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Trusting Markets


One downside to my decision to replace my Clinton-era, Windows 98, 1/3 chance of crashing when opening a PDF laptop with a spiffy 2004 model is that I can now access the internet at many of the fine coffeeshops that serve as my rotating office. This is, of course, a mixed blessing; if I still had the dinosaur, I’d probably be working right now.

Anyway, Matt Yglesias makes a good point (in the process of, once again, calling bullshit on David Brooks) that’s not made anywhere near often enough, which I’d like to briefly discuss:

Markets are good. I don’t “trust” or “distrust” them — they’re not people, they don’t betray you or show you loyalty — but they are efficient ways of maximizing consumer satisfaction relative to the available resources.

Exactly. If interested in ferreting out “frames” that don’t serve liberals well, one of our primary targets ought to be the “conservative/republicans trust the market, which liberals trust the government” dichotomy. In addition to being imprecise and inaccurate, this one is bad news all around for us, especially with the looming Social Security destruction privatization “reform” debate coming up.

First of all, as Matthew notes, trust simply isn’t that useful a category when applied to markets (or, for that matter, governments) as such. Both institutions are have predictable and unpredictable features, both are likely to meet some needs while creing others, and so on.

Secondly, the crony capitalism the GOP engages in so vigorously doubly reveals the ways in which they simply don’t trust markets. They (probably correctly) don’t trust markets to uniformly and predictably enrich their friends and political allies. I, on the other hand, don’t “trust markets” to feed and provide shelter for the homeless (amongst other things). The fact that group A and group B don’t “trust markets” in this case is trivially true but beside the point. The appropriate question to ask is: What group of events markets are unlikely to reliably cause are worthy of contemplating other political means to cause? Infrastructure? yes! Education? Hell yes! Disaster relief? Why not? Breathable air? sure! The continued dominance of the same handful of corporations in energy markets? Um, maybe not? I imagine if we list the Republican and Democratic answers to the above question, we’d have a Democratic list of answers that would range from wildly popular to mildly unpopular with the voting public. The GOP’s list would probably have a few popular answers as well (although it would share most of these with the Democrats) but would contain far more wildly unpopular answers.

But the current way this sort of discussion goes, our controversial answers to the question are going to get highlighted, discussed and debated, while their bad answers are not, because they’re ostensibly the market-trusters. It would be a mistake, as some might, to interpret an attempt by the Democrats to paint themselves as the party of market-trusters as a run to the right. Markets, in the abstract, are neither progressive nor conservative, and highlighting the ways in which our market-trusting moments highlight our our values, while their market-nontrusting moments rip the mask off of theirs is a worthy goal. They should do it offensively and defensively. Offensively, they should shine a bright light on those ways in which Republicans don’t trust markets, and why. Defensively, they should highlight their love of the entreprenourial spirit as a reason for support of their policies. To wit, here’s my health care story to demonstrate: “Jim Smith has a wife, two kids, and a good job with health insurance. He also has a brilliant idea for new business–one that if successful could create jobs and improve our quality of life, and help him fulfill the American dream. He’s managed to save enough money to launch his business–but he can’t leave his job because his son’s medical condition makes private insurance a prohibitive expense. Tell Senator GOP to stop stiffling Jim’s entreprenourial spirit, and thousands like him, by refusing to support universal health care!”

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