Saturday, January 23, 2010

Economics probably began with barter. “Dude, I’ve got too many of these yummy berries and you’ve got more fish than you can eat before they start stinking, wanna trade?” Voila, the free market was born. When each person in a trade comes away feeling like he got a good deal, it’s a win-win, right? If I value a pound of my berries as being worth a pound of your fish and you agree, we both have created an economic balance, we’ve achieved equilibrium, forged positive relations between your lowland people and my highland people and improved each other’s nutrition. If you take my pound of berries to some people farther away and trace it for two pounds of their fish, it hasn’t hurt me and you’ve made an honest profit. Now, recognize the old phrase “buying a pig in a poke?” It refers to old markets where pigs were sold in bags, or pokes. As long as the pig seller was honest and each poke contained the promised pig, everybody was fine. If you bought a poke, took it home before opening it to find the squealing creature inside was not a pig but was a cat, then “the cat was out of the bag” and you’d know you’d been cheated. If your fish was caught last week and not last night, and I gave you my berries in good faith that the fish was fresh, then the free market system has not worked because at least one of the parties has cheated. If you tell me it’s not fresh, maybe we can still make a deal for a lower price. (Incidentally, if you buy reduced price produce and meat at Albertson’s or Safeway, it is very likely those products have been there a while, so don’t delay using them.)

Or perhaps on a small island, several people, some with fish, some with game, some with clams, and some with fruit formed a community wherein each person brought his or her specialty to the others and, behold, the birth of communism. The people worked all day or all week, produced far more of their specialty than they can use alone or in their family group, brought the excess each week to the collective meeting place and divided it up equally between all of the participants. Everybody works, everybody shares. Maybe one guy figures he can slack off and just show up without a full payload. If the community is small, he’ll probably be called out. If the community has grown large enough that he goes unnoticed, he can get away with it and the system has fallen apart because somebody cheated.

An open and above-board free market system or an equal-work-equal-pay commune system seem so obvious. Of course they work. To their proponents, each is a perfect system. The basic problem with the commune system is it must remain small. There have been several successful communes in our history, notable Home here in Washington State. There is a tipping point for all of them. As soon as the system becomes so large that even one person can malinger, yet still share the fruits of the effort of the community, that’s all she wrote.
The free market system, using supply and demand, should be perfect no matter how large it gets. If the market needs wheat, grow wheat, make money. If there is too much wheat, the markets will flood, the prices go down, so the market itself provides the disincentive to grow wheat. Supply and demand, if left alone, will create a balance. There’s the key, the phrase, “if left alone.” If nobody gets smart and tries to manipulate the market, the market will balance. Artificial attempts to change that balance, especially in order to make a bigger profit, tip the scales and the free market system isn’t. Isn’t free, free of interference by GREEDY PEOPLE! Create a monopoly and you can set prices wherever you want. Over-produce a commodity and you can shove prices down so far your competitors go broke. Or even better, threaten to over-produce and get a government to subsidize (bribe) you to keep supply low and artificially keep prices high. Flood a foreign market with cheaper products than that market can produce and you can thoroughly disrupt a country’s economy. Sound familiar? It happens all over the world and I’m not necessarily pointing fingers at the US.

Greed. That’s what it is, isn’t it? What makes someone surreptitiously cheat his neighbors in a commune? Why not just accept a fair price for your product? Why not cooperate with your economy, whether communal or free market? “I’m gonna get mine, forget the other guy.” It’s all based on greed: pure, unadulterated, unabashed greed. In the movie “Wall Street” Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko says,
“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of Wall Street right now. A small group of people, manipulating markets in secret, arcane ways, like, derivatives, are simply exercising their enormous penchant for greed.

That’s why liberals like me prefer to pay taxes so we can have regulations to overtly manipulate the so-called “free” market and hope to thwart the efforts of the secret manipulations being perpetrated by the greedy elements of big business. The US economy hasn’t been a “free” market since Captain John Smith instituted the “no work, no food” policy in Jamestown. Seriously!
Republicans! Quit lying! Quit being disingenuous about our economy. You know most people are not educated enough to understand the fine points and you are shamelessly using their ignorance to promote an agenda of greed!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Odd people are everywhere

The Chinese don't wear sunglasses. All the time I was in Beijing, despite the relentless glare of harsh, flat light through the smog, I never saw anyone sporting shades. It was therefor difficult to find any store that sold them, and when I did finally happen upon a shop with a meager spinner rack of them it was difficult to find some I wanted. The very helpful shop keeper kept handing me over-sized, very feminine ala the fifties fashion eyewear, while I sifted through his wares searching for the mirror-coated lenses that I prefer.

Mirro-shades may not really be better at protecting eyes than other sunglasses; that's not why I like them. I like to look at people and people frequently don't like to be looked at. It's fantastic to actually LOOK at people. I was talking with someone today about the variation we humans have bred into dogs, and we chuckled at the thought of such a range imposed on people. Imagine seating on planes then! The variety that does exist among people is still pretty extensive. My main people watching days were back in the 80s in Spokane. While hanging out at The Pipe Rack among 99.99999% men, I head some things my white-bread, college-educated self had never heard before, no, not what you're thinking (although I heard some of that, too). I'd never heard everyday insults like "being hit with an ugly stick." That particular expression got me thinking. Thereafter, from behind my mirros, I'd occasionally try to find a truly ugly person. It's hard to do. When you really look hard at people, not many are actually ugly.

Some people do have unfortunate flaws that at first glance may well be off-putting. Sometimes it's not physical features at all, but might be, clothing, gait, voice, a tic. You can think of or picture someone like that, I'm sure. We all come across people who make us uncomfortable in some way. I suspect that, upon coming across someone in that category, all of us have the immediate instinct of avoidance. All of us. This is not really about guilt for feeling that way, but, if you never take a chance on your own ability to maintain your composure, you can miss some really interesting people.

Oh hell, what am I saying? Too may of us cannot get past skin color much less a limp, a stutter, a twitch, a growth, a droopy facial part, a visible scar, scaly skin, a horse laugh, whatever. You'll never know what you're missing until you can get past your fears. Go ahead, feel the fear, experience a shudder or revulsion, but then say hello.