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“Phosphorus And Freedom”: The Libertarian Fantasy

In the latest Times Magazine, Robert Draper profiled youngish libertarians — roughly speaking, people who combine free-market economics with permissive social views — and asked whether we might be heading for a “libertarian moment.” Well, probably not. Polling suggests that young Americans tend, if anything, to be more supportive of the case for a bigger government than their elders. But I’d like to ask a different question: Is libertarian economics at all realistic?

The answer is no. And the reason can be summed up in one word: phosphorus.

As you’ve probably heard, the City of Toledo recently warned its residents not to drink the water. Why? Contamination from toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, largely caused by the runoff of phosphorus from farms.

When I read about that, it rang a bell. Last week many Republican heavy hitters spoke at a conference sponsored by the blog Red State — and I remembered an antigovernment rant a few years back from Erick Erickson, the blog’s founder. Mr. Erickson suggested that oppressive government regulation had reached the point where citizens might want to “march down to their state legislator’s house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp.” And the source of his rage? A ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergent. After all, why would government officials want to do such a thing?

An aside: The states bordering Lake Erie banned or sharply limited phosphates in detergent long ago, temporarily bringing the lake back from the brink. But farming has so far evaded effective controls, so the lake is dying again, and it will take more government intervention to save it.

The point is that before you rage against unwarranted government interference in your life, you might want to ask why the government is interfering. Often — not always, of course, but far more often than the free-market faithful would have you believe — there is, in fact, a good reason for the government to get involved. Pollution controls are the simplest example, but not unique.

Smart libertarians have always realized that there are problems free markets alone can’t solve — but their alternatives to government tend to be implausible. For example, Milton Friedman famously called for the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration. But in that case, how would consumers know whether their food and drugs were safe? His answer was to rely on tort law. Corporations, he claimed, would have the incentive not to poison people because of the threat of lawsuits.

So, do you believe that would be enough? Really? And, of course, people who denounce big government also tend to call for tort reform and attack trial lawyers.

More commonly, self-proclaimed libertarians deal with the problem of market failure both by pretending that it doesn’t happen and by imagining government as much worse than it really is. We’re living in an Ayn Rand novel, they insist. (No, we aren’t.) We have more than a hundred different welfare programs, they tell us, which are wasting vast sums on bureaucracy rather than helping the poor. (No, we don’t, and no, they aren’t.)

I’m often struck, incidentally, by the way antigovernment clichés can trump everyday experience. Talk about the role of government, and you invariably have people saying things along the lines of, “Do you want everything run like the D.M.V.?” Experience varies — but my encounters with New Jersey’s Motor Vehicle Commission have generally been fairly good (better than dealing with insurance or cable companies), and I’m sure many libertarians would, if they were honest, admit that their own D.M.V. dealings weren’t too bad. But they go for the legend, not the fact.

Libertarians also tend to engage in projection. They don’t want to believe that there are problems whose solution requires government action, so they tend to assume that others similarly engage in motivated reasoning to serve their political agenda — that anyone who worries about, say, environmental issues is engaged in scare tactics to further a big-government agenda. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, doesn’t just think we’re living out the plot of “Atlas Shrugged”; he asserts that all the fuss over climate change is just “an excuse to grow government.”

As I said at the beginning, you shouldn’t believe talk of a rising libertarian tide; despite America’s growing social liberalism, real power on the right still rests with the traditional alliance between plutocrats and preachers. But libertarian visions of an unregulated economy do play a significant role in political debate, so it’s important to understand that these visions are mirages. Of course some government interventions are unnecessary and unwise. But the idea that we have a vastly bigger and more intrusive government than we need is a foolish fantasy.


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, August 10, 2014

August 11, 2014 Posted by | Deregulation, Environment, Libertarians | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“On WalMart Pond”: Markets, Morals And The Glorification Of Wealth

Does it bother you that an online casino paid a Utah woman, Kari Smith, who needed money for her son’s education, $10,000 to tattoo its Web site on her forehead?

Or that Project Prevention, a charity, pays women with drug or alcohol addictions $300 cash to get sterilized or undertake long-term contraception? Some 4,100 women have accepted this offer.

Michael Sandel, the Harvard political theorist, cites those examples in “What Money Can’t Buy,” his important and thoughtful new book. He argues that in recent years we have been slipping without much reflection into relying upon markets in ways that undermine the fairness of our society.

That’s one of the underlying battles this campaign year. Many Republicans, Mitt Romney included, have a deep faith in the ability of laissez-faire markets to create optimal solutions.

There’s something to that faith because markets, indeed, tend to be efficient. Pollution taxes are widely accepted as often preferable than rigid regulations on pollutants. It may also make sense to sell advertising on the sides of public buses, perhaps even to sell naming rights to subway stations.

Still, how far do we want to go down this path?

• Is it right that prisoners in Santa Ana, Calif., can pay $90 per night for an upgrade to a cleaner, nicer jail cell?

• Should the United States really sell immigration visas? A $500,000 investment will buy foreigners the right to immigrate.

• Should Massachusetts have gone ahead with a proposal to sell naming rights to its state parks? The Boston Globe wondered in 2003 whether Walden Pond might become Wal-Mart Pond.

• Should strapped towns accept virtually free police cars that come laden with advertising on the sides? Such a deal was negotiated and then ultimately collapsed, but at least one town does sell advertising on its police cars.

“The marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives,” Sandel writes. “We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.”

“Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”

This issue goes to the heart of fairness in our country. There has been much discussion recently about economic inequality, but almost no conversation about the way the spread of markets nurtures a broader, systemic inequality.

We do, of course, place some boundaries on markets. I can’t buy the right to cut off your leg for my amusement. Americans can sell blood, but (perhaps mistakenly) we don’t allow markets for kidneys and other organs, even though that would probably save lives.

Wealthy people can, in effect, buy access to the president at a $40,000-a-plate dinner, but they can’t purchase a Medal of Freedom. A major political donor can sometimes buy an ambassadorship, but not to an important country.

Where to draw the lines limiting the role of markets isn’t clear to me, but I’m pretty sure that we’ve already gone too far. I’m offended when governments auction naming rights to public property or sell special access, even if only to fast lanes on a highway or better cells in a jail. It is one thing for Delta Air Lines to have first class and coach. It is quite another for government to offer first class and coach in the essential services that government provides.

Where would this stop? Do we let people pay to get premium police and fire protection? Do we pursue an idea raised by Judge Richard Posner to auction off the right to adopt children?

We already have tremendous inequality in our country: The richest 1 percent of Americans own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But we do still have a measure of equality before the law — equality in our basic dignity — and that should be priceless.

“Market fundamentalism,” to use the term popularized by George Soros, is gaining ground. It’s related to the glorification of wealth over the last couple of decades, to the celebration of opulence, and to the emergence of a new aristocracy. Market fundamentalists assume a measure of social Darwinism and accept that laissez-faire is always optimal.

That’s the dogma that helped lead to bank deregulation and the current economic mess. And anyone who honestly believes that low taxes and unfettered free markets are always best should consider moving to Pakistan’s tribal areas. They are a triumph of limited government, negligible taxes, no “burdensome regulation” and free markets for everything from drugs to AK-47s.

If you’re infatuated with unfettered free markets, just visit Waziristan.


By: Nicholas Kristof, Op Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 30. 2012

June 2, 2012 Posted by | Democracy, Election 2012 | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why Bain Questions Matter”: Free Markets Should Serve All The People

Who are the dastardly enemies of free enterprise who decided to make an issue of Mitt Romney’s tenure at the private-equity firm Bain Capital? Er, those would be his fellow Republicans.

Listen to what Newt Gingrich said in January: “The Bain model is to go in at a very low price, borrow an immense amount of money, pay Bain an immense amount of money and leave. I’ll let you decide if that’s really good capitalism. I think that’s exploitation.”

Or what Rick Perry said that same month: “There is something inherently wrong when getting rich off failure and sticking it to someone else is how you do your business. I happen to think that that is indefensible.”

When Democrats say things like that, they’re accused of being Bolsheviks who want to destroy capitalism. But even in the context of the GOP primary battle, where “moderate” was the ultimate epithet, Romney’s actions at Bain were seen as raising a legitimate and important question: Shouldn’t free markets serve the American people, rather than the other way around?

President Obama is right to raise this issue now. I wish he had done so during the debate on financial regulatory reform — only now is he posing the kind of fundamental questions that needed to be asked — but better late than never. In his defense, a tough reelection campaign does tend to focus the mind.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with private equity, which plays an important role in the economy. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with wealth; those who risk their capital in private-equity ventures should be rewarded when those deals pay off. No one begrudges Romney his offshore investment accounts, his mansions or his wife’s Cadillacs.

But as Romney himself acknowledges, free markets need rules and regulations in order to function. Some kinds of dealings are prohibited or even criminalized — insider trading, for example, because of the way it benefits a select few at the expense of other investors.

It is reasonable to ask whether some highly leveraged buyout deals, of the kind that Bain and other private-equity firms often conduct, should fall into the same thumb-on-the-scale category as insider trading.

Suppose a company is failing and appears beyond rescue. Suppose a private-equity firm buys the company with borrowed money, burdens it with more debt, and then spends the next few years firing workers, selling assets, eliminating pension plans — all while collecting handsome “management fees.” Then the company fails anyway, as it was fated to do.

What higher economic purpose has been served? Why is this not what Perry memorably called “vulture capitalism”?

The discussion we should be having goes far beyond the relatively small world of private equity. Look at the mounting losses at the nation’s largest and supposedly best-run bank, JPMorgan Chase — at least $2 billion and perhaps much more.

The transactions that produced the losses are numbingly complex, but essentially they involved betting both ways on the direction of various economic and business indicators. The idea was to balance the bets so that if the bank’s predictions were right it would make a lot of money; if the predictions were wrong, it would lose money, but not so much.

The bank got on a winning streak, so it made bigger and bigger bets. Then the bank’s luck turned, and Chairman Jamie Dimon discovered that the betting positions were unbalanced — instead of losing a little money, the bank was set up to lose a lot. Sharp-eyed traders at hedge funds noticed what was happening and jumped in to take advantage of a big spender on the skids.

That’s a classic Las Vegas story, but why should it be a Wall Street story? Should a bank whose deposits are federally insured — a bank big enough to crash the financial system — be standing at a craps table in the middle of the night yelling, “Baby needs a new pair of shoes”?

This is what Rick Santorum said in March: “I heard Governor Romney here called me an economic lightweight because I wasn’t a Wall Street financier like he was. Do you really believe this country wants to elect a Wall Street financier as the president of the United States? Do you think that’s the kind of experience we need? Someone who’s going to take and look after, as he did, his friends on Wall Street and bail them out at the expense of Main Street America?”

Good question. I’d like to hear Romney’s answer.


By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 24, 2012

May 25, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

So, Should We Start Calling Gingrich A Socialist?

You mean the wealthy on Wall Street aren’t benevolent “job creators” after all and that one of the pirate captains flying the Jolly Roger of buccaneer capitalism is a “predatory corporate raider” who goes by the name of Mitt Romney? Who knew?

In boardrooms across America, the plutocrats are freaking out. Their carefully plotted strategy of making the 2012 election a referendum between economic “freedom” and suffocating “big government” is being blown to smithereens by that infamous bomb-thrower, Newt Gingrich, who is detonating the idea that unsupervised laissez faire capitalism is the unmitigated blessing its cheerleaders at the Wall Street Journal have always claimed it to be.

I guess I spoke too soon when I wrote the other day that an entire philosophical tradition of conservative anti-capitalism had been lost now that the Republican Party has made itself into the wholly-owned subsidiary of Wall Street. But how was I to know Newt Gingrich was about to launch a jihad against the black magic of compound interest?

Gingrich is the guy, remember, who closed down the government in order to stick it to President Clinton for a perceived slight he suffered on Air Force One. So, why should we be surprised that Gingrich would lay waste to 30 years of supply-side mythology if doing so let him get back at that spoiled rich kid who used daddy’s money to torment him in Iowa?

This is what everyone in the Republican Party was afraid from the start Gingrich would do to them given his well-known MO, says Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum: “Destroy them utterly if they declined to nominate him.”

And with a $5 million in the bank thanks to right-wing casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, Gingrich now has lots of money to put to use the Karl Rove strategy of inflicting maximum pain by hitting an opponent right where he’s strongest. And in South Carolina Gingrich intends to hit Mitt Romney where he is strongest, specifically by pulling down all those statues erected to “The Job Creator from Bain Capital.”

The political effect of these attack ads, says New York magazine’s Jon Chait, is to tear down Romney’s carefully-crafted image in such a way that “his private-sector experience becomes an indicator — not that he will fix the economy — but that he will help the already-rich. It’s a smash-you-over-the-head blunt message, with ominous music and storybook dialogue.”

And according to the transcript of the ad Gingrich plans to run: “Mitt Romney was not a capitalist during his reign at Bain. He was a predatory corporate raider. His firm didn’t seek to create value. Instead, like a scavenger, Romney looked for businesses he could pick apart. Indeed, he represented the worst possible kind of predator, operating within the law but well outside the bounds of what most real capitalists consider ethical…..He and his friends at Bain were bad guys. Any real capitalists should disavow Romney’s ‘creative destruction’ model that made him wealthy at the expense of thousands of American jobs.”

This is brutal stuff that plays right into President Obama’s hands as he portrays the GOP as the Party of the One Percent unconcerned with the fate of the other 99%, says Drum.  It also undermines the whole trickle-down rationale underpinning finance capitalism.

The supply-side oligarchs who rule the Republican Establishment are beside themselves as they circle the wagons against this madman from Georgia, who not only says Wall Street plutocrats who preach the virtues of capitalism have no clothes but that the clothes they do have on order are being imported from Chinese sweat shops which pay slave wages to child coolie labor.

The day before voters went to the polls in New Hampshire’s primary, the Wall Street Journal reported that the right wing Club for Growth reflected the shock among conservatives when it went after Gingrich for his “disgusting” attacks against Romney and his record at Bain Capital.

The group’s president, former Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind), said in a written statement: “Attacking Governor Romney for participating in free-market capitalism is just beyond the pale for any purported ‘Reagan conservative.'”

Like smart traders who buy low and sell high, America’s plutocracy has profited spectacularly from the yawning gap which exists between the values used by the public to judge and reward economic behavior and the public’s understanding of the revolutionary changes in the economy over the past 30 years that have made those values obsolete.

When conservatives talk about the virtue of competition and “entrepreneurship,” for example, they are exploiting the ignorance of a public that still believes America’s economy is dominated by people who make things and so thinks rewards should naturally go to those who can make things faster, better, cheaper.

As a reader on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Beast site put it: “Most Americans appreciate a free market system in which those that produce the best goods and services at the best value should be successful and become wealthy. However, when people become fabulously wealthy at the expense of others while producing nothing but investment gain for the investors, I think most Americans take pause.”

Yet, as economic historian Kevin Phillips notes, Wall Street is no longer the servant of Main Street where profits are confined to the earnings it can make by providing capital to entrepreneurs and businesses to invest in real things and good ideas. Today, financial firms earn more than 40% of all corporate profits and command a quarter of stock market capitalization — up from just 6% when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 – largely because of the powers Wall Street’s been given from deregulation to create debt and to earn fees from the distribution of that debt.

Historically, says Phillips, this transformation from a making to a papering economy “is as momentous as the emergence of railroads, iron and steel and the displacement of agriculture during the decades after the Civil War.”

And the problem for Mitt Romney is that he embodies these fundamental if poorly understood changes, which is why Republicans are so furious with Newt Gingrich for putting this all up in lights.

All Republicans talk about free markets, says Kevin Drum, but Mitt Romney has actually lived it. “That makes him a more concrete messenger, someone who can credibly say that he not only believes in free markets, but has lots of experience in making them work.”

Chances are that when Americans hear about free enterprise from conservatives “it’s usually accompanied by images of sunrises over wheat fields, hardworking farmers, and small-town construction workers heading home after a day of honest labor,” says Drum. “It is very definitely not accompanied by images of well-coiffed guys in suits and green eyeshades, making millions by sitting in boardrooms and approving mass layoffs by adding a quick line to a spreadsheet before they head out to lunch.”

Someone like Newt Gingrich can get up on his soapbox and keep things “fuzzy” by delivering a stem-winder about free markets, the glories of competition and keeping government off our backs “and then just walk off the stage — mission accomplished,” says Drum.

Not so Mitt Romney. When Romney talks about free markets the stakes are much higher, says Drum.

“He can’t get away with platitudes,” says Drum. “His experience at Bain Capital will inevitably be Exhibit 1 in just what he means when he talks about free markets.”

Short of being the CEO of Goldman Sachs, “this is quite possibly the worst possible face you can imagine for a conservative message about the glories of free enterprise and wealth creation,” adds Drum. “Romney, whether he likes it or not, won’t be able to talk about those glories without also facing up to the human destruction that often follows in its wake.”

Americans may say they are for free markets. But at the end of the day they are just regular folks who believe in a regular day’s pay for a regular day’s work. So, “if you rub their noses in the true face of modern capitalism, they aren’t going to like what they see,” Drum insists.

And that is what Gingrich is threatening to do. So, you can understand why Republicans and their wealthy benefactors are so uneasy — and incensed — by what Gingrich is about to do.

The revolutionary bomb-thrower who once brought down a House Speaker and ended 40 years of consecutive Democratic rule is now poised to blow up the Republican Party’s designated heir apparent and with him the Republican Party’s name-brand issue.

Wouldn’t it be ironic, then, if Newt Gingrich’s final act as America’s most famous radical was to squander the profits Republicans have so regularly earned — both economically and politically – through the arbitrage which exploits the gap between fact and fiction, reality and myth, in America’s system of free market capitalism?


By: Ted Frier, Open Salon, January 11, 2012



January 12, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sharp Rise In Premiums Exposes Health Insurers’ Greed

According to a study released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 2011 health insurance premiums for employer-sponsored family healthcare benefits rose 9 percent over last year’s prices, leaving employees to pay, on average, $4,129 and employer contributions at $10,944. The number represents a surprising rise given that increases experienced in 2010 were just 3 percent.

So, why the sudden increase?

We know that Americans are using fewer medical services since the economy took a dive as people are staying away from the doctor and putting off non-life saving surgeries, such as knee and hip replacements, until they have more confidence that they will have the money required to pay deductibles and co-pays. We also know that fewer medical services are being utilized as a result of the increased popularity of Health Safety Accounts which require deductibles in excess of $2,000 per family, and employer provided policies that have increasingly large deductibles and co-pays.

As a result, can it possibly make sense that medical costs are increasing by the 9 percent reflected in the hefty premium hikes? In a word, no.

That will not stop the  anti-Obamacare forces, of course, from putting  the blame squarely on healthcare reform. In a sense, I suppose the Affordable Care Act does bear some of the responsibility—if you can consider motivating the  health insurers to falsely inflate their prices, by forcing them to do  the right thing, to be a blamable offense.

Beginning  next year, health insurers will be required to justify any increases in  premium rates above 10 percent. They will further be obligated to refund money to customers if an insurer is found to have spent less than  85 percent of their premium income on medical expenses. Thus, it is  hardly a stretch to conclude that the insurers are simply taking their  last chance to raise premium rates before they find themselves having to be more accountable to the government, particularly when they are pretty much admitting to as much.

As noted by Reed Ableson in The New York Times:

Throughout  this year, major health insurers have defended higher premiums—and  higher profits—saying that their expenses would rise once the economy  recovered and people believed they could again afford medical care. The struggling economy will probably keep suppressing demand for medical care, particularly as people pay a larger share of their own medical bills through higher deductibles and co-payments, according to benefits  consultants and others. About three-quarters of workers now pay part of  the bill when they go see a doctor, and nearly a third have a deductible  of at least $1,000 if they have single coverage, up from just one in 10  in 2006, according Kaiser.

So, the insurance  company defense is that they expect prices to rise sometime in the  future (clearly an undefined period) and they want to be ready. Somehow,  this justifies them to dramatically raise their premium prices now, at  time when their costs are actually less and their profits are through the roof.

Not only is such behavior astoundingly predatory, the insurers are playing a major role in keeping the economy in the dumps, as it is precisely this sort of unnecessary premium increase  that causes employers to avoid hiring more employees.

For those  who believe that we should leave it to the free market to establish the prices  in the medical system (of which insurance will always be a necessary  part), maybe they can explain how the system is working in this instance? In a time where patient control has risen dramatically as consumers decide if and how they will—or will not—spend on medical services now that they have greatly increased responsibility for the familiy medical bills as a result of much higher deductibles, and at a moment where there are substantially reduced claims coming  onto health insurers’ balance sheets due to diminished use of medical  services, exactly what is the free market concept that justifies an  insurance company raising their premium rates? What’s more, at a time when fewer people are using physician’s services, why would costs go up?

Free market principles would suggest that lower demand should produce lower  prices. But that is clearly not what is happening.

I know what some of you are thinking—but before you say it’s all the government’s fault, I would hasten to point out that, with an apples-to-apples comparison,  there are no substantial new regulations hitting physicians this year  that did not exist last year. And before you blame the president’s health care reform program for the  insurance companies’ usurious behavior, note that the two million young  people who have been added to the insurance roles as a result of  Obamacare’s permitting these people to stay on the family insurance  policy, would not increase an insurance company’s costs by 9% over last  year’s prices. Indeed, adding all of these healthy kids to the insurance pools  should help insurers spread risk more effectively while collecting  additional premium revenues.

The bottom line is that there is  absolutely no justification whatsoever for the health insurance industry hitting employers with a 9 percent increase. It is a simple matter of greed and it is  precisely that greed that has long made access to healthcare continuously more  difficult for middle class Americans.

By: Rick Ungar, Mother Jones, September 27, 2011

September 29, 2011 Posted by | Conservatives, Consumers, Economic Recovery, GOP, Government, Health Care Costs, Ideology, Insurance Companies, Middle Class, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing, Teaparty | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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