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Tether the Market Beast and Restore Civic Virtue

“The Infant Hercules and the Standard Oil serpents” by Puck in 1906 from the Wikimedia Commons. It shows President Theodore Roosevelt combating the Standard Oil cartel. This media file is in the public domain in the United States.

(Editorial) Throughout the 2000s, there was a commonly recurring theme in media outlets about the “greatest” generation. Widely popularized by journalist Tom Brokaw’s book of the same name, the focus was on how this generation surmounted grave challenges in its formative years – during both the Great Depression of the 1930s and WWII, and went onwards to bold achievement in the early postwar decades of the 1950s and ’60s. They built a more equal and truly prosperous America.

The world fashioned by the “greatest” generation was unmade in the 1980s and ’90s, through relentless deregulation of markets. Rather than champion civic duty, a sense of shared responsibility, and collective action through democratic government – lessons that the “greatest” generation learned while enduring severe adversity, subsequent generations of Americans fashioned a culture of selfishness, where the phrase “greed is good” is taken seriously as a guide to both personal action and policy making.

Well, we reap what we sow. Untethered markets delivered a recession so deep – one that until the financial crisis of 2007-8, only very few imagined still possible – that a whole generation of very educated youth is being relegated to menial service jobs in the retail, accommodation and food service sectors of the economy. Corruption is now rampant across all areas of society. Both income and wealth inequality are at Guilded-Age heights. Personal debt, while down a bit since the recession, is still high by historical standards. By too many measures, American society is simply in a bad place today.

The whole period’s ethos, from the 1980s right through the currently weak economic recovery, is bankrupt – much like many banks and corporations in the private sector are truly insolvent when not resorting to accounting gimmicks or government hand-outs. Failure to change course – to boldly assess the failures of the past decades, could very well make the future here in the US read more like the fall of the Roman Empire than American history hitherto.

It’s time for a serious assessment of where we are, how we got here, and what we can now do about it. This will require expunging from the debate all ideologues who spew more rational-markets nonsense. Continuing to give equal consideration to this now-discredited idea will prevent meaningful assessment and necessary corrective action. The “greatest” generation might not be with us today in sufficient numbers and health to physically participate, but their recorded thoughts and actions are preserved, giving us a chance to relearn collectively the hard-taught lessons they learned, so that we can go on to do it ourselves.

UPDATE (May 10, 2013): Researchers in Germany confirm through behavioral experiments that markets erode moral concerns.



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