Tuesday, November 15, 2005

If you don't like the market, leave it!

These past few weeks have been a bit frustrating for me. Everyone has been angry at petroleum companies and I can't get a clear explanation of why. Friends, bloggers, newspaper columnists, and even Senators have been saying that petroleum companies must be manipulating the gasoline market, but the only evidence that they present is high gasoline prices and high profits in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

I searched the web in the hope of finding a clear argument against the oil companies, but could find none. However, I did find one commentator who succinctly summarized the situation:
(T)he basic problem is that we live in a market economy in which only a small fraction of the population actually seems to understand markets or be comfortable with their adverse outcomes.
In other words, high gas prices and high oil company profits are exactly what we should expect from a market economy after a hurricane strikes a region with a lot of oil refineries. Why do so many people have a problem with this?

The answer seems to be that people are offended that the oil companies are benefiting at everyone else's expense. The thing that these critics seem to ignore is that this is how markets work every day; there is nothing special about the behavior of the oil companies. It's a hard fact of life that strangers tend not to care about strangers, and consequently most of our interactions with strangers are driven by selfishness. The lack of consideration is increased when the interactions are impersonal, as most market interactions are.

I'm going to state this clearly: nobody in the oil companies cares one bit for our welfare. Not the CEO, not the engineers, and not the marketers who set the prices. We would be fools if we expected them to care. Everyone knows that it is foolish to depend upon the kindness of strangers; it is equally foolish to depend upon the fairness of strangers, especially in a situation where "fairness" doesn't have a clear definition.

This illustrates a basic fact about markets which is both their strength and their weakness: markets are a way for people to cooperate when they have absolutely no concern for each other's welfare. This is good, because it allows us to find benefits in situations where no benefits would exist otherwise. However, this is also bad because if we allow ourselves to become dependent upon a market, then as soon as it is no longer in our partner's interest to provide us with what we need (whether it is goods or a job), then we suddenly have no way of getting our hands on the things that we need.

Many people seem to think that our dependence on markets is inevitable, and consequently they try to regulate them to make sure that they never fail us. They try to regulate the market by means of the government, but the government suffers from the exact same weaknesses as the market: the people who run the government don't give a damn about us. Our relationship with the government is just as impersonal as our relationships with corporations, and it is just as strongly influenced by selfishness. The corporations need our business, and the politicians need our votes, but there's only so much influence that we can exert with our votes.

If we want economic systems that are based around the idea that we actually care for the people who are dependent upon us, then we need to build our economic lives around those people: our friends, our family, our churches, and our neighbors. At first glance, this may seem impossible and completely foreign to the way that we live our lives. However, every day we make decisions that affect the extent that we are dependent upon markets, and many persons are consciously making the decision to minimize their dependence on markets.

Below are a number of links to resources that can help us to minimize our dependence upon uncaring and unpredictable markets. But first, I want to make one more point: each of us has the ability to decrease our dependence upon the market. This ability may seem to be minimal at the moment, but as more of us decide to consciously reduce our dependence on the market to provide us with essentials, our ability to do so will increase. We will gain from each other's experiences, and we will gain the ability to create institutions to replace market institutions. Many of us have immense wealth and we can choose to use this wealth to create a more secure and humane economy, or we can choose to squander this wealth on frivolous luxuries and status symbols.

Update: Perry Eidelbus has a good post that distills this issue to its essence--the justice of this situation depends upon the extent that we can choose to not buy gasoline.

The following links provide commentary, information, resources, and social networks that can help us to step outside of the markets. This list is by no means exhaustive, or even the best stuff out there, but is what I could pull together at the moment. I'll be addressing this topic in future posts and will provide more resources as I come across them.

  1. Could you live without money?
  2. Community Resource Management: Old Rules, and New Sustainable Ones
  3. The Populist Farmer
  4. Cohousing Association of the United States
  5. What is Counter-economics
  6. The "Living simply" Yahoo! group
  7. The New American Dream, the Shared Capitalism Institute, the Open Co-op.
  8. Off-grid blog. Exteme, but extremists are always good for experimenting with new ways of doing things.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

V&F: anti-war activists and soldiers' deaths

I've been thinking about the relationship between violence and freedom (V&F) for a while, and planned to eventually write about it, but the hub-bub over American casualties in Iraq prompts me to address the issue now. I saw this cartoon called "Grim Countdown" a couple weeks ago, and thought that it was totally inaccurate and unfair -- little more than some cheap demagogy by some right-wing fanatics.

I know a bunch of people who publicized this symbolic milestone, and not a single one of them gave me any reason to believe that they actually welcomed the death of American soldiers. Yes, they used this milestone as an opportunity to make a political point, which seems a bit crass--but that's how politics works; the pro-Bush crowd also takes advantage of symbolic events to make the case that their views are correct.

A person is in an difficult position when they claim that the government's policies are disastrous for us; to justify themselves, they need to bring attention to the consequent disasters, and risk giving the impression that they welcome these disasters. It's unfair and unwise to criticize them on those grounds.

In all the fuss over the 2,000 military deaths in Iraq, I came across a single (American) person who welcomed the deaths of these soldiers, and I only noticed this person because another anti-war commentator had pointed him out in order to condemn him.

I'll have more comments on that later.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Political speech and Pittsburgh elections

"House Dems scuttled a bill that would have shored up protections for online journalists and bloggers. " Reactions include from "Thanks Jackasses" and "I, for one, welcome our soft-money-wielding Overlords". As I said before, I think that efforts to regulate political communications are misguided. I doubt that any prospective FEC regulations would interfere with the style of advocacy that I engage in, and I'll never be big enough to draw any attention anyway.

Still, this has prompted me to make my endorsements for this Tuesday's elections for Pittsburgh voters. After all, distributing political power is part of the point of this exercize (meaning, this blog), so, here it goes:

Mayor: What a crock. Bob O'Connor will win in a landslide, because this is a Democrat's city, and there's a good amount of stupid party loyalty to go around. The city is going to pieces, and Bob O'Connor is as much to blame for our problems as anyone. I'll probably cast a protest vote just for the heck of it.

Court of Common Pleas: Kathryn Hens-Greco. There are several positions up for election, but Hens-Greco is the only person who I know enough about to cast a vote for. I know a lot of people who know her, and have only heard good things about her. She's been endorsed by both of the local papers, some local activist groups, and the local bar association. From what I've heard, she stands out because she actually wants to serve on the Family Court, while most judges view the Family Court as a stepping stone to something bigger.

State Supreme Court: Several groups want voters to refuse to retain judges Newman and Nigro. I haven't seen enough evidence to vote against them, but they seem to have done enough to piss off a lot of folk (both conservative and progressive), so I just want to point this out.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Communication: Distribution (preview)

Previously, I wrote about the importance of improving our ability to communicate, and specifically, how we do so by improving our ability to produce media content.

The next way to shape the information landscape of our society is to distribute media -- to help information consumers to find the stuff that they want. I'll cover this topic in a future post, but for now I invite you to check out a webpage called "I want to - a page of utilities that help you do stuff you want to". This webpage has tons of links to software and services that can help you to get information to others. The major topics include:
  • Share stuff
  • Manage myself more effectively
  • Find things that I'd enjoy
  • Do things with websites
  • Create tutorials
  • Do a bunch of other stuff
  • Have a bit of a laugh
It's well-organized and comprehensive. Check it out.