Monday, January 3, 2011

I used to be a libertarian . . .

Really, I did.  Going back to the late 70s, even.  That was where I went after being a McGovern liberal in the early 70s.

I believed the free market could solve any problem, of any scale, and that people of good will could come together to solve problems that were too large for any one business, agency, or person.

I'm sad to say that I no longer believe that.

Then again, we're not really in a society with free markets, are we?  We're in managed, lobbied and subsidized, regulated and enforced markets with legislative and executive collusion at all levels. We're stuck in international trade agreements where we're made out to be the bad guy ALL THE TIME, all while our own manufacturing jobs have been sent offshore.  We're tied to international mega-corporations who circumvent US safety and other laws by having their headquarters elsewhere, while they do most of their damage to our economy and people.

The problem is, I don't know what we can do about it.

Thus far, corporations manage the media, and through their lobbyists, the legislative bodies as well.  Certainly the Internet is helping get alternative opinions out, but even that may be in danger with the collapse of true "Net Neutrality" at the hands of a corporate-influenced FCC.

We can scream and yell on the Net all we like, but it's like putting all the gadflies and whiners in a room off to the side, while the "grownups" do the real work in the main room, or perhaps the formerly-smoke filled back room.  (Unless we're talking about tobacco lobbies, which still have smoke-filled back rooms to work in)

How do we get into the mainstream?  Yes, ONE person CAN make a difference, but we need to be able to mobilize that vast, still silent Majority who are fed up with extremists on both sides.  The "Coffee Party" is trying some of that, but they, too are small, and aren't getting the media attention their "Tea Party" colleagues are.  For all of that, the  moderates in the Tea Party are getting drowned out by their more extreme associates, because that's what makes the news.  When I entered the contest to be a columnist for the Washington Post, I never even got a response to my entry, much less a "no, thank you."

Why does that make the news?  To quote an old newspaperman I knew:  "If it bleeds, it leads".  Just as people will slow down to look at accidents going the other direction on the highway, people will read or switch to anything that highlights someone else's misfortune.

Painful thought, isn't it?  Most people are more interested in how poorly someone else is faring than in how to make things better . . . primarily because (I believe) many people have given up believing they can make things better.  They're tired of being ignored, and willing to endure the crap just to be left alone to live their lives.

For instance:  for some years, I have refused to shop at WalMart.  I find their personnel practices reprehensible, their vendor coercion practices appalling, and their suppression of local businesses indefensible. Yet, most of my family will happily shop there, because they have lower prices.  They've stopped being able to care about what it does to others to GET those lower prices, as long as they can get more for their money.

I don't buy gasoline from BP or any of its subsidiaries.  I'm told this is ineffective, because it only hurts the franchisees, not the corporation, but if enough franchisees pay attention, maybe they'll leave the corporation!

I think corporate Health (Mis)Management Organizations are a crock.  All of them. I used to work for one, and I KNOW the things they did to avoid paying major claims, and how they maneuvered the regulations in their favor.  The one I worked for was a much better place both to the employees and the members when it was not-for-profit.

I'm not implying that all profit is bad, or that corporations are bad in and of themselves.  Honest service providers (doctors, nurses, labs, hospitals) need to make profits to stay in business.  Given.  Energy companies (oil, coal, power generation, etc.) have to justify their expenditures to their shareholders, provide for their own growth and (sadly, poorly in most cases) take care of their employees.  Manufacturers have to make products at a pricepoint that will still allow people to buy those products.  Where I feel the process gets out of hand is the middleman.

What service does an HMO provide? In the name of controlling insurance costs, it restricts the services available to the member in various ways. Whether by limiting networks, formularies or procedures, the HMO's sole function is cost management -- not patient care.

Manufacturers have to produce things at a cost that is still manageable after the distribution system adds each layer of costs for each step of the process between manufacturer and retailer.

Energy companies CLAIM they need egregious profits to keep exploring ways to improve their service to their clientele, but what they spend on exploration and research is nothing compared to what they spend on advertising, P.R., and shareholder care.  On top of that, even with what they spend on all that, their clear profits are higher than any other type of corporation in history.

Where do we go from here?  I know I have conservative friends who consider me a flaming liberal, and liberal friends who think I'm too conservative, and we get back to the labeling issue with which I started this blog.  Yet, I confess I'm at a loss.  I'm NOT a socialist, but I DO believe that corporations have responsibilities both to their employees and the communities in which they operate, and that profit needs to be balanced with those responsibilities.

How can we define that?  How can we control that?

Any suggestions?  Discussion is welcome, but play nice, now.