Snow Job: Blizzards, alienation, and the market’s invisible hand

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This past weekend, at the height of the blizzard that descended on the Twin Cities, my son and I got out our cross-country skis and went on an expedition.

Our primary destination was the Blockbuster Video located about a mile from the house. When we arrived, a festive air of Christmas manumission – that traditional holiday period when slaves were allowed a few days of freedom – prevailed among the staff and handful of customers surveying the sparsely stocked shelves of the now-bankrupt chain. Afterwards, we carried our skis across the street and trekked half a block to Dominos Pizza in order to allay Gabe’s craving for a large pepperoni with double-cheese.

At Dominos, we were beneficiaries of another kind of manumission, cadging a free pizza, some food-like product called cheese bread, and a mineral water from the manager after he informed us that the store was closing early because the snow-clogged streets were impassable.

Our trip had a happy, picaresque quality. But as often happens when the ordinary flow of time is disrupted, the adventure also triggered a few perceptions that might not have occurred under more conventional circumstances.

At Dominos, for example, the phone was ringing off the hook – this was at about 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon – with calls from home-bound customers apparently operating under the assumption that, even though they couldn’t get their SUVs and pickup trucks out of the driveway, a delivery man driving a 1996 Toyota Tercel would be able to get through.

Then there were those motorists who had ventured out, most of them for presumably no pressing reason, only to get hopelessly mired in the knee-high drifts blocking every road.

What is it about our country, I asked Gabe on our way home, that leads us to assume that we can safely defy natural forces like, for example, blizzards, yet are helpless to control or alter human institutions like the dysfunctional economic and political systems that we ourselves have created and which we sustain by our acquiescence? How come we feel like it’s not worth voting but think nothing about hopping in a car and heading out into the teeth of the worst winter storm in two decades to buy lottery tickets at SA?

It so happens that the reification of human institutions – this implicit assumption that they are an objective reality that stands over and against us, operating according their own natural laws over which we have no control – is precisely one of the definitions of “alienation.” While Americans suffer from alienation in spades, it’s not confined to these shores. It’s what’s also afflicting England and Ireland, right now, with their governments’ lockstep acceptance that severe and counterproductive austerity measures are not only necessary, but as impossible to forestall as a tsunami or volcanic eruption

When it comes to economic matters, this reification of the “market” is all but complete in the western world. According to neoliberalism, the latest form of laissez-faire idolatry, the market wields not just the “invisible hand.” It also constitutes the sole source of value in the world, is  the ultimate arbiter of what possesses worth and what does not, whether the commodity in question is human, animal, vegetable or mineral. The “market,” in other words, is God. Plain and simple. Our commodification which art in heaven.

But there is one curious exception to this fetishistic hallowing of the holy market.

True, according to neoliberal dogma, banksters and sub-prime mortgage hucksters and hedge fund managers (like Adam Sender, the hedge-fund owner with a name right out of Dickens, who just paid $422,000 to buy the handwritten lyrics to “The Times They Are a Changing” at Sotheby’s, a surreal narrative that could easily serve as the storyline of a Dylan song) are simply automatons, unable to resist the power of the market’s invisible-hand. As such, they bear no responsibility for the crimes carried out in their names. As such, they deserve to face no moral hazard whatsoever for the havoc they have wrought.

On the other hand, according to that same neoliberal dogma, the anonymous victims of those financial crimes – all those “losers” decried by CNBC’s Rick Santelli who were stupid enough to take out sub-prime mortgages or work for organizations that offered 401K retirement plans –well, they are not victims at all, are they? They are perpetrators. Agents of their own fate, acting out of completely free will, they are not entitled to our pity, let alone a public bailout.

This contradictory world view was perfectly encapsulated in an email response to my recent post “To Hell or Connaught: the “free market” puts Ireland on a starvation diet – again,” which pointed out the parallels between the 19h century laissez-faire dogma of “liberalism” that transformed Ireland’s potato blight into the Great Famine of 1846-50 and the contemporary neoliberalism that is putting Ireland on a financial starvation diet as punishment for that nation’s debt.

“What a bunch of nonsense,” the email’s author fumed. “The Irish did this to themselves.  If they don’t like being limited to a 3% deficit, then fine.  They can go bankrupt and screw bondholders.  Of course, at that point, they can have no deficit at all since no one is going to loan any money to these deadbeats.”

In response I pointed out to him that the exact same thing could have been, and, indeed, was  said of the 1.5 million Irish who died of starvation during the famine – they “did it to themselves.”  I also observed that, in my dictionary, “deadbeat” refers to those who incur debt they have no intention of repaying. For example, the banksters, sub-prime mortage hucksters, etc. – very few of whom are ordinary Irish citizens – who ran up the tab in Ireland that the Irish government has pledged to repay. Who, I asked, exactly are the deadbeats in this scenario?

In the meantime, I googled the domain name on his email and discovered that my reader works for a big insurance company. In my reply, I went on to say that many experts place blame for the roller coaster ride of booms and busts these past 30 years, as well deindustrialization, stagnant wages, and a growing income disparity so large that it now threatens the survival of democratic institutions, on the financialization of the capitalist world, which in this country began with the repeal of usury laws in the late 70s and has been fueled by the progressive deregulation that began in the Reagan years.

In other words, most of the woes of Stage-4 Capitalism can be traced to the takeover of the “market” by the financial sector, also known as FIRE, for “finance, insurance, real estate.” I closed my response by paraphrasing Ambrose Bierce who more than a century ago noted that it is all but impossible to get a man to see the merits of your argument when his livelihood depends on him not seeing the merits of your argument.

Back home, Gabe and I doffed our skis and took up the laborious task of clearing the sidewalks. Up and down the street, neighbors were out doing the same, some, like us, with old-fashioned shovels, others with snowblowers that, in the liberated spirit of the day, they were using to clean out the driveways and walks of other houses without even being asked.

Back in Washington, DC, that very same weekend, Congressional Democrats had some shoveling of their own to do as they endeavored to dig their way out from under the “compromise” the GOP leadership dumped on Barak Obama: a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts. Contrary to the neoliberal magic thinking known as “trickle down economics,” those cuts had failed to create a single net job in the 10 years since the cuts were enacted. They had, however, managed to generate about two-thirds of the federal budget deficit – a shortfall that will now be cited as reason to gut Social Security and Medicare.

Sure, the GOP-Obama “tax cut” will end up raising the effective tax rates on about one-third of American workers, but, hey!, those people are on the low-end of the pay scale and are therefore “losers” responsible for bringing this new hardship on themselves – just ask Rick Santelli!

Meanwhile, I can’t help wondering if the rich folk who constitute the primary beneficiaries of the tax cut compromise will want an extra helping of cheese with their windfall. One thing is certain. When it comes to paying for those cuts, they’re not going to have to worry about picking up the tab.

No, sir. As usual, this one’s on us!