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va: A Bill of Goods?

“Do you realize this year is the twentieth anniversary of a huge world event?” my friend Sondra said as she accosted me outside the local grocers.

“Well, I guess that would be ’89,” I said, as I scrambled to remember what 1989 was all about. As usual, I did not have to reveal my ignorance of huge historical facts as Sondra’s questions were almost always leading onward.

“And here we are,” she moaned, “twenty years later, watching our own economy collapse under the weight of its own false premises. It’s just so disgusting.”

“Oh right, ’89,” I said. “Those command economies bit the dust. I remember. It was kind of huge.”

“And you know what gets me?” she said. “We were so smug. Our good old capitalism, all vindicated; but I have been thinking, and I think we’ve been sold a bill of goods—as bad—maybe worse that those poor old deluded comrades of yesterday. I mean, I have been reading and thinking, and I have to wonder—with all this déjà vu “red scare” stuff—if it’s not just more diversion, to keep our noses off the true scent of ourselves. And do you know what that is?” she exclaimed.

“Well, I haven’t given it as much thought as—”

“Well, you really should,” she interrupted, “because as I see it, we are all just two sides of a counterfeit coin. It’s just too clear. With all their coercions and freedom paranoia, they deny the very best of who we humans are; and we, with all our free-market talk and regulation paranoia, deny the worst of who we are. So what do we get—out of both systems? Pretty much the worst of ourselves.”

“Hey, that IS interesting,” I said. “But you do have to admit that free-markets have gotten us a lot more than their command ones ever got for them.”

“Well, let me see,” she said. “They live in one long depression. We prefer to recycle and recession ours. Like doesn’t anybody notice? Like how many billions—trillions—of our good capital do we have to flush every quarter-century or so, to wake us up to reality—to permanent memory? And what has all this periodic, free-wheeling prosperity got us anyway? Too much stuff, too much fat, too much debt, too many elites, and too many poor—all of which we could do very well without. And I’m serious.”

“You could be right, but—”

“And another thing, I don’t see too much difference between their command economies and all our prestigious transnational dictatorships. Talk about command and supply. Talk about selling free speech and conscience for a mess of employment pottage. Talk—”

“What?” I interrupted.

“Read a transnational—maybe even any—employment contract and see just how free our corporate comrades are to speak their minds—to blow their whistles—to organize themselves—to refuse to work on their holy days. Oh, man, it’s just all too depressing. We’re just a bunch of deluded, debt-loaders, thinking we can serf our way to prosperity. And then to have the temerity to call this the pursuit of happiness.”

“Well, at least we have—”

“A fraud,” she scoffed, cutting me off. “What should we call it when our favored “citizens” are mere legal constructs; when our so-called reps are under the influence 24/7; when free-market means free-ranging predatorship with bonuses for dessert, and then bailouts when the indigestion strikes? And answer me this. If labor has its capital sins needing restraint, what of capital?”

“I guess I’m like most of my fellow citizens. I haven’t read Adam Smith, so I—”

“That’s another thing!” she exclaimed. “Adam Smith has been hijacked. People should inform themselves.”

“Honestly, Sondra, you know it’s not that easy. Life is pretty consuming. That’s why we elect people. THEY keep informed; and we trust—hope—they’ll do the right thing.”

“Well, history is not on your right side, my friend; and why we keep ignoring that is beyond me.”

“Maybe because there’s too much history out there. And anyway, when you’re in the thick of a thousand things, it’s hard enough to focus on the big picture, let alone the past picture—even to know what those pictures are.”

“OK, I know. I sympathize, but that’s part of the fraud package. Our macro-elites claim the entire big picture, but it’s all single-lens reflexive—free-wheeling economic determinism—as if that ever made sense—the global view-master! The inevitable solution! And we passivate.”

“Passivate?!’ I said.

“It’s a word I hijacked,” she said. “But it’s true. We’re so coated in expert’s rhetoric we don’t even try to think, let alone question all this hype about deregulation and competitive free-markets. We tie competitive sports up in knots of rules and referees, but not hyper-capitalism! Oh, no. Capitalism and free-markets must be allowed to follow the dictates of natural flow, and all the while we pretend the natural man-ager will be self-restraining; and that they’re doing it without massive concessions and handups. Like sports-doping doesn’t occur?! Like that makes a level playing field?! So you see what I mean. I’m not saying, ‘tie capitalism in knots of regulation’; I’m saying, ‘use common sense. Wisdom. Balance. Balance. Balance. Get a memory! Acknowledge the greed gene. Make it mighty uncomfortable! Inflict consequences. Don’t give away the commonwealth for private profit.’ But no, it’s like we keep recycling the same stupidity we manifest in Iraq, watching the theft and vandalism with such surprised wonder and distaste. As if we hadn’t seen it a thousand times before. And it’s such a bill of goods.”

“So then, what am I to do if I’m not to ‘passivate’? And if YOU are not to be late for lunch?” I asked, waving my wristwatch in her face.

“I’m always late, I can’t help it,” she said, “But the thing that matters is that WE the people reclaim the pursuit of happiness. It’s been plastered over by the pursuit of wealth which we bizarrely pursue by way of debt and leverage. And it’s pretty much illusion, delusion, and theatrics. Just look at all those no-balance sheets of our too-big-to-fail, prestigious corps. Not to mention, all our foreclosed houses.”

I waved my watch again.

“OK, OK. I’ll let you go with this,” she said. “We have to multi-focus. No more single lens. We have to slap economics back onto the tightrope along with all our other competing values and get them all walking in balance as best we can. Democracy is ruddy inefficient, if you want the truth. Probably the most inefficient form of government there is, but that’s democracy. Well, at least until that determined efficiency of competitive-markets grabs it by the jugular. And then it’s just plain oligarchy, oligopoly, and all the rest. So there you have it. No more leveraging that bill of goods. My sermon for the day. So, go forth and do not ‘passivate.’ Be a persistent Socratic annoyance.”

“I don’t have to ask how it’s done,” I said, waving her off.

But frankly, as I watched her drive away, I’m sorry to say, I could not help thinking how much easier it was to just ‘passivate.’ How much more simple life was without persistent Socratic annoyances. But then again, What is citizenship, if not a walk upon a tightrope?