of Assets.

Investing in infrastructure and maintenance is not always and only “the public sector usurping the role of the private sector.”

It is . . . Responsible Stewardship of the Economy.

Seems to me: Those are solid Conservative values.

I write what I know and what I’ve lived: humor & chronic pain; politics & parenting; business writing & cultural analysis; and . . . ranting (a lot of ranting).

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