Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Radical Free Market Capitalists vs Public Good

Anyone who hasn't consumed free market think tank generated kool-aid will find truth in the following snippet:
In Defence of the Public Sphere
For longer than anyone can remember, conversations about the public sphere have been dominated by relentless bashing of everything public per se as inefficient, wasteful, and corrupt -- public transit, public services, public education, public infrastructure, public-sector unions, and so forth. 
Such bashing, accurate or otherwise, has invariably been coupled with the corollary assumption that the private sector is inherently better and more efficient. 
If the last couple of years have accomplished anything, they ought to have put the lie to that. The financial and industrial elites have been remarkably efficient at lining their own pockets (much of the time with our money), but at advancing the public good? Please.
I think you can narrow down the concept of public good by finding very obvious public bads. For example, if a company pollutes the water such that consuming it threatens health, then a public bad has occurred.

Free market economists do not always measure the cost of such a bad. In fact, free market economics doesn't measure anything that is not expressed in terms of money. The problem is that many things happen that aren't visibly defined by money.

This is the little secret of the free market economists. Or, perhaps, it shows that they can only think in terms of money. Public bads, referred to as "externalities" in economics, have simply been driven out of the public discourse. Sadly, the concept of public good has been driven out as well.

If you go back in history, you'll find that whenever something is not noticed, such as various forms of pollution, people will suffer until it can be proven that an economic activity is the source of the issue -- and only then can action finally be taken. This also explains big oils efforts to fund studies to obfuscate the nature of climate change.

Our society needs to find a way to either recreate commercial enterprise so that it is able to focus on the public good as well as profit or to recognize that there are often hidden costs that are not currently showing up on a balance sheet. This is where government is supposed to step in and protect the public interest.

The global financial crisis, for example, was brought about by a lack of governance. Rules were relaxed, activities were explicitly excluded from governance, and inappropriate levels of risk were taken. Reducing the risks to society are the reason Canadian banks were regulated -- which did reduce their ability to participate in some free market reindeer games, thankfully for us.

The idea of adding the cost to society of greenhouse emissions to the balance sheet is where the C02 cap and trade proposals originate. It would impact industries based on the size of their carbon footprint. It would force society to adjust to an economy that generated less C02. A lot of companies don't like the idea of being less profitable when having to pony up for environmental impact.

Tell me, where does the Canadian and global public good reside on the C02 issue?

Bonus reading... discussion of emissions trading on wikipedia.
Bonus reading... how corporations erode government concern for civil issues.

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