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Understanding Our ‘Dreadful Misfortunes’

Research & Commentary
August 30, 2011


Two veteran economists help us comprehend how our economy became so unequal and what we can do to turn that economy — and our lives — around.

Back in the early 1980s, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher — the political ringleader of the world’s ascendant conservative free-marketeers — used to be a big fan of TINA. Not Tina Turner, the indefatigable R&B diva, but TINA as in “there is no alternative” to letting markets go “free.”

Thatcher celebrated TINA. She considered unregulated “free markets” both inevitable and remarkable. Let markets rule, Thatcher promised, and marvelously good times would surely follow.

TINA, three decades later, is still going strong. But the context has changed. Conservative politicos and pundits can no longer claim, with straight faces, that unregulated free markets inevitably bring good times. They urge us, instead, to accept the inevitability of hard times.

We can do nothing, the new line goes, but ride our current storm out. Accept austerity, don’t fight it. Our globalized world economy has no alternative. Or, to use a seldom heralded phrase from free-marketeer patron saint Adam Smith, the “dreadful misfortunes” we’re now experiencing had to happen.

Know someone who swallows this grin-and-bear-it tripe? Give that sad someone a copy of Economic Collapse, Economic Change: Getting to the Roots of the Crisis (M. E. Sharpe), a highly readable new book by two of America’s most experienced “popular educators” on matters economic.

In this important new work, University of Massachusetts professor emeritus Arthur MacEwan and Wheaton College activist scholar John Miller escort us through all the major economic trends and events of recent years — everything from China’s rise to the popping of the housing bubble — and show how these developments have ushered in our current “dreadful misfortunes.”

At every step of the way, MacEwan and Miller relate, things could have turned out differently. But they didn’t — because our ever-greater economic inequality had fostered both an “extreme concentration of power in the hands of large corporations and the very wealthy” and “a perverse ideology” that linked “unregulated markets” to inevitable trickle-down good times for one and all.

Other recent books have traced many of the stories Economic Collapse, Economic Change has to tell. But few other works have woven all the story strands together as well — and as accessibly — as MacEwan and Miller.[pullquote]Conservative politicos and pundits can no longer claim, with straight faces, that unregulated free markets inevitably bring good times.[/pullquote]

The two authors do something else as well. They help us understand how we can unleash chains of events that gnaw away at “the inequality, power, and ideology that have dominated life in the United in recent decades.” Their prime example: the struggle for social programs that offer “universal” benefits.

In the United States today, we already do have some of these “universal” programs in place. Medicare, for instance, offers benefits to all senior citizens, low- and high-income alike. Public schools offer education to all children.

Universal programs like these create what MacEwan and Miller call a “social wage,” a “share of people’s income that comes to them as members of society.” The larger this social wage, income that’s “the same for everyone,” the greater the economic equality in society.

But universal programs enable an even more profound dynamic. They give people options and, in the process, redistribute power.

If we had, for instance, “Medicare for all” — that is, publicly financed health insurance for every American, no matter the age — no Americans would have to stick with otherwise undesirable jobs because they feared losing the health insurance the jobs provided.

“Greater options mean greater power,” MacEwan and Miller note. “And power at the workplace is often a foundation for wider power in society.”

Universal social programs, the authors add, also tend “to generate solidarity.” Programs that target benefits solely to low-income people, on the other hand, tend to divide. Demagogues typically fan the resentment of people who make too much to qualify for these programs. Universal programs, MacEwan and Miller note. shove the “material basis” for this resentment off the political table.

“We do not hear,” they explain, “expressions of resentment toward low-income families because their children receive education in the public schools.”

In short, the struggle for greater equality has many fronts. Fight to tax the rich? Most certainly. And fight just as hard to extend comprehensive security beyond the aged, to everything from child care to health insurance. And apply these benefits universally to all households, affluent ones included.

We do have alternatives. So let Tina keep rocking. But let’s put TINA to rest.

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