Thursday, May 2, 2013

America's New Religion: Market Capitolism (Pun Intended)

"Some say the moral failing at the heart of market triumphalism was greed, which led to irresponsible risk-taking. The solution, according to this view, is to rein in greed, insist on greater integrity and responsibility among bankers and Wall Street executives, and enact sensible regulations to prevent a similar crisis from happening again.

This is, at best, a partial diagnosis. While it is certainly true that greed played a role in the financial crisis, something bigger was and is at stake. The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to have a public debate about where markets belong—and where they don’t. . .

Consider, for example, the proliferation of for-profit schools, hospitals, and prisons, and the outsourcing of war to private military contractors. (In Iraq and Afghanistan, private contractors have actually outnumbered U.S. military troops.) Consider the eclipse of public police forces by private security firms—especially in the U.S. and the U.K., where the number of private guards is almost twice the number of public police officers.

Or consider the pharmaceutical companies’ aggressive marketing of prescription drugs directly to consumers, a practice now prevalent in the U.S. but prohibited in most other countries. (If you’ve ever seen the television commercials on the evening news, you could be forgiven for thinking that the greatest health crisis in the world is not malaria or river blindness or sleeping sickness but an epidemic of erectile dysfunction.)

Consider too the reach of commercial advertising into public schools, from buses to corridors to cafeterias; the sale of “naming rights” to parks and civic spaces; the blurred boundaries, within journalism, between news and advertising, likely to blur further as newspapers and magazines struggle to survive; the marketing of “designer” eggs and sperm for assisted reproduction; the buying and selling, by companies and countries, of the right to pollute; a system of campaign finance in the U.S. that comes close to permitting the buying and selling of elections.

These uses of markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods were for the most part unheard-of 30 years ago. Today, we take them largely for granted."

Read The Atlantic, What Isn’t for Sale?

The Afghanistan-CON

"And so it turns out, the war in Afghanistan has been an even bigger mug’s game than we imagined. The latest blow comes from a story by Matthew Rosenberg in the April 28 New York Times, reporting that, for the past decade, the CIA has been dropping off bags of cash—now totaling tens of millions of dollars—at the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who in turn has passed it around to his cronies and favored warlords.

This is a very big deal, much more than most scandals about secret payoffs and bribes. It suggests that, in a crucial way, the war was a sham from the get-go, that the conditions for success would never—could never—be fulfilled, and that our own actions helped ensure our failure. . .

[A U.S. Army study] laid bare two important facts about the war. First, the U.S. and Afghan governments did not share the same interests. The American strategy required Karzai to reform, in order to enhance his legitimacy and thus dry up support for the Taliban; Karzai’s strategy was to stay in power, which required payoffs to a network of cronies.

Second, because of this tension, the American strategy’s two goals—to secure the Afghan people from the Taliban and to help reform the Afghan government—were themselves incompatible, or at least in constant tension with each other. For instance, the first goal sometimes required us to pay local security forces, i.e., warlords. This boosted corruption and alienated the population, which worked against the second goal.

This was known all along, certainly by McChrystal and Petraeus, who saw the dynamic of corruption—how it was interwoven with the nature and structure of Karzai’s regime—as their biggest challenge.

But now the Times story tells us that the CIA was stiffening this challenge by providing Karzai with the money to keep the network rolling.

The money was self-defeating in another way. By seeing how much money the Americans were willing to pay just to keep him in power and to support the U.S. mission, Karzai must have inferred that the war was at least as important to them as it was to him—maybe more so. As a result, when McChrystal, Petraeus, and other top U.S. officials made noises about reform, he had good reason to doubt their sincerity. Their own CIA, after all, was bankrolling the corruption; they couldn’t be too serious in their demands to end it.

Which raises a question that some congressional committee might want to probe: How deep, how high, did the complicity with Afghan corruption go? Was this a CIA rogue operation, or did everyone know about it, and, if the latter, did anyone in a position of power see—or say anything about—the contradiction between pushing for reform and abetting corruption? How seriously did the people in charge take this war?"

Read Slate, Feeding the Hand That Bites