2004-02-19 / Arts & Entertainment



©2004 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

It’s The Economy Stupid!

The politicians running for Pres-ident don’t really give us much to go on. They make it hard to decide who we want to vote for. Most of us feel more strongly about who we’re against than who we’re for. It’s easier to get someone to say they hate one politician than that they like another.

Polls show that Americans are more worried about the economy now than about Iraq, but most of us are economic ignoramuses. We know, in a general sort of way, whether things are going well or badly because we see the headlines about stock prices being up or down. Economic theory eludes us, so we don’t really know what we’re worried about.

When I was quite young - before I went to college - I had a temporary love affair with the ideas of an Ameri-can journalist writing from Moscow named John Reed. He was Harvard-educated, a brilliant writer - and a communist. He was the only American apologist for the kind of government that ruled Russia after the revolution. I wasn’t smart enough to be a communist - or a capitalist.

I got over my infatuation with John Reed. I’ve never given up my suspicion that there’s something wrong with the capitalist, free enterprise system devoted to the theory that things work out best for everyone if we each take all we can get. Selfishness is the God of Capitalism. It doesn’t seem right and it’s a disappointment to me that it works. Success is the only thing in capitalism’s favor. There is no intellectual defense for it.

In the real world, businesses cheat to get ahead and the quality of the product always gets worse when a big company takes over a smaller one. However, but we can’t devise a system that works any better.

As early as the late 1800s, a hand-full of businessmen like the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, DuPonts and Morgans had accumulated so much money, while millions had none, that it became ap-parent to lawmakers something was wrong with pure, unregulated, winner-take-all capitalism. The business tycoons were known affectionately as "The Rob-ber Barons." To curb their excesses, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890.

The Antitrust Act provided government regulation designed to prevent a big, rich company that could afford to do it, from selling its product below cost until the smaller companies selling the same product were forced out of business. At that point, with no competition, the corporate giant could charge anything it wanted.

Most people in business are personally honest, but it’s sad and true that most of our laws pertaining to business assume that business would cheat the consumer if it were not inhibited by law. What’s sad is, the assumption is true. The ethical standards of too many businesses fall short of the personal standards of the people running them. I don’t know why that is. Ken-neth Lay, the chairman of Enron, wouldn’t pick your pocket or cheat in a poker game.

The biggest problem anyone like me has in supporting government regulation of anything is not economic theory or Republican inclinations. What’s wrong is the assumption that elected officials are smart enough to run business any better than businessmen. (I call women in business "businessmen.")

The fact is, neither pure socialism nor pure capitalism works. So we lean one way or the other and draw the line between being conservative and liberal on business issues. If the administration is dominated by Democrats, we draw the line one place. If it’s dominated by Republicans, we draw the line another place. President Bush has tried, successfully, to draw the line closer to where the business community likes it. As an elected Republican President, he gets to do that.

What we all have to conclude when we vote is that the success of our country depends, not on any system, but on having honest, smart people running it. They may be there but they’re hard to find among campaigning politicians.

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