Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In Other Magazines

Slate has broken my heart. They’ve decided to discontinue the “In Other Magazines” column.When the week came to a close “In Other Magazines” cobbled together a list of the most interesting feature stories “in other magazines”, directing readers to must-reads and steering them clear of must-misses. Insofar as it was a taste-making and agenda-setting enterprise, it was a valuable service.

Over the weekend I would settle on two or three long-form articles to get a broader perspective on a particular social debate. Perhaps the most illuminate piece of writing I came across this summer was Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article on the regional cost disparities of medical procedures in the state of Texas.

Comparing two demographically similar towns only 800-miles apart, Gawande found that the pre-capita cost of Medicare for McAllen, at roughly $15,000, was close to double that of El Paso, at $7,504. The conclusion Gawande draws is that culture matters. Medical professionals in McAllen had gotten into the habit of looking at the health care system as service industry, collecting fees for more and more procedures. Patient care was an afterthought.

For a time during the summer Gawande’s piece became the go to primer on the dysfunction of the United States health care system. Even president Obama, just as the house and senate were preparing to draft various pieces of health care legislation, implored members of congress to read the article. It’s likely that didn’t. But if they wanted to they could have happened upon it “In Other Magazines”. Alas.

But in its demise Slate has inaugurated The Slatest, the news aggregator to rival all other news aggregators. Collecting the top stories from the top newspapers, The Slatest will at the very least offer breadth. Most interestingly, though, is what Slate editor David Plotz has to say about the “New Cycle” as it exists today:
Overnight, newspapers launch the news. They publish stories clarifying the events of yesterday; they break their own investigative stories; they print zeitgeist-defining feature articles and op-eds. The morning brings Phase 2, when Web media reacts to the news. Bloggers and other sites respond to the news that broke overnight, and newsmakers push back against or try to exploit these stories. Phase 3, the buildup, comes in the afternoon, as the events of the day unfold—congressional action, a presidential gaffe, turmoil in Asia. The media break this news, and analyze how it fits together with yesterday's top stories. Opinion makers try to shape how the day's events will play on the night's cable shows and in tomorrow's newspapers. The next morning, it all starts over again.

This is crucial. The Slatest will attempt to capture this process and document what the “New Cycle” has become, a struggle by public interest groups to frame the social, political, and economic narratives of the day -- journalist and media organizations, in turn, synthesizing and refereeing these struggles. I hope amongst all of the news and events Slate doesn’t forget what’s going on in other magazines. They have important things to say too.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Notes on "Free Markets"


The “Free Market” isn’t really real. It never was. Even venerable classically liberal economists like David Ricardo and Adam Smith understood this proposition. Markets exist as arenas of exchange that facilitate the trade of goods and services between financiers, producers and consumers. Each one of these agents is a real live human being, or a legal fiction like the corporation, embedded into a number of different social institutions which, if we pay any attention to simple social organization, are compelled to act with a minimum level of cooperation and follow a rudimentary set of norms and rules that both condition behavior and require specific levels of good faith performance. The Laws of court are perhaps the best institutional example.

The state guarantees the enforcement of contracts and the protection of property rights. The fancifully abstracted notion that governments get in the way of contract or property disputes is to a certain extent misguided, often overlooking the alternative scenario of low-level social disruption or outright public disorder. Markets require the trust of civic legal institutions, tacitly abide by their rules, and prosper to the extent that they are seen as socially legitimate. Which, with respect to certain activities on the margins, for example the sale of marijuana, is always an ongoing and perennially contested soci-political debate. If you live in the real world, social institutions that regulate market activities are an inescapable reality.

It is also widely recognized that while markets operate within the context of these social institutions they are also continually shaping their development. When we look at the growth of the post-war automobile industry we see that urban and suburban planning mirrored the growing need for automobile use, and that the proliferation of single-family homes created a new market for a variety of different household consumer goods, from refrigerators to televisions to bed frames to coffee makers to lamps. The “Free Market” was responding to trends in social development insofar it was also determining them, and with the advent of the age of advertising the market began to shrewdly cater to an effervescence of a particularly new form of mass, modern culture.

But inside the complicated machine of modern society, specialized commercial industries, particularly in aerospace, medical and pharmaceutical sciences and agriculture, among others, worked within the ambit of government regulatory agencies, agencies that set the guidelines of market interaction and exchange. Quite naturally, though, these industries have begun to capture these regulatory agencies given their own propriety and specialized expertise. Oversight became a form of volunteerism where professional and regulatory bodies crafted, most often self-interestedly, the rules of the game.

Many of today’s market inefficiencies exist because markets aren’t free. Large regulatory agencies like the Canadian Medical Association in Canada are in positions of informational asymmetry, to which civil bureaucracies over-rely on their expertise and positional status, and come to accept their recommendations as sacrosanct. An alternative form of health service like naturopathy has been slowly but steadily expanding into the health care market as it has continued to gained social respectability. This, no doubt, has taken a considerable amount of social and political advocacy, along with a substantial amount of capital. “Free Markets” have all types of access costs, and we’d be fooling ourselves if we thought otherwise.


Fredrich Hayek’s insight that collectively planned economies lack the informational capacities to anticipate the prices and consumer trends in an incredibly unwieldy patchwork of decentralized markets is likely the strongest argument against most forms of command socialism. Distributing and allocating resources is something market capitalism has shown tremendous prowess in undertaking. But we’re not shadowboxing with the ghost of Lenin. If you live in a western industrialized country, you live with a system of rules that act as a bulwark toward your personal wellbeing.

Hayek understood the necessity of the rule of law, and sets of social and civic institutions that established the normative precepts for social behavior and trust. At a very crude level the state is a collection of the civil institutions, families, religious, scientific, cultural associations, markets, and municipal bodies that normalize and sanction contemporary conduct. These are all manifestation of “A Culture” and express themselves in all our social and linguistic interactions and exchanges. Markets do not exist in a vacuum outside of them.


If we accept that the market is a carefully staged competition that operates under the rules that its participants, to varying degrees, attempt to follow, then it’s easy to see why some misunderstand its essential nature. For some on the Left, competition is the inherent problem. Even while some aspire to equalize opportunity, the objective goal is to equalize outcomes. This would be incredibly self-defeating, given the diversity of not only human capacities but also the diversity in human aspirations. There isn’t only one market, there are many; and there isn’t only one status game, there are an innumerable amount of them.

For some on the Right, however, there is an almost ahistorical myopia of the reality of first-order injustices, those that have persisted over generations. The “Free Market” favors the most socially and physically capable, the thinking goes. Because racism and sexism don’t exist today, their long shadows aren’t being cast onto contemporary debates about race and gender. Equality of opportunity, it follows, equals not only equality of access -- and some might even suggest over-access – it should mean equality of outcomes. And since empirically this isn’t always the case, a far more pernicious claim against genetic inability is tacitly entertained. It’s as though the average male height of 5’6 in 1900 had increased to 5’10 in 2003 in a social, historical vacuum.


Ultimately, the competitions that the market stages are neither free nor entirely efficient. They pit together the monopolies, statutorily regulated agencies, the public and private interest groups, me and you. They represent the largest competition of all: that contest to democratically seize the state through argument, debate, enticement, persuasion, and now more unsavorily, astounding sums of capital. They represents, quiet simply, the essence of politics.