Sunday, October 23, 2011

Anti-Market Rage: A Medical Analogy

I haven't divulged too much of my feelings on the OWS movement other than some of my basic observations, concerns, and frustrations. This isn't without reason. While I'm very skeptical of the movement as a whole, if you can address something seemingly directionless as a "movement", there's certainly a part of me that wants to sympathize with a general sense of anger and bewilderment regarding the political goings-on of the last few years. In a lot of ways I think that it's really important just to have people really standing up and saying that they're witnessing something that doesn't seem quite right. I'll never not have respect for what's taking place in that sense.

On the other hand, there's certainly part of me that feels a bit of repulsion to the populist/democratic nature of a lot of what I've seen as well. The "we are the 99%" meme may end up serving them well, rhetorically - but my view (even of history more generally) does not give a lot of credence to the concept of proving your "rightness" on any given issue by appealing to popularity. There's been an awful lot of things that have been both pretty popular and terrifyingly evil in my book. Such a contention is probably water under the bridge at this point but it's important to remind people that being part of the angry mob - while maybe giving you the power to carry forth with X - certainly does not make X right or even virtuous.

Of course, having my own niche views, there are parts of any movement or creed I'm probably not going to like. I'm trying to lend this political "happening" as much rhetorical rope as possible in my own mind before I completely dismiss them. But the single-most aggrevating thing to me, I think, so far is their seeming inability to really understand the underlying complex set of political relationships leading to the problems they are trying to address (or at least a subset of the problems that they address).

They are keen on identifying real problems, as well as real actors, but a lot of times they focus on one particular group of actors as being "evil" or "greedy" - instead of realizing, I think more realistically, that all actors are generally self-interested...and yet markets, usually, have mechanisms that work to the advantage of those who consume their services. So instead of asking what makes such a dynamic different for certain things (particularly over the last few years), you get this kind of general screed against whole categories of actors in the economy, or even less convincingly "greed" - as if those making the claim can't understand why McDonalds can't/won't charge $500 for a hamburger...even though they'd very much want to.

In other words, it's a frustratingly shitty place to start an argument for anyone who really believes in the real strength(s) of free markets. I have family members and friends who post a lot of these OWS-related videos and articles on Facebook. Most of the time I don't bother to comment (as some of the people aren't entirely receptive to arguments that might rock the emotional boat on this issue), but I do at least try to look at some of it. This morning, in particular, I saw a link to a supposed "Anonymous" video floating around (I wonder if supporters of OWS know what "Anonymous" actually is or isn't) which claimed we knew the real problem underlying all of this; it was a single word - bankers.

Not "this particular group of bankers involved in regulatory capture" or "this cartelized banking system that's outlawed competitors."

Just bankers. Period.

When you continue to hear people make general accusations like that there's a certain sense of uselessness that washes over you. You start to think that there's no way to move the goal posts with anyone. You start wanting to lock yourself in a room with those people for a week with a dry-erase board (made by greedy people) and build the whole world of economics from the ground up for them while holding their hand the entire time. Unfortunately we don't have that kind of time or pull with people. And if we did, I'm sure I wouldn't find myself so frustrated as often as I do.

But seeing this particular video about "bankers" made me think of a really simple medical analogy that kind of underpins the frustration of free-marketers with the contentions of the OWS masses:

Blaming "bankers" or "banks" generally for the issues plaguing the financial system is like blaming your arm for an infection you have on it. Yes, your arm is the part of your body that's hurting at the moment - and you might even feel like you want to cut it off. But if you walk around telling people that what the real problem is (in regards to pain) are "arms" - in general - then I think it's a safe bet to say you haven't thought through all the implications of the problems at hand.

So it seems to be with a large part of the OWS movement and the political and economic problems that lie before us. A lot of the responses seem much more about satiating populist feelings than helping the "patient" actually get better. Let's hope all the "doctors" pushing for the pre-mature amputation of limbs give a little more pause before throwing those prescriptions on the table in earnest.

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