I suppose I'm something of a lapsed capitalist/free-marketeer these days. The praises and mantras that we hear true believers repeating now give rise to reservations. Take the one, for instance, about the market operating via its price structure to service those with the greatest need as expressed by their willingness to pay. It doesn't. It caters to the whims of those with the ability to pay. A little reflection will show that there's a large and profound difference. If every shopping mall in the USA were nuked, I doubt if anyone would go without anything that they truly needed.
Have you ever contemplated paying $48,000 for a pen? Or $300,000 for a wristwatch? There exists a parallel universe inhabited by the super-rich, invisible to the rest of us. Julian Edney has written a penetrating and thought-provoking essay entitled "Greed"--online at www.g-r-e-e-d.com/GREED.htm--that explores some of the contradictions and questionable beliefs underlying the economic foundations of our society and the inherent conflict with the political values that we say we believe in. Eventually, those with the real, unmet needs are forced in desperation to resort to violence, and the cycles repeat that form the mainstream of human history, to which there appears to be no answer.
Or is there? At the end of his essay, Edney describes a game called "Nuts." The players sit around a kitchen bowl containing some number of nuts--or dimes, dollar bills, candies, or anything else suitable that you like--and on a signal from the organizer begin playing to acquire as many of the contents as they can amass. The organizer also tells them that he will replenish the bowl every ten seconds by doubling whatever number of objects remains at that time. A moment's thought will show that the supply need never run out. If the players hold off from taking anything out for a while, they can let the pot grow very large indeed, doubling in size every ten seconds, then share out an ample return and still leave a seed stock to initiate further doubling. Or, alternatively, they might take a share each of just half the bowl's content, leaving the other half to double and restore the initial condition, which can be continued indefinitely. The game is a lesson in miniature of how to manage a resource that will regenerate itself, given time.
In reality, it seems that we don't trust each other. Edney reports that sixty percent of the groups never make it to the first ten-second replenishment cycle. Each would grab all they could as soon as they could, leaving nothing in the bowl to be doubled. He has seen the bowl knocked to the floor and fingernails broken in the scramble. A sad indictment on those who would presume to run a planet.
Footnote added 11 August 2006
The Nation, May 1, 2006, reports that, for the first time, a full-time worker earning minimum wage cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in America at market rates. A full-time minimum-wage worker earns $10,500 a year, frozen at that level for 8 years. For comparison, last year the CEO of Exxon/Mobil earned $13,700 an hour.