Sorry for the deliberately click-bait-y headline, but I think this message is important to get out there.
In my discussions few months back on What is Neoliberalism, I noted that a core element of neoliberal philosophy is that markets are the only efficient, effective and rational way to distribute goods and services.
Neoliberals profess the idea that only competitive markets can allocate “scarce” resources efficiently, and that it is only such “free” markets that can lift people out of poverty and deliver broad prosperity. They pound it into our heads constantly.
Yet the Covid-19 crisis has illustrated spectacular and pervasive failures of such “free” markets all over the globe, and especially in the U.S. Instead of fairness or efficiency, we see systemic failure in every market we look: the food industry, the medical industry, the retail industry, the employment market. Resources are being destroyed and misallocated on a massive scale
Let’s start with the food industry, because food is the most important thing (nine means from anarchy, and all that). Thousands and thousands of pigs are being slaughtered, their meat left to rot, eaten by no-one, regardless of the forces of supply and demand:
The United States faces a major meat shortage due to virus infections at processing plants. It means millions of pigs could be put down without ever making it to table…
Boerboom, a third-generation hog farmer, is just one of the tens of thousands of US pork producers who are facing a stark reality: although demand for their products is high in the nation’s grocery stores, they may have to euthanise and dispose of millions of pigs due to a breakdown in the American food supply chain.
Potatoes are sitting in Belgian warehouses and left to rot, only two short years after a drought threatened to produce a severe shortage:
Meanwhile, dairy farmers in the U.S. heartland are dumping milk into the ground, to be drunk by no one.
In fact, the whole food situation is rather ugly, as this piece from The Guardian summarizes:
This March and April, even as an astounding 30 million Americans plunged into unemployment and food bank needs soared, farmers across the US destroyed heartbreaking amounts of food to stem mounting financial losses.
In scenes reminiscent of the Great Depression, dairy farmers dumped lakes of fresh cow’s milk (3.7m gallons a day in early April, now about 1.5 million per day), hog and chicken farmers aborted piglets and euthanized hens by the thousands, and crop growers plowed acres of vegetables into the ground as the nation’s brittle and anarchic food supply chain began to snap and crumble.
After delays and reports of concealing worker complaints, meatpacking plants that slaughter and process hundreds of thousands of animals a day ground to a halt as coronavirus cases spread like wildfire among workers packed tightly together on dizzyingly fast assembly lines.
Meanwhile, immigrant farmworkers toiled in the eye of the coronavirus storm, working and living in crowded dangerous conditions at poverty wages; at one Washington state orchard, half the workers tested positive for Covid-19. Yet many of these hardest working of Americans were deprived of economic relief, as they are undocumented. Advocates report more farmworkers showing up at food banks – and some unable to access food aid because they can’t afford the gas to get there.
None of this is acceptable or necessary and it’s not just about Covid-19, it’s also illustrative of a deeply deregulated corporate capitalism. America’s food system meltdown amid the pandemic has been long-developing, and a primary cause is decades of corporate centralization and a chaotic array of policies designed to prop up agribusiness profits at any cost.
That doesn’t sound very “efficient” to me, does it? How about you? Free market fundamentalists, care to weigh in?
Meanwhile, hospitals in the United States, which one would think are the most important thing to keep open during a pandemic, are actually closing across the country. These are the very things you want most to be open! Why is this happening? Because health care in the U.S. is a profit-driven enterprise that “competes” in the free market. Because elective procedures—their cash cow—have either been suspended or postponed. U.S. hospitals are closing because they are dependent upon these elective procedures to shore up their profits, and markets rely on profits.
As the deadly virus has spread beyond urban hotspots, many more small hospitals across the country are on the verge of financial ruin as they’ve been forced to cancel elective procedures, one of the few dependable sources of revenue. Williamson Memorial and similar facilities have been struggling since long before the pandemic — at least 170 rural hospitals have shut down since 2005, according to University of North Carolina research on rural hospital closures.
But even as hospitals in cities like New York City and Detroit have been deluged with coronavirus patients, many rural facilities now have the opposite problem: their beds are near-empty, their operating rooms are silent, and they’re bleeding cash.
More than 100 hospitals and hospital systems around the country have already furloughed tens of thousands of employees, according to a tally by industry news outlet Becker’s Hospital Review. They’ve sent home nurses and support staffers who would be deemed essential under state stay-home orders.
And how about allocating labor via impersonal markets? How’s that going? Well, not so well. The workers with the skills most desperately needed on the front lines during the crisis are taking pay cuts and getting laid off left and right. Instead of contributing, they are sitting at home, unable to work even if they wanted to:
At a time when medical professionals are putting their lives at risk, tens of thousands of doctors in the United States are taking large pay cuts. And even as some parts of the US are talking of desperate shortages in nursing staff, elsewhere in the country many nurses are being told to stay at home without pay.
That is because American healthcare companies are looking to cut costs as they struggle to generate revenue during the coronavirus crisis.
“Nurses are being called heroes,” Mariya Buxton says, clearly upset. “But I just really don’t feel like a hero right now because I’m not doing my part.”
Ms Buxton is a paediatric nurse in St Paul, Minnesota, but has been asked to stay at home.
At the unit at which Ms Buxton worked, and at hospitals across most of the country, medical procedures that are not deemed to be urgent have been stopped. That has meant a massive loss of income.
It’s an ironic twist as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the nation: The very workers tasked with treating those afflicted with the virus are losing work in droves.
Emergency room visits are down. Non-urgent surgical procedures have largely been put on hold. Health care spending fell 18% in the first three months of the year. And 1.4 million health care workers lost their jobs in April, a sharp increase from the 42,000 reported in March, according to the Labor Department. Nearly 135,000 of the April losses were in hospitals.
So it doesn’t seem like “free and open” markets are doing so well with either health care or labor.
Meanwhile, U.S. states are competing against each other for desperately needed PPE equipment, bidding up the price and preventing scarce resources from going to where they are most badly needed, which would naturally be where Covid-19 has struck the hardest:
As coronavirus testing expands and more cases of infection are being identified, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are scrambling to find enough medical supplies to replenish their dwindling supply.
But state and local governments across the United States are vying to purchase the same equipment, creating a competitive market for those materials that drives up prices for everyone.
“A system that’s based on state and local governments looking out for themselves and competing with other state and local governments across the nation isn’t sustainable,” said John Cohen, an ABC News contributor and former acting Undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, “and if left to continue, we’ll certainly exacerbate the public health crisis we’re facing.”
“There’s a very real possibility,” he added, “that those state and local governments that have the most critical need won’t get the equipment they need.”
Yet neoliberals always tell us how important “competition” is in every arena of life.
Failure, failure, failure! Everywhere we look, we see failure. Pervasive, systematic failure. Resources going unused. Surpluses of food being dumped even while people go hungry and line up at food banks. Workers with necessary skills sitting at home, twiddling their thumbs. Other workers unable to even earn a living to support themselves and their families, no matter how badly they want to work. Masks and protective equipment NOT going to where they are most needed, their costs inflating, befitting no one except profiteers even as people die.
Tell me again about how the market is “efficient” at distributing resources. Tell me again about how central planning inevitably results in wasted resources, surfeits and shortages.
And here is the big, bold, underscored point:
The free-marketeers want to trumpet the market’s successes, but they don’t want to own its failures.
Free-market boosters always want to talk about the wonderful benefits of markets. How they allow multiple people to coordinate their activities across wide variations of space and time. How they allow knowledge to be distributed among many different actors. How they favor tacit knowledge that a single entity could not possess. Libraries of encomiums have been written celebrating the virtues of the “free” market. You know their names: The Provisioning of Paris, Economics in One Lesson, Free to Choose, I Pencil, and all of that. Much of what passes for economic “science” is simply cheerleading for markets– the bigger, freer and less-regulated the better.
Okay, fair enough.
But how about market failures? Why don’t they ever talk about that? Because if you read the economics books I cited above, you would come away with the idea that there are no market failures! That, in fact, there is no such thing. That markets, in effect, cannot fail!
If you want to own the successes, you need to own the failures.
Oh, they love, love, love to talk about central planning’s “failures”. They can’t get enough of that. They love to talk about empty shelves in the Soviet Union, long lines at supermarkets, the lack of toilet paper in Venezuela (amusingly, now a problem throughout the capitalist world), and the allegedly long waiting times in “socialized medicine” countries. We are constantly subjected to that drumbeat day after day after day. It’s part of every economics 101 course. Central planning doesn’t work. Central planning is inefficient. Central planning is “tyranny.”
But what about all that stuff I cited above?
Where are all the free-market fundamentalists now?
What is their excuse?
They’ll use special pleading. They’ll argue that it’s exceptional circumstances. That no one could have foreseen a “black swan” event like the global Covid-19 pandemic (despite numerous experts warning about it for years). They’ll tell us that markets work just fine under “normal” circumstances. They’ll say we cannot pass any kind of judgement on the failings of markets during such an unusual event.
Here’s why that argument is bullshit:
Pandemics are a real, and recurring phenomenon in human history. We’ve been incredibly fortunate that we’ve been in rare and atypical hundred-year period from 1918-1919 to today without a global pandemic or novel disease we couldn’t quickly contain and/or eradicate.
But pandemics are always—and always have always been—a societal threat, even if we’ve forgotten that fact. And the experts tell us that there will be a lot more of them in our future, with population overshoot, environmental destruction, encroachment on formerly unoccupied lands and climate change proceeding apace. What that means is this:
If your economic system can’t function properly during a pandemic, then your economic system is shit.
If your economic system only works when conditions are ideal, in fact depends upon conditions being ideal, then, your economic system doesn’t really work at all. If something like a pandemic causes it to seize up and fail, then your economic system is poorly designed and doesn’t work very well. Not only do the free markets graphed on economists’ chalkboards not exist in anywhere the real world, they apparently rely on a blissful Eden-like Arcadia to function as intended—a situation any causal glance at human history tells us is highly unusual. Any disruption and they fall like dominoes. They are about as resilient as tissue paper.
And the stresses are only going to get worse in the years ahead, with climate change making some areas uninhabitably hot, while other places are submerged under rising sea levels. And that’s before we get to the typical natural disasters like volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes. And there will be new novel plant diseases as well, unfolding against the increasing resistance of germs to antibiotics.
Will the free market fundamentalists and libertarian market cheerleaders acknowledge this???
Don’t hold your breath.
No, they will continue to lionize “private initiative” at every opportunity, while completely ignoring the stuff I opened this post with. They’ll sweep it under the rug or, more likely, simply handwave it away. They’ll continue to say that we need to scale back government regulation and interference and let the invisible hand sort it all out.
Because discipline of modern economics as practiced today is not a science. It may not even rise to the level of a pseudoscience. It’s PR for laissez-faire capitalism.
Of course, we’ve had market failures before. They occurred all throughout the nineteenth century and during Great Depression, for example. These are well-documented. But many of the things that came out of those bygone market failures to prevent or mitigate them have been systematically and deliberately dismantled over the past generation due to rise of neoliberalism.
And now we’re paying the price.
Karl Polanyi made an important distinction between markets and Market Society. Markets are where people come together to buy, sell, and exchange surplus goods. These have existed throughout history. They are tangential to society; embedded in something larger than it. Such markets can be shut down without causing an existential threat to civilization.
But Market Society is dependent upon impersonal forces of supply and demand and functioning markets for absolutely everything in the society, from jobs to food to health care. Everything is oriented around maximizing private profits, and not human needs. Markets failing to function adequately lead to unemployment, sickness, starvation and death. Shutting them down is an existential threat to civilization.
As Dmitry Orlov wrote in his best-known work, the Russians survived the collapse of the Soviet Union precisely because they didn’t rely on the Market.
Naturalizing markets in this way is an abdication of both causal and moral responsibility for famines, a way to avoid reality and the ethical consequences for people in a position to change things. Markets are not given; they are predicated on a host of laws and social conventions that can, if the need arises, be changed. It makes no sense for American farmers to destroy produce they can’t sell while food banks are struggling to keep up with demand. This kind of thinking is a way for powerful people to outsource ethical choices to the market, but the market has no conscience.
Famine Is a Choice (Slate)
Now, to be clear I’m not necessarily making an argument for or against central planning as opposed to markets. That’s a different discussion.
But my core point is simply this: you cannot discuss market successes without discussing market failures. To do so is intellectually dishonest, disingenuous, and not to mention incredibly dangerous and irresponsible. If economics were a real science, instead of just PR for capitalism, it would take a look at the things I described above, and figure out ways they could have been avoided, regardless of any preconceived ideology or assumptions about the “right” way to arrange a society, or assumptions about how things “should” work. It would seek out ways for society to become, in Nassim Taleb’s terminology, “antifragile.”
But don’t hold your breath for that, either.