One of the basic claims of conservatives and libertarians is that government intervention in capitalism distorts and ultimately inhibits the free market. More importantly, the implication is that the free market would somehow operate more efficiently if it were unfettered. Republicans have claimed among other things that an unfettered free market will cure poverty, solve global warming, reign in the growth of healthcare spending, and give everyone the opportunity to become wealthy.
So let’s dig into this myth as a precursor to a discussion about income inequality.
Markets, free or otherwise, are places where goods and services are bought and sold.
Markets require rules in order to operate. Sellers want to be assured that they are going to get paid. Buyers what to be assured that they get what they paid for.
eBay is a great example. They created their own market free from government regulation. It had anonymous buyers and sellers. Everything, at least in the beginning was priced based on competitive bidding. As long as there was more than one bidder, prices would always settle on what the real value of that product or service was at that particular point in time. Basic supply and demand. But even eBay had to have rules. They had to have a way to escrow payments to make sure that sellers got paid and buyers actually received what they paid for. They have to have a way to resolve disputes if products turned out to be misrepresented. They also had to protect sellers from unethical buyers who might want to blackmail sellers using bad reviews. eBay is as close to free market as you are going to get in this day and age, and they did it through consistent enforcement of a set of rules that were fair to both buyer and seller.
Government provides the rules that allow markets to operate in efficient and predictable ways. Those rules include contracts, bankruptcy, and fraud just to name a few. The notion that markets are somehow fettered by these rules is folly. In fact, it is very much the opposite as we will soon see.
This brings us to the next step in the myth of the free market. That is the notion that the marketplace is the fairest judge of the worth of both goods and labor. That might be the case if the markets were themselves fair, but if people cheat to gain an advantage it raises the real question of how fair that market is going to be.
Here are a few examples.
Insider trading is taking unfair advantage of information that you may have that is not available to the rest of the market. The expectation of most people familiar with the term is that insider trading is illegal. The fact is, however, that CEO’s trading with their own stock are exempt from insider trading rules. Even worse, companies no longer have to disclose when they are trading in their own shares, whether that is buying back their own stock or when their senior executives exercise their options and then sell the stock. Rules put in place during the Clinton administration treat executive compensation that is performance-based (e.g. stock options) as tax exempt for the company. These rules have created a perfectly legal situation where a CEO can direct his company to buy back a sufficient number of their own shares to artificially drive up the price, and then sell off shares acquired through their executive compensation package before the stock has had a chance to fall back to the normal trading ranges. This is one of the ways that CEO’s of companies underperforming the stock market can still secure windfall profits for themselves. It is not illegal. But it is certainly cheating on the principle that compensation has anything to do with performance. What’s worse, it is not only cheating those who are investing in this company or its competitors. We tax payers are subsidizing these windfall profits that CEO’s enjoy because we make up the difference that their taxes would otherwise supply.
This is just one example of how large companies since roughly the 70’s have tilted their markets in their favor through manipulation of the rules governing the market. It is also an example of how tax rules put taxpayers in the position of redistributing pre-tax subsidies UPWARD in our economy.
Another example was the subject of a three part story in the NYT.
It is perfectly legal in this country for large pharmaceutical companies to pay producers of low cost generic alternatives to delay producing those drugs. The result is that healthcare costs in this country are artificially inflated because only the higher priced proprietary drug is available. Worse yet, we are the only country in the world that allows this practice. So our drug prices are also the highest in the world. The annual additional cost that the insured and the government bear is estimated to be $3.5B/year. This is another direct subsidy to big pharma.
We also pay more for Internet service that any other country in the world because we have given the cable companies, who dominate the market, a monopoly in most areas. 80% of cable subscribers in this country only have one choice. As a result cable costs 3x more in the US than Europe where consumers have up to 7 providers to choose from.
Too big to fail banks now control 44% of the loans in this country. They are able to offer lower interest rates on those loans than smaller competitors precisely BECAUSE the financial markets know our government will not allow these big banks to fail.
Similarly the rules for bankruptcy favor corporations and banks over individuals. Corporations can use bankruptcy to walk away from pension obligations or union contracts. Individuals cannot use bankruptcy to walk away from student loan debt.
Ivy League Schools
Because wealthy people get big tax breaks to contribute to private institutions of higher learning like the Ivy League Schools. They also secure the guarantee of enrollment at those institutions for their children through “legacy” preference. The problem is that those tax deductions constitute a government subsidy provided by the rest of us tax payers that is estimated at almost $60K a year per Ivy League student. The tax payer subsidies to state schools generated primarily through direct payments rather than tax deductions is about $6K per student. So we are not only contributing to the wealth of the 1% through the tax avoidance strategies of their companies, we are also paying to educate their kids who will learn how to expand this strategy for their benefit when they follow in their parents footsteps.
I could go on for quite a while, but I think that you are getting the point.
There is no such thing as a free market because those who control the market would prefer that it operate in ways that benefit big corporations and disadvantage competition and customers.
The result is a massive subsidy that consumers, small companies, and the government provide in the form of anti-competitive rules and regulations. This upward pre-tax distribution of money is why many corporations spend more money on lobbying than they do on R&D.
Our markets are rigged to benefit the powerful and wealthy. The powerful and wealthy are perfectly happy to perpetuate the myth that they earned their wealth because they were smarter and willing to work harder than everyone else. The data, however, suggest otherwise. It shows that corporations with highly paid executives generally underperformed the market and their competitors.
The real story is that a high percentage of the wealthy and powerful got there because they started out on the inside through the accident of birth, learned the game at the same schools their parents attended and supported, and figured out how to expand their unfair advantages when they had their turn at the wheel.
The reality is that if we were able to stem the tide of this massive upward redistribution of wealth, we wouldn’t need nearly the amount of post-tax redistribution to the working poor through transfer payments. We would be able to pay our bills because the existing tax system would be generating a lot more money. We would be able to fix our roads, educate our kids, and feed our hungry.
Instead we are supporting an oligarchy who claims that they deserve what they stole because the “free market” decided that they should have it. While they are promoting the myth of the free market, they are using their wealth to buy political influence. They use that political influence to warp market and tax rules in their favor.
They say publicly that “government is the problem”, but behind the scenes this government is working just fine for them. That’s because they are getting what they paid for.