“Market” Economies

As economists have observed for years, countries that don’t have “market economies” tend to have severe economic and social problems, but outside of textbooks, and even inside them, there’s a problem defining exactly what a market economy is. The traditional economist’s definition of a “free market economy” is one where a willing buyer and a willing seller agree on the price of a good, the idea being that government stays out of setting the terms of the transaction.

There are at least two catches to this definition. First, the term “willing” is usually constrained by reality. So if the only food market in town charges 50% more than the market in the next town, and you don’t have transportation and don’t want to starve, you may pay the prices, but how “willing” are you? In practice, of course, except in times of disasters, the various price differentials aren’t that great, but they do exist.

The second catch lies on the seller’s side. In practice, a seller of a good has to price a good at a level that covers his cost of production or acquisition, as well as his costs of selling it, with enough of a profit to support himself or his business. What has been historically overlooked to a great degree, if less so today, is that many of the costs of production have historically been foisted off on others and not included in the final cost of the good or service. The most notable example of this is air, land, and water pollution, and the costs of cleaning up after industry have become so great that most industrial countries impose regulations on the producers of goods limiting or prohibiting the creation and emission of pollutants. Industry, of course, has historically protested that such regulations stifle a “free market.” That’s not quite accurate. What such regulations do is to give a cost-of-production advantage to those producers who make their products in places with less costly regulations, which is why many multinationals have off-shored their production facilities. What gets overlooked in this “economic” debate are the costs of clean-up and the added costs of health care incurred by those living around highly polluting facilities.

All of this leads to the proposition that a “true” or a “full” market economy is only possible if ALL costs of production are factored into the price of a good or service. Obviously, this isn’t possible, certainly not at present in a world of over 200 nations with differing environmental and other regulations, but it should be used as a standard against which economies should be measured as to the degree of their compliance with market principles.

The idea of the so-called “free market economy” has come to mean in practice the amount of freedom a producer has to foist off costs on the rest of society. The amount of such freedom a producer has is largely determined by two factors – the regulatory structure, or lack thereof, in which it operates, and the amount of financial resources, i.e., capital, it has, which affects its power to influence regulatory oversight. If people who work for a producer or seller of goods cannot live on what they are paid – and that includes not only food and shelter, but medical care and other necessities – and society deems that those workers and their families need assistance to live, in effect the producer has shifted some of his costs to society as a whole, and everyone is taxed to pay for that assistance.

So, in point of fact, goods producers who complain that government regulations hamper the “free market” because those regulations force them to clean up their toxic or unhealthful emissions or by-products or require a living wage are complaining that they’re not as free to impose costs on society as producers in other states or countries are.

And that’s why there is a difference between a “free market” [or capitalistic market] economy and a true market economy.

Songs in F&SF

As most of my readers know, at least in some of my books, people actually sing… and the lyrics almost always have sections that rhyme. For some writers, apparently, this can be a problem. I was recently asked to offer favorable comments on a novel in which song and its singers were absolutely essential elements… and I never found a single rhyming line in any of the lyrics, and no discernible meter, either. Needless to say, I did not comment on the songs, and it was a pretty good book otherwise… but it still bothered me, because I expect more of professional writers – their songs should have meter and rhyme. There are some writers who are actually singers of one sort and another, ranging from classically trained opera singers to bar-room balladeers, and so far, at least, I haven’t seen any of them just toss out phrases and claim that they’re songs.

Heaven knows, the song lyrics in a book don’t have to be great, because the lyrics in most popular songs in most cultures aren’t great, and the folk songs tend to be comparatively straight-forward tales with couplet endings and common rhymes… and most have at least a chorus or refrain.

Some writers have copped out by saying, in effect, “they’re speaking another language, and the song rhymes in their language but not in ours.” Oh? Does that mean the author might not be “translating” the other things they’re saying accurately? If you can’t write proper lyrics… don’t. Just have the characters talk about “another folk song with the same old clichés” about whatever is a cliché in that culture. Or say that the singer’s accent or diction was so bad that the character has no idea what the song’s about. And if you really need a song to make sense, find an old folksong or something that isn’t copyrighted and then change the words to convey what you want in a way that preserves the meter and has a different rhyme.

The other thing about song and culture is that, generally speaking, the less technological the society is, the greater the role of participatory song and music in the life of the average person. Passive listening to song and music is a luxury reserved for the rich or well-off until cultures reach the industrializing level. That’s also why folk tunes have rhyme and meter – because when you’re relying on memory to learn songs, rhyme and meter make it far, far easier.

The same is also largely true of music as an organized form of propaganda. While the American colonists used satiric songs as a motivating tool against the British, and Sam Adams used them in rallies, organized and wide-spread use of music was limited by the lack of technology to amplify the music to reach larger numbers and create motivating spectacles. It’s not an accident that the Third Reich was the first government to choreograph public spectacle and music.

Music is always there in human societies, but how and where it is used, and for what, is greatly influenced by affluence and technology.

Just a few thoughts…

Legislative Foibles

The Utah State legislature completed its usual two month annual session last week. In the course of two months, the legislators increased just slightly the funding for education, but not enough to even come close to changing Utah’s position as the state with the lowest funding per student in the entire United States, or to increase the pay of teachers and university professors, among the lowest paid in the country – but they did approve 35% plus pay increases for the governor and top state elected officials.

Nor did the legislature do anything to deal with the air pollution along the Wasatch Front – where something like 80% of the people live and where winter air quality is so bad that healthy people are often advised not to exercise and asthmatics and those with respiratory problems literally take their lives in their hands by venturing outside. In fact, the legislature passed a bill that forbid any restriction on the use of wood-burning stoves, even at times of the very worst air quality.

The Utah Senate did pass SCR 4, a resolution declared that energy development and grazing were the “highest and best use” for the Cedar Mesa area of Utah, in effect stating that industrializing the Mesa through energy development should be prioritized over preserving sacred cultural sites, Native American traditions and a breathtaking natural landscape that draws visitors from around the world.

Because the legislature was concerned about the availability of drugs for execution through lethal injection, the legislature decided to revive death by firing squad as an alternative.

Oh, yes, the legislature also refused any expansion of the Affordable Care Act in Utah, even though the federal government would pay for it, and even voted down a far more modest proposal offered by the Republican governor.

To cap it all off, after all that, the legislature then approved a bill, and appropriated funds, to pay “stipends” to football players at Utah State – in addition to their full scholarships, for the ostensible reason that doing so would bring more tourism to USU and Logan, Utah.

Single Factor Fallacy

Some of the responses to my recent blogs illustrate a tendency that illustrates a particularly human foible – the tendency to attribute a problem or a success to a single factor. I recently suggested that there were multiple causal factors lying behind fatal police interactions with young blacks, and a number of individuals basically insisted that the sole or the overwhelming cause was the racist excessive use of force and position by police officers and the policing system. There’s no doubt that in many cases, as in Ferguson particularly, such racist excessive use of force exists.

But there are other factors, also important, that have led to situations such as the Michael Brown and Anthony Robinson cases, and they’re continually minimized or dismissed as self-serving conservative or establishment rhetoric.

Young black males commit over a quarter of all homicides in the United States every year, yet those young black males comprise less than one percent of the population. Young white males also have a much higher homicide rate than the average as well, committing 16% of all homicides, but there are six times as many young white males as young black males. It’s not surprising that black males commit the majority of black homicides [roughly 90%], just as 84% of white homicides are committed by whites, because the vast majority of homicides are committed by people who know the victim.

But cities with primarily black police forces, such as Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, have only slightly lower murder rates than the ten worst cities in the U.S., with rates well above the national average, and the murder rates in many cities with high percentages of black police officers are among the highest in the country.

Regardless of all the rhetoric, there are a myriad of factors contributing to the higher percentage of blacks being killed by police than racist police officers. Poverty is an enormous contributing factor. So is the prevalence of dysfunctional and single-parent families, as is a bias against education among all too many young black males, as are poor schools in all too many minority communities, not to mention the gang structure in many inner cities and minority communities.

And, just as there isn’t one cause of the problem, there isn’t going to be one single solution, no matter how politically convenient that might be.

Where Were the Adults/Parents?

With all the uproar over the shootings of Michael Brown and now Anthony Robinson, I’m very definitely getting the impression that both the protesters and the media are simplifying the situations to the point of tragic absurdity in their single-minded focus on police bias and misbehavior. And no, I’m not condoning any police incompetence, bias, or excessive use of force. But there’s another critical factor that is being totally overlooked. And it’s very fundamental.

Teenagers and even adults in their very early twenties are stupid in their lack of judgment. Virtually all of them, black, brown, white, multi-racial, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered, it doesn’t matter. Their brains are reprogramming themselves, and people in this age group make a far greater percentage of bad decisions than they will at any other time in their life. They allow peer pressure to override better judgments because belonging becomes a paramount value. They make unwise spur-of-the-moment decisions based on how they feel right at that instant. They become so focused on the moment that they’ll ignore the dangers involved in texting/cell phones while walking and driving to the point of getting themselves injured or killed or killing someone else. Their hormones are raging and readjusting, and the combination of hormonal and neural readjustment taking place simultaneously often results in poor judgment.

This is nothing new. Societies have known this behavior pattern for millennia, even if they haven’t understood the cause. They also imposed, in various ways, fairly stringent social codes… and the understanding that there were definite and often fatal consequences for bad judgment. For a myriad of reasons, in American society today, the entire thought that there are indeed consequences for actions has been minimized. Add first to that the fact that our advanced technology multiplies the impact of bad judgment. Add second that the pie-in-the-sky idea that any child can do anything. This combination has proved, and will continue to prove, deadly, especially to those young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

A number of the recent high-profile incidents in which young blacks have been killed began with illegal actions that escalated into confrontations. In a good many cases, the police officer felt his life was threatened, and certainly in some, the officer was injured before he fired a weapon. Everyone is asking why the police had to use force, possibly excessive force, and that is a good question, and one that needs to be asked, and answered, and those answers used as the basis for improving policing.

But no one I’ve seen is asking the other question. Why didn’t any of these young individuals understand the fact that there were likely to be adverse consequences for their actions, possibly severe ones — even if the police had managed to avoid using excessive force? Where were the adults who should have pointed out that even petty crimes can blight one’s future? Just recently, the actor Mark Wahlberg petitioned the governor of Massachusetts for a pardon to remove a minor felony conviction from his record because that record of conviction could make it difficult if not impossible to engage in certain business activities. If the white and wealthy Wahlberg is having trouble over one felony conviction, shouldn’t that suggest to minority youth – and their parents — that it’s a very good idea not to engage in illegal activities, that is if they want the best possible future? Or that, even if the police are arrogant and high-handed, getting into a confrontation on the street isn’t exactly conducive to future happiness and success?

This lack of understanding of consequences isn’t a problem confined to minorities, either. My wife, the university professor, deals with it on a daily basis. A significant percentage of first-year college students seem to think they shouldn’t be downgraded for failing to turn in reports on time… or failing to show up for lessons or classes. Many are so thin-skinned that even telling them that they need to improve brings tears to their eyes [and that includes young men]. The music department holds auditions for admittance to the program and to determine which students will get financial aid based on vocal ability. The audition dates are posted on the departmental website, and all students who have expressed an interest are also informed well in advance. Yet applications flood in well after the dates, often even after acceptances have been sent and scholarships awarded. Then there are the college students who don’t understand that they can flunk a class that is largely participation, such as chorus, if they don’t attend. Students are often stunned when they lose financial aid after their grade point average drops to unacceptable levels – but they have more than enough time for partying and social media.

The issue of rape on college campuses is another example – cases of young men from “outstanding” backgrounds not even considering the implications for them and their future – and the fact that such a felony on their record will close off most professional occupations, assuming they can even finish college after a prison sentence.

My niece, a high school art teacher who has won a number of awards for her art and teaching, was verbally assaulted by an angry parent who wanted to know how his son could be flunked from an art course. The parent either didn’t seem to understand that never turning in an assignment for the entire semester and missing a huge percentage of classes was an easy “F” or didn’t even know that his son was such a flake-off.

All across our culture, the message these young people are getting is that the consequences for failing to act responsibly are minimal… and that it’s all the teacher’s fault, or the administrator’s, or the police officer’s. Where are the parents and adults who should be pointing out, early on, that actions have consequences, and that failure to act responsibly can have permanent, if not deadly, consequences?

No…the police and the educators are far from blameless, but blaming it all on them is also a deadly societal cop-out, and it’s also incredibly hypocritical when the police are under immense public pressure to reduce crime and when teachers take all too much of the blame for parental shortcomings.