Ah, the invisible hand, what a fine, dark metaphor to match these dark times. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations: The individual who “intends only his own gain is led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”
Wednesday’s New York Times editorial “Mr. McCain and the Economy” criticizes McCain on several fronts. 1. His claim that the economy is fundamentally sound, despite the latest cataclysms. 2. His clarification that what he meant by “fundamentally sound” was that he “believed in American workers.” and 3. His broadside that any blame that could fall fell surely on Wall Street’s “unbridled corruption and greed.”
“The crisis on Wall Street is fundamentally a failure to do the things that temper, detect and punish corruption and greed. It was a failure to police the markets, to enforce rules, to heed and sound warnings and expose questionable products and practices,” says the editorial, and with a flick of the wrist ends with a call to McCain to proffer new solutions or approaches that might correct the problems.
McCain, we’ve heard and he admits, suffers from a fundamental lack of interest in things financial (he doesn’t recall how many properties he and his wife own — eight). This is an unfortunate quality in the prospective leader of a country, especially during economic upheavals.
The invisible hand has another meaning here, too. McCain, intent on gaining the presidency is led by the invisible hand of greed in the Republican power-makers. It is no part of McCain’s intention to lead the country into financial disarray, to risk further dismantling of what was, prior to Bush’s presidency, a remarkably strong economy.
Economics is a complex subject. Even the experts don’t understand how economies really work. They are too vast, multi-faceted and irrational.
This last is an incredibly important point. Emotion, fear, mania, addiction, overoptimism all play significant roles in the way the economy heaves and rolls. The concept and model of a completely free market fails in the real world on this basis alone.
Subprime mortgages and the resulting current woes illustrate the second point about the illusion of the completely free market. A free market, a market without restraint, is free to collapse. If we want to prevent this (and who would argue that it’s not in the nation’s best interests to prevent occasional collapse of the economy) someone outside the market needs to be monitoring, reviewing and, if necessary, regulating such things as new financial instruments.
The last problem with the notion of a completely free market is the dangerous relationship with the seat of government. Large, wealthy corporations have deep pockets with which to influence government policy. And, worse yet, if agents of those corporations influence government thinking, policy and strategy (think Rove and Cheney) the power of government will exert an ultimately skewed and even destabilizing influence on the market.
This is exactly what has been happening, as the Times editorial points out: “The disconnect between work and reward has been especially acute during the Bush years, as workers’ incomes fell while corporate profits, which flow to investors and company executives, ballooned. For workers, that is a fundamental flaw in today’s economy. It is grounded in policies like a chronically inadequate minimum wage and an increasingly unprogressive tax system, for which Mr. McCain offers no alternatives.”
The free market is a nice idea, a useful model to illustrate one of the forces at work in an economy. But we should not forget that the invisible hand bends and shapes the market according to the will that wields it.
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